TECHnically Speaking with Michael Kaye
Introducing Michael Kaye - he has served as a touring technician for the past 30 years. His impressive clientele includes luminaries such as Megadeth, Brian Wilson, Prince, and Paul Simon, the latter of whom he's worked with for more than a decade. Kaye put down his guitar long enough to do an interview with Guitar.com, guiding us through a day in the life of a guitar technician.
Guitar.com: So, when you're out on tour, what time do you typically wake up?
Michael Kaye: With my current position as guitar tech on an arena tour, about 9 a.m.on the bus, outside the venue. If the previous day was an off-day, I'll be in a hotel and may have to get up earlier in order to get over to the gig. The backline (or band gear) usually dumps off the truck at 10 a.m.
Guitar.com: What constitutes a nutritious breakfast on the road?
Kaye: The same as anywhere else. My reality is coffee and maybe a banana, I've never been big on breakfast, but will stop for oatmeal. On a show day, all meals are catered and can range from fantastic, tasty, and fresh to the kind that you ignore and go back to the bus for a snack.
Guitar.com: On a given day, do you have free time to explore the different cities youre visiting or are you bogged down from the moment you arrive in a city till the moment you leave?
Kaye: Last December, I rented a Ducati Motorcycle in Melbourne, Australia and rode the Great Ocean Road for 300 miles of twists and turns before the second of two nights at the same venue. I have had great experiences in South America, Africa, Thailand, China and Japan as well as in many cities in North America and Europe. [But] I went to Rome twelve times before I ever had a day off there to see anything outside of the venue.
It helps your brain to maximize the experience of traveling. It is too easy to sit in a hotel, watching TV while life passes by. The language barrier is easy to break down, and people always like to show their place to visitors. I rarely tell people what I do, [as] it is very important to protect the privacy of the artist here have been stalking-type incidents.
On a show day, it is unlikely that you will leave the venue. If you get a break, it'll generally be less than an hour at a time. I sometimes carry my bicycle, for those quick getaways. On a day off, I often go to local music stores. I have an interest in vintage equipment and sometimes find unusual pieces on my travels. I like to walk, so sometimes it is more for the exercise, fresh air, and a look at wherever you are.
Today, in Rapid City, SD (after a 500-mile drive overnight), I woke at 10:30 a.m. on the bus, made coffee, dragged my stuff into the hotel room, showered, walked downtown, browsed a couple of music stores, and bought some finger picks. One of our buses was going out to Mount Rushmore at 2 p.m. I joined in and saw the sights. Later, I stopped by the Harley-Davidson dealer, picked up a shirt (I ride), and met the owner of the store. Later, it was a great dinner at an Italian restaurant, back to the hotel by 9 p.m., and checking email.
Guitar.com: How do you get from gig to gig? Are you flying with the artists or are you traveling with the gear?
Kaye: U.S. tours usually have us traveling in coaches. Some have twelve or more bunks that are a little more than coffin-size. European tours often also use buses. In Japan, you may fly from city to city or take the Bullet Train, which really does go 130 m.p.h.! You catch the train in town and arrive in the center of the destination city. It is rare to travel with the artists unless it is the start or end of a tour, as our working schedules are so different.
In the club days, I often was driving the yellow truck at night after working all day. We shared driving dutiesit was tough. I could never do it now.
Guitar.com: What's the first guitar-related work you do on a given day? When does this occur?
Kaye: It all starts at the beginning. Most guitars travel in their hard cases inside a large coffin, which may hold up to six or eight other guitars. Since guitars are light, these coffins usually stack on top of other heavier gear in the truck. It is key to ensure that, as the truck is being unloaded, the guitars suffer no impacts. Once the gear is in the building, it needs to get on stage after the lighting rig has been built and flown overhead.
Guitar.com: What's next?
Kaye: You situate the amps, risers etc. Wire everything up. Then its time to un-case the guitars. Each guitar needs to be checked for damage, parts that have rattled off, truss rod adjustments, etc. I have some guitars on tour which need strings each show, others every two or three shows. So string changing starts, with a more detailed check of action, intonation, and electronic function.
I carry nut files, nut blanks, bridges and parts, vacuum tubes and all kinds of electrical parts with me. Super glue, gaffer tape, a Leatherman Wave multi-tool, spare guitar lead (cord), and a flashlight are the essentials. I prefer a strobe tunerI got my first one in 1981. I now own about seven, including a 1963 Conn strobe tuner.
