Stuff You Should Know About

Six Practical Skills All Touring Musicians Should Have

Among the lingering fantasies of rock music lore is the idea (versus the reality) of what it's like to go out on tour with a band. Anyone who's ever hit the road with four or five other people on a mutual quest to play in front of new audiences knows that it is an adventure, but it's also really hard work. Of course, certain famous and wealthy musicians make it look glamorous — jetting around the country, or at least traveling in a rolling mansion of a tour bus, surrounded by an adoring entourage of groupies and coke dealers. But let's face it, most of us aren't in Led Zeppelin, so it's likely that any hometown heroes contemplating a tour are going to be doing that on a much smaller budget. That being the case, having certain non-musical skills might be almost as important as being the region's most badass theremin player. Let's take a look at some of those.

Even a small regional outing is probably going to involve driving hundreds of miles in a van or similar vehicle, so before hitting the highway, it's a good idea to know which members of your band can drive and which suck at it. For some reason, there seems to be a rule of thumb that anyone too eager to drive is usually the worst person to ask. Then there are the members who either can't drive at all, can't do it legally or who just refuse to. So being one of the people who can be happy driving 200 to 300 miles at a time is definitely a valuable touring skill. Anyone who can drive 12 hours straight, and then parallel-park an old airport shuttle bus hauling a trailer on a crowded street in Toronto, is especially valuable on the road, just like my old pal and bandmate BamBamm.

Let's say your band "Death Hippie" is headed across the country to play a famous music festival, and your tour vehicle, the previously mentioned worn-out ex-airport shuttle bus, has broken down in rural Tennessee. I'll refrain from making jokes about hearing banjos play in the distance, but let's face it, they're there, and it's likely some of the locals might not be exactly welcoming to the weird-looking troupe of musicians sitting by the side of the road with their incapacitated van. It would be really helpful if someone along for the ride knew how to fix cars, wouldn't it? Sure, a catastrophic engine seizure isn't something anyone can repair in a pinch, but being familiar enough with how cars work can definitely help a band figure out what their next step should be. Being able to fix a flat tire or replace a belt can save the day sometimes.

Most of us wear clothing onstage. I've seen a band that had an enormous caveman of a drummer who performed completely nude, but that was an anomaly. The rest of us will be taking some form of stage clothing along on tour. That could range from normal-looking street wear to elaborate costumes, depending on the band, but all that stuff has to stay clean, and may need to be mended at some point. I've kept stage clothes held together with hidden strips of black duct tape before, so being able to do that kind of thing can be a major advantage when you're 900 miles from home.

Relying entirely on fast food gets expensive and tiresome quickly, and while some promoters might offer a band a meal or two, there's no telling what that might be like. I've been fed a meal consisting of weird-looking tentacles in a "seafood salad" up in North Bay, Canada, and while I liked that fine, most of my bandmates did not. At some point, most bands trekking across the country in a van will have a day or two of dead time, and being able to make something decent to eat at a motel or campground can definitely be a good skill to have. Living off of Night Hawk frozen dinners warmed up in a truck-stop microwave can kill your will to go on after a week or two.

This one is kind of obvious, but unless your band has attained a certain level of success and financial freedom, being able to fix your gear can be a gig-saving skill. Sure, famous performers have armies of technicians making sure their instruments stay in good shape and the house sound doesn't suck, but if you're not willing or able to pay someone to keep your gear running strong, you'll have to do it yourself. Learning how to change a set of amplifier tubes or how to set up a Floyd Rose-equipped guitar can save the day when you're about to play a show. How will you get through the set if the mandolin on your five-neck Kramer won't stay in tune?

Sure, the singer in Death Hippie is a creep who wishes he was David Lee Roth, the bass player isn't allowed within 200 feet of a playground, and your drummer has been trying to convince the rest of you that he "really needs to perform nude from now on," but at least one person in that band needs to be able to deal with people well. Enter the diplomat: the band member who can communicate with club personnel, promoters and other folks the group will find necessary to deal with while touring. A member with people skills is definitely important to the band's success while it's out on the road. Your singer isn't going to be good at that; he's probably already trying to hit on the high-school girls who snuck into your show.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.