Like a lot of other guitarists who gig for art or work, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about which guitar is going to fit my style the best, or how many tube watts will I need to fit in with “x” band. While these pursuits are definitely central to getting your sound right, their answers only fulfill part of the picture of a complete musician. It’s not always easy to put into words, but any fellow musician in the crowd can tell if you’ve prepared for a gig, for getting there, or for being able to handle the musical – and non-musical – challenges that can arise on any given night. As I was packing up for my most recent gig, I began thinking about those “unsung heroes” working behind the scenes that can transform a good player into a polished, fully-fledged, professional.
These are the contents of my extra bag which I have on every gig. Some of these things may sound trivial, or obvious, but I can’t make it through a gig without them. Because of this recent revelation, I have decided to bring some of my favorite gigging accessories out of the shadows and into the spotlight, to allow them the recognition they deserve.
Regardless of where you are playing, or for what kind of event, you are likely going to have to lurk in the shadows to stow or recover your bags from the venue’s utility closet, or need some information off the back of your amp, or read something where you are otherwise unable to see. Despite having a flashlight on my phone, I always feel best having a dedicated flashlight in my bag for any of these circumstances. This can be the key chain light that you caught at the 4th of July parade, or an apocalypse-worthy “As Seen on TV” utility flashlight with eons of battery life. Either way, a light will help you navigate through these dark situations, or be the shining light for your band mates in need.
2. Lint Roller
On the surface, this may seem like the most absurd of the absurd items on this list, but it can be important in a very critical way. Appearance on stage can be considered vanity, but can very often it can have professional implications. Showing up to a wedding gig in a tuxedo covered in cat hair can make the difference between you getting asked back to play or not. Your bandleader may not care personally, but it could be a big deal to the bride and groom – or their parents who are paying you. My two cats are black and white, so regardless of what the outfit is for the night I always have a lint roller in my bag.
3. Phone Charger
If you are playing music in the 21st century you probably find yourself using an electronic device in one, or many, capacities throughout the process of writing, rehearsing and performing music. Your phone may be where you capture new ideas on the fly, or save a set list or chart(s) for your gig. Maybe you need to use your tuner app to get you, or a band mate, in tune. Or have to reference a recording to brush up on a song in rehearsal. But while your phone saves the day in these circumstances, your charger is the hero working behind the scenes, keeping your phone (and your show) going.
The extension of this would be your car charger, which will keep you running if you are following directions to a venue you have never been to before, or need help maneuvering through rush hour traffic without being late.
4. Power Conditioner/Power Strip
No one wants to be that guy or gal who shows up with a killer rig and can’t plug it in, then has to make the “walk of shame” to a band mate and ask to plug in with them. Or cram in with the communal power strip which ends up leaving your amazing amp, with its six-foot power cable, directly next to your bass player’s amp. Or, heaven forbid, standing next to the wall outlet, 15 feet away from the rest of the band. Maybe everyone in your band is that person and you have to ask the restaurant staff for the house extension cable, and come to find that it is in terrible condition, or non-existent.
The honest truth is that I have been that guy (not gal) in more than one of the above circumstances, and have finally come around to ensure that I have access to my own extension cables and power conditioner or outlet strip on each gig. The core of my extension cord supply is the Furman SS-6B Surge Block, which offers range from any community outlet, as well as protection from dirty power. I also prefer to have a shorter extension cord living in my bag in case I need to keep my amp and pedal board a few feet away without stretching one cord a few feet above the ground, creating a hazard for other people, or my equipment. Finally, I always like to have access to a monster 50-100 foot cable, free coiled, or the deluxe wind-up extension cord for extra brownie points. This may seem excessive, but can make the difference between being that gal or guy, or an unsung hero yourself.
5. Dependable Guitar Stand
Let’s say you need to step away from the stage between sound check and show time, or you want to get a drink between sets. Do you feel most comfortable:
a) Laying your guitar on the ground
b) Balancing it against your amp
c) Propping it up on its own dedicated stand
Unless you’re OK with the potential of a broken headstock or inadvertently de-magnetized pickups, your answer is probably C. You can always pack it back into the case when you’re not playing, but how are people going to admire your flawless Sienna Burst if it is packed away?
The kindest venues you will ever play may have a house stand, but if you always want your answer to be “C” you should probably pack your own. At home I’m fine using a traditional horseshoe style, neck cradling stand, but these don’t travel well. A foldable A-Frame is always a good option for a lightweight and portable stand. I have always preferred the Ultimate Support GS-100 Genesis 100 Tripod Guitar Stand as a sturdy and safe option.
6. Stand Accessories
A music stand can be an unsung hero in itself, but the true heroes are those accessories that make your stand shine. Whether you’re playing in an orchestra pit or onstage at a club or event venue, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to depend on consistent light to see what you have on your stand. Something like the On-Stage LED202 Music Stand Light is enough to get you through most situations. In a pinch, you can also get by with a consumer-grade book light which may be more readily available at your local drug store.
Aside from darkness, wind can be a factor which can render your music stand useless. In a lot of outdoor or drafty spaces, you might find that a collection of binder clips is a convenient and flexible solution when making page turns. You can stick with stoic black if you are trying to keep things formal, but can really show your flair with a colorful or floral pattern binder clip if the gig permits.
7. Something to Carry it All in
If you’ve already stocked up on all the items on this list, as well as your own personal unsung heroes, you’re probably running out of hands to carry it all, or space in your guitar gig bag to fit it. The “fourth amigo” to my guitar, amp and pedal board bag is usually some sort of all-purpose bag to carry all the odds and ends that I’ll eventually need.
A reusable fabric tote from your girlfriend’s last trip to Urban Outfitters may suffice (and has for me on many occasions), but I found the ultimate solution is something like the Gator G-MIXERBAG. This particular bag has a durable strap so I can sling it over my shoulder, as well as multiple compartments to keep smaller and larger accessories separate. Knowing that I have this one bag with all of my heroes living inside of it offers a certain peace of mind when packing up to leave for gigs, without having to search around the house for everything.
Whether you fall into the tube or solid state school of amplification, you have likely sacrificed tone for weight. Even with a light amplifier, and as many strap-equipped gig bags you can sling on your back, you will still be happy to have a cart to help you tote your gear around. I have found myself carrying my Fender DeVille untold blocks through downtown Chicago, only leaving myself unnecessarily stressed — and sweaty — upon arrival at the gig. Not to mention trying to launch into an evening of playing music with tired and wobbly arms.
I have mostly found myself using a “dolly” style two-wheel cart which I can tote around on an angle. The RocknRoller Multi-Cart is a great fit for two-wheel use, but is also convertible to accommodate other kinds and amount of equipment. This is generally sufficient for an amp and another rectangular piece of gear to lean on top. You can also occasionally really help out a buddy and stack his amp on top of yours. They might even be so grateful as to tote around your amp for you.
This list is definitely not exhaustive of every unsung hero living in my, or your, rig, working hard day in and day out to ensure that you make your best music. Please feel free to nominate your own unsung heroes in the comments section below.