Playing in a tribute band (part 2): the rig, the riffs, the Red Box, the Rotosphere


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When one of Blog Of Tone’s esteemed writers got the call to play David Gilmour in a Pink Floyd tribute band, he didn’t quite realize how life-consuming this new ‘hobby’ would be. From learning the songs to picking a rig that would do the job, to practicing, and practicing, and practicing, it was a huge undertaking. In the first part of his story – which you should read here if you haven’t already – our man focused on nailing Gilmour’s famed solos and licks, as well as getting used to life as part of a 10-piece band. This time, he explains the process of getting such a project stage ready, his gear choices, and his DIY lap steel build…

What’s most important to the guitar player when that big night finally arrives and the band takes the stage?

The moment the drummer starts clicking those sticks, counting off the beats until you reap the rewards of all that hard work?

When it’s time to put into action the best of those many musical ideas you distilled worked through those long hours in some dark and often dank cavern?

When all those pent-up emotions that have been piling up over months in the rehearsal room are released in a couple of furious sets?

If we take it as a given that we’ve mastered every lick and internalized all the arrangements, most players would agree that the important thing is inspiring tone. It can lift you up and take your playing to another level.

Your sound probably cost you thousands of (fill in your local currency here) to achieve, and you want to get it across to your audience exactly as envisioned…

This is it - that moment you've been preparing and planning for for so long. All that remains is for you to flip the Standby switch into Play mode and unleash your unholy racket on that unsuspecting crowd...

This is it – that moment you’ve been preparing and planning for for so long. All that remains is for you to flip the Standby switch into Play mode and unleash your unholy racket on that unsuspecting crowd…

Practice like you’re playing the real show

And that’s what I aimed to do, especially seeing as how the guitar features even more prominently in this tribute band than it does in even the most guitar-centric ensembles.

To achieve that aim, I had to let my inner obsessive-compulsive control freak persona out. I was adamant that we needed to rehearse under much the same conditions as we would later play on stage, which meant working with the same backline, setup and monitoring.

Of course, I had to also create the same kind of controlled environment for my guitar rig to ensure that I would be able to replicate every sound on stage.

This proved to be a smart strategy. I didn’t spend much time contemplating my choice of amp and signal routing setup: GrandMeister and its built-in Red Box DI output were continuing to serve me well.

Most guitarists suffer from GAS (guitar or gear acquisition syndrome), but playing in a working band taught me a lesson that the stage is not the place for experimenting with new toys.

I’ve learned that if it works well, it’s best to leave it well enough alone.

To mic that cab or to DI?

Granted, some think a cab/mic sounds better than a DI like Red Box. But, on the other hand, it takes some effort to find that sweet spot with a mic, and the idea of searching for it again and again at each gig seemed too impractical and time-consuming for the real world.

Many guitarists still swear by using a microphone with their cabinets for live shows, but it's an exact art, and you can never be sure your great sound in one venue or room will translate to the next. A DI signal, on the other hand, should theoretically give you the exact same tone show after show, and save you time during your setup!

Many guitarists still swear by using a microphone with their cabinets for live shows, but it’s an exact art, and you can never be sure your great sound in one venue or room will translate to the next. A DI signal, on the other hand, should theoretically give you the exact same tone show after show, and save you time during your setup!

Unless your band is on top of the musical food chain, these days the turnaround time from one act to the next at festivals with several bands is tight. It’s often around 15 minutes. You may be convinced that the time devoted to nudging that SM57 a quarter of an inch to the right or up a centimeter or two is time well spent, but the promoter is unlikely to share your enthusiasm.

DI + in-ears = manageable stage volume and perfect monitoring

The Red Box turned out to be an inspired choice in more ways than one.

Nearly everyone in the band had warmed to the idea of in-ear monitors, so our stage volume came down to level where we were able to rehearse with a sound so crisp and clear that would have sent tears of bliss streaming down the faces of high-fidelity audio freaks.

I have to admit that I choked up a little myself, such was the joy of hearing the songs rendered with such richness, detail and whisper-to-roar dynamics.

Practicing with a purpose

Here’s another lesson taught by that other great master, experience: practicing at home and rehearsing with a band can and should be fun, but at the core of it, it’s hard work.

And like any hard work, it’s tiring. But with a great sound, you’ll find you’ll play a whole lot better for a whole lot longer before fatigue sets in.

Blending the Red Box and a cabinet

I also routed a low-level signal to a Hughes & Kettner TM212 cabinet because I like to remove the earplugs every now and then to hear how the band is sounding au naturel.

That's our man's GrandMeister right there, perched on top of his H&K TM212 cab. Just to further illustrate the sheer portability of the GM36, he's handily placed a packet of cigarettes to the left for scale. And by the way: smoking is bad for you - don't do it, kids!

That’s our man’s GrandMeister right there, perched on top of his H&K TM212 cab. Just to further illustrate the sheer portability of the GM36, he’s handily placed a packet of cigarettes to the left for scale. And by the way: smoking is bad for you – don’t do it, kids!

