This last couple of weeks I have been doing a theatre gig with a singer / actor / guitarist / pianist doing a show of some music from retro music legends of the past, and as I was driving to the gig I was sort of reflecting on the musical road I have traveled, and what I have learned in getting to where I am today.
Even though a lot of people think of me as primarily a modern jazz & fusion guitarist, I am also known for being able to play, read and hear my way through a lot of music styles; and so consequently have done a LOT of “non-jazz” work, which has really helped with the bills over the years as well.
At this point in life being multiple decades down this career path, as I was driving I was thinking about what I might be able to impart in terms of “baptism of fire wisdom” to both youth just beginning to go down the 2020’s version of that, as well as any adults that may have at whatever level gotten to the point of paid performances in front of audiences. As it turned out, last night had a lot of material for this blog, and I will relate what happened and how I got through it.
I have many times said in a mockingly “showbiz” announcer voice on stages to my bandmates the phrase “Welcome to the world of professional show business”, to sarcastically comment on how many UNPROFESSIONAL things tend to happen in it that music professionals are expected to somehow deal with and still come out smelling like a rose. The truth of old adage “everything that CAN go wrong WILL go wrong” has gotten me to the point of having a bag of “emergency gear” that stays in my car at all times (see a past blog on that subject on this site including what it contains and why), and as such I have found that the only thing you can do is to prepare accepting the inevitability of that concept as best you can. Here’s what happened and how I dealt with it, which is actually the most important lesson here – read on:
So I arrived at the theatre parking lot and took out the two guitars I was using: A “Nashville-ized” faded yellowed Telecaster that I added a Strat middle pick-up that is engaged to any selected pick up position by a Yamaha “push/push” pot at the tone control, and a Chandler lap steel tuned to C6. We were doing a half dozen Hank Williams tunes and while I have played lap steel as an overdub in the recording studio a lot (I’ve done a lot of tracks that are used on Sponge Bob etc. with it), but it was all in standard guitar tuning with the weird chords either re-tuned or cross-bared until we got an in-tune take. So this gig was the first time I ever decided to take the plunge and learn C6 tuning, and in the whopping 2 weeks or so that I have tried to play it, I have even gotten to the point where I can bend the top string with my little left finger a half step to sound like a pedal steel.
Fine – I go in and pull out the guitars, and the black guitar gig bag that I thought had the Telecaster in it was actually the Fender Squire Esprit (predecessor to the Robben Ford model) that I had used for teaching that morning – OK, not good as far as the vintage look and tone wanted for the gig, but not a total disaster. Uh-oh – the book with the charts was in the Telecaster bag! Also not really good but the charts were very close to memorized and I could ear my way through the rest. Really not good: it turned out as well that the slide bar that I had been using that has the little hook area to grip using my first finger was ALSO in the Telecaster bag!
OK, so now this is getting pretty serious. While this is happening, the substitute bass player for the evening is a little nervous and he’s standing there asking me questions while I am trying to figure out what to do. – and no, there wasn’t time to go back home and get the right guitar and bag.
The first thing I did was to ask if there was a copy machine at the theatre which there was, and so I made a copy of the run sheet with the key of the tunes from the bass player’s copy. Then I started looking through both bags for something that I could use as a slide. I have numerous finger slides that fit over my finger for when and if I needed that for a gig, and had the forethought in the past to disperse them to the pouches of 2-3 gig bags I use for solid body guitars. Eureka – my favorite massive brass slide was in the pouch of the Esprit bag. It’s not as long as the slide I was using so it wouldn’t go across all 6 strings of the lap steel, but I tried it out getting comfortable keeping it in my palm and realized I could make it work. I found out the hard way that for no known reason to me it wasn’t letting me do the finger pulls on the first string (all attempts crashed and burned so I stoped doing that soon in the gig) and other than a few times where the edge of the slide caught on a string, I was OK and the gig started and ended with none the wiser.
HERE’S THE THINGS I DID WELL:
Speaking of “none the wiser”, here’s what experience has taught me that I did well this time that I haven’t sometimes when emergencies have happened in the past: The thing that I NEVER did this time was let the artist have any idea in advance that there might be any issues that could happen in my part of the performance. While in the past I might have thought that telling them would make them understanding and not expect perfection, what I know now – especially from leading and being “the artist” many times myself – is that one of the main jobs of the sidemen is to make them as comfortable as possible to do what is already a high pressure and demanding job anyway: not only to perform their own musical parts well, but also to be relaxed so they can really effectively ENTERTAIN the audience.
He remarked that the Esprit looked really fancy and I just smiled and said next to nothing about why it was there. Besides that, I will say nothing tonight about it unless asked as well. Why? Because you don’t want any negatives associated with you in the artists mind, even if you might think that they will be impressed with how you handled things. Even if the artist wouldn’t be consciously ware of it, there is always the chance that some negative image of you with might remain in their minds – this is just human nature.
The theatre manager was also in the room as well when this was first going down, and as such I kept any mention of my predicament only to the bass player in a very quiet speaking voice as well. Besides not wanting the manager to know the situation, I wanted to keep the bass player calm since he was looking to me to be the guy to cue him throughout the night. Calmness in him and of course me as well would make all the music better, and so I was telling myself that no matter what I would make things work, even if I would have had to find literally any flat metallic object to use as a slide.
HERE’S THE THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER:
The most important thing would have been to double check the guitar by unzipping the top of the bag before I left to check it that I had the right guitar, folder with the charts, and any additional gear etc. I had put the slides in the Telecaster bag because the depth of gig bag I was using for the lap steel made it so I would have to do a very “deep dive” to find it. So in hindsight I will in the future keep “like with like” together, meaning that all the gear that is needed to make a particular instrument work should be WITH that instrument, not spread out through other bags, etc.
And that brings up probably my biggest word of advice to anyone on how to “prepare for success” rather than let “poor planning create emergencies”.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE FOR A GIG – AND I MEAN AT LEAST THE DAY BEFORE – DO THIS:
Set up your needed gear exactly as you will use it and check all the ways that you need it to function. And by that, I mean TURN EVERYTHING ON AND MAKE SURE THERE”S SOUND and all cables are reliable – cables (and batteries, if used) are classically the devils in the details for guitarists.
Then, write down exactly what that is in a check-list, and literally check it off as you pack it the day of the gig – and double check it before you drive away.
Include spares of things like instrument cables, AC cables, guitar straps, strings and of course guitar picks – and really, all of that should live permanently in the emergency bag that you put together that stays in your car.
Believe it or not, most of everything that goes wrong in live music is not anything related to the ability to play the music itself, it’s in all the details it takes to have in place to make sure that it can happen. Yes, of course prepare yourself musically for all your gigs, but also prepare for the details – and yes, the inevitable emergencies that will rain into everyone’s life no matter who you are – and your musical life will benefit greatly and be a LOT less stressful 😉