If you gig long enough, evenetually something will go wrong. Are you prepared?
Tips That May Save Your Gig or Make Your Career
Ok, it was my idea, but there was no way I was going to try to come up with all of this by myself. So, I enlisted the help of the entire SAM team and many of their ideas are represented here. Thanks, all. Oh, and it might not look like 101 individual tips but, trust me, when you add up all the things we suggest from business practices to all of the things to take to a gig “just in case,” it comes to at least 101. As the Scouts say, On my honor…
Advance the Gig: If you have never heard this term it is time to learn it. Advancing the gig means finding out—well in advance— everything you need to know about the venue and what is expected of you. What time is soundcheck? How early can you get in to set up? Will there be stagehands to help move gear? Where is the power located? How big is the stage? Who is your on-site contact and what is their cell phone number? Who takes care of paying the band? When do you get paid? Is it cash or a check?
Have a Contract: With so many details to be dealt with on a typical gig, you’d be foolish to do it on a verbal agreement. There are a bunch of books out there with sample contracts, or you can go to iLivetoPlay.net into the Subscriber’s Lounge (if you are a subscriber…) and there is a sample contract there. Be aware that legal requirements change from state to state and sometimes from city to city so make sure your contract is one that will hold up should you have to take a plunge into the legal system
Don’t Box Yourself In. Being able to do a lot of different things will keep you working. In my professional experience I have found that versatility is the key to continued success in a volatile and ever changing industry. Versatility can be achieved by consistently practicing multiple styles as well as attending different style rehearsals regularly. This keeps the skills sharp.
Directions to the gig. Do this for yourself, do this for your band.
Plan “B” if vehicle breaks down. The contract may say that a gig can be cancelled due to “accidents of transportation.” But unless you are injured, don’t expect to work for the venue again when you cancel because you got a flat tire and don’t have a spare.
Write It Down! If you are providing P.A. and setting it up, make sure there are written instructions so someone else can do it if you get hit by a bus or are otherwise unable to take care of it. It takes longer to verbally explain to someone how to do something than it takes to do it yourself, but written instruction can help that situation a lot.
3×5 Cards Are Your Friends: Lots of times you don’t need a whole chart or all the lyrics, just a reminder of that part that messes you up every time. Whenever I do a gig and am less than totally familiar with the material, I carry notes on a stack of 3×5 cards. They are easy to hide and can give me just that little memory boost I need to get through.
Have A Place For Your Notes: Music stands are fine if you are a side player or doing the kind of gigs where printed music is expected but don’t think about using one on a rock or show gig. Remo makes a very cool little mic-stand mounted tray for percussion toys. I use one for my notes plus picks, slide, strings and a bottle of water or diet Coke. It also makes a great place to put my cigar.
Use a Checklist: When I travel for business my wife—who is way smarter than me—makes me go through a mental checklist before I leave to make sure I am not forgetting anything. This has saved me from forgetting something important many times but a written list is better. Here is an idea of what to put on that list:
Gear & Technology
Sound gear: Unless you are working with people you know and have worked with a lot before, then assume nothing. Vocalists should bring a mic and stand. Backing players and horn sections should bring a music stand and a light (and an extension cord and power strip to plug those lights in). Keyboard players and acoustic players used to plugging directly into the PA should always have a direct box.
Reel It In: Some guys don’t like ‘em, but I find the orange extension cord reels you get at Home Depot to be ideal for storing and transporting XLR mic cable. Just wind one onto the spool and take the next one and hook it to the first one and keep going until the spool is full. I have started to use the same thing for Ethernet cable which is becoming ever more common on sound gigs. Just use one of those $3 couplers from Radio Shack between the cables and those fragile plastic tabs will stay put and you won’t be caught short at gig time.