I chose this cab because it’s the perfect counterpart to the GrandMeister 36. This combination sounds ‘organic’ to me, as if they belong together, and it produces warm, juicy tone that’s dripping with attitude. It also has the fringe benefit of being very light and easy to transport, for which my back is extremely thankful.

Being prepared for the stage

Having a consistently good sound at the tips of my fingers and toes put my mind at rest, freeing me to focus on playing.

I don’t have to waste everyone’s time finessing the tone, fussing with volume levels, or fiddling about to squash feedback (except for on Sorrow, where I really get to let it rip!). I’m also spared the usual ranting about the guitar being too loud.

My guitars

I should also mention the guitars’ part in all this, for they are – pardon the pun – instrumental in achieving my tone.

The lion’s share of songs is played with Emma. That was my grandmother’s name, and that’s what I call my trusty old go-to Strat.

Born in the early ’80s, Emma started life is an MIJ Fender Squier. The original owner revamped the guitar to vintage specs. I wanted a touch more tonal flexibility so years ago I installed a Seymour Duncan JB4 Junior pickup in the bridge position.

It delivers that typical Strat sound, but with a fatter top end that works wonderfully for songs like Sorrow and Comfortably Numb:

 

I also installed a special circuit a while back that’s indispensable for the second solo on Money.

When I pull up the bottom tone knob, the push/pull pot splits the bridge pickup and adds the neck pickup in parallel to conjure a very beefy yet twangy clean tone. Throwing in a fistful of grit by nudging up the gain works great for Coming Back To Life and the middle lead on Money:

 

I also installed a 22nd fret. This DIY job only goes halfway across the fret board, but that’s really all I need to get those high notes on Money’s outro solo. (In 1973, David Gilmour actually played it on a 24-fret Bill Lewis guitar.)

Some might say that Emma is a Frankenstrat, but one man’s monster is another’s beauty.

Lap steel 101

Of course, I had to add a lap steel to my arsenal for this gig. I’m a total beginner when it comes to putting steel to steel, so I first plumbed the infinite depths of the Internet to do some research.

The usual suspects were favored in most forums, as was to be expected.

However, I wasn’t sure that I’d get the hang of a very different instrument that I’d never played before, so I was loath to fork over a bundle of cash on a risky proposition.

Then I remembered that I had an old cheapo Strat copy of dubious pedigree lying around somewhere. A warped neck had made it unplayable and practically irreparable.

I had bought it a long time ago from a friend for spare change with a vague and probably ill-advised notion of converting it into a stylish lamp or conversation piece to hang on a wall somewhere.

Building my own lap steel

Necessity being the mother of invention, I began to repurpose my oddball little Stratoid. First I removed the old nut, dabbed some wood filler in the slot, and mounted a roller nut. This raised the action about 4 or 5 mm at the nut, which put plenty of distance between the frets and strings.

The tremolo bridge got a similar treatment. I removed it and reinstalled it with some washers to raise the action. This gave me plenty of clearance at the other end of the guitar.

Here's our man's practice room setup - can you work out which one the lap steel is, and which one is Emma? The other GrandMeister/TM212 rig, by the way, belongs to the band's other electric guitarist. He was so impressed with our man's sounds that he had to have an H&K setup of his own...

Here’s our man’s practice room setup – can you work out which one the lap steel is, and which one is Emma? The other GrandMeister/TM212 rig, by the way, belongs to the band’s other electric guitarist. He was so impressed with our man’s sounds that he had to have an H&K setup of his own…

Like most guitarists who have been playing for decades, I have lots of leftover odds and ends from other projects lying around. One happened to be a complete SSH (single coil/single coil/humbucker) set of pups mounted on a pickguard, which I dropped into my soon-to-be lap Strat.

Integrating the lap steel into the set – and my rig

I wasn’t expecting much, so imagine my surprise when that steel bar first hit the string: this thing worked, and not just well enough, but remarkably well! The pickup combinations give me the soaring clean sounds I need for Breathe and Great Gig In The Sky. All I have to do to nail the ripping lead sounds for High Hopes and One Of These Days (watch a short clip of that recorded through a TubeMeister Deluxe 20 right here) is dial up the gain.

After a week of intensive practice, some sonic research with the GrandMeister, and a rehearsal with the full-blown ten-member ensemble, it was clear that this makeshift lap steel was going to make it into my lineup.

I strung up a set of heavyish flatwound jazz strings with a .012 high E string to give me more tension against the steel bar. This way I can bear down on the strings without throwing the intonation out of whack. The heavier strings also sound very crisp and the signal seems to hit the amp’s front end a little harder so that it breaks up beautifully.

The rest of my live rig

The rest of the story is quickly told: I reach for a Michael Kelly Hybrid Special when it comes to steel-string acoustic parts and a Fender Telecoustic sporting classical strings with ball ends for the concerto bit in High Hopes.

