How To Become a Guitar Technician
Guitar Technician Kenny Barnwell explains the role of a Music Tech within the backline of a tour by saying, “Backline is basically all of the instruments onstage that are used and so Guitar Teching is kind of a specific position within backline. Drums, keys, bass, DJ: oftentimes now playback and tracks are also part of backline.
“As a Guitar Tech specifically what you would do is set up and maintain all the stringed instruments. That may not be limited to just guitars; it may be bass guitars, mandolins, fiddles, [and] cellos, depending on the artist.”
“The idea of having a Guitar Tech is to setup and maintain all those things through the variables of travel, what the instruments go through while you’re on the road, and make them play consistently for the artist or the musician show-by-show or venue-by-venue. Also during the show doing instrument changes to help the show go smoothly.”
“Fortunately, during backline, we’re some of the last to get set up and usually the first stuff to get taken down so we have a lot later starts than some of the other touring Music Tech positions like lighting, video, and audio.”
“My day would consist of waiting for my stuff to get off the truck, and once it comes off the truck you usually figure out where the whole production is in regards to getting loaded in or set up so you know where you can insert your position for the day. You might have to wait on the staging guys, for example, to set up the risers or something like that before you can put your drums or your keys or your guitars into position.”
“So it’s kind of a dance with all departments. As a Guitar Tech, throughout the show, it’s really busy. You’re tuning the guitars for the next song, applying capos, getting them in tune and ready for sometimes multiple songs ahead. At the same time, you have in-ear monitors, and you’re constantly listening out for things that could be happening outside of your vantage point.”
“You’re looking for string breakage or out-of-tune instruments so you can be at the ready to change those things out so the show can continue. They always say the best Techs are never seen because it’s a lot of running work. During the show, it’s a lot of thinking ahead and listening out.”
“Immediately after the show is over, you start your strike or breakdown, so [once] the last song hits—or usually a couple before—you start breaking down your stuff because backline has to get out of everyone’s way before the rest of the production can start breaking down. If we don’t need instruments for future songs during the show, we try to pack them up.”
“As we get going, it’s super fast-paced. Load in, obviously, is a bit slower because you have to get everything set up right, and the loadout is super fast. The biggest tours I’ve been on, with the most stuff, I’ve been done and in the truck in under forty-five minutes or half an hour sometimes. We’re fast.”
“Depending on the size of the organization, if it’s a one bus tour where you have the band and the few crew guys on the tour pulling a trailer, you’ll always have a FOH Audio Engineer, somebody who controls the sound the audience hears.”
“You’ll always have a Monitor Engineer, somebody who controls the sound that the artist hears onstage, then typically you’ll have a backline person or two who can also double duty as a Stage Manager or Musical Instrument Builder, and I’ve done that plenty of times.”
“You’ll have lighting guys, staging guys taking care of the risers, Sound Techs. Sometimes extensive tours will have playback people, and Wireless RF Technicians who are just making sure all the wireless is coordinated.”
“You’ll sometimes have Systems Techs on these bigger tours who will make sure the room is tuned so the FOH Engineer can manually mix the actual show. All the way up to Production and Stage Managers, you work alongside everybody.”
On average, Guitar Technicians can expect to earn approximately $52,200 annually. The salary range for Guitar Technicians runs from $35,000 to $79,000.
Barnwell says, “It’s different in different genres. There are a handful of different ways to get paid. In the country music genre, they pay typically per show. You get a negotiated show rate with a per diem, and that per diem could be every day you’re gone [or] only on days off. It varies.
“A per diem is for things like food and expendables, things you need when you’re not working because on the job you’re fed four times a day so you don’t have to spend that money. And then there’s the negotiated salary rate. Like in country, if you get a salary rate, it’s usually based on a per-show rate. Say you do 100 shows a year; they’ll give you a weekly salary based on that rate.
“In rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and some other genres, it’s completely different. It’s usually a weekly rate, plus retainers when you’re in between tours to keep you if they want to keep you. But the game is much different in country than in rock, meaning if you’re not up to par in the rock ‘n’ roll and pop world, you’re easily replaced and they’ll get someone else.
“In the country world, there’s a bit more leniency, but you also do a lot more work for a lot less pay– in the Christian world as well. But there’s a lot more downtime, a lot more at-home time and there’s a lot more predictability in scheduling.
