So summer is (allegedly) upon us – you can tell, the rain is that bit warmer – and with it, holiday season. So as across the land millions struggle with what to pack in their suitcase, that provides a good – if slightly tenuous - excuse to look at what a guitar player should be packing to a gig.
Whether you're loading up a van or squeezing everything in to a hatchback, the logistical element is something that we all have to deal with. My favourite observation is that you can always tell the rookies because they bring EVERYTHING – 100 watt head, two 4x12” cabs, rack of half a dozen guitars, wireless system, pedalboard... and are always looking for the newest shiniest gadget to add to their arsenals in the quest for sonic perfection - whereas the old hands like myself have long since figured out that the more stuff you bring, the more stuff you have to lug about at the end of the night when the adrenalin is wearing off and every case, amp and cabinet weighs double what it used to. So we're all about simplicity. Less setup time, less stuff to go wrong, less packdown time and home before the sun rises.
With this in mind, let me guide you through my gig rig.
Guitars – obviously, you need these! I use a heavily homebrewed USA Fender Strat as No. 1 and a 2005 Gibson Les Paul as my backup.I have a terrible record breaking strings, so I haven't quite hit the point of confidence to do a whole evening's sets with just one. That said, my workhorse has rarely let me down and coves a wide variety of sonic bases, featuring the Seymour Duncan Everything Axe humbucker-single-humbucker configuration, straplocks, Sperzel locking tuners, LSR roller nut and graphite string saddles. These last are particularly worth checking out – I've gone from breaking a string a gig to a string a year. I've also moved to using coated Elixir strings which keep their “new-string” responsiveness longer. The Les Paul I've kept as stock, apart from graphite saddles and straplocks.
Amp – Let me be clear on this... if you're playing pubs/ clubs/ anything short of the NEC you DON'T need a 100w Marshall stack. A decent valve combo with a good 12” speaker in the 30-50 watt range, on a riser (anything from a purpose built amp stand to a chair will do) to keep the sound aimed at the audience's ears instead of their knees will give you all the volume you need. For bigger gigs you'll either be mic'd or DI'd anyway – all you need is sufficient volume to be heard over the drums. More onstage volume, more feedback loops. Some purists may claim they need the depth of tone that a 4x12” gives, and yeah it is nice, but more often than not the acoustics of the room shape the sound far more than these subtleties. Plus, carrying the damn thing at 3am...
For those interested, I use a Laney TT50 – all valve, 50w, 1x12”, three channels and a secondary volume control for a lead boost. Although sadly no longer in production, it's done me since '08 and even survived the dog peeing in it. Can't ask for more than that.
FX – In this day and age of incredible modelling technology, I'm going to forswear the iconic pedals like the Ibanez Tubescreamer and boutique gear like Keeley compressors and recommend a multiFX unit. All that handwired gear may suit the Eric Johnsons of this world, but for us mere mortals who don't have roadies to cart and set their gear up, all that mucking about with batteries, PSUs and patch cables is far more trouble than it's worth. A decent multiFX – Digitech RP1000, pretty much any Line 6 gear, the Boss GT series - will provide 99% of the sound for 10% of the trouble. Make sure your unit has its own effects loop – we'll talk about that in a second.
There's another bonus – practically all multiFX units now have built in amp simulatirs, giving you a backup route direct into the PA if your amp goes down mid gig. You won't get that with a pedalboard (unless you buy ANOTHER PEDAL to do it.)
Cables – now here it is worth shelling out. Cheap cables are made with cheap components and poor shielding, and are far more prone to breaking, getting dirt in the connections resulting in disruption to your sound, and just general fun-sapping frustration. Save up for some good ones – I swear by Neutrik connectors as upgrades too.
You're obviously going to need an one cable from guitar to amp, but to get the most out of an FX package you're going to need to use the effects loop on the FX unit and the amp itself. Let's talk about the signal path.
Firstly, guitar to amp – you can either use a good 20 ft cable or a wireless system for this stage.
Second, the preamp side effects – these are things like compression, wah, overdive and distortions. These effects need to be placed before the preamp stage.
Third, the preamp – this is the part of the amplifier that shapes the sound. I tend to keep my EQ fairly flat, maybe with a little midrange drop out and bass boost to prevent the sound getting too “boxy” in a small pub or club. Your amp will most likely have three tone controls – treble, middle and bass. This is your “equalisation” or EQ stage – to set these “flat”, set all to halfway and then tweak to taste. Sounds too tinny? Wind back the reble. Sounds too flabby and muddy? Wind back the bass.
Fourth, the FX loop. What this means is that the signal comes out of the preamp and into the effects that need to sit after the preamp stage – modulation effects such as chorus, phaser and flanger need to go here, as do delays and reverbs. If you put delay on a distorted sound, you get an echo of a distorted sound. If you put distortion on a delayed sound, you end up with a godawful clanging sonic mush. Not recommended.
Fifth and finally, the power amp. This is the stage that adds volume and sends out to the speaker.
So connecting up, you want :
Guitar – cable or wireless – FX input
FX unit FX send – amp input
Amp FX send – FX unit FX return
FX unit output – amp FX return
This is known as the “4 cable method”. Now, as an old hand at this, I've learned that you actually want a single cable “mobile” so you can move around on stage, but the other three will be static, between FX unit and amp – so sto speed things up, I've gathered them into a “snake” using Maplin cable wraps to keep them together. Experience has taught me – many times – that leads can and will fail, particularly when they're difficult to get too, so my three-cable snake now has five cables for redundancy. I've left about 12-18 inches exposed either end of the snale to get around different amp layouts and replace or resolder cable tips when needed. This means you're unwarpping and plugging in one cable not three, making set up and pack down that little bit easier.
Last but most definitely not least – gaffer tape! You need this to tape down leads – one tip, where the lead curls round your wah or volume pedal, that's where you need to tape it down, otherwise you're going to wind up with it catching under your pedal, meaning you won't be able to turn it off – tape up set lists, tape the drummer's mittens to his hands so he won't lose them, tape up that hole in the band van's radiator pipe.. the uses are endless!