Transitioning from local gigs to touring (for everyone, but especially bass players).

Transitioning from local gigs to touring (for everyone, but especially bass players).

I spent a lot of time playing local gigs. I still do local gigs in New York, whenever I’m not on the road. The first time I got a call to do a major tour in Europe, I was beyond excited. But I had zero experience doing anything like this until this point, so I had no idea what to expect. Here are a few things I learned since, and some things I wish someone would have told me before I went on my first tour. This is geared towards upright bass players, but most of this is applicable for anyone who’s just starting to tour, or wants to know what it’s like.

1. Adjust expectations for comfort on stage. 

If you’re used to playing gigs in your town, you know what to expect. You know what gear to bring, what you don’t need, and have a good idea what it’s going to sound like. If your local venue has a sound person, you’re probably friends, or at least acquaintances with him/her. You might not realize that these conditions are actually pretty ideal. I didn’t realize how good I had it when I used to play the one jazz club in town a few nights a week, and had a bunch of steady gigs around town. I thought that if I went on the road, somehow things would be better, because the gigs I’m doing are “better,” right? Not necessarily. 

First of all, there are is an important distinction to make that will affect what to expect on the road greatly. Here are the two scenarios. 

Scenario 1- You’re traveling with no sound crew.

This is like the Wild West. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a heads up on what kind of gear you’ll be working with at the venue. Most of the time you have no idea until you show up. If you’re an upright bass player, most bands locally source basses these days, and sometimes you’re in for a surprise. 

You’ll may be responsible for setting up gear you’re unfamiliar with. There’s not much you can do to prepare for this, except for maybe getting together with friends and checking out each other’s rigs, and reading about what’s out there. Usually it’s pretty straight forward, but sometimes it isn’t.

Also, you often have to work with local sound people. This again can be a crap shoot. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they aren’t. The first thing to remember is that you’re on the same team. So don’t assume they suck and antagonize them immediately. Most of the time, they want the music to sound as good as possible, and they’re just doing the best job they can. You might not philosophically agree with them all the time. If that happens, be clear about your vision, but be flexible. If you brought a nice mic for the bass, ask to use it. But always ask nicely- “I brought a good mic for the bass, can we try it for the front of house?” not “we’re using this mic I brought.” Most people with experience in jazz immediately know that a mic would sound better than a pickup sound, and would be happy to oblige. But sometimes it might not work. The gig might be super loud, there might not be time for a proper soundcheck, or the person might simply not have experience mic-ing a bass, and they might want to go with something they’re used to. In that case, just go with it. It’s not worth making an enemy in the sound booth- remember they responsible for how good your whole band sounds. 

TAKEAWAY- As you can see, you’re dealing with a lot of unknowns. And you still have to perform at a very high caliber, for people who have never heard your music before.

Scenario 2- You’re traveling with a sound crew. 

If you have any sound crew traveling with you, you’re lucky. That’s definitely the next step up, and you’re dealing with a few more known factors now. The sound person knows you, your sound, and will work as hard as they can to make it easy for you and sound good out in the front. However, each venue is different, your crew might be working with a local crew, and the local sound equipment might be different every night. Your sound crew will do everything to make it as comfortable as possible for you, but some stages just suck, no matter how you slice it. So be flexible, and patient, and be okay with less than ideal sound sometimes. 

You might be using in-ear monitors. These are interesting because after a considerable amount of time getting the mix dialed in, you can actually get a pretty good sound. It’s definitely an adjustment though because you hear sounds completely differently, and it’s really hard to play with dynamics because you have no idea how loud you’re playing. But the music scene is such that if you’re on a gig with in-ears, the dynamics are probably secondary in the music (which is unfortunate, because it’s one of the most effective dimensions of music, I think…). In these contexts, dynamics are achieved more by orchestration and sound choice.

One word about in-ears. Don’t be the musician who complains about them. Yes, they are an adjustment, and yes, they are nothing like play with open ears. The music can feel kind of stale. I personally prefer floor wedges. But it’s your job to play well and do everything you can to make the music sound as good as possible. Complaining to the sound crew won’t make them go away, you make sound check last longer, and you look like an amateur. It’s a part of being a musician in the 21st century, and you aren’t playing at your local bar anymore.

Believe it or not, you still might be using rented uprights on gigs like this. Or if you’re traveling with an upright, it might not be yours. Or it might be a stick bass. That’s the case with the biggest group I tour with. Years ago, I would have thrown a tantrum because “I can’t get my sound.” But all things considered, I’ve become okay with working with whatever I’m given. 

TAKEAWAY- In either scenario the name of the game is flexibility. Your playing on a stage you don’t know, with gear you’re unfamiliar with. If you’re an upright player, you’re probably playing a bass that you just met a few hours ago. This is way less comfortable than playing local gigs. So adjust your expectations- expect playing conditions to be less than ideal, and worse than what you’re used to at home. And you might be playing for thousands of people.

2. Get used to playing different instruments all the time.

One time in the Philippines I did a gig where the local backline company didn’t know what a “double bass” was in the gear requirements, and instead of asking us what it was, just decided that it couldn’t be that important, and ignored it. So to our horror, we didn’t have a bass for soundcheck. They ended up finding the only bass on the island, and drove it 3 hours just in time. The endpin didn’t come out, and there was no pickup, so we had to use the old SM58 in a towel trick, which did the job, but I couldn’t hear anything I was playing because we couldn’t send the bass into the monitors too much. Since then, I’ve included a picture of the instrument when people ask for specifications for what kind of instrument I need (better safe than sorry). 