“Pop and rock pay a lot more than country or Christian with a lot less home time. Someone can expect anywhere from $150 a show all the way up to $700 a show if you’re an A-lister and anywhere in between. Then there are weeklies that range from $1,000 or $1,500 a week. Then you know, Prince’s Guitar Tech makes a flat five grand a week. I know guys who can make upwards of five and six thousand a week doing backline.”
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Of the lifestyle of touring Music Techs, Barnwell says, “there’s plenty of downtime in the day, depending on your position [but] you can never say ‘this time of day is going to be my naptime,’ or go exercise or read a book or something like that. You just take it [downtime] while you can because the gigs are all different.
“If it’s an arena tour, for instance, those schedules are usually pretty set because we have local crew that the Production Managers have to advance and hire, so they have set times to be there. It really depends on the size of the tour.
“All productions typically have lighting rigs and stuff that is above us that needs to get set up. Most of the time we carry that stuff with us. So they may start at 6:30 am in the morning, whereas backline guys, we might not get in till 10:00 am, 11 am, and not start till 11:00 am, 11:30 am sometimes.
“If it’s a festival stage with other bands you’ve got to contend with, there are so many variables that make every day different. There have been times where you’ve shown up at a festival at 2:00 pm or 3:00 pm in the afternoon and you have to play at 5:00 pm.”
Barnwell describes the trajectory an aspiring Guitar Tech would travel to get their dream job, advising people to “go the Stagehand route so you get the production experience and align yourself with all the right companies, so you know what it takes.
“Hopefully, you’ll be in those right conversations to hear about these road gigs and that’s how you would get your [first] gig. You could maybe know someone who’s in a band on the rise.”
In terms of how a Guitar Tech would advance in their career after years on the Road Crew, he says “a lot of Guitar Techs take their careers to endorsement [deals] for vendors. The reason why is [that] one of the biggest things we do as backline guys is we facilitate relationships and oftentimes are the middleman between an artist and an endorsement vendor.
“We know the gear, the technical aspects of the gear and how it sounds. So a lot of times we are asked by those companies, years and years later, after we’ve built lots of those relationship connections, to represent them. For somebody like myself, I want to be an educator. We see a lot of needs and gaps in terms of products, so I’ve created products with my own brand.”
Barnwell reiterates the importance of gaining experience on a local production crew before looking for jobs as a touring Guitar Tech. He says, “If you check your internal network and don’t know anyone who’s connected like this, if you’re truly serious about getting on tour, it’s easily doable. Start from the bottom. There’s no time frame, but I was on tour within a year of becoming a Stagehand.”
Barnwell advises aspiring Guitar Techs to:
- “Buy my book. I’m serious. I wrote the book to answer this kind of question of how to get on tour, how to start at the bottom and work your way up, how to act on your first day on the job, how to act on the bus.”
- Find a job on a local production crew as a Stagehand.
- Find mentors and learn from people currently working in the industry.
- Teach yourself by watching online tutorials.
Experience & Skills
Barnwell says, “there’s no one way to go at this. Most people talk about the ‘who do you know,’ which is true to a degree. You do need to know somebody to get into the more specified areas. I’ve heard of guys knowing bands from high school or growing up around bands and then those bands making it big and them being able to assist them in their growth, but those are few and far between.
“How I started is gaining experience on the ground level. I talk about this in my book Backstage Pass: getting onto a local crew in your area and gaining experience in that way and some reputability which will give you this vast amount of skills in knowing production as a whole. As a Guitar Tech, you need to be aware of a lot more than just your small duty.
“It behooves you to be aware of what’s going on in the bigger picture. There are skills in this regard that you can only learn on the job, and as a local crew person, you don’t need any experience or connections for those types of positions. You just need to Google them and get in touch with these companies and get on their call lists.
“Google ‘local crew’ or ‘local Stagehand work’ to gain those skills necessary to align you with the right people, meaning backline companies. There are companies that do backline rentals and rehearsals and you can potentially get on a rehearsal with a known touring act, have them like you and have them ask you to come on tour, which is exactly what happened to me many years ago.
“For anyone looking to get into Guitar Teching, it’s more important to know about [concert] production than it is to actually learn the specifics of how to maintain and work on guitars. There’s not really a need for Guitar Builders or Luthiers on the road. We don’t have time to do that stuff on the road.
“It doesn’t hurt to have that kind of knowledge, to know how to repair a transformer in an amp or re-glue a headstock on a guitar. It’s just not something you will typically come across needing to do as a touring Tech because of time alone.
