Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2010
As the men of Alice in Chains, Mastodon and Deftones wrap up the
BlackDiamondSkye fall tour, they share horror stories from the road and tell us what essential gear keeps them rolling along.
Clearly, there’s a world of difference between struggling on the local club circuit and playing sold-out arenas. But even successful musicians have problems with gear, venues, crowds, techs and transportation—the same things that your average weekend warrior has to deal with.
Don’t believe it? Just ask Alice in Chains, Deftones and Mastodon, who joined together this fall for the BlackDiamondSkye tour. Having climbed the ladder that separates virtual unknowns from recognizable celebrities, these guys have seen it all—from tiny, trashy dives to palatial arenas; from passenger vans with busted stereos and no AC to luxury coaches with entertainment centers and fully stocked refrigerators. Over the decades they’ve learned through trial—and lots of error—what to bring on the road, what to do before a gig and what setup works best for every location.
When the BlackDiamondSkye tour rolled into New York City for a show at Madison Square Garden, we thought it was a good time to get some of the guys together for a roundtable on road survival. And so it happened that, on the day of the show, Alice in Chains frontman William DuVall and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, Deftones frontman Chino Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter, and Mastodon guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher gathered around a Guitar World conference table to talk about their experiences and offer some useful advice.
In addition to discussing the essential items they need to be productive, ease boredom and curb insanity, they addressed the importance of having a good guitar tech, warned what can happen to guitars in airports and explained how in-ear monitors have become a necessary evil. They also told some great stories about surviving car accidents, smashing guitars, being pelted by hostile fans and getting stuck in gridlock traffic with a major radio interview just minutes away. It all made for an entertaining and informative gathering. So sit back and take a word or two of advice from the pros.
GUITAR WORLD As guitarists, what do you have to have with you at all times on the road?
BILL KELLIHER A tuner helps. [Everyone pulls out different tuners and laughs.]
JERRY CANTRELL Whichever tuner you use, you just gotta make sure your backline guys are all using the same one.
GW A lot of techs use strobe tuners. Do you like those?
BRENT HINDS No, strobe tuners are really hard. There’s too much stuff going on.
STEPHEN CARPENTER Techs use ’em because it makes ’em look like they know what they’re doing.
GW Do you carry a pocketful of picks?
CANTRELL Yeah, and a pocketful of hate. Just a little.
HINDS Always. Drugs and picks.
GW What if the dogs at the airport pick up the scent of the drugs on your picks?
HINDS They can’t smell pills, man.
CARPENTER It should be said for the record that as human beings it’s a damn shame that people’s lives are ruined over a dog. You can’t even talk to a dog. How can a dog smell drugs? And the cops just go, “Oh, the dog’s right.”
GW Is there anything else you must have on tour, playing-wise or recreationally?
CANTRELL PlayStation 3 for me, so I can chill out after the gig. And of course everybody’s got a computer. I also like a Slingbox—especially abroad, so you don’t rack up a huge bill.
WILLIAM DuVALL Yeah, that’s cool. It basically allows your computer to stream whatever’s on your home television.
CANTRELL Any time you touch anything in a hotel, it’s gonna cost you $20 or $30, whether it’s food, TV or phone. You gotta have your computer so you can talk to everyone at home through your Skype for free. And you can watch movies. I’m a big football fan, so I got the NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV.
KELLIHER On the road you’ve got too many hours to kill, so you can easily get in trouble. I have a guitar in the dressing room, and I bring Pro Tools so I can throw ideas down.
CANTRELL I got a Zoom digital recorder that’s nice for recording riffs. It’s got video on it. And it’s got a great mic.
KELLIHER And you can hide it in the girls’ locker room.
CANTRELL That’s always good, too. Unfortunately, we only travel with dudes.
GW Can you actually write on the road?
DuVALL I use an iPhone voice record app when I come up with something I don’t want to forget. But for this tour, I’ve also been traveling with a Pro Tools rig, and that’s awesome. If you get your little idea, you can put it on your iPhone, and then you can develop it when you get back to your room.
CARPENTER Come on—ain’t nobody writing music on tour. You get ideas every day, but you ain’t recording ’em, you ain’t arranging ’em. I know I don’t.
