Sweating the small stuff can help a lot when it comes to being gig-ready, especially in situations where you’ve got to set up your amplifier and pedal board, plug in, and play. Preventative maintenance is the secret – although it shouldn’t be one – to making sure that you look and sound professional every time you and your band get on stage.
Here are 10 things you need to keep in good condition to avoid live-rig issues and keep on rockin’ under normal road and local club work conditions:
• Tuning Pegs: Take a small screwdriver to the back plate of your guitar’s tuning peg housings every few weeks to make sure they’re secure. Traveling down bumpy highways, onstage collisions with ceiling tiles or other instruments and even regular usage all loosen pegs. And if you’ve got a bent peg head, replace it. It might not be a problem now, but it’s going to be at some point. When you’re in the spotlight the last thing you want to worry about is staying in tune.
• Pots: Your guitar and amp both have rotary potentiometer dials for volume, tone, gain and the like. These should be periodically cleaned with a spray-on tuner cleaner to keep them quiet. They also need to be replaced on occasion, since all switches wear out. A dirty or bad guitar pot can create amp hum that gets exponentially louder through better and bigger p.a. speakers, so numb the hum before it becomes a problem.
• Nuts: Keep your guitar’s nut clean and lubricated. Check the nut slots periodically for greasy sludge from string oxidation and atmospheric exposure. Anything that prevents a string from riding smoothly through the slots will throw off tuning, especially when you bend or use a whammy bar. You’d be surprise how smoke in clubs can affect your instrument’s appearance and the feel of the strings and neck, and create deposits in the nut, without occasional cleaning. A nail file makes a great tool for scraping gunk out of the slots, and if that doesn’t do the trick, apply some graphite to the slots to keep strings moving smoothly.
• Inputs: Check the tightness of the inputs on your guitars, amps and effects pedals regularly. The nuts that hold them in place shake and rattle loose from stage usage and the simple act of plugging and unplugging into them. That creates buzzing and signal decay. Also clean inside the input sleeves using a small amount of rubbing alcohol on the end of a Q-Tip.
• Bridges: A bridge with even the slightest amount of rust can cause buzzing, which you might not even notice until you’re in the studio or playing an important gig – and then it’s too late. Clean bridges with a soft cloth and a hint of alcohol (taking pains not to get any on your guitar’s finish) or even lemon oil. And be careful with multiple-part bridges. For example, the saddles can fall out of Tune-o-Matic bridges if you pop a string in a particularly jarring fashion. To keep the saddles from being lost, you can design a harness by wrapping and securing a length of light gauge guitar string wire around their ends
• Speakers: Check speakers periodically for signs of fraying or other obvious wear, and, if you like your amp’s speakers, have them re-coned at the first hint of degradation. If you store your amps in an even slightly damp environment, rot is also a danger. Some problems are less obvious. If you’re hitting low notes and hear a farting sound, there’s a good chance the speaker coils are shot. Luckily it’s so easy to replace the speakers in most modern amps that it may be cheaper to simply swap out old ones for new ones on your workbench at home rather than reconing or replacing a coil, which require pro-level skill.
• Stomp Box LEDs and Switches: If you’re handy with a soldering iron it’s easy to fix the most common problems with effects pedals – burnt-out LEDs and dead switches. Many replacements can be found at Radio Shack or a good hardware store, and most of the rest can be ordered online at little cost. Don’t be afraid to take a funky pedal to your favorite guitar shop. If you’re a valued customer, they can tell you what’s wrong and suggest the best way to go about making a repair. If they refuse to help, it’s probably time to consider another dealer.
• Guitar Cables: Check the soldering and shielding of any plugs with screw-on sleeves, and if the work doesn’t look solid, don’t buy them. Typically non-budget manufacturers who use gold plugs or sealed plugs are going to have a high quality cable. Soldering will fix most cable problems, but if you gig a lot, consider replacing all of your cables every few years to keep a strong signal running into your amp.
• Plugs: These get funky after being jammed into and jerked out of wall sockets, and can cause buzzing, an intermittent signal and other issues as they begin to fail. At the first sign of a problem simply buy new cables or, on vintage gear with built-in cables, have them replaced.
• Electronics: If you play a lot of live dates and your guitars and amps travel, be sure to give them an annual check-up. Have a luthier you trust look under the hood at the electronics and replace anything that could be on the way out. Small things like switching out old pots or selector switches can increase output and beef up flagging tone. And when capacitors die, so does your amp, so be sure everything gets the rubber glove treatment.