Lessons about performing, lesson ten: Packing one of everything!

For those that don’t know, this series is about things that you should probably know about performing – but nobody ever seems to tell you this information. It’s not in any books. It’s not something I blatantly took from another site. It’s stuff that I’ve learned over a career that spans decades.

If you’re interested in this list, and would like to see previous entries, just click this magical bit of blue and your browser will whisk you away to a page with the previous entries.

This week’s lesson is all about your gig bag.

Rule #10: Pack what you need!

There’s a mindset that says musicians should travel light. I disagree as a matter of principle. They’re wrong. I actually wonder how they manage(d) their careers. Following their advice is not a good idea. It’s not. It just isn’t.

Every performing musician should have a ‘gig bag.’ That bag should be akin to a Bag of Holding from Dungeons and Dragons. However, magic isn’t real – so you’re going to need to carry it and it’s going to be heavy.

Odds are really good that you’re not in a band that’s large enough to have roadies and, even if you are, you’re still going to want a gig bag. No, I don’t care what position you’re in – you want a gig bag. I don’t care if you’re just a vocalist, you want a gig bag.

What goes in that gig bag?

Well, that depends on the instrument you play. In my case, it’s spare tubes, a string winder, two tuners, extra strings, a mountain of picks, a small first aid kit, and the list goes on.

“But, didn’t you previously mention that you brought an average of six guitars on stage? I’m pretty sure you did. In fact, you even told us what they are. Why all the extra strings?” You might ask…

And I’d point out that strings break or sometimes just lose their vibrancy quickly. I brought those guitars on stage because I want to make faithful reproductions of the songs that I’m covering. To do this, I need an instrument that is as close to the one the original artist used as I can possibly get.

Yes, you can get similar noises out of both a Fender Telecaster or a Gibson Les Paul. However, they’re not the same. You won’t quite get the Slash sound from a Telecaster. You won’t get the same Telecaster funk sound for a Tedeschi song. They’re just not the same.

Can you do it? Sure… You can make do – but I’d prefer to make faithful replications. So, I bring extra strings with me – so that I can restring a guitar when needed.

I don’t just bring extra strings, I bring a lot. I use color-coding and large writing in magic marker on the envelopes. I prepare the envelopes before I even go to the show. I go with extra strings from a bunch of different sizes in case I want to go with something that’s not in a standard set. They’re color-coded by type and, for low-light situations, I have the colors located in different areas.

In other words, an envelope may have a green box in the upper left. I’ll know those are light strings, electric, and the box tells me that they’re made by a specific brand. Then, in big letters, it may say something like Low E, and maybe have an actual gauge listed.

Inside that envelope will be multiple strings, at least a half dozen, and they’ll all be exactly the same. There will be maybe 60 of these envelopes, all in order by size.

Is it anal? Nope… It’s lessons learned the hard way. It’s from having had to fuck around in the dark while rushing to replace a string between sets and ending up with the wrong string on there.

Seriously, get a string winder. In an ideal world, you’d have roadies and a guitar tech. You don’t. So, get a string winder. On a good day, I can probably change a string in under a minute. I can’t say that I’ve timed it, but that’s a guess – and it applies to most guitar types and all the variations. I can do that shit in the dark, if needed. Though, I suppose, that’d take a bit longer.

(I do actually practice playing in complete darkness sometimes. It helps me to know that I’m playing by muscle memory and lets me learn to concentrate on something other than my playing.)

Bring a soldering iron and know how to use it. Bring a multimeter, soldering iron, flux, desoldering iron, solder, and a small tackle box tray with resistors and capacitors. Learn to use them before you need to use them. Know your tools. Get the schematics for all your kit that you can, and learn them well enough to diagnose and repair stuff. Bring spare tubes so you don’t need to run out to the truck.

Bring the tools needed to fix your instrument, amplification system, and any processing kit. At least understand how they all work. Know why your wah-wah pedal does what it does and be prepared to diagnose it and repair it.

On top of that, try to learn as much as you can about everybody else’s gear. Try to be able to offer a valid fix for anything reasonable to do when confronted with an issue during setup. You won’t have room for everything on the truck. So, you’re going to sometimes find a situation where things need to be repaired or gone without. That’s potentially a show-stopper because you can’t always rent gear.

Anyhow, the list goes on. There’s a million things you can put in your gig bag and I’d not even remotely question your choice. Legal medication, illegal medication, fingernail clippers, lip balm, spare glasses, whatever… If you think you may someday need it, then pack it in there.

Mine’s a giant gym bag that’s huge – it’s like you’re moving into the gym. I like it because it’s made of tough material and it has clasps that are large enough to take a full size padlock. A small adult female can fit inside it – I know, because I’ve had one climb in there. I’ve had that bag for two decades, maybe longer. I also like that it doesn’t have a giant logo emblazoned on it. It does have a bunch of patches sewn onto it, thanks to a wonderful ex-girlfriend.

Really, there’s few things that you could pull out of your gig bag that’d make me laugh at you. I had a bassist who carried pantyhose in his bag. Why? He often played in shorts and coming off stage was often chilly – so he’d throw those on and he said they’d kept his legs warm. I can’t vouch for it, but I can say that I didn’t laugh at him when I saw him pull them out of his gig bag for the first time.

Keep some band merchandise in there. You’re carrying it, so there’s always something with you to give to a fan that seems like they’d be happy to have a shirt with your band’s name on it. Give them one. Carry a few with you. If you’re like the bands I’m usually a member of, you can’t sell albums and the merch is just to get your name out there. Take the small wholesale hit and give them a damned shirt. They took a few minutes out of their life to want to tell you that they like your work. Give them a shirt, and a few stickers.

So, yeah… Pack a decent gig bag. Learn what YOU need in it. I can’t really tell you exactly what you need. I can only tell you to pack one with what you think you’ll need. If I had some sort of magical list, my bag would probably be much lighter. Though, there’s nothing in my gig bag that I’d say is worthless.

I hope you’re finding these useful. I enjoy writing them and hope they’re things that’ll help you in your process of learning to be a performing musician. These things are what make one a professional, not just being paid. Until next time…

Shut up and play us a song!

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