Ready for the Road: A Professional Musician’s Checklist
By William Lewis
I’m sure a lot of you reading this are just getting a gigging band together or want to get one
together. I think that musicians want to get themselves out there and there are a variety of good
reasons for wanting to do that. But, before you can get yourself onstage you have a lot of work
ahead of you, including scheduling rehearsals, creating set-lists, contacting venues, etc. And
there is another important thing to do: you need to figure out if your gear can withstand a live
If your gear is capable of handling the gig you want to play, think about the last time it was serviced. If it’s been a while, you’ll want to check it all out before you load up the van. The last thing you want to do is simply trust your gear to do its job. Always carefully inspect your guitars, amps, pedals, and cables before a gig. You will still likely have a soundcheck, but it’s better to head off potential problems early on, before you have to scramble to find a new piece of gear.
Even if you don’t know much about gear, you can still check some vital things. On your guitar, plug in your cable and wiggle it around a bit. If the signal to your amp cuts out, you’ll need to service the jack. Once you’re done there, check the switch and pots to see if they operate as they should and that they aren’t making unwanted noise. If they are, I recommend using an electrical contact cleaner first. If the problem persists, replacing the defective part is probably your best bet. There is no need to try to repair a pot or switch, as they are cheap and just not worth repairing. And your pickups are likely fine if you’ve been playing the guitar, though you might want to test the tone to ensure they’re functioning properly.
I always like to have a look at the instrument’s control cavity as well. On a Strat, I realize this is a bit of a pain to do. But to ensure everything is proper inside, it’s a worthwhile test. I look for things like loose or dirty solder connections. These are what will cause problems for you. Remember, you’re going to be moving around a lot on stage and loose connections can cause total loss of sound from the guitar. I feel it is always best to re-solder dirty connections. I use a very fine grain of sandpaper to clean the contacts. To remove the old solder, you can try using a product called Solder Wick which will absorb melted solder and remove it from the area. Once that’s done, sand the contacts down. If there is enough wire, I typically cut the end with the solder on and re-strip the ends. After that, you can re-solder the wire back the way it was. You may consider drawing a diagram for yourself if you are worried about forgetting where everything was. Another note: remember to use rosin-core solder as acid-core solder is more for plumbing use and can damage electronic equipment.
If your guitar looks like it’s in good shape, let’s look at the next thing in line. When you look at your cable, ensure no bare wire shows though the casing. Look at the plugs of the cable and make sure they aren’t scratched up or dirty. This can impede a good connection and have an adverse effect on sound quality. I know cables seem somewhat expendable, but I highly recommend getting good quality cables. Not only will your sound quality be improved, but you’ll also have a cable that will last so that you’re not buying a cable after every show. My current cable has a 25-year warranty and it’s still going strong. After you play, ensure that the cable is wound neatly and stored in a place where it won’t be stepped on or abused. This will keep those cables working well until they absolutely need to be replaced.
Now let’s consider your pedals, if you have any. Again, with your guitar plugged in and a cable connecting the pedal output to the amp, plug your guitar into the pedal. As we did with the guitar, wiggle both the input and output and see if the signal drops or creates static. If so, clean the cable and jack with contact cleaner. And if that fails, replace the jacks. The same goes for the pots and switch: check for any odd noises or static and if found, try applying contact cleaner first. If they aren’t working right, it’s up to you how next to proceed. If the component is crucial to your tone, you can repair it. I’m not too sure on the cost a shop would charge. The jacks and switches themselves aren’t too expensive, but where they get you is the labor. Most shops in my area charge about $30 for a pickup change. So, it might cost around that to change out a jack or switch, adding in the cost of the part itself.
One last thing I’d advise is to change all your batteries before a gig. A good quality battery will last through an entire gig for sure.
