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.
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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40 thoughts on “Gig Etiquette – Set-Up and Breakdown Habits To Live By”
A lot of this stuff is common sense to anybody that’s played more than a handful of gigs. And you forgot the most important piece of advice for multi-band bills. Always yield to the band coming off stage. And offer to help the other band carry stuff off stage before you start walking up and crowding the stage with your amps an guitar cases. And wind your cords and take cymbals off stands OFF STAGE, not while the next band is anxiously waiting to take your spot in the 7 mins between bands.
How about the apology tour? http://www.petitionband.com
All good points to live by. As a drummer I have found I always take my carpet roll so the drums don’t slide around the stage. The carpet even has the exact location of all stands, pedals and drums marked on the rug.
This way I don’t scatter stands and drums all over the stage during setup. Once the stand or drum is out of the bag it gets put on the spot and left there…. No double handleing, no cluttering up the stage that others need.
Just thought Id share…. Works for me.
“Q: How do you get a musician to complain? A: Give them a gig.”
The best advice is “to be able to perform in any context.”
I say it is not that simple to play when things are not correct. Think of a track runner going for a record, but he has to wear cowboy boots and run in the mud. Even if he was the best, his time will not reflect his talent.
This sounds extreem, but I’ve been handed equipment equally as wrong….and as some don’t realize that using the correct equipment with experienced operators makes a big difference they will place the blame on the performer…..I use contracts and technical requirment that spell out what is required to present my program….I reserve the right to play if these are not met.
Good common sense stuff here, in the genre I am in a lot of venues (typically churches) don’t know how to relate to bands the information that is relevant so it requires a little extra ground work. We’ve shown up to a place with a “brand new sound system” to find out that they had only finished the install an hour before… hadn’t been tested. Thanks for the article.
I’ve my biggest disaster was as a guest performer in a church! Walk out to perform a prelude by Bach and while I adjusted my tuning a church member stood up and accused the preacher of having an affair with his wife. This was followed by half the congeration entering in a shouting match then one third of the congeration walking out with profanity….then the preacher looked at me and ask me to begin playing….sheesh.
Wow, thats pretty crazy.
Great ideas and perspectives. I enjoyed the comments also; some of us need to write a book about all the things that happen on the road. I work with great professional teams now, but once in a while you get a promoter that can sure mix things up. I am pretty much a solo artist and that makes it much easier for me, but I remember the band nightmares. Here;s to all the road warriors out there.
Don’t forget the “Gorilla Snot” . Don’t want to drop your pick and blow the “big gig”. I can’t believe this so called article. Unless common sense is a lost art (never was).
Nice well written. Made me think a little bit moor
I have one bit of advice to add. Stay and listen to the band that follows you. Here in NYC, it’s all about crowd draw and no one likes to play to an empty room. Staying servers two purposes, it helps out other musicians and, often, you get to hear a great band.
It is also a nice courtesy…..remember that we are ALL in this business, not just us.
As a professional theatrical technician, the one nigher, live venue musician can learn from some small organizational tips:
allways put colored tape, for YOUR cables. Allways grab microphones, and direct boxes for guitars FIRST, they go walking a lot
Put a list for each box or bog with ALL items that should be in there, checkthe list before you go home.
I allways test my rig before it gets packed in my house, so that one adaptor that you need isn’t left behind at home.
I also have an “emergency” kit that I put in the trunk, with a change of clothes, band aids, small mount of gauze and medical tape, tylenol, rubber bands, all matter of adapters (1/4 to XLR, DR box gender changers) a spare SM 58.WD 40 and a rag.Spare XLR cable. Also, white chalk to put over stains on a white shirt, and club soda and remove any stains. 20 dollars cash for tolls or car repairs, cuff links, an extra belt and spare socks (as a drummer nothing grosser that sweaty socks after a gig) The spring loaded types of microphone clips, (one allways breaks, or the venue has the wide istead of he narrow clip types. 9v and double a batteries.
I play about 150-200 gigs a year and have done so for the past 35 years or so. I’m the keyboard guy and since I like to play stereo that usually includes a P.A.
The one thing I didnt see in the instructions was a very important element of my break down.
THE IDIOT CHECK!
This is the end of the night after absolutely everything is loaded and you are ready to start the truck/car
go back in (this is true for venues and hotel rooms as well.) and look over everything everywhere and find that thing you overlooked. at last nights gig it was my mic stands…..sometimes it’s a cord or a clip
the Idiot check is when you find out what you would have been missing on the next gig cause you won’t look at it till the next set up anyway.
I did an “IDIOT CHECK” after one gig in 1988 and met my future wife in so doing. // As a guitar player, I can’t imagine EVER plugging into some amp other than my own. I suppose there are guys who just use whatever amp is available, but I have spent most of my rehearsal time and energy working on the sounds I’m going to use for each song. I use a multi FX (currently a BOSS GT8) and run a direct out to the board, but even so, using an unfamiliar amp would be like playing an unfamiliar guitar… OK, maybe that’s not a good example – there are guys who would have no problem with that either, I suppose.
Ah yes, the “idiot check”. Know it well, and have put it into practice for many a yarn.