Work gloves. As I was riding around in a tour bus, I always knew I hadn’t played my last van tour. Soon enough I was schlepping my own gear around, something I hadn’t done in quite some time. My biggest assets are my hands (second only to my brain) why wouldn’t I protect them as I was moving gear? Don’t get the $5 hardware store specials. Spend the $20 on a good set of mechanic’s gloves. They don’t flop around on your hand and you can do a lot more wearing them.
Picks. Simple enough for the gig, but if you’re in the studio playing acoustic guitars and you only have one brand and style of guitar pick you’re missing out on a whole tonal pallet of colors. Thin picks are more percussive, thick pick has a strong fundamental. Pick made of different material (even if they’re made of the same thickness) sound different. Don’t’ forget the felt ones!
Sticks, brushes, mallets… The colors of your pallet, otherwise your drums are just half of what they could be
Break music. Whether it be a CD player or an iPod, with the appropriate cables to hook up to the P.A. A wide section of music is good, several pre-assembled play lists is better. There are wedding receptions where the planner figures the music is covered with the band, but forgot they wanted “background music” while every one is eating, not to mention the band’s break.
Graphite. Another hobby store purchase. If you’re tuning up your guitar and you hear a “ping” just as the string was about to be in tune, but jumps sharp, you need to lube your nut. A little powered graphite underneath the string cures this whoa. It also helps my Bigsby-equipped Gretsch play in tune (almost) regardless of how often I wank on the goodie bar.
Flashlight. I’d like to nominate, “do you have a flashlight” as the most common question asked backstage. Even at a daytime gig, you need a flashlight to look in the nook and crannies behind the consoles and in the dark recesses of racks of gear. Don’t forget the batteries.
Various cable end adapters. The most important compartment in my toolbox is the one that has the 1/4”-to-XLR, RCA-to-1/4”, Stereo-to-mono, Couplers and XLR gender changers in it.
Instrument stands. Guitars on the floor look tacky.
Mic stand clips. These vulnerable pieces of plastic are seldom removed from the mic stand during transit, so they break. According to Murphy, they’re most prone to break when the label comes out to give you a listen. Not all mics are the same size, so a couple of universal spares wouldn’t be a bad idea. Best bet is to have spare AND remove them from the stand for transport. Watch any “real” sound company and you will see that cases and clips travel separately.
Stage or gaffer’s tape. This is the second time in this article that gaff tape is mentioned. Why? It doesn’t leave the sticky residue that duct tape leaves behind.
Soldering iron and solder. Not only can your repair chords, replace pickup, and burn your name into the dressing room wall, but you can fix eyeglasses as well.
Wire ties. Even if you go the cheapest route with wire ties (trash bag twisties), you avoid both frustration and making yourself look like a dork by untangling cables.
Small fan. The ones with a clip are good not only to keep the air moving on stage, but also can be used to keep an amp from overheating on the hot breezeless summer days.
The power strip. Turning one outlet into six is necessity of a showman’s life. Buy a couple that have the outputs sideways rather than on top of each other, so when you use “wall wart” power supplies it doesn’t use more than one outlet.
Extension cords. There was a gig I played where the stage power was hooked up to the same circuit as the neon bar signs and the refrigeration system. When you have a buzz, it’s not always a good thing. We were able to hook up to the same circuit as the P.A. for a noise-free performance. The owner asked us how we did it!
Short extension cords. I’ve seen them as short as 12” long. You use these when you’re using your wall warts with a power strip with the outlets stacked rather than side by side.
Spare cables. A good rule of thumb is one replacement for every cable you use on stage.
Spare everything else. Stings, Reeds, Sticks, Tubes, Fuses.. I tape three spare fuses to the back of my amplifier. Chances are if you blow a fuse you have bigger problems than a simple fuse replacement will cure, but replacing the fuse is the first step. As far as tubes are concerned, I unpacked my amp at a gig to find that one of the power tubes came out and shattered in transit. Luckily, there were four power tubes in the amp, I was able to take out another tube and run at half power. But if the amp only had two tubes, I’d be plugging in direct through the P.A.
