Chances are, if you are in a performing band or soon will be, the term ‘backline’ will be mentioned sooner or later. Backline can refer to a number of things, but essentially is the personal gear (amps and drums) provided by the club or festival organizer. I say essentially, because as I can attest, it may mean something different to different people. This is generally a problem of communication, but as we will learn in this article, dealing with what is included and not included in a provided backline can make the show go smoother, and keep the audience rockin’ through the night.
So Wait, We Don’t Use Our Own Stuff?
When playing festivals, or multi-band gigs, it is common for many musicians to share equipment. This equipment is generally provided by a single band (generously) for all the bands to share, or by a sound company hired to provide the PA and run onstage as well as FOH (front of house) sound. This is done for a few reasons, mostly being that, in theory, it saves setup time between bands. A long time between bands means a restless crowd. It also saves sound check time- no one wants to hear “OK, now the kick drum (THUMP THUMP THUMP)…keep going….(THUMP THUMP THUMP) …ok, now the snare… (CRACK CRACK CRACK)” between each band. Don’t forget that not all festivals are as big as Woodstock or Live Aid, and every town might have an annual festival that requires live entertainment. A sound company providing backline is also a way for the festival organizers to save money on bands. Many bands will charge less if they aren’t hauling gear (I know I do), and can save money by hiring a company that provides a backline for all of the bands.
So, What Does a Backline Consist Of?
Well, this is where the water gets a little murky. It can vary from just drums, to full amps for guitars and bass. Sometimes it includes a Hammond B3 and grand piano too, depending on the festival. Of course, it should include mics, with mic stands, a full monitor system as well as direct boxes and a way to mic up the amps as well. But I have been to festivals that promise a drum kit, and there are no cymbals or snare. Or there is a drum kit, but no amps for the instruments. How do you know what you are getting into? You have to ask. If the organizer for the show tells you there is a backline provided, ask what is specifically provided. If he/she doesn’t know, ask for the number of someone who does. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but you can explain that you want to be prepared and above all else, you want the show to run smoothly. In my experience, contacting the sound company directly is the best choice, so nothing gets lost in translation. They are used to musicians asking questions, and will be more than happy to let you know what they will provide and what you will need to provide yourself. Once you are sure of what amp will be there, all you need is your guitar and pedalboard (if you use one).
I am used to using my own amp, bro…
Yeah, we all are. I am sure drummers, who invested a lot in their kits, would love to use their own stuff as well. Sometimes it isn’t possible. This presents a problem for players who’s tone is reliant on a specific amp turned up to a specific volume. Festivals generally have pretty strict time limits, and any extra time you take during setup comes off your playing time, or worse, another band’s playing time. Rolling up another amp and line/sound checking it throws off the schedule, and assures that you’ll be That Guy, whom no one wants to be. Stage managers, and worse, the soundpeople, are not people you want annoyed with you. Be a jerk to them, and they will make sure no one in the crowd hears you. I have seen it happen.
What kind of amp will I have to use?
Usually pretty good ones, actually. I have seen Marshall stacks and Fender combos used as backline amps. They both sit well in a mix, and most players can find something that is workable. For bassists, I have seen things like Ampeg B-15s and SVTs, which are thundering amps, and it makes me happy that I didn’t have to carry them. No, a Fender Deluxe doesn’t sound like a Soldano, and a Marshall JCM800 doesn’t sound at all like a Vox AC-30. I don’t get to use my Mesa Blue Angel at these kinds of gigs, but I am pretty confident I can find a sound I like from mostly any amp. I have a little easier time, as I get all of my gain from pedals. The main thing here is to be prepared. If all that is going to be provided is a Twin, have a pedal that can add the kind of gain you need, even if it isn’t something you use all the time. Remember, your sound is not your gear: it is you.
You’ll Be Fine, Really
If it is a metal festival, they will generally have more metallic amps there. Rock festivals are more likely to have Marshalls not just for the sound, but for the looks. Blues and jazz festivals will have Twins, Deluxes and DeVilles, as most blues and jazz players don’t need excessive volume and gain. I usually bring a small pedalboard that features reverb of some kind too, as many stacks don’t have it, and I hate playing without it. I also bring a small device like a FlyRig5 which allows me to plug into any amp’s effects loop to bypass the preamp. Instantly, I can get the right sound. As a bonus, I have used it to go directly to the PA when an amp provided wasn’t working. Hey, the show must go on! Thing is, be prepared, and ask questions when setting up the gig.
There are a lot of reasons a musician loves the idea of a provided backline. You don’t have to carry amps, you can get to the gig in a smaller vehicle (or even fly there). It saves on setup time, and you don’t need extra people to help get on and off the stage quickly. I love these kinds of shows now that I know how to deal with them, and that has helped all of the shows go smoothly. Well, at least my part of it.
Have you ever had to use gear that wasn’t your’s? What is your worst gig nightmare?