CANTRELL I collect riffs. I’m like Stephen. I ain’t writing on the road, either. But when we warm up or play at a soundcheck, I’ll stumble upon something. When that happens, I’ll record it real quick and then move on.
KELLIHER It’s good, because you dump that bag of riffs out when you get back from the tour, and you’ve someplace to start writing from.
GW How do you keep your guitars safe?
KELLIHER I have a Guitar Vault, and I’ve got an Anvil case for my Les Paul.
CANTRELL If you’re carrying a single guitar in a case, there’s always a chance it’s going to get wrecked somewhere. I’ve had a few guitars trashed at airports. Or stolen. And cases get crushed.
GW Have you had any prize possessions destroyed?
CANTRELL The guitar that still kills me that I lost was an Eddie Van Halen Music Man that he gave me. It was a gold-top, and there were only two of them. We toured with them in ’91, and we didn’t have shit. He had the 5150 head that had just come out, and his line of guitars, and I asked him if he could cut me a deal on a guitar. And he said, “Fuck that, I’ll give you one.” I kind of forgot about it. And I came back from tour and I had two guitars and three stacks in my fuckin’ garage: I had a blue Ernie Ball EVH guitar and I had a gold-top. And somehow while it was in storage or in transit, somebody ripped off the gold-top. And beyond the personal value, that guitar is probably worth about $50,000 or $60,000.
GW When you smash a guitar onstage, do you try to make sure it’s not a valuable model?
HINDS No, it’s always my main ax.
CHINO MORENO I’ve stopped myself so many times.
HINDS Yeah, I know, it hurts. But the reason you smash it is because you’re having problems with the guitar and it’s your way of fixing it, really. You’ve already sent it to the luthier, you’ve already put the new nut on there. You’ve worked with this guitar for years, and it does that one fuckin’ thing one time too many, and you go, You know what? You’re going out tonight, buddy. It’s a great show when that happens, too, but I hate losing an awesome guitar. Also you can hurt yourself. In St. Louis, we did this really awesome show, and I did a Babe Ruth up against a wall. It smashed into a million pieces, but I tore my rotator cuff.
CANTRELL The drag is when it’s an accident—when you spin around and you realize you don’t have a headstock anymore. Or you hand your guitar to your tech and he doesn’t grab it, and it breaks on the ground.
DuVALL I don’t want anything to happen to my Les Pauls, so I try not to be rough with them. I used to play Dan Armstrongs, which are pretty much bulletproof. They were great for punk crowds. You’d have skinheads rushing the stage and you’d have to push people back with the harpoon headstock.
And those things are indestructible. I got in a car wreck one time with Mike Dean from C.O.C. We were driving my ’56 Volkswagen across the country together and I let him drive. It was a big mistake. I fell asleep hunched over, and next thing I know, I hear the wheels rolling over the side of the road, and I wake up and look over and Mike’s snoring away. We did a Six Million Dollar Man through the desert. I had everything I owned packed into this car, floor to ceiling. And the Dan Armstrongs flew out of the car. One of them flew out of the case. And when we finally came to a landing, the car ended up on its side. Mike got thrown out and I got trapped underneath. And when I climbed up through the car, the first thing I see is the Dan Armstrong stuck in a sand dune just like Excalibur. I walked over to it, pulled it out of the ground, played it and it was still in tune.
CARPENTER I traded the last Jackson I ever had for the first ESP I ever got. And I did our whole first record on it. Afterward, we were playing in Cleveland, and at the end of this great show I chucked it 20 feet in the air, sound-guy-deep into the crowd. This big old buff dude catches it, and security wrestled this guy down and brought it back to me. I was like, “Man, I just threw it away. I just gave this guitar out.” So I told my guitar guy, “Go give him the case.” And I told security, “Give him the guitar back. You’re ruining the moment!”
GW How important is a good guitar tech?
DuVALL Hugely important.
KELLIHER I didn’t have a guitar tech, and we’d been touring for 10 years. I’d always do my own stuff. But the bigger you get, the more stages you’re on in front of lots of people and the more stuff you’re using.
CANTRELL You just have less time to deal with all that.