The Telecoustic is an acoustic-electric steel-string guitar, but my experiment with the classical strings worked rather nicely. The nylon strings don’t exert nearly as much force as their steel counterparts, so I was able to relieve the neck tension slightly and set up it up for a low action without that nasty fret buzz.

All this guitar practice might be fun kids, but don't forget to eat! The beer is of course optional, but we all know how useful such bottles can be as a makeshift guitar slide...

All this guitar practice might be fun kids, but don’t forget to eat! The beer is of course optional, but we all know how useful such bottles can be as a makeshift guitar slide…

There’s just one word for the sound of that pickup: outstanding. Check out the High Hopes video to see if you don’t agree. I reach for an affordable vintage-style Tele in drop-D tuning when we do Run Like Hell. I dropped in a Seymour Duncan STK-T3B (a “Vintage Stack Tele” humbucker in single-coil format) because I couldn’t hang with the original noisy bridge pup.

Make no mistake, this is a bargain-bin guitar, so I’m surprised and very pleased with how well it works for the echo-laden parts and chords of this classic number.

The Rotosphere and Leslie speaker modulations

The legendary H&K Rotosphere deserves special mention because it contributes a truly unique modulation effect that would otherwise require a colossal Leslie cabinet. Gilmour, of course, actually used/uses real rotating speakers (like Doppolas, Maestro Rovers and the Leslie itself).

Effort and expense are no great concerns for rock royalty, but they’re deal-breakers down here among the rock peasantry. In any case, I’m thrilled to have a far wieldier and budget-friendlier solution in the Rotosphere.

The legendary Rotosphere as featured in one of our similarly legendary 1990s advertising campaigns. Those were the days!

The legendary Rotosphere as featured in one of our similarly legendary 1990s advertising campaigns. Those were the days!

The effect simulated by a stompbox with a footprint about the shape and size of a Leslie footswitch comes amazingly close to that of a genuine Leslie speaker cabinet that is just too big and heavy for those of us who cart our own rigs!

I plug the Rotosphere into the GrandMeister’s serial FX loop, which can be programmed to be on or off for each preset, so the effect only kicks in when I need it for Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Great Gig In The Sky, Us And Them, and a few other cuts like Another Brick In The Wall:

 

The seemingly random phase shifting and modulations produced by this stompbox are peerless and can’t be matched by even the best chorus or flanger units.

For me and my sound, the Rotosphere is the icing on what I’d like to believe is an already very sweet cake. It’s hard for me to imagine how I could come up with a better, more satisfying sound.

In fact, this classic sound-shaping tool – favored by the likes of Joe Bonamassa and loads of other hot guitar players – deserves a blog of its own, and I believe I just might do the honors, so watch this space if you’re eager to learn more!

That’s nearly everything…

And that’s really all there is to it, apart from the elbow grease that goes into practicing on my own, rehearsing with the band, and going all out to get good gigs.

And that’s what we’d like to learn more about: how do you manage to land gigs in your region or country? Is there a happening music scene in your town?

Are there plenty of venues and interested audiences? How does the local booking work? What’s the money situation like these days?

Do you get paid to play or do you practically have to pay to play?

And getting back on topic, do you like to hot-rod guitars to come up with axes, just like trusty old Emma?

Let us know! As always, we look forward to your feedback in the comments…

 

First published: September 02 2016. Most recent update: December 22 2016.

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Leave a comment

Harry.Bo.7 on September 2, 2016 Reply

Another great blog, now I can’t wait to see the one after the band’s first show! Please let us know how it goes. Also, I love the Rotosphere sound, so I’d appreciate some blogs on that too… Cheers from Scotland!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 2, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Harry, we’re glad you liked the Blog and we will badger our colleague to write more when the band makes more progress and plays some shows 😉 We’ll also make sure he does something on the Rotosphere here too, which is long overdue 🙂

Huey T. on September 2, 2016 Reply

Haha! Pssst… just between us, your blog writer is a crazy nerd! A “low cost, minimum input, maximum output” nerd 😉 But great! A cheap Squier from the 80s, a home-made “scrapsteel”, a handful of ordinary FX pedals and an amp no bigger than my wife’s vanity case – but with this “joke” of a Gilmour rig he still comes up with sounds that gives me goosebumps like a cactus in the Mexican desert 😉 I’m deeply impressed! Shine on guys, your GrandMeister 36 really seems to be a crazy diamond…

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 2, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Huey, but we don’t think we can tell our writer all that stuff. It would simply make him too arrogant 😉 On a serious note though, he is indeed a monster player (as we experience every week in the office when he’s practicing the Pink Floyd stuff like mad 😉 ), and you’re right about the GrandMeister. It really can do a whole lot of different sounds, and don’t forget you can save up to 128 of them via MIDI if you’ve got the FSM-432 foot controller too (which we know our man has!). More than even Gilmour himself would need to play a show 😉