Regardless of your personal feelings about airplanes and flying in general, there are a few things you can do to maximize your experience. First of all, join all the major frequent flyer programs. Make sure your numbers stay up to date and are on each reservation so you keep racking up those points. Nothing eases the pain of a 6 am flight like knowing you’re earning miles toward your next vacation. And vodka. Vodka helps. Most of the time, a fly date means you’re carrying and/or checking your own gear. Sometimes if you’re lucky you get to have a cartage company ship your stuff ahead, but for most musicians/techs, you’re stuck carrying your gear to the airport and on the plane. If you’ve ever tried to carry an instrument on a plane, you know what a hassle it can be. There are ways to be prepared for this. The first is to bring your most versatile gear. Ideally you’re flying with as little as possible, so make it count. For guitar players, two solid body guitars in a double gig bag is a good way to go. The double gig bag reduces the number of pieces you have to carry and/or check, which reduces your cost, and solid body guitars are more stable for flying, which is important when you’re only bringing a couple instruments.
Also, if you get stuck on a small plane and have to gate check your bag; solid body instruments are less likely to be damaged by careless baggage handlers. Also, the quality of the gig bag matters. This is definitely a situation where you get what you pay for. Choosing a quality gig bag from a company like Levy’s or Reunion Blues will give your instrument more protection and help make sure it arrives in the same condition it was in on the way to the airport. Given the choice, most players prefer to carry their instrument(s) on the plane and check their pedalboard. If you have a tiny pedalboard that fits in a gig bag pocket that’s ideal, but let’s be realistic, for most guitar players that’s just not any fun. The added hassle is that the TSA seems to have a fascination with pedalboards. I’ve seen pedalboards torn apart and mutilated in so many ways I can’t even begin to cover them all. It only takes a time or two of your carefully crafted board of boutique pedals showing up in pieces to develop a real ‘appreciation’ of the ‘thorough’ nature of the Transportation Security Administration. Since most players have a separate pedalboard for fly dates (let’s be honest, your refrigerator sized rack is NOT going on that plane) there are a few things you can do to that board to help the situation. First of all, keep it simple. The less there is to tear apart, the easier it is to put back together when the inevitable happens. Also, keep it neat. I prefer flat boards for flying (as opposed to angled) because there’s nothing underneath to be investigated. A simple, neat, well-organized pedalboard is less likely to be torn apart than a quickly thrown together pile of junk, and the more basic your layout, the easier it is to find your way around if the board is somewhat unfamiliar to you.
Once you land at your destination airport, the obvious first step is to check and make sure all your gear has arrived. If your sound depends on effects, it’s a smart idea to take some sort of a backup unit and fly it in one of your personal bags. There are a number of small units from various manufacturers that will accomplish this. The Nova System from TC Electronic and the M9 from Line 6 are a couple units that will give you a large variety of sounds in a small package. Obviously you should have this unit programmed and checked before you pack it. It’s definitely a hassle to buy, program, and carry an extra unit, but just imagine the pain of having to play your new single without a crucial effect, and you’ll see that it’s actually a cheap insurance policy for that one gig where the airline loses your pedalboard. If you have a fly date, chances are that at least your amp will be either rented backline or a loaner. In either case, try to get access to the amp before your set, especially if you’re playing a ‘throw and go’ style set with no soundcheck. Power up the amp and take a look around it visually. If you have a flashlight with you (or have a smartphone with a flashlight app) shine it through the grill and inspect the speaker for tears. Look at the power tubes if you can see them. They should be emitting a healthy orange glow. If any of the power tubes are glowing bright red or are exceptionally ‘hot’ looking, this could spell problems. With the amp turned up to playing volume (but with nothing plugged into the input jack), gently tap the preamp tubes with a pen, the tip of a knife blade, or a fingernail. If the amp howls or screeches, the preamp tube may be microphonic and should be replaced before your set if possible. If the situation permits, plug in your guitar and pedalboard and spend a couple minutes playing the amp. This is your chance to check for ground hums or strange noises and make sure everything is functioning before you hit the stage.
Some players have the luxury of having a guitar tech that gets their rig on stage and line checks it for them. If you are one of these guys, congratulations! If you’re not, make sure you’re ready when your changeover time comes. Most changeovers are between 15 and 30 minutes. Keep in mind that only half that time is for you. The first half will be used to get the band before you off the stage. That means you may have as little as 7.5 minutes to roll your gear on stage, plug it in, and go. This is yet another reason that simple rigs are best for flying. During the first half of the changeover, make sure to stay out of the way. It’s not cool to be the guy standing dead center in the travel path hugging your Strat while the crew tries to roll a riser off stage. You WILL make people angry and you may get hurt. Once it’s your turn on the stage, set up quickly, tune up, and wait. If you’re lucky enough to get a line check, the monitor engineer will be trying his best to deal with a huge amount of things in a very short period of time. This is not the time for noodling or reviewing the set. When the engineer needs to hear you, play your best AC/DC riff and enjoy the brief scream of the waiting crowd. When your moment is over, stay quiet. Every venue and every show are different, and having a successful fly date often requires adaptation and compromise. With the ideas I’ve talked about here and your own intuition, you can be set up for a successful gig. Now get out there and rock out! Raised up near the sandy shores of Michigan’s West Coast, Josh moved to Nashville, TN in 2007 to pursue a career in the entertainment production industry. Josh has worked with many regional and national bands, and currently holds the position of guitar tech with Tim McGraw’s band. He shares a house in Nashville with a collection of tools and a guitar named Daphne.