KELLIHER I’ve gone through a couple guys, and the guy I’ve got now is great. There’s no talkback—we have a great relationship. He came to my practice pad a week before this tour started and went through my 60 guitars and wrote down every serial number and cleaned ’em all up, then put ’em away neatly so I knew where they where. I didn’t even ask him. And whenever I have a problem, he’s on it.
DuVALL Yeah, a good guitar tech is on it almost before you even have to say anything. Or when you say something, they go, “I don’t know, but I’m gonna figure it out.”
CANTRELL The thing about being a musician is that something is always gonna go wrong. There are too many moving parts. So having someone who can wrangle your shit and produce a solution when there’s a problem—bad cords, batteries, interference from a signal, problems with guitar intonation—it’s really important. But it takes time to develop that relationship with someone who knows what the fuck’s going on and can maybe create what you need on the fly himself—like dialing in stuff from one venue to the next. If it’s a big room, you might want to peel some stuff back; if it’s tighter, you might want to create a little more vibe. Your guy’s gotta know that.
KELLIHER Anyone can change strings or hand you a guitar, but you need someone who knows your set, knows your songs, knows what it means when you look at him in a certain way while you’re playing.
HINDS I’ve never had that dude. I’ve always had a different guitar tech every single tour. Never get it right.
GW What’s a sign you’ve got a bad tech?
CANTRELL When something’s wrong and you look over at your guitar tech and he’s shrugging his shoulders.
HINDS Or he’s talking to some girl. I’ve never once looked over at a guitar tech and had them know what I was talking about. This is what always happens: I always forget to check [drummer] Brann [Dailor]’s vocals in my monitor before we start. His vocals come in on the second song, and, man, it’ll be so loud that I’ll literally jump back. And I’ll look at the guitar tech and he’s like, “What? What?” I can’t talk to him because I’m busy playing all this crazy shit and trying to sing. I can’t say to him, “Hello, Bruce, I would like for you to turn Brann’s vocal down please. Thank you so much.” It’s more like, “Turn it down! Fuck!”
CANTRELL I’ve had that problem. We came up with something on the last couple of tours that is really handy. It’s a talkback mic that’s like a panic button. You step on it, and it lets you talk into the mic, and nobody can hear it up front. So your tech immediately knows what’s going on.
HINDS You use the same mic as your vocal mic?
HINDS I would forget the thing was on and just shout through the P.A.: “Hey, this shit is fucked up! I can’t hear shit!”
DuVALL No, you hear a change in your monitors. It cuts off and gets small.
GW Do you all use in-ear monitors?
MORENO I just started using them a couple months ago. I’m gonna keep using them, but I’ll be honest: it sounds better without them. I like the feeling of the live room. But I can totally tell I sing and play way better with them on.
DuVALL It’s changed the game for singers. It is a sacrifice, but it definitely makes you more precise.
GW What about for guitarists?
KELLIHER I was on them for a while, but I just ended up ripping them out and going, Ah!! There’s that Marshall stack and the Gibson sound again. Fuck these things. But at the same time, I’m losing my hearing. I’ve got ringing in my ears. It’s hard to sleep.
GW What about earplugs?
KELLIHER I don’t wear earplugs, no.
HINDS We’ve lost our hearing so much that we can’t wear earplugs. When I put earplugs in, I absolutely can’t hear anything.
CARPENTER It just seems like basic logic: if you put earplugs in, you’re gonna turn up. Why even wear ’em?
MORENO If you’re wearing in-ears, it’s really important that you have a good monitor engineer that will get your mix right. Wearing them was a tough thing for me to get used to. I was like, Man, I’m in a whole different place than all these people. Then I did the same thing as Bill—I ripped ’em out, and I was like, Ah, now I’m hearing it!
CANTRELL To be honest, I fucking hate using them, but I’m so fucking deaf now, too. I gotta use what I got left, and it’s not much. When we get halfway through the show, I get so fatigued, I start hearing weird shit and off-tones, and then I get lost. It’s just a product of losing my hearing.
GW When you get to the venue, do you dial your guitar sound in or let your tech do it?
