10 touring tips to help manage your equipment for far-off music gigs
Playing music gigs in far-off places can be a uniquely cool, challenging, and exciting experience. But if you’re lucky enough to land some quality gigs a continent or ocean away, how do you handle the not-so-small question of equipment?
In such situations, singers and flutists have it easy — on the other hand, drummers, guitarists, bassists, and keyboard players may have to figure out more creative solutions. If your music-making equipment is larger and more cumbersome than a standard airplane carry-on, how do you ensure that, when you take the stage miles away from home, you have the gear you need to a give a performance that you can be proud of?
Don’t bring the kitchen sink
Whether you’re traveling by plane, car, boat, or helicopter, streamlining your setup will make everything easier. "The most success I’ve seen with traveling musicians is when they keep their rigs as simple as possible," says Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for Dream Theater. "That’s the only way you can really guarantee results on the road. Every country has its own flavor in terms of how helpful or friendly the people you’re dealing with can be, so the simpler your gear, the more self-reliant you can be and the better your chances are of putting on a successful show."
In practical terms, this may mean different things for different players. For singers, consider choosing a favorite vocal mic or two, rather than bringing six to choose from on the spot. Keyboardists can save space and pounds by trying to program a single workstation synth, or controller-plus-laptop loaded with soft synths, to create all of the sounds they need. Similarly, if bassists and guitarists can find ways to get all of the tones their sets require just using effects pedals or on-instrument adjustments, great. Not having to haul multiple instruments and amps can make the logistics of far-away gigging exponentially easier.
Investigate house gear
For some long-distance music gigs, bringing your own gear simply isn’t necessary — and if you play a large instrument like the upright bass, this can be a blessing. "Lately, I’ve seen that bassists and drummers almost always use house equipment on gigs in Europe," says saxophonist Jon Irabagon. "Once in awhile I will travel with a bass player who will bring one of their smaller travel basses, but most places in Europe have a house bass that is at least acceptable, if not of really high quality."
If you’re considering using house gear, make sure to thoroughly check in beforehand so you know what to expect; if you’re a piano player, for example, it might help to ask what model you’ll be playing on, how it’s mic’d, and how often it’s tuned. Also, it can help to seek out other musicians who have ventured to the venue you’ll be playing and are familiar with the equipment on hand. Finally, budget in extra time in your travel itinerary to show up early to the venue and troubleshoot any unforeseen problems.
Consider shipping… with caution
Depending on how much gear you’re bringing and what size and shape it is, carrying it on an airplane — or even checking it as baggage — may not be an option. In such cases, some musicians will send gear ahead of time via carriers like FedEx or UPS.
If you’re going to go in that direction, it’s vital to the survival of your gear that you get well-built, well-padded, hard-shell cases for your equipment, says guitarist Alex Prol. "I do everything I can to avoid shipping my guitars," he says, "but if you have to, try to get a custom-built hard case to make sure it will survive the trip."
Expensive? Most likely. That said, you never know how shipping companies are going to treat your equipment once you drop it off, so better to invest in a rugged case than be greeted by a bunch of broken parts on the back end.
Anvil and Road Cases USA are just two of many companies that can make custom road cases. If you decide to get one made for your own gear, be sure to research the vendor, ask for references before any construction begins, and make sure that the weight and dimensions of the case you’re ordering will all work for you.
"Years ago, I tried to ship some rack gear and it got badly damaged," says Rudess. "As painful as it is to pay for the best cases, it’s important." Before ordering, Rudess also suggests trying to get advice from a seasoned roadie or touring tech who has experience traveling with fragile gear. "Getting advice from a tech who has been on the road for a while can help you make the right choices.”
Look into specialized companies
In addition to general shipping carriers like FedEx, companies do exist that specialize in moving musical equipment, says Rudess. "Dream Theater uses a company called Sound Moves to get our gear around the world," he describes. "They ship things everywhere, pick up equipment, and move what needs to be moved."
"We actually have two complete sets of gear that are usually heading in two different directions at the same time," he continues. "One might be on its way to Europe while the other is in South America. That way they can send the equipment by boat — while we’re playing one rig, the other is in transit to the next continent we’ll be playing in. Everything gets timed appropriately by the company and production manager."
