Flansburgh's Guitar Coffin
Our Roadies, Ourselves
Touring tips from They Might Be Giants
Guitar World, March 1997
Greetings from Brooklyn, New York, I'm about to go on the road, and I thought I'd pass on a few tips to all the guitarists preparing to journey into the world of touring - a smelly place where soundmen don't wear shirts, monitors are chained to the stage and guitar techs are just a rumor.
Buzzing: The Other White Noise
On the road you will experience new dimensions in buzzing from your amp. If you use effect pedals - especially distortion boxes - you can often find the buzzing is radically boosted. To make matters even worse, neon signs, video games and house lights on dimmer switches are sources of additional buzz, along with refrigerators, ice machines, lighting cables wrapped around sound cables and ungrounded amplifiers.
But fear not, for there are solutions to these noisome problems. No matter what the bouncer says, neon signs in bars can be turned off. When diplomacy fails, I suggest covert action. The switch for many neon signs is on a string right on them, so make a special trip just before show time.
Small clubs often have their audience lights on a dimmer. Turn them off during sound check and it could solve you problem since they're rarely on during the actual show.
At bigger shows, especially one-offs at colleges where the sound system and lighting rigs are brought in for the show, sound and light cables can often be wrapped together behind the stage. This sets up a very ugly electrical field which will cause an incredible amount of buzzing. Politely point this out as the possible source of your problem to the crew. Until they unwrap the cables from one another and run them separately (or cross them at 90 degree angles), it will be virtually impossible to eliminate the buzz.
If buzzing is a consistent problem, plug your guitar into someone else's amp. Your amp could be improperly grounded, even if it has a fancy three-pronged plug.
Ice machines or refrigerators often can't be turned off, in which case you might just have to give up. A noise gate can help keep a distracting buzz from destroying silence within a song.
Getting Shocked: Real pain for real people
If you sing into a microphone and play the electric guitar, you will eventually get shocked. A big enough shock will give you a fierce headache. When you're shocked your body is actually completing an electrical circuit between the microphone and the amplified guitar. An easy way to trouble-shoot this is to turn on your amp, plug in your guitar and touch the guitar strings to the microphone. If you hear a click or a pop from the amp or see sparks, you've got a live one. If you have a ground switch in the back of your amp, this is the time to use it. If your amp doesn't have a ground switch, "lifting" the ground by putting a two-prong adapter on the end of your amp's plug is a practical and quick solution to the problem.
If the problem persists, and you find yourself torn between the love of playing and the fear of frying, put a windscreen on the microphone. This will keep your lips from the metal of the mic and stop the shocks. Clubs or sound companies sometimes have windscreens but they all smell a lot like somebody else, so I recommend the five dollar investment in a fresh one. Just leave it in the back of your amp until that twentieth show when you need it. (This tip is especially useful at "in-store" record shop appearances when there is no time to fiddle around and the grounding can be very iffy.)
Driving: It's What's For Dinner
Here's a tip that could actually save your life. Many musicians drive down highways with their equipment stacked up behind them in their van. As impossible as it may seem, the gear will fly forward when you're in an accident, even a small one. Regretfully, I personally know of two touring situations where unsecured gear proved fatal. Installing a metal barrier wall is relatively cheap and easy, and will allow you the benefit of being able to stack gear all the way to the ceiling without any danger to the passengers.
There is another fringe benefit to installing a barrier - if you park with the back doors of the van against a wall, it is almost impossible to rip off your gear without actually stealing the entire vehicle (a far more serious crime).
Introducing Mr. Microphone
You've got the killer axe, you've got the extra-zesty hot rod amp, you've got the mini-MIDI-nitro-powered rack and foot pedals. But even if you have a big rig, you're probably going to be miked. Bringing your own mic along is a small investment with a big payoff, especially in clubs. Even when you're replacing the venue's Shure SM-57 with your own, you're probably getting much more of your amp tone out to the audience. This is a tip I actually got from magazine articles, and I am grateful for it now. I thought I should pass it along.
Vintage Amps and Hot Clubs
Let's hope your gigs sell out and you're playing in crowded rooms. But be warned: The rooms will get hot and it's very possible your trusty Seventies-era amp will lose high-end tone and, ultimately, volume over the course of a set. And no, it's not only temporary hearing loss.
When this first happened to me, I immediately assumed it was my old tubes folding up from the heat, but even after replacing them, the problems continued. I came to realize the moisture in the air was clinging to the speaker as it vibrated, making it fold up. New speakers (even retro-styled ones) hold their crispness a lot longer. Replacing speakers is easy, and won't permanently scar your amp. Just leave the vintage one at home for recording sessions.
If you can afford a road case, you can afford wheels. If you have roadies, they'll appreciate it. If you don't, you have a much better chance of convincing your bandmates into letting you split for the groovy party before packing the van.
One From Column B
Have a second guitar on stage at any gig, big or small. Traveling puts a lot of wear on instruments, and they always break when the guy from the record company is there.
For Those About to Rock: a 79-cent Investment
I heard the New York Dolls thought of this. I thought I had. Try metal washers to clamp your strap in place. It's weird having the strap on the guitar all the time, but the washers can avoid a big accident, and you can't yank them clean out of your guitar while performing in maximum rock-mode, like those fancy strap button contraptions.
- Never, ever leave your guitar in the van.
- Always have a t-shirt to sell.
- You are too loud.
- There's no money above the fifth fret.
See you on the road.