Once you have electrical power and the rig is working, then each function of the rig needs to be checked, MIDI, wireless interference, each effect device, switchers, and each amp/speaker.
When the sound engineers are ready, you are expected to as closely mimic the playing style of the artist as possible, so that they can set levels. Especially crucial are the stage monitors when using acoustic guitars. Too much EQing will make for a jagged sound, and some notes will be subdued while others leap out.
I have worked as a sound engineer at times, so I often request very precise changes in the EQ in terms of decibels and hertz. Some of my counterparts will use terms such as sparkle, muddy, dead, honky, etc., which also works. In this circumstance, a great monitor engineer is the difference between a two-minute level check and a 45-minute level check for each guitar (Really!).
This process is called Line Check, where each microphone line to the PA is checked.
Guitar.com: Do you handle the soundchecks as well?
Kaye: The soundcheck itself is generally performed by the artists. It may be a run-through of half a song or may be a rehearsal of a song or portion of the show. Some artists would rather not soundcheck, as it allows them more time to themselves. Traveling and being in the public eye can make for very busy days. The artist needs to balance their own lives with technical concerns. We try to help with that.
Guitar.com: Does Paul Simon typically soundcheck?
Kaye: Paul Simon soundchecks every chance he gets. It serves to accustom the ears to the venue. Paul often rearranges songs during the course of a tour. When touring with a large band, as Paul has for some time, he has the opportunity to draw from those many strengths and talents. I have seen songs shift tempos, keys, and solo spots. The benefit is that you will hear the songs shift and morph as the tour progressesit keeps the songs fresh and exciting to the ear.
Guitar.com: Do you coordinate much with Paul before shows?
Kaye: Post-soundcheck, I ask Paul to confirm the set list, and let me know of any concerns. Otherwise, he needs to relax.
Guitar.com: How do you build a good rapport with an artist? What kind of character traits do you need?
Kaye: Understanding that I work for the artist and am there to make their performance as easy as possible. I try to be attentive and anticipate their needs and head off technical failures.
Guitar.com: Can you give us an overview of Pauls rig?
Kaye: Most of the acoustic, standard-strung guitars are Martin OM-42PS, which is a signature model. They are Brazilian rosewood back and sides with a spruce top, long scale, and are particularly suited to finger style playing. These are strung with DAddario EJ16s, and most songs are standard tuning. Occasionally, a song will call for drop D tuning or tuning a full step down. Capos are also often used.
We'll have as many as four of those Martins on the road. A new, more affordable Martin PS2 Signature series is just coming on the market. I had some input as to the design features. If these become a part of the show, I will be especially proud.
Kaye: The famous black Yamaha acoustics are all high strung (octave strings from a 12-string set) with specially-cut nut and bridges to accommodate the thinner strings. These guitars are used for "Graceland" (the big E-chord strumming), "Boy in the Bubble," and "The Coast," among others. I have four of thoseone dates from 1988, one from 1990, and Yamaha was kind enough to build us two more in 2002. The guitars have maple necks, and maple back and sides and are very bright in tone. You can see one of the retired 1980s guitars in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
All of Paul's acoustics use the Fishman Matrix pickup under the saddle. The Martins use the Natural 1 preamp, and the Yamahas use the Natural 2 preamp. The matrix is easily installed I have done most of the installations on the road. The two preamps differ in frequency response; the Natural 1 is flat, while the Natural 2 has reduced lows and a presence peak. The preamps were chosen to emphasize the characteristics [that] we desired from the guitars. The really great thing is that the 9-volt batteries last for over a year! I've had other systems where the batteries were used up before the show was over (panic time).
Paul Simon has experimented with many pickup systems and microphones. None have been near what the Fishman system provides, and many were just awful. A few "pickup systems" did little more than turn the entire instrument into a big microphone! We had more drums coming down the guitar channel than we did guitar.
We play big places with a lot of sound sources (musicians) and a lot of speakers both on stage and in the house. We need clean, clear-controlled sound from the guitar, and it seems that what sounded good in a workshop or studio doesn't always work in our environment.
