Guitar 101: Tips For The Road

img_1547This year marks the first time my “old band” the Box Tops has been on the road in six years. It also marks the first time we’ve toured since our lead singer, Alex Chilton, passed away in 2010.

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In this configuration of the band, Bill Cunningham (bass) and myself (guitar) are the only original members in the band. We have three excellent sidemen with us: Ron Krasinski on drums, Barry Walsh on keys and Rick Levy on guitar. Bill, Rick and I share lead vocals now.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be able to play music for a living at the age of 68. I started playing professionally 50 years ago in 1966 with a Memphis garage band, the In Crowd. I think I made $12 for my first gig at a local roller-skating rink.

Then I joined the DeVilles, which turned into the Box Tops. We toured and recorded from 1967 until 1970, broke up until 1996, then recorded Tear Off! in Memphis and toured until Alex’s death.

Now we’re playing again with many of the same acts we toured with in the ’60s: the Turtles, Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals, the Association, the Cowsills, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Yardbirds, Peter Noone, Gary Puckett, etc.

A few of the situations that come up on the road are unique to an oldies band, but most are things any band on the road encounters. Even though I’ve been on and off the road for many years, I forget to do some of the most basic things that any traveling musician should do. Most are just common sense, while others may border on obsession:

1. Insure your instruments. In 1968, our van was stolen in Boston with all our equipment in it. Our manager, “The Crook,” had assured us that everything was covered. However, that was not the case. I personally lost a ’60 Les Paul, a ’64 Strat, a Coral Electric Sitar, and a Marshall 100-watt stack. Check with your renter’s/homeowner’s policy and call your local musician’s union to see what’s available.

2. Make photocopies of your driver’s license, passport and important insurance cards. I’ve had my wallet stolen on the road, and it’s a huge pain in the ass. My wallet was stolen in Milwaukee in January of this year.

3. If your guitar is in a hardshell case, when you pick up your guitar case, the top should face your leg, in case you forgot to latch the latches. I’ve seen some mighty nice guitars get spilled on the floor like this. It seems to happen most after long writer’s nights where beer is consumed.

4. When you’re flying with your guitar, look into your airline’s particular boarding procedures. Always try to get in the first boarding group, before the overhead bins get full. In spite of FAA regulations saying your guitar should be allowed on if there is room, some airlines interpret that to mean if there is still room after everyone has boarded, not just if there is room when you board.

5. If you’re writing charts, write them BIG! In spite of low light situations and aging eyeballs, you’ll be able to read them. Make sure your music stands have lights.

6. If you’re singing, take care of your voice and know your limitations. Do vocal warm-ups, and remember that if you’re singing a song at the end of three sets, you might not be able to sing it in the same key you sang it in at the beginning of the night.

7. There is a strange phenomenon that can occur onstage when there is a really good lighting system. With certain lighting, when you look at your frets, the fret markers on the neck and on the side of the neck disappear and you can “lose your place” on the neck. If you want to make sure this doesn’t happen, put tiny dots of fluorescent tape over the side position markers.

8. Pay attention to where your guitar is between soundcheck and the gig in regard to temperature. A cold dressing room will make your guitar go out of tune. Tune your guitar right before going onstage in the same environment it’s going to be in while you’re playing, if possible.

9. When you get to the venue, get the names of the sound guys. You want to be on extremely good terms with them. They can make or break your night.

10. Never be afraid to ask for what you want in the monitors. You can be nice about it.

It’s extremely gratifying to know that what you’re doing has a positive effect on your listening audience. In our case, we’re a bunch of old guys wondering how we got this old, playing to audiences who first heard our music when we were all in our teens.

Many people will tell us they saw us do a concert in the ’60s at a certain venue that we happen to remember, too. Last week a guy brought me some photos he took of us on a Beach Boys tour. The photos were dated 8-17-1968. That happened to be my 21st birthday.

Our first single “The Letter” was one of the most popular songs with our service men and women in Vietnam. We recently did a benefit for Vietnam Vets in Florida, and several of them made it a point to tell us how much that song meant to them. Often a couple will tell us that one of our songs was “their song” when they were dating.

Essentially, our job is making people happy. It’s a pretty good job to have. I’m a lucky guy.

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