The Backline Blues: Preparing for the Mystery Rig

Old bass amp

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, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. “You arrive at the club and find out” <- that's where you can make your first mistake. Ask what's there beforehand.

  2. if i am unsure of what backline is supplied i will bring my 30w ashdown combo for my own monitoring. and even if i am using a different amp i always have an EQ pedal or a multi FX with a DI

  3. I got tired of all of the above and have found my sound using pedals. 2 of them. No matter what rig is provided or no rig that’s provided, as long as there’s a PA I’m always covered.

  4. i’v had 1 show where the amp was just plan gutless and toneless but it wasn’t a bad show the other I got to use a Edan 800 watt head and a pair of 410 cabs the problem came with my bass having to hot an out put for the amp to handle. it didn’t matter what I did it sounded like I had a rat distortion pedal on. since then i’v been looking at getting a small DI box that I can put before the amp to drop the signal

  5. I’ve playing for a lot of years and I’ve been in the four scenarios. Awesome rig , familiar rig , “what is this?” rig and “where is the rig?” rig . Mi advice : invest in a preamp/Di box (Sansamp Bass Driver, Aguilar Tone Hammer or sometign like that) , put it in your gigbag and always carry it with you. You can dial your sound in the preamp, send a balanced signal to PA and use the bass rig as a stage monitor.

  6. I am a lucky man cause I’ve got Ampeg SVT4 PRO and Ampeg 410HLF for big gigs and Ampeg Ba115 combo for rehearsals and small gigs :) But with my new band I don’t care about gear cause they have SWR SM900 head and Eden D410XST cabinet so I use their gear without care about my rig :D I’ve already got an amp settings for Ampeg and SWR and I’ve got no problems with my sound ;)

  7. Backline Blues, haha. This happens to me overseas way more often than here in the States. Mostly cause I usually use my rig, at least 99% of the time. But since I got my Catalinbread SFT pedal, I’m not too worried about those situations. It damn near replicates all the nuances of a tube Ampeg amp. I might sound like I work for the company, but I dont, I’m just that happy with the tone. So if you’re an Ampeg guy or gal, look into this pedal, its totally worth it.

  8. I recently had Scenario #1 happen. My new Ampeg arrives next week.

  9. Was told there was a backline and discovered my choices were a 75 watt bass combo (it was hard rock gig featuring two guitars), keyboard amp, go through the PA with no stage monitors.

  10. forgot my bag with all the leads in,so luckly someone had a solder iron,i hard wired power cable and the speaker box ,with some cable I found laying around , another time I was running just from front of house,through a di,bass stoped working!!! di ok had to re solder internals of bass got some voltage through the line and burnt the wires between the pots !!

  11. Professional Backline Company is a full service professional musical instrument backline rental company. The staff at The Professional Backline Company is well seasoned with over 60 years of combined experience.

    Our goal is to provide your event with the highest quality backline equipment in the industry along with service second to none.

    The Professional Backline Company has an extensive inventory of vintage and state of the art musical instrument backline from the leading manufacturers in the industry

    Yamaha, Korg, Fender, Taylor, Mesa Bogie, Roland, DW, Moog, Akai, LP Percussion, Meini Steely, Proline, Marshal, Peavey, Mackie, Gallien Krueger, Shure, JBL, Pearl, Hammond, M-Audio, Rythem Tech, SWR, Gibralter, Sabian, Zildjan, Studio Electronics, Line 6, Aguilar, Boss and much much more…

    For Backline Rental Please contact Rob Rogers

    O – 480.409.3022

    C – 480.684.0398

    [email protected]

    The Professional Backline Company was created to supply extensive musical instrument backline for The Arizona Jazz Festivals both Spring and Fall, The Las Vegas Jazz Festival, and The San Diego Jazz Festival. The Backline Company has provided full service musical instrument backline rental for The Isley Brothers, Jeffrey Osborne, Euge Groove, Maxwell, Chaka Kahn, Robin Thicke, Charlie Wilson, Eryka Badu, India.Arie, Keyshia Kole, Eric Darius, George Benson, Dave Koz, Jill Scott, KEM, Anthony Hamilton, Angie Stone, Brian Culbertson and many many many more.

    The Professional Backline Company can also handle ALL of your production needs from, Audio, lighting, staging, video, labor, ticketing design and event management.

    The Professional Backline Company employs highly skilled technicians that can deliver, set up, and maintain your rented backline from load in to load out.

  12. Fortunately, I’ve never run into Scenario #3 or #4. However, I did have a Scenario #1, which would have resulted in my purchasing a Mesa Boogie Walkabout Scout, IF I had had the scratch. :) The most common Scenario for me is #2, and, for this reason, I ALWAYS bring along my Sansamp Programmable DI and Sonic Stomp pedal. Whatever the usable rig I encounter, these two pedals always let me get “my” sound, or something very close to it.

  13. Worst case scenario: one Marshall 412 guitar cab with no amp at all and 300 miles to the nearest music store. Ended up doing the gig through a Mackie 350 monitor…

  14. I’ve been in situations 2-3. For the worst of them I like having a good DI box such as a Radial Engineering Passive/Active DI. Very good sound and it works like a charm. If in doubt always have your amp with you unless you’ve confirmed that there is going to be a rig there (find out the make and model if possible) and be sure that THEY”RE GOING TO LET YOU USE IT. I played a big event years ago and I damn near cussed out the engineer on stage because he was not going to let me use the Ampeg SVT I was told I was “allowed” to use. Be assertive and don’t back down.

  15. Scenario #5 the rig is in perfect working order,you ubderstand it,but it is painfully underpowered.

  16. I have had it all… so for the last 10 years I only played with my own rig. No matter where we play as a band – we will always play over our own backline. what’s the point investing in gear to get your own sound and then not using it live. I got tired of this whole backline situations that I prefer gladly the schlepping part;)

  17. Been through 1-4. What cracks me up most is seeing the photo of the old (and heavy) Peavey Mark VI bass head and the fact that I have one sitting in the garage,.. retired.

  18. Experienced all of the above… but Scenario #1 does happen every now and then. Once, I plugged in a backline rig, fell in love with it without any tinkering at all, and ordered the same setup a week alter… But, most of the time I try to be well informed about what’s at the place since carrying all my equipment is sometimes just not possible. Of course, I love my rig(s) and would preffer to have them with me all the time.

  19. I carry my pre-amp pedal(Hartke Bass Attack) and my BBE Sonic Stomp with me – I can wrangle a decent tone out of anything. I can also play direct if there’s a dedicated monitor beefy enough.

  20. Dimitris

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

  21. 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.