Watch Your Gear
How to look after instruments and gear on the move.
So you're gigging abroad. Adrian Legg explains the mystic rites that will get your instrument, baggage and body safely through airport and air to the right destination. And he's been there.
While bands still vomit across the local seas and rattle down the autobahns, there is a steady amount of work for solo and duo acts in Europe and Scandinavia. It's quite accessible - you simply need to convince a UK based agent that you're likely to be reasonably entertaining in the teeth of a restaurant/bar full of volubly socialising foreigners, and you'll be flown off somewhere to prove it.
The logistics of solo/duo work are simple; it's easier and cheaper to get one or two musos on a plane/in a hotel/on a small stage than a four or five piece band.
If you pick up some of this work, then you'll get a ticket, instructions, times and names. You will, of course, have checked that the ticket has a valid return flight and sussed that the agent is not a wally/crook. (Check with the local MU sec, who may have picked up gossip or helped out previously screwed musos. At this stage of your career, you are a member of course?) And you will have noticed that under "ALLOW" on the ticket it says 20k. This means you are in turister klasse with the proles, and might just get away with 22 kilos of baggage at check-in if you are utterly charming, attractive and personable, or have a Cheltenham Grammer School tie.
If you have spots, halitosis, and were thrown out of a comprehensive at 14¾, then bear in mind that excess baggage can be very expensive, especially if you have interned flight transfers coming up. Go to the hardware shop before you depart and purchase a two or three quid spring scale to check.
Discuss the score on excess baggage with the agent. You may be lucky and get a contribution up front. More likely, you won't get anything before or after.
If you're a keyboard player, then you're likely to hit 20k with the flight case alone, but you may be able to fix up for a suitable machine to be laid on at the venue. Compare excess baggage rates with likely hire costs. Generally, some amplification and P.A. will be laid on, and as the bulk of this work is currently going to guitarist/singers, we'll concentrate on them.
GUITAR cases first. It still outrages me that this sophisticated and expensive form of travel (flying) poses more of a threat to an instrument than a clapped out Bedford, and requires specialist defensive measures. The most effective is a metal clad flight case, which is more likely to damage the conveyor than suffer itself. But it's likely to cost you excess baggage money, may be difficult to transport at the other end if you're not in a residency, and may discourage you from keeping the guitar with you as much as possible in strange hotels and venues. A flight case for an acoustic can be an extraordinary monster to get through hotel fire doors without smashing them down.
I've seen an old Ovation case (the same, structurally as the light blue Martin cases, and a few others now) go to Saudi Arabia and return a virtual write-off, but with the 12-string it carried still intact. That foam type structure is more or less unrepairable once it has deformed to absorb an impact, and a replacement is, what, 120 quid? Airline compensation will knock off depreciation - so you'll need extra insurance. I should also mention that I have seen examples of top flex in these cases, and have seen holes punched into them after journeys. On the plus side - they're very light if you're only going to chance a cheap guitar on the trip.
Similar plus and minus points apply to Care 4 cases, though they're a bit cheaper to replace: top flex possibilities, fairly thin shells, and not much internal padding rule them out for tougher (my) purposes.
I fly a Calton heavy duty case, usually as checked baggage, and over a couple of years it has been frozen and suffered dreadful violence at the hands of the BAA's demented orangutans and mechanical luggage grinders. So far I have had to repair a couple of bad-ish chips with Isopon, but the guitar has survived unscathed. Total weight with the guitar is just a tad over 13k, which is a lot, but this is a big acoustic.
A smaller guitar in a similar case come out at 10.5k, and I know that other guitarists have flown lighter versions with more delicate guitars. I guess I'm a little paranoid from instrument industry days when I saw more wreckage in a month than most players see in a lifetime, so I'm happy to live with the heavy duty style and extra thick fibreglass. But this leaves me with 7k allowance, plus 5k hand-baggage; not a lot, but by no means impossible.
