We hit the last note of the first song. We came out blazing with ZZ Top’s Tush and sent a clear message to the audience that we came to rock. Out of nowhere my high-E string breaks. It’s been nearly three years since I last broke a string. I am not, by nature, a string-breaker.
I briefly panicked, but managed to snuff it out and swap guitars. I had two onstage: the meaty EVH Wolfgang and a trusty American Standard Strat. Both fine instruments, but with very different sounds. I needed a replacement for my Floyd-enabled humbucking powerhouse and quick.
Rewind to two hours ago as I packed my car up for this gig. I asked myself, do I really need to bring three guitars? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. We had played plenty of gigs where the third axe was just a boat-anchor and that history was at the front of my mind as I considered packing another piece of gear. But I stuck with my policy and I’m glad I did. Oh sure, I could have used another guitar there or even gotten by with just the Strat, but having another guitar on hand that I know well made something like a string-break a relative non-event.
All of this got me thinking about gig preparation. It’s really as much about a mindset and an attitude as it is the things on your packing list.
Ritual is a powerful tool to prepare yourself for performance. Once you develop one, it’s very comforting to go through that routine each and every time. You know that once you’re on the other side of it, you’re ready to rock.
The other nice thing about ritual, is that you avoid wasting energy debating how to prepare. You just execute your preparation and you’re there. You can save your energy for something more interesting like making music.
A good practice is having a checklist of gear and things you need to do. This doesn’t have to be set in stone. You should definitely pay attention to how things go and use that as feedback to improve it. But try to use that list consistently. It’s amazing how stressful it can be when you’re running around the house trying to think of what you need to bring.
For example, I use the same backpack for all gigs. I don’t use it for anything else but hauling gear. Because of that, it’s almost always stowed with what I need. I don’t have to spend time re-packing it and running the risk of forgetting something. Sometimes I have more in there than I need but that’s better than missing some crucial piece of kit.
Make a List
I know it sounds terribly boring, but seriously a list will help you focus on what you need to do next. There’s a time and a place for brainstorming and letting your mind go all non-linear. But when it’s time to get your gear loaded-up and be somewhere on time, go with a pre-meditated list.
What you bring to a gig is probably different than I would bring. But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what I bring. In no particular order I always bring:
- Picks. Lots and lots of picks. They disappear like socks.
- Backup strings.
- A small toolkit with things like allen wrenches, screwdrivers, a string winder and even a flashlight
- Extension cords. Expecting that power will always have convenient access is sure-fire trip to disappointment-land
- Food and drink. Sure, we usually get comped a couple of beers when we play, but I like to have some water and a little snack bar around. When you’re packing up at 1:30 in the morning and kitchen is closed, a little late-night tidbit might be just what you need to get yourself home
- Guitar stands. Guitars in cases only get pulled out in an emergency. Don’t make your audience wait for you to fish a guitar out of a case. Put it on a stand and be ready.
- Talcum powder and a cloth. When I’m playing live I have the sweatiest hands alive. I absolute destroy strings like you wouldn’t believe. The talcum powder helps tame that a bit and having a cloth to wipe the guitar down afterwards keeps in clean and gives the strings a little more life.
I will admit that I tend to bring a lot of gear to a gig. What can I say? I like my toys. But when I’m driving them around, I don’t want them banging around in my car. Make sure you pack things tight enough that they don’t tip when you go around corners or have to brake hard.
Don’t rest things against the speaker grill of your amp or cabinet. Some speakers can handle this better than others. But some amp grilles (I’m looking at you Vox) wilt at the daintiest touch.
Fill the gaps between your gear with blankets and towels. Packing things tight enough to prevent movement is good, but doing it with some squishy bits in between means less knicks and scrapes on your stuff.
Maybe I’m too much of a Boy Scout (actually I only made it to Webelos). Maybe I’m too uptight and need to let things go. Yeah…maybe. I’ll tell you what though, when I show up to play I know where everything is and the only surprises in store are usually musically delightful ones.