Another time, I had a gig in Toronto, and they gave me an instrument that was brand new. Like, never-been-set-up-by-a-luthier-straight-out-of-the-box-from-China, new. It was painfully bright, the fingerboard was lumpy, and there were unusable positions because the buzz was so bad. This was when I learned to ask for an instrument that is “frequently played” (when possible, this might not happen if you’re playing on a remote island in the south pacific, and you’re lucky to get ANY bass). That way, you know you’re getting something that’s playable by somebody. 

Sometimes the band you travel with will provide a bass for your tour. That’s the case with my gig with Postmodern Jukebox. The instrument they give me is a Yamaha Silent Bass. These instruments are great for traveling- they’re relatively light, and the get pretty small. However, there is zero acoustic tone, so practicing isn’t very inspiring, and even plugged in, it’s is less than ideal when it comes to getting a nice bass tone. You will never get the same, rich, warm, sound you get on your carved upright at home. But I’m not putting any of my own gear through the rigors of the road, and it delivers consistency for the crew, so I’ve become okay with it.

I used to obsess about my sound, practicing getting a full tone for countless hours, and spending hours researching strings, amplification methods, etc. I was proud to play gigs unamplified, because it meant that I had a huge, strong sound. I don’t regret doing this at all. But to quote a great sax player, “don’t become the guy who thinks that the music can’t be beautiful if you plug in.” Yes, obsess over your sound, and develop a sound concept. Pay attention to what kind of right hand stroke gives you what kind of sound, and practice playing with different strokes in the right hand for a long period of time. Once you do that, your ears will do the adjusting for you, and you’ll know where to pluck the bass to get a nice round tone on a bass that’s overly bright, or articulate clearly on a woofy bass. Or even on a stick bass with strange action.

The more in tune you can play on your own instrument, the more in tune you’ll play on borrowed instruments. I actually believe humans are naturally kinesthetically good with ratios, and we can make adjustments like this pretty easily. So don’t freak out if the scale is a little shorter or longer than your bass at home- if you’ve been practicing, you should be fine. The only thing to check out is if it’s a D neck or an Eb neck, and make mental adjustments if you’re used to one or the other. I’ll talk more about playing foreign basses in a later post.

Now, if there’s actually a problem with the instrument (missing strings, unusable buzz, pickup not working, etc…), let whoever is providing the instrument know. Be nice about it, but it’s important to let people know if an instrument doesn’t function properly, so they don’t bring that bass back for the next act, or they can get the bass fixed.

TAKEAWAY- You will have to play instruments you don’t know. So practice a lot a home, go to jam sessions, and go to your friends place and ask to check their instrument out. Get used to playing different instruments. If you can, turn it into a challenge you enjoy. And most importantly, be chill about it and don’t complain unnecessarily.

3. Every tour is different.

This is something I learned after doing several tours with multiple bands. 

There are many variables when it comes to touring, and just because a tour is “high end” doesn’t mean you’ll get all the best amenities all the time. Here are some variables:

-Are you traveling by car, van, plane, train, or tour bus?

I haven’t done a tour with extensive train travel, but in my experience, this is the order of comfort, the tour bus being the most comfortable.

-Are you staying with friends, shared hotel rooms, single hotel rooms, or on the tour bus?

Even high profile tours can have you share hotel rooms if the crew is big, and conversely some smaller scale tours will give you your own room this depends on the organizer’s priorities.

-Are you getting paid per gig, per tour, or per week?

This totally depends on the organization as well.

-Are you provided meals, meal buyouts, per diems, etc?

Again, depends on the tour. Incidentally, a meal buyout is when the contract states that you are supposed to be provided a meal, but the venue is unable do so, they will give you cash for food. I didn’t know what this was until I started touring.

-How often do you get days off?

Some tours will work you, some short tours will go without a day off, some tours are more reasonable.

-How efficient are soundchecks? 

Some bands have this dialed in and you’ll be out in a half hour or less. Some bands require more time, some bands will hardly soundcheck at all. 

TAKEAWAY- Every tour is a different combination of these factors, and more. So just because you’ve toured once with one band, don’t expect the same amenities for every group you tour with. The more I tour the more I realize that there really are no rules. Just keep in mind that the situation is the way it is for a reason which is probably way beyond your control, so be chill and roll with the punches. 

4. You will be around your bandmates ALL THE TIME.

This is a crucial difference between local gigs and touring. On a local gig, you show up to your gig, play, hang with the cats, and go home. On tour, you wake up with, often share three meals with, play with, hang with, and if you’re on a tour bus, go to sleep literally within a few yards of all of your bandmates. You might all be tired because you got back to the hotel at 2:30am and your lobby call to catch the flight is at 6am. 

Sometime you can choose your bandmates, sometimes you can’t. But typically, you’re there because you do the same thing, so you’ll probably get along with everybody. Just remember to follow all bus rules, don’t be late to anything, be respectful of each other’s private space and time, stay positive, and most importantly, have fun! Some of my tightest bonds with in my life come from touring together extensively, and those relationships are invaluable, on and off the stage.

If you did your best, and you still don’t get along with someone, it’s okay. Remember that all tours end, and if the person you don’t get along with you doesn’t live where you live, you don’t have to see them again. Just do your best to avoid unnecessary confrontation. Don’t drag other people into any negative feelings you might have about someone else, because that can create an unfairly toxic environment. Don’t say stuff like, “I don’t like so-and-so.” That makes it really awkward for the people around you, especially if they don’t share your opinion. They might feel like they need to take a side, when in reality everybody is supposed to be on the same team. Now, if you don’t get along with the person because they’re being abusive, then it’s time to bring that up to whoever is leading the tour. And if the person running the tour is being abusive, talk to someone you trust in the band. If it’s a pattern, that needs to be dealt with.

TAKEAWAY- You’re around the same people all the time for an extended period of time. So use your common sense, be nice, respectful, and HAVE FUN!

Hope you found this helpful! Check back soon- I’ll be posting regularly.