SYSTEMATIC, almost neurotic, ounce saving can work wonders. Out go the usual OB standard heavy leads, and in go specially made up lightweight ones, cut to minimum length, fitted with Rendar jacks rather than the most fashionable and heavier Neutrik jobs. I took off the heavy metal baseplate from a volume pedal, replaced it with foil-lined plastic, and drilled the footrest - I'm obsessive, clearly, but it halved the weight.
Sock washing opportunities in the itinerary can be carefully calculated, and the minimum packed. Shirts are a nuisance unless they're drip-dry, or a long stay allows the use of a local laundry service. Generally, tee-shirts and sweatshirts are more flexible. If the trip is to Northern Scandinavia, check out Helly-Hanson zip-ups and Mountain Equipment tops in your nearest decent sports/camping shop, particularly in the winter. Modern thermal stuff is very light. You won't mind the expense when you find out what minus 24 centigrade really means.
Aftershave, shampoo, and similar stuff should go in small plastic bottles (camping shop) packed in poly bags in the middle of the clothes. The reasons are obvious and real.
With a lightweight pedalboard as cabin baggage, and stashing the electric shaver in a coat pocket, I made my last trip at 19.7k. Razor points on most planes are 115 volts, and usually there is hot water and soap (SAS supply a free, wimpily pleasant cologne), so in a tight schedule a mobile clean-up is usually possible with a dual voltage razor. Voltage in Europe and Scandinavia is usually 220. In fact, much Jap gear is designed for 220 volts anyway, but overrunning it in the UK usually does no harm.
UK two pin razor plugs will not fit European ordinary two pin mains sockets, and any UK mains plugs you have will require an adaptor. You can get a pretty good multiple adaptor at Heathrow and most major airports, a 'Super-Plug' by Traveller International Products Ltd, London, but it will not do the little three pin Swiss sockets if you want an earth. Be careful with these gadgets - the one designed to let you put a UK plug into a foreign socket has an earth, but the one which will take a European style plug and convert it into UK or foreign (useful for some power supplies for fx made in a European style plug case, eg Boss PSA 220) does not have an earth. That's OK for many small psus which don't require one, but not for anything that does.
For Switzerland, take a trailing socket with the wire fitted and pre-cut for a Swiss plug. Leave about 20mm live and neutral, plus 5 to 6mm stripped ends, out of the cable sheath, and about 7mm plus 5 to 6mm stripped end earth. This will give you room to manoeuvre and fit the strain relief clip, and all you have to take will be a screwdriver.
If you're planning to use on-site gear, a small graphic will be useful in helping you defeat amp characteristics you don't want. Invade dealer one Monday morning and try your guitar through a few different amps with different pedals. You'll certainly find echo a useful weapon as well, and if you are starting to think in the fx board/rack area, remember beautiful sounds are only any use if you can take them to people. Lightweight boards rule OK in my book, and sod the hiss.
Look out for Globetrotter suitcases. Harrods stock them, or see Yellow Pages. They are light, tough and look a bit like something a wartime evacuee might arrive with. There is one which BA have approved as a suitable size for cabin baggage into which may be stuffed a very impressive amount of socks, leads, knickers, pedals and so on. I have never been asked to weigh my cabin baggage, but would suggest not pushing your luck over the 7k mark. Some provincial airports display intimidating notices about what may or may not be taken in the cabin, and recently regulations are supposed to have been tightened up. All I can say is that I have seen some odd things carried on and off planes. Aer Lingus, in particular, have been amiably forgiving about hurley sticks and guitars in soft bags (not mine). But then Aer Lingus hosties have slipped me unofficial coffees in the back seat, and generally been more thoroughly human and friendly than all the rest put together.
A singer friend swears that East European airline Malev employs steroid-boosted lady shot-putters who slam you in your seat and do up your belt so tight you can't draw enough breath to ask for anything. BA may be Thatcherised to commercial efficiency, but you'll more likely get a second cup of coffee on SAS and they won't boss you about so much.
CHECK-IN is no problem. You can ask for your guitar to be hand loaded out to the plane, and it will be done. Ask for 'Fragile' labels, and use plenty - that way someone might notice at the other end. Each arrival will be different, though Heathrow and Gatwick seem to be the absolute killers for luggage handling. Aer Lingus from Dublin will often unload you down steps to the apron, from where you walk to a bus to Customs. Before you board the bus, you can get to speak to uniformed ground staff, who will either bollock you for walking under the engine, or discreetly allow you to take your guitar with you onto the bus.
