5 minute read

ON TOUR

Guitar Tech • Instrument Tech • Stringed Instrument Technician

JOB OVERVIEW

These technicians ensure that all stringed instruments are in good repair and are on stage for the live performance. This includes electronic repairs, changing strings, and overall upkeep of the instruments. They also clean, polish, tune, and setup the stringed instruments on stage prior to each performance. They are available during the show to change broken strings and handle any other problems, and oversee the packing and transportation of instruments to the next gig.

PREREQUISITES

“Without a doubt, my basic hands-on knowledge of stringed instruments and how they function is the reason for my success. There is a lot of electronics involved. It's knowing how the instrument functions—all the parts that come together to make that whole—knowing how to take care of instruments. I'm kind of a doctor and guitars are my patients. They come to me when they're sick, and I make them well.”

A DAY IN THE LIFE

“When you're the headline act, you get everything packed up after the show and get on the bus that night and roll to the next venue. There could be as little as 150 to 200 miles, all the way up to 600 to 700 mile runs overnight. You wake up on the bus at the venue the next morning, stagger into catering and get yourself some breakfast, and start taking care of your individual job. ‘Building your world,’ as we call it. I build guitar world, the monitor engineer builds monitor world, and so forth.”

“You normally start loading-in rigging around 8 a.m., sometimes earlier. The techs are usually the last off the bus because we can't start building our world while the production crew is putting up lights and sound. You don't want to have the guitars sitting out and have a speaker cabinet or lighting tower fall on one of them. Typically, I'm in the building from 10 a.m. and, except for a quick lunch break, I'll work nonstop through sound check. We do a line check before sound check, which means that we technically check everything out before the band comes in to do sound check. Then the band comes in and does sound check, and after that the artist comes in and does another sound check. Everyone has a certain time they arrive at the venue. Once sound check is over, I'll shower, change clothes, and get ready for the show. The technical and production crew doesn't see a hotel at all. Most of the venues have a pro sports team of some sort and we use their showers and lockers as dressing rooms.”

“I might get an hour to relax, sit on the bus, and watch some television before the show starts. About the time the opening act goes on, I'm back in the building re-tweaking the instruments and making sure everything is fine-tuned. I'll work through the show, and afterward get everything packed up and ready to go on the truck. I take another shower and get back on the bus. That's normally about midnight or 1 a.m. I'll relax a bit and then try and get some sleep while we roll on to the next venue.”

CAREER TIPS

“You have to be self-motivated to be a tech, because of the long hours and lack of sleep. It's hard to get out of bed and face another 18-hour day when you've already had three of them in a row.”

POINTERS FOR THE JOB SEARCH

THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THIS JOB:

“Probably the long hours, in conjunction with not being able to rest very soundly because you're bouncing down the road at 80 miles an hour in a bunk that sometimes feels more like a coffin than a bed. You don't get the real good sleep that your body needs. At the end of a three or four-day run, you come home exhausted.”

THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS JOB:

“I really enjoy the camaraderie on the road. It's wild to see so many individualists—the technicians, engineers, musicians, and others—who put aside their differences and come together to make a show happen. When it's show time, there is electricity, a certain vibe, like a switch that turns on. It's really exciting.”

One of the best training grounds for a guitar and instrument tech is to work for an instrument manufacturer where you can learn how to perform basic repairs. Then you are able to offer a prospective employer more skills than just being able to tune the instrument. “Learn the technical aspects of instruments, inside and out. Instruments are organic by nature because, of course, they are for the most part made of wood. They fluctuate with different temperatures, humidity, and such. They are always contracting and expanding. They can change in 15 minutes. You have to understand that to make them play like they're supposed to.”

KEITH PILKINGTON, STRINGED INSTRUMENT TECHNICIAN, THE DIXIE CHICKS

“I was kind of born into pursuing music,” says Keith Pilkington, who grew up in a family of guitar pickers in Shelbyville, Tennessee. “On Sunday we used to go to my grandparents’ house. My grandfather would play banjo and my grandmother played guitar. They would sit around and pick gospel songs and everybody would sing along.” Pilkington became an accomplished player himself, adding his guitar prowess to rock bands before becoming interested in the technical aspects of the instrument. He got a job with acoustic bluegrass guitar manufacturer, Gallagher and Sons, and learned how to build instruments by hand. During that time, he earned a degree in electronics engineering at a local technical school.

In 1990, Pilkington combined his acoustic and electronic expertise at Gibson Guitar in Nashville, doing repairs and custom modifications for two years, until being promoted to the artist relations department. For a year, he networked with the artists who endorsed Gibson guitars, making custom modifications and building relationships. Wanting a new challenge, he left in 1993 to spend three years on the road as a guitar tech with Alan Jackson. The ability to repair acoustic and electric stringed instruments including guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo, and fiddle—beyond merely tuning and changing strings—is what sets Pilkington apart from the vast majority of other guitar techs.

Looking for a different challenge, he became merchandise manager for Trace Adkins, touring and learning another aspect of the music business. After 18 months, Pilkington needed a break from the road. He sold guitars in a small retail outlet until 1999 when he went to work for the Dixie Chicks. On the road since then, he accompanied the Dixie Chicks on their 2000 tour, the largest production touring out of Nashville that year.

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