If you’ve just come off stage to roaring applause, the band delivered perfectly and the crowd are on their feet wanting more, then chances are that every technical aspect of your show went as well as the rockstar bit. But what might have looked easy and well-rehearsed to your audience probably needed – and this is not particularly rock ‘n’ roll – a whole lot of pedantic preparation to get spot-on. Because when you play live, you only have one chance to do it right…
1. Fit for the stage?
And no, we’re not referring to your sporting constitution here, although a bit of movement during your performance wouldn’t hurt! What we mean is the quality and condition of your all-important gigging gear, the kit you’re going to use to change the world.
It’s hard to believe, but we’ve seen plenty of guitarists over the years who have just used any old cable to hook up their guitar and amp, or even used guitar and speaker cables interchangeably – and then proceeded to wonder where all the guitar and amp buzzing was coming from. Cables are important, folks! Some basic knowledge about the different types of leads available is essential as a live musician. Because most of us don’t have roadies and techs to sort that kind of thing out for us.
Good quality cables are available for little money in any music store these days. Buy some. That said, some basic soldering knowledge can also help if you’re ever in a bind. Believe it or not, jacks can wear out, so keep an eye on your leads and consider replacing any that look too battered.
Our tip: Neutrik jacks and similar – where the tip and inner conductor consist of one part and are NOT riveted to the back of the solder lug – should be your first choice if possible.
2. Beef up your amp
Check your amp(s) over regularly. Pay attention to any extraneous noise and crackling, and if you’re not happy or they start getting worse, ask a pro for help ASAP. If you’ve got a tube amp, it’s worth asking a technician to check the tubes’ condition – paying attention to the likes of biasing and hum balance – every few years.
With some amps, like the Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister and TubeMeisters, you won’t need to do this – they feature the built-in TSC (Tube Safety Control) System that looks after your tubes automatically. But with most amps, you’ll need to entrust this check-up to an expert. Oh, and do use this occasion to also get all your tube sockets, pots and switches checked out! These factors – or a combination or one or more of them – are the usual suspects to look for if your amp fails.
Oh, and a cold autumn night after the gig in the car, or a practice room that’s more like a humid wetland than a comfortable apartment: these might not be rare situations for your tube amp to find itself in, but with time, they’re the kinds of environment that can seriously harm your pride and joy’s sensitive electronics. Something as innocuous as a bit of corrosion to the input on the FX send could be enough to permanently put your amp out of action.
3. Pedalboard woes
Your priceless collection of FX pedals should be looked after with the same amount of caution. Crackle and hum are often part and parcel of stompboxes and can’t be completely avoided, but there are often clever little things you can do to reduce and minimize these unwanted side effects.
The most effective tip here is as follows: if you’ve got a power supply on your FX board, then make sure you’ve got it in the best place to make the most of your pedals. Depending on their position on your board, power supplies will react completely differently to the FX around them. Take a little bit of time – and patience – to find the place on your board where the power supply operates at its quietest, and you could make FX noise problems a thing of the past. Of course, using only the best quality cables you can will also help here!
Note: Every extra cable and connection you use on your pedalboard is one more potential place where something could go wrong. If you can, use only the pedals you really need live – do you really need that 4th overdrive or that 3rd digital delay? – and focus on the stompboxes you can count on to be reliable. We’ve said it before, but less really can be more in this case – and each FX pedal you remove from your setup equals one less unit to power and two less connectors to hook up.
4. Your guitar, your livelihood
Go on, be honest. When was the last time you actually checked your guitar’s intonation? Have you ever checked it? Because it’s intonation problems – specifically, the slow de-tuning of your guitar as your saddles gradually shift over time, putting all your notes out of whack – that start to make the band sound a little weird at first, and then downright terrible, and nobody knows why. And that’s no fun at all. But the reality is that, just like your amps and electronic bits and pieces, your guitar also needs some regular TLC.
Now, you don’t need to overdo things here, but here’s a few key points to keep in mind: first, you should put right crackly switches, grainy pots and loose cable input connectors as soon as they become apparent. Nip them in the bud, and you’ll have way more fun with your axe. Connectors and switches benefit from spray cleaners, while pots are often kept clean through use (or a few vigorous twists now and again). If that’s not doing the job, a little spray cleaner should!
Toggle switches – the Gibson type in particular – can require faithful care. But the mechanical side of the guitar should be regularly inspected too. Watch out for worn parts (frets, whammy bars, etc.) and let a pro tech look over the other parts of the guitar that gradually shift (neck relief, intonation, and so on) on a regular basis.
As you’ve probably experienced in the past, a freshly fettled and set up guitar can give you the wonderful feeling of holding a brand new, high-end instrument in your hands – the difference really can be astonishing. Trust us, it’s one minor investment that’s definitely worth it!
5. Cause and effect
A bad connection, a battery that’s out of juice, strings that have been put on badly, scratchy pots… the list of small mistakes that can have huge – even fatal – consequences goes on and on! It’s crucial to develop an eye for noticing these often absurd little perils and pitfalls. Here, then, are a few cool little practical tips, each one of them learned through (sometimes painful) experience! Eyes down for a full house, class…
a) After changing your guitar strings, carefully stretch them in to remove any excess elasticity. After a few minutes of gentle tugging (stop sniggering at the back!) and retuning you’ll notice that the string’s tuning will become stabile. After this, whammy bar excesses and overenthusiastic string bending will be no problem at all.
b) When changing strings, check to see whether you could tighten up the tuner/machine head mechanisms. If they’re loose and rattling, you should be able to gently go to work on them, which will in turn aid tuning stability when the new strings go on.
c) When you’re putting on your new strings, there’s no need to pull the entire loose string through the tuner. Just three or 4cm will do, and then cut the rest off nice and cleanly. Then, wind the string gently and smoothly into place. Keep gentle pressure on the string as you do so, and the process will become much easier.
d) Careful with your pots, as they’re not too sturdy in some cases. Too many sharp turns and you can damage the internal wiring, and in the worst case, this can leave you with a guitar that makes no sound! Again, when you get a tech to check your axe over, make him or her look at this for you too.
e) Treat your fingerboard to regular oil sessions. This will keep the wood from drying out, and you’ll have a smoother, more fun playing experience. Just make sure you buy an oil that’s suitable for your type of wood, as some products are not suited to every fretboard type. The added bonus of regular oiling is that your guitar should be less sensitive to seasonal climate changes too.
And here, just for fun, is a nice video where a guy goes into all sorts of detail about changing your guitar strings. Most of the points work for electric and acoustic players, so take a look if you’re not sure on any of the above tips:
OK, that’s your lot for today. These tips, if used well, should mean you’ll go into live gig situations with your gear in tip-top condition – then it’s down to you to rock on stage as best you can! Good luck…
Oh, and if you have any great quick tips for keeping your gear in a gig worthy state, let us know! As usual, we’d love to hear what you think.
First published: August 14 2014. Most recent update: September 21 2015.