KELLIHER If you have a really good tech, he knows how your stuff is supposed to sound and makes it sound good in any room. That way you don’t have to worry. I’m very hands-on, though. I like to be right up there with them even if there are people who are throwing shit at me. I’ll walk out there and do my own thing and just make sure I’m happy. I have a certain tone that I have to hear.
GW Do you dial things in differently if you’re playing a shed, a club or an arena?
HINDS Yeah, louder for an arena.
KELLIHER For a shed you turn down. Sometimes you take some bass down or mids. You kind of have to EQ it to the room.
HINDS It depends on where the PAs are positioned on and around the stage.
KELLIHER You gotta be careful, because sometimes you get dead spots and your signal gets stepped on. That’s what a good tech is for. They go up there and check every frequency and make sure there are no dead spots. But sometimes he misses something.
DuVALL Also for us, it’s been different since we started putting our cabinets in boxes in order to have a quieter stage and isolate sounds better and hopefully hear better through the monitors.
CANTRELL The thing is, everybody in the band has to do it, and Mike [Inez], our bass player, refuses to play along. And that’s been a tough thing. It’s bad when there’s no guitars and most of what you hear is the bass.
MORENO We’re kind of in the same place. We all wear in-ears, except Stephen. So it’s gotta be loud enough onstage for him.
CARPENTER My cabinets have been isolated the last 10 years, though. But I don’t do it for the stage volume; I do it because it’s a way for me to keep the stage volume out of my mic so my [noise] gate’s not triggering all the time. Otherwise, my gate’s opening wide up with every snare hit, and my sound leaks through.
GW Do you need a soundcheck to play a good show?
MORENO No, we can survive without one, but it’s always nice to get one. Hopefully your crew has a general idea of your settings and they go up there and linecheck your gear, so that everything’s pretty much in the right range. But a soundcheck lets you know what it’s gonna be like when you get up there.
CANTRELL It’s good to get comfortable in a room. There are so many variables, and not just with the acoustics. Maybe you’re sick; maybe your head’s plugged up. There are little differences in variances, and it’s nice to be able to address those.
DuVALL It’s important, because it helps you get a feel for the stage. I like to do a soundcheck where I’m walking around and can see where the bass traps are and where the dead spots are. I need to see the PA. I need to know the shape of the stage. Those little things are important.
MORENO At the same time, you’ve always gotta know that it’s gonna sound different once people get in the room. It changes a lot.
GW What do you do when you only have a few minutes for a soundcheck?
KELLIHER Be ready. Be tuned. Get your stuff dialed in the way you think it should sound. You can’t wait until five o’clock. Get your guitar strings on and just hit it.
CANTRELL Just try to be efficient with your time. Go up there and do something heavy and something that’s a little lighter—maybe something that’s got an acoustic in it. Just pick a couple songs that have a nice spread of things you’re gonna need.
KELLIHER Pick a song where everyone’s doing the most at one time, so you can gauge the full spectrum. That way you’ll be like, Oh, shit. I can’t hear what I’m singing. I’m not gonna be on key.
DuVALL It’s good to get all the bad news out of the way first. But these things are very different, depending on whether you’ve got a crew or not, and whether you’re playing arenas or the bar down the street. For me, I went literally from one extreme to another. When I was in all these hardcore bands, I was loading my own stuff up the steps and playing places where it’s as raw as it could possibly be and you don’t have your own sound guy. In those instances where you’re really a club band, you just have to let each guy soundcheck one at a time, and stay silent while they’re doing it. Let your drummer do his thing, then do the same thing with the bass player and the guitar player. And then you all make noise together to see what’s going on.
HINDS That doesn’t work with my band. Me and Bill are always up there ripping over each other. I don’t even know he’s even on the stage, and it doesn’t even bother us anymore.
GW Are there problems that you’ve dealt with on the road that don’t involve music?
CANTRELL Being a traveling musician is a veritable parade of insanity. Anything and everything that you can imagine happens. But the comedy factor is part of what’s appealing— the stupidity of it, the ability to not take yourself too seriously and just go with the flow and adapt and overcome like a marine. You’re in all these weird situations, but you’re with your bros, man, so you’ve got something to laugh about every day.
