Lesson #7 Gear or how to make your band sound like the voice of God

In the last blog I threatened to talk about gear and then didn’t. Oh well. Now I will. This topic, like quite a few others, is gonna have numerous posts before I feel like I’ve covered the basics. I will attempt to talk about gear on this blog in a way that is useful to young, beginning bands as well as more established artists. I will also try to boil it down to some rules of the road. I’m not sure there are hard and fast rules but there may be and we can all discover them together. Weee! What fun, huh?

Ok let’s start with the idea of gear endorsements. I’ve heard more flapping of gums and jib jab about gear endorsements than is necessary. I wish to god I had back all the time I sat and listened to musicians talk about this subject. I could study to be a neurosurgeon and explore the polar ice cap and still have a few weeks left over.

Every time I would sign a band to a management deal they would get all excited and come to me with a list of gear companies that they would accept endorsements from. They would never believe me when I told them that endorsements either suck or don’t exist. That’s the two classes. There is no other class, a magic land of free vintage guitars. It don’t exist. Take it from me I have looked. The reason most musicians believe in the fiction of endorsements is that during the seventies as the big musical instrument companies fought for control of the market endorsement deals were very common and were a free ride to nice gear. These deals started to dry up by the early eighties and were long gone by 1990. Yet every band thinks they are so special that Gibson wants to suck their cock. (sorry ladies a useful metaphor)

Ya ever hear of a guy named Les Paul? I thought so. He just died recently. Well I knew Les Paul. By sheer chance he was a neighbor of mine in North Jersey and as a result when I rode my bike up to his house at age 14 and knocked on the door he didn’t shoot my ass full of rock salt like he should have. Instead he invited me in and showed me around his house packed with the world’s greatest collection of Gibson’s and recording equipment.

The reason I bring him up is to give you some perspective about endorsements. Les Paul invented the Les Paul guitar. Amazing coincidence the names are the same and all…. anyway he invented the guitar and then sold the rights to Gibson. One of the terms of the sale was Gibson had to send him a single guitar from each issue of the Les Paul. Well wouldn’t cha know it they tried repeatedly to get out of this deal and he fought with them off and on for forty years to get them to do it. He always won. (there was that pesky contract and if they breached it he could have taken the design back) So how does this relate to endorsements? Well the reason Gibson didn’t want to do it was that they didn’t need him. They, in fact, don’t need anyone. At this point pretty much anything they make, even if it carved by a blind chinaman, will sell. Gibson doesn’t need to give away gear. Neither does Remo, Fender, Pearl, Peavey, etc. All of the big gear companies see no advantage to giving away gear. Just because you have a recording contract doesn’t make you a star and if they want to do a gear deal with a star they have lots of them to chose from. If and when you become a huge star they will approach you. Until then forget about it. There is one exception that i know of, there may be more in other corners of the rock world if so post a comment so other people will know… the exception is guitar strings.

Lots of string companies have an endorsement program. They don’t usually give them to you for free but they will sell them to you cheap. They sell them to you for the same price they sell them to the store. if you send them a band pic and press pack they will usually sign you up. I believe drum stick manufacturers do the same thing. On these kind of deals they don’t give a damn if your a big act or a garage band made up of High School Freshman so take advantage of what’s out there and stop overpaying your local music store.

So that covers endorsements. Now lets talk about some gear rules:

1. Buy the best gear you can afford. It is always better to own one great guitar than two crappy ones. This rule applies to all primary instruments. With drums, for example, it’s better to by a quality 5 piece kit than a marginal ten piece kit. You don’t need all those toms anyway. If you learn to rule the world on a five piece kit then you can move up to a mega-kit when it makes sense.

2. Avoid new cutting edge instruments until you have a good solid base of top notch classic instruments and amplification. This weeks fad guitar will usually be out of fashion and completely useless long before you have the money to replace it. Also its value on trade, sale or Ebay will plummet quickly, usually around the time that you and everyone else realizes that it sucks and has limited use.

Now I know that you want to buy the exact same electric trombone that your hero is playing on the new album and appears prominently in his video. In fact this is a case where the company paid him to play and use it because they were having trouble selling it.
By the way I have just made an executive blogging decision… I will now list tracks that are playing on my ipod as I write. They will appear on the right side in some kind of paraenthesis. Since I have a huge collection of classic rock, much of it obscure but great you may find a new killer band by looking into any track reference that looks cool…….Here’s the first one……………………………………….[Traffic “Glad”]
Traffic is the band “Glad” is the song… this is the form I will use………………

3. Borrowed gear often causes trouble. Sometimes big trouble. Try to get by on what you own. If you borrow it and it breaks you’re fucked and you will end up spending money to fix someone’s gear that you could have spent getting something key for your rig. My next door neighbor’s kid borrowed an amp when she decided to put together a punk band. I lent her a late fifties tube amp, value $2000, she gave it back with a couple of tube sockets ripped out. I just swallowed hard and had it fixed. She didn’t have the money and her parents would have ended up being pissed because they will never understand why an old piece of gear is worth more than gold bullion. It’s interesting to note that she claims she didn’t break it. Some kid was at their practice space. He turned on the amp and, cause its an old tube amp, it didn’t work immediately. So he started pulling shit out of the back starting with the tubes. He then tried to fix his mistake with a pair of pliers.

