The entertainment business has always been a “no-excuse” industry. Ever since the phrase “the show must go on!” was first coined in the 1800s by the circus industry, it has been repeated by stage managers everywhere. Whether you make your living playing music or you are a weekend warrior for fun, a good trouble shooting approach will let you go on with the show. Second chances are hard to get, so you need to make that first shot work. Make sure you’ve prepared not only your music but also make sure your equipment is reliable and well-maintained. Unfortunately there is no way to predict when a bad connection or worse a failure will develop in your guitar system, but it is likely at some point you will turn up your guitar on stage and find there is no sound coming out. The good news is that by following a few simple steps, any musician can learn to quickly find which part of the system isn’t working and bypass it to keep the music going.
On the most basic level, you have four main parts to your setup: your guitar, pedals or pedal board, amp head, and speaker cabinet. The signal passes from the guitar through cables to any pedals or processors you might be using, through more cables to your amplifier, then through another cable to your cabinet. When your system fails it means that someplace along this signal path is a bad connection or something stopped working. Your mission is to quickly and logically find which component has failed and replace or bypass it to get the system working again.
Divide and Conquer
The very first thing is to not panic. Clear thinking will always find the problem faster. Also be careful to not change too many items at once, switching and unplugging too many items can cause more confusion and possibly more issues than you started with.
Start in the middle of your signal path and replace one end or the other with known working equipment. Let’s say you are setting up for a show and when you turn on your amp you get lights, but no sound at all. Go straight to your amp. Did you plug in the cabinet cord? Is the cabinet or guitar cord in the right jack? Check the easy stuff first. If yes to these, then bypass everything between you guitar and amp and plug your guitar straight into your amp using the cable already in your guitar. If you still get no signal, you can switch cables. Here we are testing the amp half of your setup, but you still need to test the guitar, which is your signal source. If the cable change did not work plug your guitar into another amp. If you don’t have another guitar player’s amp, you can plug into a bass or keyboard amp or even a DI box for bass. Not looking for tone here just checking if your guitar is working. If your guitar is working go back to your amp. Are you using the effects loop? Is it plugged in correctly? A quick test is to unplug the effects loop and play your amp. If your amp and guitar are working go back to your pedals and plug it back into your amp. Now you know the signal path between your guitar and amplifier, the first half of your rig, has a break somewhere along the line. The larger the pedalboard, the more cables and connections you will have. Often one is half plugged, unplugged or not powered.
Whenever you need to troubleshoot a system, start at the middle and follow the fault, bypassing half of your components each time until you are close enough to eliminate them one at a time.
Devise a Solution
Once you know which part is not working you can figure out the best way to go on without it. Take a couple seconds to verify the equipment is turned on and plugged in before you decide it isn’t working. Go through your signal path and make sure it is hooked up the way you thought it was (plugging into the wrong jack on a pedal or effects loop can also interrupt your signal). Hopefully you planned ahead and have a backup guitar and spare cables along, since these items take the most physical abuse and are most likely to fail in use. If you have an effect that isn’t working, you might be able to simply leave it out and let the soundman add what’s needed at the board. Ask yourself how you got by before you bought that piece of equipment? Can you do that instead? Having a guy in the band that is handy with a soldering iron can be invaluable for times when a cable connection or guitar electronics need repair, but simply bypassing or substituting the down equipment is the fastest way to get the system back online, often in mere seconds during a critical live performance.
Don’t Assume Anything
”Brand new” stuff breaks too. Don’t ever skip a component simply because you bought it recently or it hasn’t been used much. Treat them all equally and likely to have stopped working and you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and time down the road. And remember not to panic. You may be worried how you’ll get by without the ‘robotic voice effect’ that just broke down, but the audience will never know what they’ve missed. Find the problem, toss it in the bag to fix later, and go out there with that extra bit of confidence that comes from knowing you can handle whatever surprises the road decides to throw your way.
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Even if you’ve matched your bass head and cab properly impedance wise and set your amp for clean sound, sending simply too much power to your bass cab can result in blown speakers. This often happens when you are using a rig you are unfamiliar with, as we tend to know the limitations of our own equipment and have chosen that setup for a reason. Borrowing another bassist’s amp or using a backline rig only to blow it up is definitely not a great feeling.