Gig Etiquette – Set-Up and Breakdown Habits To Live By

Nearly every touring musician has at least one story about load-in or breakdown gone awry — that emotionally scarring gig where the venue promised a full drum kit but only delivered a broken snare drum, the festival slot when you expected fifteen minutes to set up but only got fifteen seconds, or that sickening post-gig moment when you realized your vintage Les Paul had grown legs and walked out of the club, all by itself.

Can such situations be prevented? Quite often, yes, and adopting common-sense habits like showing up early, making lists, and packing ahead of time can save you considerable trouble and grief before and after you hit the stage for your music gig.

Beyond that, many players develop their own sets of best practices through hard-earned, on-the-gig experience. Here are tips from bassist Tony Tino, guitarist Laurence Yeung, keyboardist Arlan Schierbaum, and drummer Josh Giunta to help you maximize your effectiveness and minimize your stress when setting up before and breaking down after a gig.

Know what to expect with house gear
Many venues will have some eclectic variety of house gear available for your backline. Drum kits and amps, in widely varying conditions, are among the most common pieces of backline equipment you’ll find. A quick look online, or call to the venue or your bandleader, can usually tell you what to expect.

If you’re using house equipment, though, know that whether it’s a keyboard, microphone, or guitar amp, it probably has seen lots of use and abuse – so adjust your expectations accordingly.

“Even if a club says they have drum hardware, I always have my own hardware in my car, just in case,” says Giunta. “A lot of clubs in New York will say they have a kick pedal and throne, for example, but they can often be broken or missing. I’ve had to play gigs without a kick pedal before. That’s not fun, so it’s better to have your own on hand.”

Try to give yourself a window in which to get to know the house gear you’ll be using. “I always leave time to tune house drum kits,” continues Giunta. “A lot of times, I have to use weird tunings to get the sound I want. I’ve had to detune drum heads entirely and leave them floppy to get a good sound, and sometimes they’re so shot that I have to crank them very tightly to get a good tone. Try to leave yourself time to adjust and adapt.”

Though Yeung brings his own amp whenever possible, when he does use house amps, he recommends sticking to their clean tone channels. “In general, I don’t mess with distortion or overdrive on a house amp,” he says. “You don’t know when or how it’s going to break up. I see club amps basically as speakers for amplifying my sound, rather than a tool for helping to create my tone, so I rely heavily on my pedals, and the guitar itself, to create the tone I need. I bring a compression pedal and two different types of overdrive pedals to every gig, and those help me smooth over the rougher edges and work with any amp.”

Bring a survival kit
Depending on your instrument, the specifics may vary, but the theme remains the same: bring all of the non-instrumental bits and pieces that will make your instrumental work go off flawlessly.

Schierbaum recommends dark-colored power strips and black extension cords for electricity, extra audio and speaker cables in case something fails unexpectedly, and bags for pedals, cables, mics, tuners, and other things. Packing a music stand doesn’t hurt either, in case there’s nowhere convenient to put your chord charts or set list.

Yeung recommends a survival kit that also includes a collapsible luggage cart and a small tool kit. “I always keep screwdrivers, an Allen wrench, and needle-nose pliers in a bag somewhere,” he says. “If something goes wrong and I have fifteen minutes to fix my amp or guitar before a gig, having those tools can be a real life saver.”

Dial in your gear ahead of time
Regardless of the instrument, having your equipment ready right out of the case will make a huge difference when it comes time for the first downbeat. First and foremost, this means making sure your instruments are in tune and that your gear works, says Tino. If you haven’t used a particular piece of equipment recently, test it out at home prior to the gig — you don’t want to discover on the bandstand that your signature vintage overdrive pedal has a short circuit and can only deliver a noisy fart instead of a raging growl.

For keyboardists, instrument preparations often mean having all your sounds programmed into easy-to-find soundbanks, so you don’t have to waste precious minutes searching and tweaking. Taping a cheat sheet with song-specific patch location information to your keyboard can be helpful.

For guitarists and bassists bringing their own amps, Yeung recommends a similar sort of pre-show homework. “If I know the style of gig I’m playing, I usually have go-to settings on my amp that I can dial up right after I plug in,” he says. “I also try to construct my rig in such a way that I can adjust the tone as much as possible from the guitar itself. You may not be close enough to your amp while you’re playing to adjust things mid song.”

Fit your rig to the gig
Are you flying halfway around the world to play at a mountaintop winery, or going down the street to jam at the local blues bar? Either way, the nature of the gig will help dictate a lot about what you bring, and how you bring it. “The equipment a musician may need to bring can change for many reasons, like location, travel method, size of venue, style of music, and so on,” says Schierbaum. “If air travel is involved, pack light with the essentials. If the gig is local, it’s easier to bring extra things you might need.”

Specifically for his fellow six-stringers, Yeung recommends bringing “as few pieces of gear as humanly possible. People tend to hate guitarists not just because we play too loudly, but because we often have way too much gear for what we’re doing,” he says. One easy step to streamline your guitar rig? “Use a pedal board,” says Yeung. “I have five pedals mounted in an old SKB model that has a central power strip and everything’s already connected. You just show up, plug it into your power strip, plug in your instrument cable, and you’re done.”

Part of customizing your rig also means knowing when to bring redundant instruments and amplifiers. “If you’re playing delicate, vintage gear, things can sometimes go on the fritz unexpectedly,” Yeung says, “so sometimes packing a backup is worth it.”