Jim Foster in Louisiana has built a couple of guitars for Paul; a Tele-shaped guitar is a mainstay for Pauls standard-tuning playing. The guitar has the option of a piezo in the bridge as well as split coils for the two humbuckers. The neck contour, fingerboard and frets are all specd to Pauls needs. The strings are DAddario EXL110s
There is also a great high-string electric, which was built from shop remnants by Flip Scipio of Staten Island. While working on the Youre the One album, Paul wanted to try some sounds. Flip threw this guitar together from a body and neck, put on a Seymour Duncan mini-JB in the middle with stacked knobs, and brought it for Paul to check out. Paul loved it! So, Flip carefully constructs a fine guitar based on the Frankenstrat, and Paul still likes the Frankenstrat better. So he buys both. I get asked more questions about that guitar than any other!
We make up our own string sets after buying singles from D'Addario; the gauges are similar to the octave strings in a 12-string set.
There is also a Parker Fly around which was played a lot before the Foster was built for Paul.
Guitar.com: Does Paul use any effects? If so, what?
Kaye: Pauls acoustics run through Samson wireless systems, then right to the PA. The electrics run through Shure wireless systems into multi-effect units, then to amps onstage. We have used Fender Blues DeVillesone for the standard electrics, one for the high string electrics. Usual effects are echoes, which are specific to the tempo of the song, some phasing and tremolo.
Guitar.com: How about Stephen Stills setup? Can you run us through that?
Kaye: Three Martin D-45 SSs, which are a re-creation of the pre-war D-45s: Brazilian Rosewood back and sides, white spruce top, the same thin light bracing and pattern as used pre-war. A total of 91 were made, which sold out when Stephen did a profile on ABC's Nightline. These babies cost over $19,000. You bet I'm careful when I'm handling these!
Pickups are the Fishman Matrix and Natural 1 preamp, which I installed the signal passes through a cable into a Demeter tube direct box then to the PA. The strings I use are D'Addario coated lights.
We have a few Gretsch Stephen Stills model White Falcons, which are based on Stephen's 1958 which he got in trade from Neil Young in 1973 (Stephen traded his stereo White Falcon, which Neil stills plays). The guitars have Bigsby tailpieces, and the Filtertron pickups give a great tone. I have also used TV Jones' pickups in the guitars, which are just great. Tom Jones makes re-creations of what an "aged" pickup would sound like. The strings are DAddario XL140's, which are light top and heavy bottom.
The Gretsch's, we plug into a Silvertone 1485 amp with 6 X 10 cab. The Silvertones were sold at Sears stores in the 60'sours dates from 1965. I also carry a spare!
A 60's Gibson Super 400. Graham Nash and David Crosby bought this guitar for Stephen as a gift while they wee recording Deja Vu. Stephen played it on the title track and "Marrakesh Express." The guitar is beautiful and has very hot pick ups; it get's surprisingly dark and snarly.
Kaye: I also have three old Fender Stratocasters, which date from 1954, 1957, and 1958. The two newer guitars don't have tremolos. One is tuned down a full step with heavier strings to keep the string tension correct. The other serves as a spare.
Stephen's #1 Strat is the 1954, which has a 1956 neck. The frets are almost worn away! I go to great pains to make sure that the tremolo returns to pitch; that means I have to make sure that the nut is lubed, as well as the
tremolo pivot screws and the underside of the string retainers (2). These guitars all have D'Addario XL110's.
The Fenders all run through Marshall TSL602 60 watt combos, which are plenty roaringly loud. They are consistent and dependable. Aside from Groove tubes, no servicing has been needed in thousands of hours of operation.
Guitar.com: How is it different (or is it?), teching for artists on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, such as Paul Simon and Megadeth?
Kaye: Megadeth was all about precision. We had the best gear, and, on some nights, [Megadeth] was clearly the best band in the world. Dave Mustaine always had us seek the best, newest innovations that would keep the band on top. It was very rewarding on the road and in the studio.
Guitar.com: What were some of the challenges of teching for Megadeth?
Kaye: We stressed the biggest and loudest amps! We fit as much gear on stages as we could. In the studio we tried to bring as many sounds and textures into the heavy metal format as we could. Dave invented Megadeth and was the arbiter of what worked and what DID NOT!
On Youthanasia you can hear some high string electric guitarPaul Simons influence on me, to Marty Friedman. You can also hear my Moog Taurus synth pedals. David Ellefson also tried out over 30 basses and it was then that the five-string Modulus Graphite basses came into Megadeth, filling the bottom under the bass drums. And we had stacks of amps. We looked to get each track as distinctive as we could rather than using one amp/one guitar for fifteen songs.