This brings us to the second half of this rule.NEVER LEND GEAR! It never comes back when you want it in the condition you expect. There is one exception to this rule. Recording sessions. If a good buddy calls and asks to borrow your Jazz Bass for a recording session this is what you say…”No problem. When’s the session I’ll bring it along myself.” If he says “No that’s ok. I’ll pick it up and drop on Tuesday” you then say no. If you lend a valuable piece of gear to a recording session you should go along whenever possible. This will allow you to get studio experience as an observer and you can keep and eye on your gear. So when the assistant recording engineer decides to drill a hole in your strat you can intervene. You may also have a shot to play on the recording. If you just lend the gear and don’t go along don’t be surprised when you are given a story back instead of the gear. [BigStar “You get what you deserve”]

4.Lots of gear doesn’t mean lots of fame. Use the exact amount of gear on stage that allows you to put on the show completely. No more, no less. Yes, you can bring a spare guitar but bringing every piece of gear you own makes no sense and just pisses off the roadies. Spare parts make sense and every band should have a couple (that means two) of boxes of bits and parts and nuts and tape and stuff – one for guitars (including bass) and one for drums. If you have a keyboard player that makes three and if he has a clue he will already have such a box.

5. All decent instruments need road cases. There is no excuse since you can buy used road cases for almost nothing on Ebay.  It’s ok if your band is playing its first few gigs but as soon as you start playing regularly you need road cases. These cases need to have the band’s name in big letters all over them. This is for two simple reasons  – people see them and see the band’s name and more importantly this makes it harder for the other bands to walk out with your gear. More gear gets stolen by other musicians than by anyone else. When you are not playing someone must stay with the gear at all times. If you don’t stick to this rule you will regret it and will end up seeing your cherished guitar sold on Ebay by some scumbag.  Gear thieves are almost always musicians and for that reason they understand how to get backstage, how to find the back door, where to look for the band van, when you’re likely to leave backstage unoccupied etc.  I personally believe that gear theft is a hanging offense but I don’t make the rules. You may be stunned to discover that if someone gets caught they are likely to be let go by the police. For some idiotic reason most cops seem to think that guitar thievery is kinda like the kids next door stealing some of your legos. “Just play nice now and give it back” is a common reaction. if you don’t believe me than try to explain to a cop that the missing Gibson, though 40 years old, is worth six grand.                               [XTC-“Season Cycle”]

5. Vocal Mics – Ok there is much confusion on this issue. The lead vocalist SHOULD own his own mic. Unless he is Pavarotti it should be a Shure SM 58. This should be the case until he can actually explain in detail why it shouldn’t be a Shure SM 58. The Shure SM 58 (and the 57 which is basically the same mic) is a great mic. It sounds great and because it has a cartoid pattern it adds bottom to your voice allowing you to melt the girls in the back row. More importantly it is bulletproof.

Yes the clubs you play have mics. I know this obscure fact. Have you ever smelled a ten year old stage mic?  In addition to the fact that the stage mic may be used to scrub the toilet it is important to note that mic problems often come and go. You can go on stage, sound check and all is well and then have endless problems during the set. If you have your own mic it’s one less thing to worry about. If it starts to have problems get rid of it and buy another.                                                                                                                  [Drive by Truckers “Women without Whiskey”]

6. Guitar pedals, vocal effects, gear racks, etc.  these is a lot to say here and I won’t attempt to cover it all on this blog. Let’s start with the basics. DON’T USE A PEDAL OR EFFECT UNLESS YOU HAVE SOME IDEA WHAT THE FUCK IT DOES AND HOW TO MAKE IT DO WHAT IT DOES.  On numerous occasions I have been at a band practice, the bass player has a big, expensive compressor unit, in his rack. He bought it cause the guy at Guitar Center told him he had to have it to sound great. The guy at Guitar Center was correct. (this is rare) I look at the rack and then ask him why he has it set up the way he does. The answer is always “it sounds best that way”. I then point out that the way he has it set has NO EFFECT on his sound.  This always turns into an argument.  Compressors are notorious items. They are often misunderstood.  Just to clear up one common misunderstanding about compressors  – when the compressor is working it makes the sound punchier, it makes the instrument (often bass) stand out better in the mix and, especially if it is a cheap compressor, it knocks off some of the high frequencies  [Pixies “Where is my mind”] So when you turn on a compressor you need to add back in some high frequencies with the EQ to make the sound balanced again. Otherwise it will sound muddy. The other method is to play with the knobs randomly until the compressor is doing NOTHING and decide this sounds best.