Get a sense of space on stage
Tiny stages can be tricky, and it’s probably not the best thing if you’re packed in so tightly that your trombonist brains your drummer every time he slides out for a low note.

While many spacing issues get worked out on the fly as everyone’s setting up, it can be useful to know what you’re dealing with ahead of time, so you can nip major problems in the bud. If you aren’t able to visit a venue ahead of time, clubs often have stage diagrams or photos of the performance area available online. Reaching out to musician colleagues who have played a given space before can also give you what you need.

When choosing who goes where, remember that sightlines are important. Does the bassist take visual cues from the drummer? Make sure your accordion player isn’t positioned right between the two of them. “A lot of the bands I play in are large, so it’s important to know where I’m setting up,” says Yeung. “It keeps me from being in the way of my band mates, and also helps me position my amp in the right place. Guitar amps are very directional, so knowing where I’ll be standing can help me figure out if I’ll have to mic or DI it, or if it will be alright on its own. Miking a guitar amp is an added layer of complexity that can eat up extra setup time.”

Minimize the risks of theft, loss, or damage
In the dim lights of a rock club, all patch cables can look the same, so it never hurts to label yours with a distinctive color of tape. Similarly, if the band after you has a keyboardist with the exact same Nord Electro as yours, some sort of ID tag or marking on the instrument and case can help prevent unfortunate mix-ups.

“When I’m out on a gig in New York City, I keep my bass with me at all times, whether it’s before or after a performance,” says Tino. “Have your stuff insured, so just in case something does happen, it will be taken care of.”

If you’re travelling to gigs via car or van, Tino further recommends staying mindful of the weather, and not keeping any sensitive gear inside the vehicle if the temperature is trending extremely hot or cold; he also advises to keep any potentially valuable piece of musical equipment locked in a trunk or otherwise well out of sight. Certain gear requires additional precautions, Schierbaum points out. “If a tube amp is hot from a show and goes directly outside into freezing temperatures, the tubes can fracture from the cold,” he says.

Be nice and lend a hand
“When it comes to loading in and breaking down, work as a team,” Schierbaum advises. “Help your band mates with directions, equipment, and stage setup. I will even help the band playing before me to clear the stage if they are short-handed.”

“Most bands don’t have roadies, so after you’ve taken care of your own gear, help with someone else’s,” adds Yeung. Tino agrees, also advising that, if there’s a band on after you, help them with their equipment as well, if need be. The music world can be surprisingly small, and you never know when a minor kindness rendered to the band going on after you can pay you back in unexpectedly cool ways.

“If you’re working with techs and roadies, always thank them for their help,” adds Schierbaum. “Let them know they are appreciated.”

Be efficient, punctual, and respectful
“If you’re not early, you’re late,” says Schierbaum. “Even for a small club, many veterans will arrive an hour or two before the gig starts, even if their set up only takes ten minutes, to acclimate themselves to the room and the people around them. This also gives them extra time, in case of traffic or vehicle problems.”

If you find yourself with downtime before a gig, use it productively, as you may only have minutes on stage to set up after the act before you finishes. “I try to set up as much as possible offstage before hand,” says Giunta. “Before you go on, have your high-hat clutch on your high-hat and get your sticks out and handy.”

Being quick applies to breaking down as much as it applies to setting up — especially if there’s a band going on immediately after yours. “Talking with your friends on stage while the next band needs to set up their stuff is not good for the club, the audience, or you,” says Tino. “Be courteous of the next band coming on stage. Stay organized and know where all your stuff is when you set up, so when you’re breaking down, you’re not scrambling around while the next band has already gone on.”

Regardless of whether or not another act is nipping at his heels, Schierbaum always likes to break down right away before hanging out with friends, fans, and bandmates. “That way my equipment is organized, safe, and ready for load out,” he says.

Know the lay of the land
If possible, visit the venue you’re playing in advance and catch another band’s show. Watching other acts load in, set up, play, and break down will tell you a great deal about what to watch out for when it’s your own turn.

If you’re hauling lots of gear, also pay attention to the entrances and exits, staircases, and pathways to and from the stage. If you have to haul your Marshall stack up three flights of stairs and push it through a café space full of cramped tables, you may want to leave a little extra time for setup and bring a sturdy dolly — or opt for a completely different rig.

Be flexible and focus on the music
“I used to be really finicky about having everything set up exactly as I wanted it, but the longer I’ve been playing professionally, the looser I’ve become,” says Giunta. “There are gigs where you literally have two minutes to set up before you start playing. At the end of the day, if you’re stressed about where the snare is as opposed to the high-hat, it’s going to disrupt your concentration and your ability to do a great job. Ideally, you want to be able to sit down and play in any context.”

Regardless of the technical aspects of any show, Schierbaum affirms that the music itself is the most important thing. “It’s a great idea to learn the songs, write charts, and memorize in advance and then review right before the gig,” he says. “If the only choice is to learn the material just before the gig, study without distraction and make written notes if necessary, but consider where you’re going to put your notes during the show so you can avoid distracting yourself or others with your papers.”

Tino agrees that being prepared and knowing the music is key — as is relaxing on stage and enjoying yourself, no matter what technical hurdles you may have to deal with. “Making a living playing music is rewarding in itself,” he says. “Be courteous and enjoy the gig. Have fun!”

Image courtesy of ShutterStock.com.

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Michael Gallant plays eclectic indie rock with Aurical and progressive jazz with the Michael Gallant Trio. He is also the founder and CEO of Gallant Music, a content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant.

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