Six-string gods may be the famous ones, but their jobs are made infinitely easier by guitar techs. The Globe spoke with three of these unsung heroes – including Rush's guitar guru/gear nanny Scott Appleton – about the job of keeping rock's road machine tuned.
Appleton is Alex Lifeson's guitar tech on Rush's Clockwork Angels Tour. He's worked in the field on and off for 20 years, for Journey, Def Leppard, Styx and Peter Frampton. "I'm a guitar player who kind of drifted into this," he says. "Not all guitar techs are players, but I've been playing since I was 10 years old." Some guitarists are more particular about their sound and instruments than others, but Appleton has no issues with rock stars who are fussy. "If they can tell me exactly what they want, it makes my job easier. Alex is very easy, in that respect, because he knows what he likes."
Lifeson uses, no surprise, a Gibson Custom Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess. "It has a certain aggressive tone that he really likes," Appleton says. The guitar, from a small run of the model with a black finish, uses a piezo pickup that allows Lifeson to switch from an electric sound to an acoustic one, for songs such as The Garden and Halo Effect. When a guitar is switched during the show, Appleton hands the new one to Lifeson and takes the other to his station, where it is immediately re-tuned. The strings on the main guitars are changed after each show. "I give them away all the time," says Appleton, of the old strings. "Before I started giving them away, I used to see people digging through the trash for them."
Appleton works up to 14 hours a day on concert days, starting at 11 a.m. (changing strings, tuning the guitars and setting up Lifeson's rig), continuing to a soundcheck at 5 p.m., then being on call during the show – during which he wears a custom-fitted in-ear monitor, with the same audio mix as Lifeson's – and, finally, helping with the load-out. Asked about his job, he breaks it down to a trio of responsibilities: One part luthier (guitar repairer), one part electrical engineer and computer programmer, and one part "abnormal psychiatrist." As he explains, a crew on the road lives and works in close quarters. "You have to know how to get along with people. I really think that's 80 per cent of the job."
Francis has worked with Aerosmith's Joe Perry, Steve Vai, Guns N' Roses and the Black Crowes's Rich Robinson. Currently he's the guitar tech for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who works with Francis to achieve a homogeneous sound from his various instruments. Why doesn't Gibbons simply use one guitar if he only wants one tone? "I get that question a lot," says Francis, who charts the sound frequency of Gibbons's favourite guitar and uses that as a benchmark for all the others. "Billy takes a scientific approach when it comes to his sound, but it is a show. People come to expect to see Billy's fancy, weird guitars, with fur and all that."
Gibbons's collection is legendary, but the models he uses on stage are all custom-made by John Baldwin, of Boise, Idaho. "There's Billy on stage, there's Billy in the recording studio and there's Billy the collector," says Francis, who's worked with the Texas blues rockers since 1995. "They all prefer different stuff." Asked if Gibbons is a tough guy to work for, Francis says it all comes down to personality. "I tend not to get along with guitarists who wipe their guitars off after they play or baby them. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but Billy and I, we don't care if a guitar gets scratched. We click. In general, though, we're all guitar nuts. Handling the guitar side is never the problem."
The workload for a guitar tech varies depending on the guitarist and scope of the show. Gibbons, for example, receives so many guitars, he rarely uses any one of them long enough to wear them out. "I'm not doing a lot of maintenance with him." When Francis gets the call to work with the Black Crowes, he will suggest someone he trusts to replace himself on ZZ Top's tour if there is a scheduling conflict. "You wanna make sure your man is taken care of," Francis explains. "You don't want to send in a yahoo and mess things up." As for the Black Crowes job, it's known to be a demanding gig because guitarist Rich Robinson employs dozens of guitars and all sorts of different tuning set-ups. "It's a workout, but I love working with the Crowes," says Francis, of the southern rockers. "Rich uses 43 guitars, but that's okay, because I really love guitars, man. It's not a problem."
For the last 20 years, Ousley has worked with the Heart sisters, Ann and Nancy Wilson. Besides his affiliation with the Crazy on You band, he's changed strings for Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Steve Miller, Foo Fighters and Patti Smith. "In this business, it's what you know, but it's also who you know," Ousley says. "But the Heart girls are my favourites. Ann and Nancy are like my big sisters, and I'm like the little brother they never had." Ousley's job with Heart extends to creating guitar-shaped gardens for them – "gardening keeps me grounded"– and maintaining the side-stage coffee and juice machines. "I like to keep them awake and healthy at the same time. If one of them gets sick, we might not be playing that night. And that puts a lot of people out of work."
Nancy Wilson has used Ovation and Takamine acoustic models, but now uses her signature HD-35 model from Martin. In 1976, Vancouver-based luthier Ed Myronyk built Wilson a steel-string called the Libra Sunrise, a Martin-based model she used to record Mistral Wind. She no longer takes it on the road. "It's the old guy we keep locked in the cellar," says Ousley. Wilson's main electric is a 1963 blue Fender Telecaster, featured on Even It Up, Straight On and Bebe le Strange. "She can play anything, and it's going to sound like Nancy Wilson," Ousley says. "It could be a cigar box and a rubber band." As for her stage set-up, things are straightforward. "Mainly it's guitar going straight into a Grooves Tube Direct Box, which splits off into Trace Elliot acoustic amps, which the soundman uses a bit of for texture."
Because the Wilsons don't always attend the sound checks, Ousley makes decisions for them and then leads them around the stage when they do arrive before the show, pointing out any particulars with the room. "We play anywhere, from theatres to hockey halls these days," Ousley says. "Anywhere there's electricity and a bag of money we'll play." As for his own role, Ousley sees it as 360-degree job, from making the coffee to tuning the guitars to setting up Wilson's stage equipment and wiring. "I'm the guy who stands at the side of the stage or behind the amps. I'm the guy who keeps things going. I'm the rock 'n' roll butler."