DuVALL It is kind of like comedy when you’re in a band like Alice in Chains and you’re on your way to a radio interview in London, and the traffic is so bad that you end up getting out of the car and walking, parading down the street like the Monkees.
GW What are some particular problems you’ve encounter in clubs?
KELLIHER When people get onstage and try to sing along and step all over your pedal board—that really sucks. Once I started the first song and I felt like somebody punched me square in the mouth. A dude had hit the microphone stand and the mic went right into my teeth. I just saw stars and let go of my guitar. And they’re still dancing, having a great time.
CANTRELL There’s always one guy at the gig who’s gonna wing something at you. I don’t care where you play, there’ll be one guy who thinks it’s a great idea to throw a shoe or a beer or a bottle. Who knows what they’re thinking? It’s like, You’re gonna go home with one shoe?
KELLIHER When the show’s over, there’s always 300 left shoes on the floor.
HINDS I once got hit with a half-eaten Snickers bar.
GW Do you ignore the antagonists, or when someone throws something is it confrontation time?
HINDS I’d rather have that than verbal abuse any day. When people yell, “Faggot!” I hate that. I just wanna kill ’em.
DuVALL I think, generally speaking, it’s better to underplay it. Don’t give ’em that much power. The only time it gets weird is if somebody in the crowd might be getting hurt.
CANTRELL I agree, but occasionally I’ve been hit with some shit, and it fuckin’ hurts, man. We played in New York at the Nokia. It was a great sold-out show, and everyone was into it. We’re coming up to the end, and some fuckin’ asshole throws a full, unopened Heineken, and it hits me right in the ankle. I could barely stand for the rest of that show. I’m lucky it didn’t break a bone. And at that point it was like, Really, man? You’re gonna fuckin’ throw something and hurt me. You came to see me, I’m here to play, and you’re gonna throw a can at me?
DuVALL We were playing a racetrack, and Jerry got hit in the face with a shoe. We’re playing “Man in the Box” and, all of a sudden, there’s no guitar solo. I turn around and he was gone. He was offstage.
CANTRELL It was the last song. It sucks to wreck it for everybody else, and most of the time I’ll fuckin’ play through it. But at some point it’s so ridiculous. It’s like, Fuck you, man. That’s it. I’m out.
GW Back in 1991, Alice in Chains opened for Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer on the Clash of the Titans tour, and the crowds were incredibly hostile.
CANTRELL We took some serious abuse on that tour. When we played Red Rocks [in Denver, Colorado] it was like that movie Hero, with the arrows [raining down]. The sky was black.
HINDS What were they throwing?
CANTRELL Everything they fuckin’ could. There were coins and bottles. The thing that tripped me out the most was there was a gallon milk jug full of something and it crashed right into Sean [Kinney’s] drum kit. We started picking shit up and throwing it right back at them. They were spitting at us. We didn’t stop. We kept fuckin’ playing. We jumped the barricade, spitting back at ’em, kicking ’em. We did the whole fuckin’ set and walked off. And we were like, Jesus Christ, we gotta get the fuck out of here, they’re gonna kill us. We were waiting to get in the bus to leave, and there were a bunch of Slayer fans backstage that had passes, and they started walking toward us. And we were like, “We’re gonna get our fuckin’ asses kicked.” And they walked over and went, “Okay, man. You didn’t puss out. I guess you’re all right.”
I remember a gig in Scotland or Ireland in the early Nineties when we went over with Megadeth and the big rage was spitting.
MORENO Oh, that shit happened to us in South America.
CANTRELL Layne [Staley] got wind of this. He got himself a black hoodie, and he cinched that fucker down and sang the whole gig with the mic right up to his mouth. You couldn’t even see his face. Sure as shit, they started spitting as soon as we started playing, and by the time we were done playing his hoodie was covered with loogies. And the weird thing is they loved us.
CARPENTER The first time we went to Chile, we got coated in spit. We were like, Fuck it, bring it on.
MORENO I kept singing, and they didn’t stop the whole time. I was covered. But what sucked even worse than that was, I ran to the dressing room to turn on the shower, and creak…fuckin’ nothing. So I had to ride the whole way from the gig back the hotel covered in slime.