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This is a series of lessons from the on-the-road gear guys and what they learned. Some are from roadies who were there and some are from the players themselves and what they learned.

Here’s an article about where your sound and guitar tone comes from… is it the amp, the guitar, or the player themselves? Here’s one take…

LESSON #1:“It’s not the equipment – it’s the artist.”

This lesson is from gear roadie Steve Dikum. Steve honed his skills from spending close to 20 years on the road. He’s toured with bands like ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, Aerosmith and Little Feat; just to name a few.

Steve Dikun: I was on tour with Little Feat, back in the late 80’s, when Eric Clapton showed up one night. We were playing a smaller venue, the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, and I was getting nervous thinking we didn’t have enough gear, or the right gear, for Eric to sit in. So I kept asking my Production Manager, “Is Eric going to play? I need to know. Because if he is, I’ve got to make something happen here.” So the Production Manager walks over to Eric, who was chatting with Little Feat’s Manager, and he asked, “Is Eric going to play?” “No,” the Manager said, “He’s not going to play.”

‘Okay, great,’ I thought, he’s not going to play. That takes a load off my mind. But I kept periodically glancing over, and sure enough, Eric was still standing there, bopping his head, talking to the Manager. And I’m thinking – ‘man, this feels fishy, it’s like he’s going to play.’ So I ask the Production Manager again, “Are you sure he’s not going to play?” The Production Manager walked over and double-checked, came back and said, “Nope, Eric’s not going to play.” So Little Feat finishes its last song, walks off stage. Goes over to Eric, and the first thing out of their mouth is, “Hey, man. You wanna play?” And he goes, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to play.”

So, great… Eric Clapton is going to play now.

And I’m thinking, god-damn-it, the reason I kept asking was because we don’t have the gear for him. What we had was a weenie little Mesa Boogie, sounds like crap amp, and one of Fred Tackett’s old strat’s that was really a “B” guitar for when people broke strings. It was rarely, if ever, used.

So I had nothing to work with. And when I tell you that Mesa Boogie amp sounded terrible – I mean it. I can’t say enough bad things about it. We had it because Craig Fuller used to strum along to some songs. Y’know, there’s really two guitar players in Little Feat, and the third guy would just strum along, playing nonsense to fill the gaps. So we never cared what it sounded like because it was never really turned up.

On top of that, Craig had asked me to take the speaker and the head out of this Mesa Boogie cabinet — and mount it on his rack! So the speaker wasn’t even in a cabinet. It was just mounted on a piece of wood with a hole cut in it because Craig wanted it all in one self-contained unit. So this rig was theoretically not supposed to sound like anything anyway. But now, Eric Clapton comes along, and it’s going to be turned up and used in front of lots of people.

I’m sweating bullets thinking, there go my chances of ever working for Eric Clapton, because I’m going to be the big asshole that made him sound shitty in front of all these people right here. This is going to suck. This is really, really, going to suck.

But I did my best to smile as I tuned up the guitar and handed it over to Clapton. He walked up to the rack mounted Mesa Boogie, twisted the knobs how he thought they should be set, then turned around, and walked out on stage. He didn’t even do so much as ‘plink’ a note to make sure the amp was even turned on.

So the band breaks into their first song with Clapton, and I’m ready to run out there, bail him out. Do some emergency action to make something work.

He hits his first note…

And he sounds exactly like Eric Clapton. Dead on. He winds up playing the whole set with Little Feat, incorporating all these blues leads and everything. And he sounds phenomenal!

And when the set was done, I’m thinking, ‘holy shit, I dodged a major bullet.’ But besides that, I’m wondering what happened. Because that amp sounded like crap every single time I’d heard it before.

Craig Fuller comes walking off the side of the stage and he says, “So Steve, I guess my rig doesn’t sound so bad after all. Does it?” And I said, “You think it had anything to do with the guy who played it?” Because it never sounded like that before and it never sounded like that again.

We had Robert Cray come and sit in, and he sounded exactly like Robert Cray. Billy Gibbons will play with his JCM 800’s out on the stage, with his full rig. But he’ll play with a little Lead 12 transistor amp in the dressing room, and sound exactly the same as he does out on the stage.

Over the years I’ve found the key has much more to do with touch and feel, and the guy, than the rig. You can give those guys (as long as its functioning properly) a wide range of stuff and they’re going to be relatively similar if not exactly the same in sound because its what they themselves create that makes it happen. And that’s true across the board.

This story originally came from Vintage Guitar Magazine and this website.

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