Surviving The Unexpected : Your Backup Kits For Gigs And Touring

Playing gigs with a band is really all about the music… except when it’s not. As a professional musician of 30+ years, I am something of a road warrior and have done a lot of successful touring with my bands. As a professional Project Manager, I can tell you there are a number of things you should have with you to help mitigate risk and let you to focus on the music. In this post, I will outline the contents of three handy road kits and describe where they should be stored. With only a few exceptions (spare guitar and spare amp) these are not expensive items and you can probably pick up everything in a single stop at a department store.

KIT #1 : For Onstage Emergencies

These are things to have within reach while you’re playing. Everything other than the first item should be in a small, well-organized bag near the stage. I’m partial to “alice” (military surplus) bags, but you can find plenty of options that have small interior pockets to carry the following items:

  • Spare Guitar : Someday your primary guitar will have some kind of issue… you’ll break a string, have a sudden wiring problem, or heaven forbid something worse… put your spare guitar on a stand next to your main guitar and tune then both before starting your set. Test your backup guitar during soundcheck to make sure it’s ready to go. 
  • LED Flashlight : Get a decent, reliable LED flashlight. This should be right at the top of the bag in case you need it.
  • Spare Strings and a String Winder
  • Spare Cables : You should have an extra 1/4″ instrument cable at the ready, on stage, near your amp. If you use a MIDI control pedal, have an extra MIDI cable.
  • Spare Batteries : For your pedals, wireless transmitter, LED flashlight, etc.
  • Spare Fuses : Look at the back of your amp and find out what kind of fuse it takes. Buy spare fuses for anything in your rig that takes a fuse.
  • Spare Amp : If you play through an amplifier, it will someday fail onstage. Get an Electro Harmonix 44 Magnum pedal and keep it in your emergency bag. That little pedal puts our 44 watts of usable power. When your amp dies at a gig, use the 44 Magnum to drive the speaker in your amp until you can diagnose the problem. This pedal is cheaper than carrying extra tubes and frankly, a lot more likely to be an effective solution onstage. I’ve had very few amp failures in my career, but they’re guaranteed to occur and you can be prepared to survive if you have this handy pedal. My trusty Mesa Boogie Lonestar died on me at a gig once; I was extremely fortunate that (1) this happened to be an early evening show (2) it was less than 15 miles from my house and (3) I was able to get my backup amp (Fender Hot Rod Deluxe) before show started. The next day I bought the 44 Magnum.
  • Ear plugs : Buy a bunch of pairs of foam earplugs.
  • Multi-tool : Get a Leatherman tool. This will provide pliers, knife, screwdrivers, a file, and other handy stuff including a bottle opener. If you play a guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo, have extra hex wrenches as well.
  • Sharpie pens : You should have at least six of them available at all times. Great for set lists, autographs, etc.
  • Business cards

KIT #2 : For Minor Inconveniences

Your second kit should be offstage somewhere but inside the club rather than “out in the van”. The point is, you may need these items without warning and having them in your dressing room is a gig-saver. Keep track of your stock on this kit since it contains consumable items. For this kit I recommend getting a hard-sided plastic tote box.

  • First Aid Kit : This should be a basic first aid kit with tweezers, band-aids, alcohol swabs, antiseptic ointment, sterile gauze pads and surgical tape. Throw in a styptic pencil to staunch bleeding from minor cuts. Bonus points for grabbing a few instant ice packs.
  • Over-the-counter drugs :
    • You should have an ample supply of Ibuprofen, Immodium, and Dramamine. You will be thankful you stocked this stuff if you’re ever  on the road and suffering from diarrhea or nausea.
    • Theraflu or other cold medicine.
    • Cough drops.
    • If you are prone to mild allergic irritation, bring some antihistamines.
    • Sunscreen.
  • Saline solution. Eyes get irritated. Stuff gets in them. Saline solution is a blessing. Absolutely required if somebody in your band wears contacts.
  • Super glue
  • Basic sewing kit
  • Nail clippers
  • Travel-size packages of Kleenex for sniffles, sneezes, and emergency TP use.
  • 8 x 12 foot plastic tarps and a package of bungee cords : Get four of these tarps and leave them in their packaging. Carry a variety pack of bungees. Someday you will be playing an outdoor gig and the weather will turn. You’ll be glad you have some way to protect your gear while you’re figuring out what to do. After you use them, let them dry and fold them neatly again.

KIT #3 : For Maintenance and Repair

This is the gear you can leave “out in the van”. You won’t need it often but pack it in a small container you can easily find.

  • Soldering iron, solder and flux
  • Multimeter
  • Power strip and extension cord
  • Electrical tape
  • Basic tool box : Pliers, blade + Phillips screwdrivers, utility knife, crescent wrench
  • WD-40

Your Lifeguard

Have a lifeguard on duty. If you’re playing in your home town, chances are some of your musician buddies will be coming to your gig. So take stock of who is there and if you need their help during the gig, holler their name and ask them to come to the stage. You might have a good friend willing to come to the gig just for that purpose. For your big local shows, this is a great insurance policy. Most of the time things will be fine and your friend can just enjoy the show. Reward them with a beer and return the favor by supporting them at a gig.

When you’re on the road this is obviously more challenging. Sometimes I play on a bill with other bands, and I make a point of getting to know other musicians backstage. That’s a great source of support in case a problem arises onstage. If it’s just my band playing the whole night then I work the crowd. As a guitarist I am at the front of the stage. When setting up and doing soundcheck, I keep an eye on the audience and see if anyone is checking out my pedalboard or my guitar rig. My guess is either they’re a musician or they’re considering stealing my gear. So I engage them in conversation and establish a person-to-person rapport with them. I have met some really fantastic people this way and made great friends from this beginning AND now I have identified a fellow musician who might be recruited as a lifeguard in the event of an onstage emergency.

I can tell you from personal experience that it’s awesome to have some help in case of a blowout. It’s also awesome to be able to help a fellow musician. My band “Jumbalassy” was once performing at a club and the guitarist in the opening band broke a string during the middle of their set. It was obvious he didn’t have a backup guitar. He limped his guitar through to the end of the song and started to look around for his guitar case so he could dig out some strings and begin the process of doing an on-stage string replacement… but before ten seconds had passed I was at the foot of stage with my guitar, which I exchanged for his. When they finished with the next song I was back with his guitar, freshly strung and tuned. After the show we introduced ourselves and shared a beer. A good friendship was established that night. Help your brethren.

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