Guitar.com: By way of background, what initially interested you about being a guitar tech?
Kaye: I had been a sound engineer. I knew a little about guitars and was interested in specializing, so I did. Dan Erlewines Guitar Repair book was my guide I still travel with it and refer to it. I carry a number of operation and repair manuals with me.
Guitar.com: Where did you grow up?
Kaye: I'm Canadian, and grew up in an Air Force family. My folks live in Ottawa, Ontario. I had adopted Halifax, Nova Scotia, as my hometown in my teens. After working in the Canadian touring world for years, I was able to transition to higher profile U.S. based acts in the late 80s.
Guitar.com: Had you played in bands yourself before becoming a guitar tech?
Kaye: I don't have the talent to create music myself I try to mimic. I do amuse myself at home with the guitar. I own about fifty amps and fifty guitars. Some new, some vintage. I run a rental business, which serves people in the recording studio who want to use gear that will give different sounds. Fifty-year old guitars and amps sometimes have a thing that just makes a track.
I've got Marshall, Fender, Soldano, Gretsch, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Takamine, Kay, Vox, Randall, Rickenbacker, Matchlessall kinds of neat stuff. I also have a lot of effect pedals and devices, and a couple of Bradshaw and DMC Ground Control switchers. I can play with sounds and tones all day.well, when I'm home!
Guitar.com: What was the most challenging aspect of the job when you first started?
Kaye: The discipline to be professional. A lot of guys come in looking for the party. It's hard work, and its not for everyone! The traveling makes it hard to retain relationships with friends and family.
Guitar.com: Back to the showwe left off somewhere around soundcheck. Post-sound check, what are your remaining responsibilities before the show goes on?
Kaye: Drinks and towels, setlists. And tuning!
Guitar.com: What about during the show itself?
Kaye: You need to tune for the next song, have a spare or plan ready for the current song, monitor the tuning, effects, and amps that are in use, and be ready for anything. You rarely have time to chat with the other crew members; you need to keep your head in the game.
Guitar.com: What sorts of post-show work is there? Do you generally review a show with the artist or does that only occur if he/she wants to tweak something?
Kaye: The artists generally have travel plans and may have to meet fans after the show. What problems Im not aware of will be addressed the next day.
Guitar.com: When does the night end for you, typically?
Kaye: If the show ends at 11 p.m., itll take two to three hours before everything is packed, and we are ready to roll. Since our backline goes in last and out first, I am done before the sound and lighting techs. I usually stay up until we are rolling on the interstate, then sleep with the tires humming.
Guitar.com: In your line of work, what separates a good day from a bad day?
Kaye: A smooth show, as all efforts are focused on the show.
Guitar.com: Do you ever get to enjoy the glamour of being part of a rock and roll tour or is it all work for you?
Kaye: We always joke about the glamour. Loading seven trucks full with black boxes after the show isn't that glamorous. It came in, it all has to be packed, and loaded out. Then, the shower and on the bus to roll to the next town.
Guitar.com: What have been some of your most memorable concerts?
Kaye: Paul Simons 1991 Concert in Central Park. So many people were there they couldnt estimate closer than 700,000 - 1,000,000; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's opening night last year in Detroit, over four hours of amazing songs played together by the guys who created the first supergroup and influenced American music from 1965 on; Megadeth in Buenos Aires, the fans there are the most dedicated, they were louder than the band!
Guitar.com: What are some of your favorite venues?
Kaye: The ones with clean showers (always wear sandals), hot water, good catering, laundry facilities.
Guitar.com: Makes sense. Last question: How do we get your job?
Kaye: "Lost a bet!" (laughs).... In reality, I have seen musicians and music fans turn into techs. You have to start small and work up. Good work and a great attitude will be rewarded eventually. Some guys get skills repairing instruments at a music store, guitar manufacturer, or a luthier school.
Much of my work comes from a Production Manager, who is tasked with staffing a tour and responsible should things go badly. The Production Manager wants a team [that] he can count on to do the job with the least demands on his time. Most hiring and references are done by word of mouth. There are only a couple of hundred people working at the concert level; we mostly know each other, and we all network.
I often hear of open positions that don't suit me or the budget allows for someone who is less experiencedit is then that I try to wrack my brain to think of someone I have met, maybe on the road as a local stagehand, who might be the right person.
Guitar.com: Thanks Michael. We appreciate your time and we'll see you out on the road sometime soon!