I have a gig tonight, and looking at the Pile O’ Stuff [tm] I’m bringing, I thought about how many lessons I’ve learned over the years about how to play a show. Over time, you learn that the old musician’s cliche about gigs is true: You’ll play for free, but you have to get paid to haul the gear.
I have a lot of rules about hauling the gear, and they’ve evolved over time. Here they are:
1. There’s a place for everything, and everything has its place. Trust me: With all of the cables, instruments, pedals, doodads and thingamajiggies that I haul to a gig (and I have a simple rig), I would lose things all of the time if I didn’t have a system for packing and unpacking. Everything I use has a specific location, so I can find it when I’m loading in and make sure I have it when I’m loading out.
Example: My main gig bag is a nice, durable Samsonite duffel bag my wife picked up as a present for me. It has end pockets, a front pocket and a big middle section. In one end pocket is a tambourine. In the other is a three-prong heavy-duty extension cord and a DI box. The middle section has a pedal power supply, a few six-inch patch cords, a clip-on book light (good to put on music stands when you have to read lyrics in the dark), a ukulele clip that screws onto a mic stand (I actually use it to hold my bullet harp mic) and business cards. The center compartment contains my harmonica case, a small roll-up tool bag, a Swirlygig drink holder (it slips on a mic stand) and a power strip.
The harp case contains 22 diatonic harps, a chromatic harp, two tremolo harps and four shaker eggs. The tool bag contains two mic cables, two guitar cables, a one-foot patch cable, two harp mics, a vocal mic, an amp mic and an analog delay pedal. I know all of this by heart, because this means I can look at my gear bag and determine what is missing when it comes time to pack up. Everything always goes back to the same place and this setup lets me play 90 percent of all gigs with no changes. Almost every musician I know has some sort of similar packing arrangement, and if you move one cord out of place, he’ll know it.
2. Big amps are dumb. They’ve been dumb for a while because modern PA systems do the heavy lifting for you. I have three basic amp lineups that I scale according to the size of the room/stage, but I honestly could play almost all of my gigs with the smallest one by just dropping a mic in front of the speaker. But I gave up my workhorse of so many years — a 50-watt, 4×10 Fender ’59 Bassman reissue — because it became too much amp for almost all of the rooms I play.
3. You need backups. My harp case contains backups of all harps I might play in a given night. A second duffel bag contains a variety of cords, yet another ukulele clip and a tool box with tubes and parts. I often leave this duffel bag in the car, but it’s there if I need it. And I always have backup strings if I’m playing mando.
4. Bring a hand truck if you are going to a new room. I have a folding hand truck that allows me to wheel most of my gear into a place. You never know how far away you’re going to have to park if you haven’t played at a given place in the past, and you don’t want to be making three long hauls to your car when one would do.
5. Give yourself lots of load-in time. Nothing sucks more than rushing the setup, particularly if you are setting up your own PA. You want a few minutes when you can chill after you set up, or it can affect your playing for the whole night.
6. Folding=good. I have a folding stool I use as a table for my harps. My mic stand folds up into a lightweight, small cylindrical thing. My mandolin holder folds up and slips into a bag, as does my music stand. As I noted earlier, even my hand truck folds up. This makes loading and packing these items vastly easier.
7. Don’t fart around too much after a gig. It’s easy to turn load-out into a two-hour process if you shoot the bull with a bunch of people and just dawdle at the end of the night. But trust me: Most of your fans have left, the ones who remain are probably drunk and will get in the way, and bar staffs really hate it when they have to wait for you to pack up before they can go home for the night. Do your gig, wait a bit if there’s still a crowd (you don’t want to chase people away until the bar wants people to go away) and start packing.