This is part 1 of a 3 part entry on Equipment for Professional Songleading. Here I introduce the topic and give some tips that I’ve come up with that are important for any gear like how to save thousands of minutes each year and how to never forget or lose any of your equipment, at home or at the venue.
In Part 2, I actually delve into my list of gear, why it works for me, and other important considerations when choosing each piece of gear.
In Part 3, I focus specifically on my wireless guitar and wireless vocal mic setup, and some related considerations and tips.
If you have questions, feedback, other recommendations, or a question about your specific needs, please leave a note in the comments section below.
I can now say I’ve had over a decade of professional touring and songleading experience (wow, I’m getting up there!) and in that time I’ve dealt with some pretty wild equipment (speakers catching fire, stages cracking underneath me, etc) as well as some pretty wild scenarios (like that time none of my luggage arrived and I had to do a late night run for clothes, toothbrush, and a GUITAR!!!). Sometimes it’s out of my control, but I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes on my own, including not having the right equipment on hand, or simply not using the equipment properly. The good news is that with each mistake, I’ve learned something, and tried to find a way to prevent myself from ever being in that situation again. And I’d like to give you the benefit of all those learning experiences right here…in other words, I made the mistake so you don’t have to!
Before diving in, I want to be very clear. Nothing I will list here will ever be a substitute for strong leadership skills. In fact, it may sound incredible, but one of my favorite camp songleaders growing up never played an instrument and used no amplification in the dining hall at camp. There is no piece of equipment you can buy that will automatically make you a virtuoso (not yet at least!). But the right equipment can help optimize an experience for you and for your group. For example, getting an expensive wireless mic system for your guitar isn’t going to automatically make you sound like a professional guitar player…it will only amplify (make louder!) your current playing. But it might allow you to un-tether yourself from a cable so you can reach those 6th graders at the back of the room, or dance on the table, without losing amplification. And a microphone can protect your voice from having to scream through a loud dining hall for 10 weeks.
I want to also be clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Any songleader worth his/her weight in salt knows that every space and every community has its unique challenges and opportunities. But over the last decade I’ve come up with an arsenal of equipment, systems, and best practices that prepare me as best as possible to walk into almost any situation. I live in NYC which has it’s own unique conditions (space is at a premium, lots of wireless frequencies, I don’t own a car so I have to be able to carry everything in two hands) so definitely tweak this to your liking, but given that I travel across North America for my gigs, this is a good starting point no matter what your situation. Also, my list is my own particular balance of trying to be prepared for any situation VS how incrementally it would enhance the experience, how likely I am to use it regularly, the cost, and how big and heavy it is since I might have to add it to my already heavy load.
One thing to be sure, if you do decide to go make some purchases, wherever you go, unless you're independently wealthy you should never pay retail price. With the exception of some products and some stores, you can always negotiate the price, even at most of the online retailers if you call in or chat with a salesperson. It’s as simple as asking for a discount, especially if you’re purchasing a lot of things. Ask for the best price they can offer, then ask how much more they can take off if you add ‘X’ to your cart. You can also look at the used market…for larger purchases, I’d recommend a store (ie local music store, Guitar Center, major online retailers) with accountability and existing return policies or a service like eBay where they protect you as the buyer. Just be sure to read the fine print on the return policy and make sure it’s exactly the product you're looking for. Other services for the used market include sites like Reverb which is specifically for buying and selling music gear online, Facebook Marketplace, or you can try one of the apps such as LetGo. Craigslist also works but I’m hesitant to purchase electronics on Craigslist unless I have time to spend some time trying out every single feature before purchasing. You can also see if you can rent some equipment from your local A/V company or using a peer to peer site like Sparkplug to try something out before you purchase it.
Please note that this list is for my songleading gigs only (ie camps, worship services, workshops, etc) and not for concert performances. There’s definitely some overlap but otherwise they are very different lists for me.
Ok, one more thing. Before I get into my list of equipment in Part 2, I want to highlight several of the cheapest and easiest solutions I’ve come up with over the years because they don’t really fit one of the categories below. These are good tips for any traveler and I may write something separate with just my travel tips, but if you take two lessons from this document, I’d say these are them.
1) I keep my bags packed all the time. No, I’m not a doomsday prepper, but it’s much easier for me to not forget something if the default is to have everything packed, and to have to physically remove it if I don’t want to carry it. Rather than try to remember everything I need to bring, and then find where it is in my office, I can just assume I have everything and only remove the things I know I won’t need. It also saves a ton of time in packing and unpacking because I only need to pack and unpack my clothes. I also pack everything pretty much the same way each time which keeps things from moving and breaking, and also is a pretty quick visible way to determine if I forgot something.
2) I have two sets of everything. Ok, not everything, but the cheap easy stuff like toiletries. I do over 100 shows per year. If it takes me 5 minutes to gather my toiletries, and another 5 minutes to unpack them, that’s 1000 minutes a year. I can get almost all of them back if I just buy a set of travel toiletries and always keep it packed. It also means I’m much less likely to forget something important like deodorant or toothpaste. Same things go for guitar accessories like capos, tuners, strings, and straps…I keep a set in each guitar bag or case. If you use something up, just make sure to replace it immediately.
3) Put labels on your stuff with your name and phone number. You’d be surprised how often you leave something behind. Or someone grabs your stuff thinking it belongs to them or the venue. Without a label, it’s almost certainly never coming back. That goes for the big stuff all the way down to the little stuff like cables and power adaptors.
4) Lastly and maybe most importantly, use a packing list. You can download my packing list here. We’ve all shown up with a dead battery, without our strap, or sometimes without our signature stylish and, more importantly, functional suspenders! Create a packing list. Know who else uses lists? Hospital doctors and flight ground crews. So if you want to be foolproof, spend the time and do it. You can print several copies and check them off as you pack, or make a list on your phone and tick the checkmarks as you go. It’ll be a living document for a while, but soon you’ll get your own list that doesn’t change much…you can laminate it and leave it in your suitcase. And by the way, this list isn’t only good for getting all of your equipment to the gig, it’s good for making sure you don’t leave anything behind either. VERY IMPORTANT - BE SPECIFIC! Putting “Guitar” on your list, won’t help you remember that you took your tuner out of the case where it usually lives to replace the battery last week and now you’re at your gig but your tuner is still on your kitchen table.
Ok, hope that was helpful. Now, on to the more exciting stuff in part 2.