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Back to Basics: How to Get Your Gear and Yourself Gig-Ready

Dave Hunter

So you’ve rehearsed your hearts out, got your set down tight and landed your band’s first gig. What now? You need to get gig ready, that’s what! Sure, being able to put on a show is a big part of the battle, but it also helps to have a handful of insider’s tips at the ready — a list of all the little things that can help the gig go smoothly — so you don’t spoil a potentially great performance with some small, avoidable glitch. This installment of Back to Basics gives you a quick guide to having both your gear and your attitude in the right condition to pull off that first gig, and every one after it, like a pro.

Get Your Gear Ready

This should be obvious, but far too many guitarists still turn up for their first gigs (or many subsequent gigs) with gear that is in poor condition and ready to fail at any time, ruining their own playing enjoyment along with the listening enjoyment of the audience while they take a forced pause to remedy the situation. If you can’t deal with these yourself, have a pro take care of them for you, well before you’re headed up the stairs to the stage. Some things to check are …

On your guitar:

  • Strings are reasonably fresh and will hold their tuning.
  • Bridge, tailpiece, tuners and nut are in good condition, don’t rattle or slip.
  • Pots and switches are functional, clean (not scratchy), and operate smoothly.
  • Pickups are adjusted for optimum tone, free from shorts and excessive noise.
  • Knobs are secure, not waiting to fall off mid solo.
  • Jack is both clean and tight enough to hold the cord’s jack plug securely.
  • Strap doesn’t slip off strap buttons when you start getting into it; install strap locks if it does.
  • General intonation, setup and “action” are optimum for you to give your best performance.

On your amp:

  • Tubes are in good condition, firmly secured in their sockets, and biased correctly (if applicable).
  • Pots and switches are clean (not scratchy) and functional.
  • Any channel or effects or boost switching works correctly, and you have the appropriate footswitch.
  • Speaker(s) mounted securely inside the cab, without rattles or buzzes when you play at gig volume.
  • Speaker connected to amp output with correct speaker cable, and correct impedance match between the two.
  • And, if it’s an older amp, ensure a grounded three-prong AC power cord and plug have been installed by a professional (this is a major safety issue when you start playing with a PA and other plugged-in instruments).

Affects and accessories:

  • All pedals have fresh batteries, or AC/DC adaptor is connected and working correctly.
  • All guitar cords and effects pedals patch cords are in good condition and short free.

Gig Bag Must-Haves

In addition to having all of the working components of your rig in good playing condition, you will want to carry plenty of spares in your “gig bag” (not the gig bag your guitar rides in, but a weekend bag that holds all your accessories and extras). You can’t necessarily be prepared for every single thing that might go wrong with your equipment at a gig, but as a good rule of thumb you should try to carry spares of everything that might be considered “consumables,” along with a few other handy items. These include:

  • Strings
  • Picks
  • Cables (cords)
  • Batteries
  • Amp fuses
  • Amp tubes (a known-good spare for every tube position)
  • Slide (bottleneck), if you use one
  • Capo, if you use one
  • Spare AC extension cable with power strip
  • Duct tape/gaffer tape

Another biggie: it’s really worth having a spare guitar if at all possible, so you can grab it on the fly if you break a string, or if your main instrument develops some fatal flaw. Tune it before the set, right before tuning your No. 1 guitar and set it on a stand within easy reach. If you can’t afford a functional spare, and you’re in a two guitar band, see if you can at least acquire or borrow one spare to share between you (hopefully you won’t break strings at the same time), or ask a sympathetic guitarist in a band on the same bill if he doesn’t mind having one available “just in case.”

Behavior and Attitude

Just as important as having all the gear working and in the right place, you need to have your head in the right place for the gig. More than just being positive and ready to play, this means adhering to any time slots and ground rules that the venue’s owner or manager has established, and being polite and cooperative with everyone involved in helping the gig come off smoothly.

Show up on time, or even a little early (but not too early, you’ll just annoy the club owner/bar staff/sound guy). Introduce yourself to the stage manager or sound guy the first time you have a chance to do so without bugging or interrupting him (or her). Ask where to stow your gear before going on-stage, when to put it on-stage, where you might put any cases to keep them out of the way while playing or during other bands’ sets; you should have been given a time for sound check in advance (if you weren’t, you should have called or e-mailed to ask for one), but confirm this with the sound guy now. If there isn’t time for a full sound check — which is often the case with multi-band bills at smaller clubs — don’t moan and complain. You should at least have time for a quick “line check,” which is a level check of all mics and instruments. Proceed quickly and efficiently with this when asked to do so. Observe the sound person’s requests regarding volume level. If you feel you need to be cranked up to hit your tonal sweet spot, make sure in advance that you aren’t bringing an amp that’s too big — or, namely, too loud —for the venue. If the sound guy asks you to turn it down, do so, and continue to do so until he or she is satisfied. It isn’t his fault if you can’t hit your sweet spot, it’s yours for bringing an inappropriate amp. If you really must play that monster of an amp in a small venue, or if it’s just all you’ve got, try to get an attenuator to lower the level at the output stage. Overbaked guitar volume levels are a sure-fire show spoiler, and a sign of an unprofessional player. When you have finished your sound check or line check, clear away any gear that will be in the way of any band checking after you, or performing before your set time.

At this point, leave your gear as performance-ready as it can be without remaining in anyone else’s way, then depart from the stage, but be on hand in plenty of time to begin your set promptly. When performing, stick to your allotted set time — running over can be a sure way of not getting asked back — and at the end, thank the audience for coming and either the venue or one of the other bands “for having us” (thanking whoever invited you onto the bill; you’ll have done this earlier in the set, too, but doing it again at the end is good form).

By now, you’ll have a good idea of the first rule of the smooth gig: honor the sound man, for he is God of the Gig. He might act like he owns the place, and some of them have pretty big chips on their shoulders, but they have usually earned them from having to deal with too many uncooperative and unprofessional bands in the past, and ultimately he probably knows a lot more about smoothly running the live sound — and the entire gig — than you do. Even if you feel the guy needs an attitude adjustment, listen, obey, cooperate, and avoid getting on his nerves: he literally has his finger on the buttons that can make you suck or succeed, sound-wise, and it isn’t worth picking a fight with him. Work with him, even if it feels like you’re giving in, and you can grumble about him all you like when you’re headed home in the van after a great show.

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