On a full flight, this will test your fellow passengers' patience and shins to the limit, so smile and say sorry a lot. On the one occasion when I was bollocked and my guitar denied me, I threw a wobbler which, very surprisingly, did result in a loader carrying my guitar into the baggage reclaim. Gossip had it that that airline was particularly sensitive at that time, having just smashed up a priceless cello.
Most arrivals at Heathrow unload you out of the plane door into a nasty little walkaway tube, and here there is little possibility of contact with ground staff. When you have rescued your instrument from the conveyor, check it thoroughly immediately, before clearing Customs, and report any damage to airline staff in the baggage reclaim hall.
Customs officials are used to musicians. I have never been asked for a carnet for one bashed up old guitar and a few pedals. I've been searched lightly a few times, questioned about a hurley stick (a gift), and asked if I could prove the guitar was mine. When I offered to get the purchase receipts out from under the case lining, I was waved on. Someone once took my guitar for me by road to Germany while I flew on later, and somehow ended up paying duty on it, but it seems that if you are travelling with your own instrument, and can prove that it is yours and that playing it rather than trading it is your business, then there are no problems. A carnet may be necessary for a large amount of gear, and must be fixed up in advance with your agent and the local Chamber of Commerce, who stand guarantor that you will not flog the gear illegally. A carnet will specify entry and exit points in a country, and these must be adhered to, and all stamps collected.
You should have a full UK passport for this sort of jaunting, and your agent may require details in advance to fix up work permits, local tax liability and so on. If unsure, ask the agent. If worried, check with the MU.
OUTBOUND, you will encounter airport security checks. I have been asked if my fx case contained a gun, and the first time through the X-ray machine I had to open it up and explain it. God knows what they suspected it might be. Before you go through the metal detector door frame, dump your keys and capo in the tray by the side, it will save time - though a patriotic guard at Geneva was rather pleased when my forgotten Swiss Army knife set off all the alarms.
Some places operate random and double checks. I was once hustled excitingly into a cubicle by a very firm Scandinavian lady and thoroughly frisked. And you may encounter a baggage ident; that is, the baggage is left on trolleys alongside the walk to the plane. Only if you go and point yours out to ground staff will it be loaded, so watch out for it.
Double check where you may or may not take photographs. Many Scandinavian airports are used by military craft and photography is forbidden. A take-off roar at Stavanger, for example, is as likely to be a couple of fighters bristling into the sky as an innocent airliner. Point the Polaroid and you will discover that paranoia is not exclusively Russian.
Don't forget to slacken off the strings on a guitar. When it gets cold, wood becomes more brittle, and string tension will exaggerate the shock of any bumps. An aircraft hold can get very cold, even in apparently mild weather.
Finally, flying can provide some beautiful sights in terms of sunsets, clouds, mountains and so on. Check-in in good time, and get a window seat. Aer Lingus allocate tourist seats at check-in, BA at boarding, others may not bother. I'd recommend 21a or e on a DC9, 23a or e on a 737, between tail and wing. Right at the back on a DC9, or over the wings on anything and you won't see a thing. First and/or Euro class are usually up the front, but internals in Scandinavia are usually Fokker Fellowships, and here non-smoking tourists can sit up at the front - the gap between engine and wing is too small to see much.
If you're lucky enough to get the little 22 seat, bog-less Widerøe gull up Norway from Trondheim to Mo-I-Rana (there is a residency there), sit at the back on the right and be prepared for some stunning views and occasionally very hairy landings. Not that whoever sits by the doorway gets showered with snow when the door with integral steps is lifted up and slammed shut at each stop. Lay off liquids before going on this one, the trip can be an exhilaratingly bumpy two hours, and the ten minute brew and pee break at Brønnesunde is over halfway. It's right pioneer stuff in winter.
Feature by Adrian Legg
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