Now that we’ve got all those other parts covered, the last big item is your amplifier. Amps are complex, no doubt about it. I don’t expect everyone to know about amps, so there may be issues that will require a tech here. Now, odds are if your amp turns on, you’ve won half the battle already. Again, plug your cable into the input jack of the amp and try to wiggle it around a bit. You should hear no excess noise. If you do, again, try applying some contact cleaner. Next, try turning all the pots: volume, bass, mid, treble, gain, presence, reverb and any other pots your amp has. Again, quiet operation is the key here. You typically run into static in the pots on older amps and, in most cases, contact cleaner will take care of it. If you don’t have experience with changing pots in amps, a tech will have to take care of that for you. In some amps, it’s a pain to get the chassis out to change it.
If all your jacks, switches and pots are functional, you’re looking good. If you have a solid-state amp, the final thing you’ll want to do is check the wires leading to the speaker to ensure they are well-connected. With a solid-state amp, you have transistors instead of tubes. Transistors don’t fail nearly as often as tubes do. In fact, I’ve never had to replace a transistor in a solid-state amp. My old Roland Jazz Chorus was great in terms of reliability. So, if you’ve got a solid-state amp, you are just about ready to go.
Tube amps, however, are another story as tubes require more regular service.
First thing I do with my tubes is think about how old they are and what kind of amp they’re in. If it’s a combo amp, I might replace the power tubes at around 8 or 10 months if it’s been used heavily. Combo amps are harder on tubes because the tubes are located right behind the speaker and all that sound pressure is hitting them hard. If it’s a tube head, I might let them go up until the 12-month mark. But, I’m a believer in preventative maintenance. If you’re gigging a lot and have the money, why not replace them early? I keep my old tubes to use as backups, provided they are in working condition.
Typically, power tubes go before preamp tubes. But, preamp tubes have microphonic issues. The old standby testing method here is to take a chopstick, turn the amp on, crank the gain, and tap on the preamp tube. You should hear the tap. That’s it. If you hear a bell like sound, the tube is microphonic and needs to be replaced. If you don’t replace it, it’ll squeal like crazy when you get your amp up to gig volume. And that’s not good at all if you want good tone at a show.
I’m not going to get too deep into the subject of biasing, but if you change the tubes on certain amps, you need to adjust the plate voltage if those power tubes are of a different grade. Different grades pull different levels of current. That change could lead to an adjustment being needed in the bias. You’ll have a trim pot on an adjustable bias amp. You really only need a probe and a multi-meter and you can adjust it. You do need to know what to adjust to however. While it’s not too hard, if you don’t have a lot of experience working around the voltage present in these tube amps, I’d advise taking it to a tech. It’s something you need a bit of technical knowledge to do.
If your tube amp checks out, then you are almost good to go. But there are a few last things. For one, bring everything you need, even if you think you’ll never need it. Bring extra sets of strings (I typically bring more of the plain strings), extra picks, extra cables, extra batteries, spare tubes, and even extra fuses for your amp. I’ve been in the position of blowing an amp fuse and not having any on hand. It may seem a bit expensive at first, but it’s better to be prepared. If your guitar has a locking tremolo, bring extra parts for that too. I go as far as to bring extra blocks for my Floyds, extra springs, extra locking nut parts, and even an extra tremolo arm. Having a spare strap isn’t a bad idea either: they can and will break at the worst time. I once lost a good SG to a bad strap.
One of the key things to a good gig is good preparation. You should be prepared musically as well as being prepared in terms of your equipment. It’s better to bring a little more than you need. By being prepared, not only will you have a good show, you’ll also make a good impression on the venue owners with your professional attitude. Part of being professional is being prepared. Believe me, people notice that kind of thing. They want a band who will show up and play their show with no issues. By making a good impression on a venue, you are far more likely to be asked back. And that is one thing I can tell you with certainty. I’ve been in this position before and by displaying a professional attitude, it’s gotten me more gigs.
I hope you can take away something from this article. I’ve tried to think of everything that I’ve learned over the years and put it down here, even those little things I had to learn the hard way. I figure if you can skip those kinds of setbacks, you can progress a bit quicker. I hope this article finds you all well, and good luck to any of you who have a gig coming up soon.
William Lewis teaches and writes about guitar online. He says he has been playing the guitar for 14 years and his style leans toward bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera and AC/DC. He lives in Terra Alta, West Virginia. You can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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