The Gig from Hell: What Happens When Everything Goes Wrong

Nord is a producer/designer at Harmonix. Nord writes about himself in the third person. Nord used to be in a band and compiled this timeline to help aspiring musicians understand what is in store for them. Now he has a ravishing wife, two beautiful, genius children, and his musical adventures are limited to light objects: mics, acoustic guitars, and fake plastic instruments.

Often playing a gig is the most amazing experience or your life. Other times things go wrong. Sometimes things go very, very wrong. One Saturday afternoon I left the music store that I worked at and started getting ready for that evening’s gig. I had no idea what was in store for me.

3:42 PM – I tell my boss that I need to leave for the gig. We aren’t scheduled to go on until 8PM, plenty of time.

3:53 PM – Get home, hop in the shower, change into my gig clothes.

4:09 PM – Check my equipment: Guitar, amp, strap, cable, footswitch for the amp, extra strings, tuner, capo, batteries for tuner, extra strings, extra cable, picks, extra picks, extra strings, another cable, guitar effects, patch cables for the guitar effects, more extra batteries for the guitar effects, and extra strings.

4:14 PM – I call the sound guy and tell him to meet me at the store. He’s not a real sound man, just a young guy I know who came into the store quite a bit. He really wants to help out and had mixed sound for bands before. He tells me he’ll be right over.

4:15 PM – I hop in my 1989 Corolla and return to the guitar store to pick up our PA. My ongoing deal with the boss is that if it isn’t rented I get to use it free.

4:21 PM – While I was gone the new, small PA had been rented. All that was left were the enormous JBL 4700 speakers, unpowered monitors, a big old Tapco mixer, and the power amp that we called "the beast."

4:24 PM – I call the sound guy again and start loading the gear into my Corolla. I have to lug the gear down a big flight of stairs, around the building, and then out back to where my car is illegally parked.

4:29 PM – The speakers won’t fit in my Toyota, so I haul them back up the stairs into the store.

4:40 PM – Somehow I manage to jam the rest of the gear into my car and lash my trunk closed with some twine.

4:42 PM – I load the final few bags of cables and mics into the car. I call the keyboard player (who owns a minivan) and ask him if he can pick up the speakers on his way through town.

4:43 PM – The sound guy shows up. We jam ourselves into my car and head to the gig.

4:45 PM – On the way to the gig the keyboard player calls. His minivan is broken down by the side of the road. His wife can pick him up with their three kids and drive him to the gig, but he can’t get the speakers.

Fish McGill

The List.

5:01 PM – We arrive at the gig. The sound guy and I unload the car. Somehow, he manages to carry all the light stuff. I ask him to start setting up while I drive back and pick up the speakers. He asks me which ones are the speaker cables. I don’t realize how unsettling his question is until I’m halfway back to the store.

5:22 PM – I get the speakers into the back of my car with only minor damage to the seats. The keyboard player calls me. His minivan is running again.

5:43 PM – I arrive at the gig and carry the speakers in one at a time. The sound guy has uncoiled all the cables into a big rat’s nest all over the stage, but none of them are hooked up. He’s currently plugging a microphone into the output of the power amp and looking confused and sweaty. I ask him to set up the mic stands.

5:59 PM – The keyboard player calls, his minivan is broken down again.

6:14 PM – I untangle the cables and get most of the mess sorted out. The sound guy has vanished.

6:24 PM –The keyboard player calls. His minivan is working again.

6:52 PM – I can’t get the left side of the PA to work. I try replacing the cable, but still nothing.

6:59 PM – I’ve tried everything and can’t get any sound out of the left side. I replace the cable again and still nothing. Maybe we can run with just one main speaker tonight.

7:03 PM – I set up my guitar amp and effects, start tuning and break my high E string.

7:04 PM – Every one of my extra string packages is missing the high E string.

7:05 PM – I put a B string on the high E. My poor fingertips.

7:10 PM – My guitar and amp are all set up. Still no sound guy.

7:13 PM – The drummer shows up and starts carting his gear in.

7:14 PM – I start trying to figure out the stage setup and realize that the left side of the monitors are not working. I switch cables and it works fine. WTF?

7:22 PM – The power at the club goes out.

7:23 PM – The power at the club comes back on. The owner comes in and explains that this has been happening off and on for the last couple weeks.

7:25 PM – The bass player shows up. I’m starting to get worried about our start time, as the monitor system and sound board haven’t been hooked up yet.

7:38 PM – I haul the monitors onstage and hook them up. I set up the mixing board in the middle of the audience area, where the sound guy will have the perfect mix of our band from the stage. The sound guy is still missing.

