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The Backline Blues: Preparing for the Mystery Rig

Old bass amp
Photo by Jessica Spengler

Getting hired for a gig is great! Knowing that you’re getting paid well is awesome! And then finding out they’ve got backline? The stars have aligned. This gig just got easy. Will you have to wrestle your cabs into the car? Nope. Drag them back into the house at 2am? No way, Jose! What if it’s pouring rain and there’s minefield of puddles between your car and the load in dock? Or if it’s the middle of the summer and the blacktop of the parking lot is melting because of the heat? Phew, it doesn’t matter; the club’s got backline.

Musicians frequently joke about what we’re actually getting paid for on a gig, usually along the lines of saying that it’s not necessarily for the music that we play, but for the drive to the gig, set up, tear down, and drive home. The real “work” often refers to the manual labor part and unlike the music, the schlepping of gear is not something you typically look forward to doing. Unlike singers or sax players, we can’t just walk on stage and start playing. We need to put our hazards on outside the door, bring our gear in, find a place to park, and then set up before the downbeat. Some load-ins are better than others, but they all take time and effort.

While the term “backline” sounds like a godsend for some gigs, it’s important to remember what that means to you as a player. Certainly there are benefits (such as being able to skip the load in), but it’s important to be prepared for whatever the ‘mystery rig’ may bring.

Let’s consider a few different backline scenarios:

Scenario #1: You show up at the club and they have a super cool rig that you’ve heard about but haven’t tried. You plug in and instantly love it (plus the sound tech compliments your tone). A week later, you decide to invest in one and you, your bass, and your new rig live happily ever after. Note: This rarely happens, but anything is possible.

Scenario #2: The club has a rig that you’re familiar with. It’s all set up and ready to go, you find a decent sound, you play the gig, and you go home. This is pretty typical.

Scenario #3: The club has a rig that you’ve never seen before and it takes you five minutes just to find the power switch. Your tone is awful, you don’t understand how the “Graphic Equalizer” is supposed to work, and you’re self-conscious about your playing during the entire gig. Clearly, this isn’t a positive backline scenario and if you had to do things over again, you would have gladly brought your own gear. If you’re playing at a club or festival and have no choice in the matter, you’ll just need to man up and figure out how to use what’s there.

Thankfully, there are a few things that you can do in order to prepare for this scenario. One of the best ways to avoid being stumped by a piece of gear is by knowing more about gear in general. Take an afternoon, go to a music store, and check out a few different rigs. Ask employees about a few amps, examine their features, experiment on your own, and learn how to get a good sound. Do a little bit of online research, check out gear reviews, and familiarize yourself with common terminology (gain, compressor, aux, low mids, etc…) Although you may get to the gig and be faced with something you’ve never seen before, you will hopefully be comfortable navigating on the fly.

Another “tool of the trade” is to bring along a pedal (or possibly a small amp head) that you can use in order to get “your sound.” If you’ve got a head that is easily transportable and compatible with the cabinets, then don’t think twice about bringing it. Or, if you have a pre-amp pedal that you’re used to using, try setting the house rig flat and use your pedal to achieve the tone you want.

Scenario #4: You arrive at a club and the rig that is supposed to be there has mysteriously disappeared. Or perhaps it’s there and in addition to not working, it’s taking up valuable room on stage. What can you do? First, you must acquire a rig. If you didn’t know that there was backline and happened to have your rig in the car, congratulations! Load in and play the gig. If you find yourself rig-less, you need to think on your feet. You may be able to go through the PA if they have decent monitors, but that’s not always an option.

So now what? Your options are: run home and get your rig, call your spouse and have it delivered, or call a friend who may be able to help you out. This certainly is not ideal, but you’ll do whatever you need to do in order to play the gig. Unfortunately, with gigs that are far from home, your options are fewer and you may not be able to do anything about it. This is the worst-case scenario and the band, for that evening, may be without bass. This is unlikely, thank goodness, but it can happen. All you can do is roll with the punches, try to call in a favor, or figure out a plan on the spot with the gear that is available.

Backline in any scenario can be a blessing, a curse, or something in between. When the gear happens to be great, then you’ve lucked out for the evening. When it happens to be a medieval monstrosity that deserves to be beaten with a baseball bat, then you’ll know better next time. When it’s functional, you’re simply glad that you don’t have to carry gear. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to use your rig whenever you can, although on some gigs (such as clubs and festivals), that may not be an option. When you’re required to use what’s there, all you can do is make the best of the situation. Take a few minutes to try and find a sound, bring along a pedal, or discover something great about a new piece of gear.

How about you? Have any backline stories to share (or remedies for any of the scenarios here)? I’d love to hear what you have to say. Please post in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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Share your thoughts

Dimitris

Dimitris

I’m always have with me my Markbass Little matk head and a d.i.y 1×10″/400W in my car!

Partly Dave

Partly Dave

Good article.
I got back into playing last year after 10 years out. Had sold my amp. Modern speaker tech means I’ve now got 350w in a 18kg combo. So I always bring that.
I use a couple of pedals to get “my” sound, and run my amp pretty much flat no Eq or tone shaping. So wouldn’t really be an issue to use a house system. Have done at a small festival. Pos thing, but loud. Did the job.
Play a Thunderbird into a compressor and bass soul food, with a clone theory chorus used occasionally in addition.
I’m good with that.