Recording device. This can be used for quickie demos, reviewing shows, and learning the lick of that new song on the radio your singer wants to add to the set.
Toilet paper. Nuff said.
Wheels. Jake Kelly reports that he once agreed to fill in with a band at a gig in beautiful downtown Cortez, Colorado. “Being the good mercenary I am, I showed up at load in. The band arrived with the P.A. and parked at the curb which was a good hundred yards from the nearest door of the building. My Anvil case for my Twin-Reverb was the only piece of gear among us all that had casters. I wasn’t going to carry those P.A. cabinets the length of a football field. However, I was toying with the idea of watching them do so. In fact, I let them do one. Then I wheeled in my amp and let them use the base of my case to let them wheel in the rest of their gear.”
Tuners. One for the dressing room is a good idea, too. Guitarist, Bassists…keep them plugged in: dead air is so 1980’s.
Accessories: Cables (plus spares), batteries (ditto), straps, strings, capos. A full list can be found in the sidebar about gig bags within this piece.
Instrument(s): If you only play one this may seem like a no-brainer but I have gotten to gigs and had people tell me they left their guitar or bass or keyboard at home. Once you start thinking about all the other stuff on this list, you’ll show up with everything but the bathroom sink and find you left your axe behind.
Bottled water. Most bars have a policy that you can’t bring bottles into the establishment, but I have never heard a complaint about bottled water being on stage (but you didn’t hear that from me).
Towels. You would think that these would be provided for you everywhere, but they’re not. And sometime when they are, you’ll wish you would have brought your own.
Grooming kit and toiletries. There have been short load ins where though I was as fresh as a daisy when I arrived, I needed a shower after the gear was moved in.
Throat spray. One of those “I wish I hads” when it’s too late.
Sunglasses. If the stage faces west, you go on a little before sunset. If the stage faces east, you’re booked as the first act at a festival.
Fingernail clippers. I have two pairs, one for my right hand and one for my left (Just kidding). My left hand gets close cropped so they don’t dig into the fingerboard. My right hand gets “Gumby Head” shaped fingernails, so by rotating my hand slightly I can fingerpick with either the soft fleshy side, or the brighter nail side. I found it best NOT to trim your fingernails just before a gig. However, keep the nail clippers on hand at the gig in case you tear a nail.
Super glue. Again with the fingernails.. if you tear a nail, especially in your picking hand, you can do a temporary repair my gluing your nail back together. Be careful, as it will bond your skin together as well. Keep this stuff away from your instruments. It will dissolve the finish on your guitar before you’ll even be able to say, “oh…”
Super glue remover. Yes, Virginia, it does exist. You’ll find it at a hobby store. When you find that the little tube of super glue leaks you consider this item priceless.
Clear plastic notebook inserts. Taping set sheets to the stage is great, until it rains.
Have the Tools: If you are gigging without some kind of toolbox you are just flat, well, I hate to use the word stupid but… Shit happens all the time. And most of it can be fixed if you have just some basic tools. One of my faves is not even a tool and I carry it in my wallet. Next time you stay in a hotel, don’t return the credit card-style key (don’t worry, they never charge for them). Now, take your handy roll of gaff tape (you DO have gaff tape, right?) and use the card as a spool and wind 3-5 feet of tape onto the card. It now fits in your wallet and you always have a small piece of gaff tape when you really need it.
Cell phone. This is your lifeline to home when you’re on the road, your business line no matter where you are, and your electronic address book as long as your batteries are charged.
Auto cell phone charger.
Address book. Or at least, a list of phone numbers of the band and others most important to you for when you wished you had an auto cell phone charger.
First Aid Kit. This is a no brainer, but everyone forgets it anyway. Band-Aids are near priceless when you don’t have one. Neosporin is a smart move as we don’t operate in the cleanest of environments. Second Skin is a new way to seal a cut or wound, not too different than super glue.