7:40 PM – The keyboard player calls. His minivan has broken down again.

7:42 PM – The keyboard player calls. His minivan started working again.

7:48 PM – I’m starting to sweat as I pull the snakes to the sound board and hook them up. Still no left side speakers. I switch cables and then no right side. What? I know both cables are good. Now I’m confused.

7:58 PM – The keyboard player shows up and starts running in with his gear.

8:04 PM – I’m frantic now. We’re already late and aren’t even set up yet. I’m plugging things in as quickly as possible. Still no sound guy. The club owner is glaring at us. Three people are sitting at the bar but the place is otherwise empty.

8:10 PM – The bass player and drummer are set up now. I notice that they completely avoided doing any work on the PA. I turn up the sliders on the soundboard. It’s set up perfectly to be run by someone not in the band. Like a sound guy. But now I have to run back and forth from the stage to adjust the mix.

8:15 PM – The keyboard player runs out to the car to get one last patch cable. I crawl behind the main speakers and try replacing the right side cables one last time. Now it works. It turns out my first replacement cable was bad, as well as the original. What are the odds?

8:17 PM – The keyboard player limps back into the club. He sprained his ankle running out to his car. Good thing he gets to sit down for the set.

8:20 PM – Everything’s ready. The club owner is really glaring at us now. There are still only three people at the bar. Still no sound guy.

8:21 PM – I run back to stage, ready to start. I’m covered with dust and dirt from crawling around on the floor hooking up cables. My shirt is ripped. I’m shaking with fatigue and stress. My hands are bleeding from numerous small cuts and scrapes.

8:22 PM – I turn on my guitar amp. Nothing. No lights. No sound. I panic. I try plugging it into a different outlet. Still nothing. I check the back. Looks like the power outage blew a fuse in my amp.

8:23 PM – I hastily hook up the keyboard player’s backup amp, an old silverface Fender.

Fish McGill


8:24 PM – I count out the first song and step up to the mic. A three inch blue spark leaps from the mic to my lip. It turns out the case of the Fender isn’t grounded, so it used my lip instead. Mother of God that hurts.

8:25 PM – I find the polarity switch on the back of the Fender, flip it, and then gingerly touch my guitar strings and the mic. No sparks. Whew.

8:26PM – I count out the first song. The power goes out.

8:27PM – The power comes back on.

8:28PM – I count out the first song. As I play the first chord my high E string breaks. As soon as any of us start singing the the monitors start to howl. The keyboard player’s monitor doesn’t work at all. The Fender guitar amp is crackling like an AM radio. The keyboard player didn’t have time to set up his gear, so he’s playing a marimba preset instead of piano on his keyboard. Two of the people at the bar leave.

8:29PM – We have almost finished the first song when the club owner shakes his fist at me and beckons me over. I hear something over the din of the monitor feedback which sounds like "We have a problem."

8:30 PM – He leads me back to his office. The sound guy is sitting at his desk making a long distance phone call to Australia, or something. His eyes are dilated and he’s sweating. I question him and get a mumbled response about taking LSD to reduce stress.

8:34 PM – The club owner mentions what a good idea it would be if we left. Like, right now. He discusses the pros and cons of our band playing here again. There is a fairly substantial list in the cons column.

8:35 PM – The keyboard player is tasked with babysitting the tripping sound guy, since his ankle has swelled up and he can’t walk. The bass player and drummer start packing up their gear.

8:40 to 9:40 PM – Reverse the setup. Unplug and coil all the cables. Pack up the amps, mixers, speakers,mics, effects rack, mic stands, keyboard gear, keyboards stands, guitar amps, guitars, guitar effects. Schlep them all out to the cars. Pack the cars. The drummer and bassist have vanished without helping at all. Again. The keyboard player waits around until I have loaded the gear and then leaves.

9:42 PM – I approach the club owner to ask for our pay, then reconsider when I see the look in his eyes.

9:45 PM – I start the drive home in my Corolla, jammed with gear, along with a drug-addled sound guy endlessly discussing the finer points of fingernail maintenance.

10:05PM – Two blocks from the music store my car dies and won’t start. The sound guy and I get out and push it to the store to start unloading.

10:23PM – After I take the first load of gear up and put it away I realize the sound guy has vanished into the night. Good Riddance.

10:44 PM – I finish putting the gear away. I lug my guitar and amp back to the store so it doesn’t sit in my car all night. I find all the high E strings in the back of my amp.

10:45 PM – I walk to Harry’s Exit 18 truck stop, eat a flatbed special (Bacon, Eggs, Sausage, Pancakes and Toast). Walk home. Got to sleep and forget everything.

The moral: always have more guitar strings than you think you need.