Duane Wood, president of Sound Moves, affirms that companies like his aren’t only for major rock acts. "It is my recommendation to anyone who is thinking of traveling abroad to enlist the advice of an experienced industry logistics company with regard to their shipping needs," he says. "That’s doesn’t necessarily mean a dollar cost — but more of a helping hand and advice — as we see every artist as a potential success and wish to be a part of the helping process."
Regardless of whether you use a standard shipping company or a specialized one, Wood further advises looking into customs laws if you’re shipping gear to another country. "Rules and regulations can change like diapers on a newborn, and a lot of it is driven by money and reciprocal relationships with the country of origin and the country of importation," he says. "My advice is to do research and contact professionals who deal in these situations on a daily basis."
Plenty of traveling musicians solve the gear issue by renting from local companies when they’re far away from home. The plus side? You don’t need to worry about schlepping your gear miles and miles. The downside? Just like renting a car, you are at the mercy of what the company happens to have in stock.
"Always obtain at least two to three quotes when renting gear and request referrals as well as photos of gear prior to signing any contract to make sure you are renting what you have requested," says Wood. " For artists, he continues, it’s important to be extra vigilant when renting gear in order to protect the integrity of your work and the quality of your performance. "Some people out there don’t care about that or your fans," he says. "They want the money."
In my own gigging history, I’ve had a number of painless experiences jamming on rented gear. I also had the not-great experience of having a sustain pedal on a rented grand piano fail after the second tune of a big performance with my band Aurical. Not fun, but I quickly learned the importance of on-the-fly flexibility. For our version of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," I made the last-second decision to play the tune on my Nord Electro instead of the piano. Even though the Electro was set to a sound that wasn’t my first choice, I didn’t have time to dial something new in, and the fact that the sustain pedal worked gave me the flexibility I needed.
Check in with airlines
If you’re flying with equipment, talk to fellow musicians who have flown your airline before and research the company’s musical instrument policies – whether you’re planning on carrying on, gate-checking, or checking equipment (in a solid case, of course) as luggage. Here’s an example of musical instrument regulations from easyJet.
Sometimes purchasing an extra seat for your gear can be a reasonable solution when it comes to larger or more valuable instruments like the cello — and while not cheap, in the end, buying that extra seat might be a safer, easier, and less expensive option than renting or shipping. If you’re thinking of doing this, be sure to call ahead, explain the situation, and see if any special accommodations need to be made. For specialized tips on flying with an upright bass, check out this article.
Be ready to troubleshoot
Regardless of your instrument, or the scale and budget of your tour, knowing how to repair things on the fly can be a huge help if equipment craps out on you while you’re far from home. "If you’re a guitarist, bring a whole lot of strings sets," says Prol. "Also, bring a basic tool kit and learn how to fix your gear yourself, even if you have somebody who’s going to do it for you. Try to make it so you don’t have to depend on other people all of the time." Prol further recommends avoiding problems before they start by getting your gear checked out at a respected shop before you depart — even if you think everything is working fine as is.
To whatever extent you’re able, Prol recommends bringing redundant backup rigs — in his case, for larger tours with significant road support, this means multiple guitars and duplicate pedal boards.
Traveling with fully redundant rigs is probably impractical for many independent musicians, but having a backup of your go-to effects pedal or a duplicate thumb drive loaded with the patches you’re going to plug in to your rented Motif keyboard is a good place to start.
If you do end up traveling with a larger primary rig and a smaller backup rig, though, be sure to thoroughly practice all of your musical material with both well ahead of time. "It gets you ready for all emergencies," says Prol.
Though this strategy likely won’t be the right fit for many musicians gigging far away from home, if your music and performance will allow it, consider this: Go to your local pawn shop or thrift store and find an inexpensive guitar with good mojo. Similarly, if you’re going to have a significant stretch of downtime before you gig in your destination city or country, you could consider visiting local thrift shops after you arrive.
Once you find a cheap guitar, ukulele, or whatever that strikes your fancy, use it on the gig and then plan to leave it with your favorite fan on the road as a memento before flying home. As long as the price of purchase is low, the bucks you spend on an instrument you don’t plan to keep could be well worth it — you avoid the aggravation of having to deal with shipping, borrowing, or renting, and you get the opportunity to potentially transform one lucky audience member into a fan for life.
International ukulele image via ShutterStock.com.
Michael Gallant is a musician, composer, and journalist living in New York City. Music from his debut trio album Completely was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and received a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: "Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here." Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby.
Five Tips for International Touring Bands