Aspirin. Tylonol is great for basic aches and pains but I would have killed for aspirin at more than one gig. Let’s face it, we’re musicians, many of us drink and we have the occasional hangover, and occasionally we have a gig on the day we have a hangover…
Swiss army Knife. My favorite one is the second smallest one, it has a knife, fingernail file, both standard and Philips head screwdrivers, scissors and a bottle opener. Hey, imports are not twist offs.
Credit card. Sometimes you have cash, for the times you don’t it’s MasterCard. Or Visa. Or Discover. Or…
Auto club card. For as little as $60 a year you can have roadside service. This is great for when you find out you don’t have a jack. It’s also not bad when you look in the window of your truck and see the keys dangling in the ignition.
Spare Car Key. Place it in one of those magnetic boxes and stick it someplace under the car. This saved my career once when I was on the road. My wife called, she had lost her car keys back at home. I was able to tell her where the hide-a-key was and able to continue life as a road musician.
Water proof jacket, or rain poncho. You might not want to wear this when you play the show, but you’ll be grateful you have it when you’re loading in or out and the squall hits at the same time.
Sheet plastic. The unexpected rain can be not only the downfall of your gig, but of your gear as well. Unfortunately, the rain is usually accompanied by wi
nd, so make sure you have something to weigh down the edges of your plastic. Mic stands with solid bases work well. Often, the corners can be tucked in.
More Than Music
Stage outfit: Start from your feet and move up and make sure you have everything. Nothing worse than going to the gig for setup in sandals and bringing a suit for stage but leaving the shoes at home (yes, I have done it).
Back-up outfit. Unless there is a “uniform” for the gig, have a backup— preferably one more casual and one dressier. It sucks to have to say “this IS what I am wearing on stage” when the promoter asks you when you are going to change clothes five minutes before hit time.
Shoelaces. They break. And floppy shoes make running around the stage difficult. Besides, a spare shoelace has at least 101 uses…
Banner for stage. “Gee, those guys are good. What’s the name of the band?”
Banter for the stage. Have you ever seen someone win an Academy Award or a Grammy, utter the words, “I didn’t think I’d win” and then stutter through a few awkward incomplete sentences? You end up feeling embarrassed for them. Unless this is what you want to happen, (think Andy Kaufman), prepare a few words for the stage.
Still camera. And someone to use it is nice if you can swing it. When a publicist or booker or magazine editor asks if you have photos you will be glad you have shots of every gig.
Video camera. You would be amazed how many bookers and agents demand video these days. If you shoot every gig it makes it easy to edit together a good looking video.
CDs to sell. I have played gigs where the merch dollars outnumbered the band pay two-to-one.
Business cards. It looks more professional than the cocktail napkin. I have seen such short-sightedness as business cards without the area code in the past. Don’t do the modern equivalent of that by leaving off your website and email address.
Promo package w/ CD. When opportunity knocks are you going to be ready?
Flyers for post event orders. No need to lose a sale (and possible repeat customer/ fan) just because you ran out of CDs
Day planner. So when you’re asked if your free, you can give an answer.
Tape your setlist sheet to your pedal board. I was on tour with several bands sharing the stage. I taped the set sheet to the volume pedal on my pedal board. After sound check the crew would strike the stage. I knew when my pedal board was returned my setlist would be in the right place.
Have a lawyer. It’s funny how the letterhead with a law firm’s name on it will make people sit up and take notice. These things are pricey, so you’ll only want one. I doubt you’ll use this item at your regular bar gig, but I wouldn’t sign anything that has to do with your songwriting, your recordings, your merchandise, etc., etc., without having one on the payroll.
Fake books and charts. We seem to have gotten away from printed music onstage and for most bands they do get in the way of performance. But having something to refer to when the bandleader accepts a request for a song you haven’t played in a year or more, you will be glad you had a chart. A good fake book is a potential lifesaver if you are not totally sure what kind of crowd you are playing for. There are even fake books these days for specific genres.
Do you have a tip that has saved your but on at least one occasion? Share it with us!