Great advice and article! Right on point and nice to know and see how musicians look out for each other. Thank you for all the contributions you all make to the World of Music
Good stuff! A few years back when I was on the road, to make set up faster, I maped out my drum set up on my drum rug. It was all color coded and made for a quick and easy set up (placement wise) for any of our stage hands or myself to get the kit up fast. Your article has many great points that should not be overlooked, just thought I would add a new tip!
Awesome article. I made my husband a reflective cover that keeps gear cool and hidden in the car. It’s a gear saver for sure! I have some on etsy too.
Bottom line is “one size fits all” does not work…a singer, a band, a instrumental soloist, etc. All have needs that are different. Uncle Joe’s old shotgun works well for some shots, but it will not work for a long distant sniper shot. Some people’s experience level does not allow them to realize the equipment make a difference.
As the article states…it is the performers responsibility to have a successful performance…showing up late and winging it works for some… and this is why karaoke and djs are replacing live musicians… musicians need to be professional… present quality performances… and learn marketing skills… musicians can not afford to be sloppy.
My gig story is based on the one mentioned at the top about the missing Les Paul
Im an older fart now been gigging since mid 70’s. I remember being on band break out in the crowded nightclub and hearing a electronic thud sound. Well it became obvious when the break was over and on stage the guitar playet noticed his sunburst Les Paul 1970’s was missing. Well fortunately for us someone who new the kid saw him do it & new where he lived. So as smart musicians we new better than to camp outside his house. So we called the police and had them meet us there. And shortly the kid arrived with guitar in hand and the sad part is that within five or so hours he had spray painted that beautiful sunburst to a but ugly turquoist finish. But we got the guitar.
Great advice!! Thorough and on target!!!
One other bit of advice – no matter what the manger says: DON’T leave until you get paid!
Dont go on till your paid… is better
My experience is that 99% of the time I have to depend on provided equipment/help I am disappointed. There are many venues where I have to use provided equipment…I’ve spent thousands of hours perfecting my sound only to have some ill-experienced soundman destroy my efforts. The more delicate and fragile the art form the more ignorance will undermine your effort.
This is a problem that only can be addressed by using contracts with technical requirements, arriving early enough to make sure everything is properly set, bringing the required equipment yourself and refusing to play if your needs are not met.
I practice 30 hours every week plus perform 3 times a week. Add self promote etc….I can not afford some arrogant, ignorant idiot ruining my performance.
I am even tempered and professonal….but I will refuse to play and/or walk off the stage if I’m up staged or my technical requirements are not met.
I think some of the so called pros are the worst at all of this,especially if they are on the way down from stardom,I have worked with a lot of has beens on fair circuits,some still think you are there to wipe their asses,and they just don’t care!
this article is a waste of the words it uses. Unless you are 18 years old or younger, if this piece sheds any light on anything, you are an rank amateur and should get out of the business. the marketplace is glutted with people who think “gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be a rock star” and then proceed to overcrowd the field , taking gigs and thus a living, away from the real professionals – you know, the ones who knew that music was what they wanted to do at age 8 and then proceeded to do it for their whole lives, sink or swim, through whatever comes? Those guys are rare and wonderful beasts and shouldn’t have to compete for work with anybody who needs this kind of moronic advice — who gives a damn what color your extension cords are?! Not to belittle the fine fellows offering up these bits of wisdom – I am sure they simply attempt their best to provide for whoever requested their input, but please .. stop bottomfeeding on the false hopes and dreams of misguided wannabees who actually are dumb enough to believe that a few tips on gig etiquette are all they need to be career musicians. It takes serious stones to live the life, and if you aren’t smart enough to figure all this stuff out on your own, you ain’t got ’em.
Spoken like a true frustrated can’t get a gig to save his life musician. I have found that people who complain to this degree about people stealing their gigs don’t have a clue as to how to hold on to their gigs in the first place. Moronic advice 2: Play in a way that an audience will respond to, relate to an audience in an entertaining fashion and 9 out of 10 times you will never have to worry about some upstart with more passion for reaching an audience than you obviously have taking your gig away.
I’ve seen many “real professionals” with “serious stones” that could use a reminder about etiquette.
When you are the leader, your client is your boss. Your client says that bright orange extension cable on the stage looks horrible and the bride wants it changed. You better have another color ready to go. Maybe some of this advice is redundant to you. Don’t take it personally. Go read another article. Possibly one about helping fellow musicians in a way that you can be proud of.
A good example of forgetting what the most important part of gigging is; be polite! Every business is about who you know, including the music business.
Great article, I had to laugh at many of those house equipment experiences we’ve all had and can’t agree more with the early arrival comments. Worst on my list is house mics! They are always dented and have a nasty smell and who knows what growing on them..We play a lot of NYC clubs and always carry and use our own mics, no matter how insulted the house soundman acts.
2nd worse is house mixers, the ones with broken sliders and half the channels taped over… always carry a small mixer that can get you by even as a sub mix into one of their working channels. Another rule I have for set up is you should never carry or lift a piece of gear twice! Why carry in a large sub or bass amp in and set it down and then lift it again to relocate it? Scope the stage area out first know where its going to go and place it there the first time. Oh, here’s another that’s always overlooked: If its raining, never carry a speaker face up! Seen that one plenty of times…..
All really great advice which most working pros already know, but might be news to amateurs and newbies. Thanks!
Rules to gig by. I wrote a similar article on my blog 🙂