Road Hazards

From the glory of a spectacular show to the appreciation of screaming fans, there’s plenty of glamour to be found onstage. But after the last chord’s played and the show’s wrapped, a rather unglamorous process begins—load-out.

But then again, what could be more vital than protecting your instruments and gear from the rigors of the road as they’re transported from gig to gig? Whether you’re a pro who relies on roadies or a weekend warrior who’s hauling it all in a minivan, one thing can’t be sacrificed: the security of your instruments. Regardless of your musical station, fundamental questions remain, such as what kind of protection do you need to keep your rig safe on the road?

For answers, we turned to classic rock legend Rick Derringer. The veteran guitarist, singer and songwriter, who scored his first No. 1 hit “Hang on Sloopy” with the McCoys in 1965 and followed with his own smash “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” nine years later, has racked up decades of touring experience with a wide range of artists from Edgar and Johnny Winter to Led Zeppelin to Ringo Starr. He’s also played with Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Alice Cooper and Cyndi Lauper. Derringer shared with us his road-tested secrets for protecting some of your biggest musical investments.

How long have you been touring?
The year “Hang on Sloopy” came out in 1965 was really the first year the McCoys started touring all around the U.S. Though we had great success—even on our tours with the Rolling Stones—we still pretty much had to cart our own gear. Even the Stones weren’t that picky back then—the whole touring thing hadn’t been invented on the scale we’re used to now. There was a whole lot of trying to figure out how to squeeze everything into a U-Haul trailer and wondering if the rear shocks would hold.

What does your touring rig look like?
In the old days, we traveled with everything. For the last 10 or 15 years we’ve been touring with just our guitars and pedalboards. We ask the venues to provide amps, cabinets, drums, lighting, etc. We haven’t been traveling with our own drums, lighting or amplifiers. But there are some things you want to bring. In my case, I think it’s important to have the best cables. Can the audience tell the difference? No. But I can tell, and when something doesn’t sound right I get flustered.

You tour without an amp?
Instead of a regular head, I use a Vintage Vacuum Tube Amplifiers preamp that I plug into most amplifiers and get this great Dumble style sound. It looks like a regular front end of an amp, but without the power section—and it’s much lighter than a regular head. I’ve found that if you drive the power amp section of most amps like Fenders, Marshalls and Mesa/Boogies with a different preamp, the results you’ll get are similar with all of them. That’s made it a lot easier to travel light.

What are the advantages of traveling light?
Cost-effectiveness is one of the big things. Over the years I found I had to charge too much for concerts because I was traveling with big trucks. Carting around the whole back line and lighting systems also meant lots of roadies—and that drove costs up. Traveling with fewer people meant I could charge the audience and promoters less and take home more. So I started figuring out what I could leave at home, and everyone ended up winning. And if I don’t have to truck anything, I can fly instead.

How important is roadworthy gear?
The right case will pay for itself over and over. All you have to do is look out the airplane window at the baggage handlers to know your stuff could get destroyed at any moment. Any musician who flies a lot learns that if you don’t carry it on the plane with you, anything can happen to your gear. Nothing’s 100 percent, so I try to keep the most important gear on me. But sometimes you have to check gear. And these days with the right case any gear can be roadworthy, so there’s no reason to give up the sound you want.

Aren’t cases heavy?
Not necessarily. When we started out, weight was a big concern. The cases I was traveling with were heavy, but I found that even though they looked really strong, baggage handlers could still destroy them, and they’d show up with the corners ripped off or caved in. In the end there’s an expensive instrument—or an instrument that’s important to you—and you need to protect it. I’ve found with the injection-molded polymer cases I use, they’re not just lighter but they offer far better protection. It’s a win-win.

How do you fly with guitars?
I always travel with two guitars. I check one in a case and carry the other in a gig bag. I’ve never had a hard time carrying a guitar on a plane, but I do encourage the flight attendants to stow it in one of the storage closets so it doesn’t take up overhead space. It’s also safer—no one will try to put a bunch of stuff on top of it. A side note: I never tell flight staff to do anything—I always ask politely. If you push them, they’ll push back, and they can make traveling with gear very unpleasant. If you do have to put a guitar in the overhead storage, make sure that it’s facedown so any stress won’t bend the neck back.

What flight case do you use?
It used to be that good protection meant wood cases. And they offered good protection but were big and heavy. Now I use injection-molded plastic—SKB cases exclusively—they’re made to military standards. They’re the most roadworthy cases, and they’re the lightest. Plus they have wheels, and TSA-approved locks so you can lock them up and still check them.

Recall any touring nightmares?
TSA locks are great for flying, but don’t forget to pack a key. I’ve gotten to more than one gig only to find myself locked out of my guitar case. That’s still a lot better than having your guitar sent to the wrong town, which happens. Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath has an artificial finger he needs to wear to play guitar. He used to keep it in a guitar case—and once when we were touring together that particular case didn’t show up. It wasn’t a problem being able to substitute a guitar, but they couldn’t substitute his finger.

Any other advice?
Don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room. What I mean is that traveling on the road comes down to remembering the basic stuff and staying organized. You’ll think of the big stuff—how to pack the equipment, what gear to bring—but it’s the little things you don’t think about that can really trip you up. Also, always maintain a good relationship with your roadies. You’re at their mercy.

–Phil Selman

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