FEATURE: Festival Survival Guide

Whether you’re playing a Battle of the Bands with your dad as your roadie, or playing the Big Day Out with a pro tech at your side, there are certain similarities to the kind of gear you need. The key to playing on any multi-band bill is foresight. What songs are you going to play? What tunings are they in? What effects do you need? What’s going to happen while you’re changing guitars? What happens if you bust a string?

The first thing you need to do is decide on a set list. Especially in the case of travelling festivals, you need to travel light, sometimes purely for the sake of practicality, sometimes due to the high cost of lugging gear around, so if you’re not going to use that toolbox-sized vintage Echoplex or the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet for the songs you’re going to play, it’s a good idea to rationalise your amp needs. This also applies to those guys who take a full rack and twin speaker cabinets along to a pub gig.

The same goes for stomp boxes. Think about what you really need. Is the audience really going to need to hear 5 flavours of distortion if you can’t tell the difference between 3 of them when a band is playing? Can you make things run a little more smoothly if you construct a mini-me version of your pedal board?

A good solution for this problem is, of course, a multi effects unit. When I’m not in a stompbox frame of mind, my preference is the Boss GT-8, because you can use a feature called the “4 cable method” which allows you to place your amp’s preamp anywhere in the GT-8’s signal chain. This means you can still use your amp’s own distortion, while placing gain effects like wah wah and overdrive before your preamp, and time-based effects like delay and reverb after it. The GT-8 also allows you to change your amp’s channels from within effects patches. If your set list is set in stone, you can program each song as a separate patch in chronological order, and name each patch after the song you need it for. As an added bonus you don’t need to do an elaborate tap-dance before each song. Just cue up the next patch and all your effects are ready to go, along with the appropriate amp channel and delay time.

In the late 90s David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels used a Parker Fly guitar direct into a Roland VG-8 modelling system via a MIDI pickup. This allowed him to model everything from amps and pedals to guitars and pickup selections all at the touch of a button. It also meant he didn’t have to take speaker cabinets on tour at all, cutting down on haulage costs. The VG-8 even allowed him to change tunings within the unit with the tap of a foot, and it could be plugged directly into the front of house desk for a perfect reading of the programmed sounds. One final bonus of this system was that he could just copy his sounds and plug them into another VG-8 anywhere in the world if his broke down.

I find it’s best to group songs according to guitar tuning, just to reduce the amount of time spent messing around on stage swapping guitars. Make sure you have a backup for each tuning if you can, or, if that’s not possible, a non-tremolo guitar with medium gauge strings that can easily and quickly be retuned in an emergency.

One thing to remember in a festival environment is that even though you’re playing for a huge number of people, you don’t need to hit every pair of ears with your amp. A small combo with a microphone in front of it may get lost in the din, but even a 2X12 combo can be enough to fill a stadium. As with any gig situation, concentrate on getting your sound, and leave it up to the engineers to get it to the crowd via the PA system. Once again, make sure you have a backup if you can. Many players like to keep a multi effects pedal ready to go with rough approximations of their sounds programmed in, even if they regularly use a valve amp stack, so they can still play even if the worst happens and an amp explodes in a hail of sparks.
Finally, if you’re playing on a festival bill, don’t be a diva. If it’s a small gig and the back line is already provided, don’t hassle the soundman about using your own amp. One tantrum could throw the changeover time right out of whack and a lot of people will get their knickers in a knot, and besides, if you anger the person who has control of your stage and/or monitor volume, you’re probably not going to have a very good gig, either from your own or the audience’s perspective.