Gig Survival: Always Have A Backup!

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of a gigging musician.  Those strings that you’ve been twangin’ on for months? They’ll choose to snap bending that first note during your sweet solo.  That seemingly indestructible amp you’ve been cranking since the 80s?  A fuse will blow between songs.  That pedalboard you’ve spent years perfecting?  Some drunk coming up to request “Freebird” will spill his Light Beer of choice all over it as he leans in to close-talk to you with pickled dad breath.

Once Murphy’s Law takes effect, the last thing you want is to be dead in the water, unable to finish the gig.   On a multi-band bill, maybe someone in another band might be nice enough to let you borrow their gear to finish the show.  The gigging world that I’m in, playing a 4-hour night as the only band in a dive bar, you’re totally on your own.   Bar owners don’t have much sympathy if they hired you for the night but you can’t finish the night because you didn’t plan ahead.  That means potentially not getting paid and possibly not invited back for another gig.

I will knock on wood while saying that the only issue I’ve had for years have revolved around my cheapo wireless systems, which is as simple as grabbing a real cable and carrying on.  BUT.  The 2nd guitarist in my band has not had a reliable amp for years.  I don’t know how he does it, but tube amps just do not like him.   I’ve bailed him out several times so I can still have his rhythm guitar under my soaring solos (no ego here…).

How is a broke guitarist (two words with the same meaning) to be prepared for anything and everything?  Let’s look at the common points of failure which can cause airwaves to cease pounding eardrums:

  1. The first thing our calloused fingers touch to create sound.   They are also very likely to break at the worst times, especially when you’re really in the zone and giving your guitar all you’ve got.   Personally, I think taking the time to actually change a string mid-set is a total buzzkill, plus you have to deal with the string stretching out and it will probably keep going out of tune for the rest of your set.  I always bring a 2nd guitar.  Have it tuned up and within reach before each set.  However, if you’re not to the point of having a 2nd guitar, make sure you have at least one set of strings and a string winder in your case and work as fast as you can to keep the show going.
  2. Cables are relatively inexpensive, it’s not too much of a burden to have at least one extra.  It doesn’t even have to be expensive one as your backup, but should your $100 hand-soldered cable falter, a cheapo one will due in a pinch.
  3. I actually bring a bare-bones backup board to gigs.  However, I realize that can be a bit much to ask for someone who is first getting out to gig.  At a bare minimum, Boss DS-1s can be found dirt cheap and has a passable tone.  I’m usually using a pedal-platform amp without a good distortion (ZT Lunchbox, Fender ’65 DRRI, or Peavey Bandit 65), so if my pedalboard goes down, I need another source of dirt.   If you’re playing an amp with a decent distortion, make sure you have the footswitch so you can just use the amp on its own.
  4. There are several approaches to dealing with an amp going down; a 2nd amp OR taking your pedalboard directly to the PA.  There are more and more compact, “lunchbox” style amps on the market.  The one I currently own is the Orange Micro Dark, which I found used for $130.  The 2nd guitarist in my band has actually had to use it a few times and it sounded great.  There are also new amps out there from Joyo and Vox that can be had for under $200.  To use a head as a backup when running a combo amp, make sure your amp has the speaker connected to a jack that plugs into the amp part of the combo, not the speaker wires going directly from the output transformer to the posts on the speaker.  This way, the mic is already placed where it needs to be and these micro heads are so easy to bring.  But VERY IMPORTANT: make sure you unplug the failed amp before hooking up the backup amp, don’t want to inadvertently cause further damage from it not being connected to a speaker.



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