In general pedals and rack gear don’t make you sound great.  If you learn how to use it, and I mean really learn by reading a little and asking lots of questions, then you can use it to enhance your sound and make cool sounds for the kids that have ingested too much of whatever is going around the club that night. Tons and tons of effects is hard to pull off well.  You may think that echo, delay, fuzz and wah is “your sound” and you may not realize that “your sound” is a mess and no one can hear what you play.  Great sound always starts with great playing. A talented guitarist can take a toy guitar and make it sing because he has great technique.

7. Always do a soundcheck. I know that this isn’t always possible but at the very least argue for one. They are important. It allows the soundman to get a general feel for what you are doing. It allows you to figure out that you can’t hear the bass because of the stage set up. It’s important. Do it whenever you have the chance.  Yes the club will sound different when it’s packed with bodies but the stage will sound about the same and every stage has some quirks. On most stages you can’t hear yourself sing.  This can prove to be a critical issue. Doing a soundcheck and working out where to stand so you can hear vocals and bass may make all the difference.

                                                                                                                                              [Gang of Four “Sweet Jane”]

The legendary punk club CBGB’s was an extremely popular club for bands to play. The main reason for this had to do with the sound. Yes, the club was cool. Yes the club was famous and selling out a show there was a feather in your cap (I earned that feather twice in June of 87). The main reason that everyone loved to play there is that you could hear yourself sing. I mean really, really, hear yourself sing. You also could hear the whole mix. The stage sound was amazing. You knew that you could jump on stage count to four and from moment on you’d hear every note. This is extremely rare. So get a soundcheck. Show up for it and use it.

 Now I’ll turn to the topic of soundmen. This is an extremely important topic for any gigging band. A pissed off or incompetent sound man will ruin a gig. This is where the sound check comes in. When you do your sound check stop after half a song and talk to the soundman. Ask him what he thinks. Even if you don’t care ask him. Then LISTEN TO WHAT HE SAYS. If you don’t you are in for trouble. If he tells you that your lead guitarist is too damn loud and he can’t compensate for it in the mix. Listen to him. He knows the room and he knows in general what he’s talking about. Most sound men do. You should think twice before coming to the conclusion that the club’s soundman is an idiot. It’s not that there aren’t idiot sound men but believe it or not most of them are ok at what they do and if they point out a problem with the sound of your band coming off the stage they are usually right.  If you decide to ignore them they may get pissed and then not bother to put any effort into doing the mix.  This whole point comes under the heading of trying to get along with the people in the business end of music. The sound man is one of those people.  If he’s got that job he has probably mixed hundreds of bands on that particular sound system.

A better solution to this whole topic is to have your own soundman. If you set out to find a pro you’ll spend a long time looking and never find one. On the other hand, if you look for someone in your circle of friends and admirers that is interested in being a roadie and wants to learn to do sound you will usually come up with a name pretty quickly.

If you do get a soundman you tell the promoter about his existence BEFORE you show up. If you don’t the promoter may get grumpy. A good way to start out is to get a roadie that wants to do sound and as you start doing shows you station him next to the soundman. Since he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing in the beginning his job starts out to give advise to the soundman and to watch what he does.

If you bring a soundman along with you to a club the club soundman will want to know, for sure, that he knows what he is doing. He will ask him a few questions and if your soundman doesn’t know his stuff the club soundman will say “no way you don’t touch the board”. If he says this respect it or you are in trouble with the promoter.

When your roadie/wanna be soundman starts out his job is to stand next to the soundman with the set list in his hand. He should be respectful. He should tell the guy that he is trying to learn to do sound and that he just wants to pass on some basic info about how the set goes to help the soundman. Most soundmen will react favorably to this approach. Then, when the set starts, your guy says things like ‘the next tune the bassist sings’ and ‘there is a really long drum solo on this tune’. This kind of info is helpful to the soundman.  By the end of the set your buddy may very well be trusted to push a few faders up and down. If this happens he’s on his way to becoming a real soundman. If you take this approach pretty soon your buddy will start to make sense out of what the sound man does.  Just remember that the space around the mixing board is the soundman’s turf and you must be invited to stand there……..                                                                                                                                      [The who “Dr. Jimmy”]

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010


One thought on “Lesson #7 Gear or how to make your band sound like the voice of God

  1. Brad, I have read lessons one through seven and I’m sooo amped. Thank you for the advice. I am a singer/songwriter; in the vein of Stevie Wonder/John Legend/Robin Thicke having my first gig here in L.A. at El Cid in Silverlake. 4212 W. Sunset Blvd., Silverlake, CA 90029. Showtime is at 10P.M., with $10.00 cover. This advice is priceless and I look forward to reading more from you. We are going to ROCK!!! Look out for eis.generation in the near future!!!!

    -Bryant Mills(B.Mills) frontman of eis.generation

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