“There are a lot of skills you need to have in relationships and artist management skills. Dealing with artists: they’re a unique breed of person. It’s one thing knowing how to work on a guitar or something like that. It’s another thing knowing how to communicate and interpret the needs of an artist.
“For instance, when I was working with Travis Tritt, he came up to me and said, ‘I want all of my stuff to sound like Waylon Jennings. Here’s Waylon’s record, if you haven’t heard it. Listen to this and I want to take all the stuff I have in here’—it was just in a pile in his studio in his house—‘I want to rebuild all this and make it sound like this record.’
“So you know, that takes a whole different level of skill beyond restringing and setting up.”
“The number one thing you would need is to not want to be on that stage,” Barnwell says of the right type of personality for Guitar Tech work. “You have to want to be backstage. You have to be fine with being behind the scenes and you can’t feel like you want to be out there.
“You have to want to be a crew person, and I know that seems like a no-brainer, but you get a lot of guys who come out, especially Guitar Techs—I’ve replaced people on tours where they were telling me that the Guitar Tech before me was telling the band guys that he learned all the guitar parts just in case someone gets sick.
“His intention was that he wanted to be a part of the band. You’ve got to love what you do and want to be where you’re at.”
Education & Training
A college degree isn’t required for a Guitar Tech since the majority of their knowledge is learned on the job.
Barnwell says “you can definitely educate yourself. YouTube has a plethora of videos. I personally did a whole lengthy video series. There were sixty videos I did specifically on being a touring Guitar Tech, from everything you would need in your workbox, how to even buy a workbox and what you need it for, to how to outfit it, to the different aspects of restringing, how to maintain it and things like that.
If you do happen to go to a Luthier school, those skills couldn’t hurt. Something I’ve done over the years is bought old amps, guitars and effects pedals, ripped them apart and put them back together to see if I could get them working again, using Google as the resource to self-educate.
“There’s a lot of knowledge out on the road that you can’t find anywhere except by doing. I think the best education, in general, to help you as a touring Guitar Tech would be Stagehand work. I think local Stagehand work is a fantastic way to cut your teeth, to even see if you’re interested in all of it; you may find that you like some other department better than doing the instrument work.”
Although many websites and forums about life on the road exist, Barnwell doesn’t especially recommend them for aspiring Guitar Techs. Instead, he suggests people “search for guys like myself and start following them. Align yourself with mentors who are already doing what you want to do and that way you can gain practical, first-hand knowledge about where you want to go instead of a bunch of banter from road guys telling war stories.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Go start as a Stagehand. If you are already a Stagehand and you’re working in local production, I would say learn about everyone’s position because it’s going to help you, specifically as a Guitar Tech. It’s all working together. Go get practical experience in production as a whole before you think about jumping out onto the road as a Guitar Tech.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Thinking that you’re friends with the artist. I know that sounds a little harsh. Always be friendly with the artist, but it’s a level of respect. It’s a multimillion dollar business and I’ve seen so many people get discouraged when they get close and all of a sudden something happens out of your control–whether it’s management or the artist goes into the studio–and you’re out of a job and you go ‘What happened? I thought we were friends.’
The #1 mistake is people thinking they’re secure with any one artist when you’re really only secure because you’re good at what you do. You’re your own artist, so to speak. You’re your own brand, especially as a Guitar Tech. You have to hustle up your own work from tour to tour or artist to artist.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Perseverance, because of the fact that there is a lot of resistance. The first tour I went on I was disrespected and mistreated, just had resistance from my inner crew people. That alone could’ve made me give this up and made me get something more secure, somewhere where I could be respected.
[Maintain] perseverance through all the crazy variables you just can’t control. Also, attitude. Negativity spreads thick, so it’s easy to come into an already difficult day and hear your Production Manager say ‘this sucks.’ It can take you down when realistically you can say, ‘it doesn’t have to suck.’”
Kenny Barnwell is a Touring Music Tech who has worked with Ariana Grande, Travis Tritt, Amos Lee, Seal, The Band Perry, and Clint Black, among others. He is also a Songwriter and creator of the Music Products and Education company Ol’ Kens Brand. He is the author of Backstage Pass: 10 Things to Consider When Becoming a Touring Music Tech and Stagehand 101. You can check out more of Barnwell’s music industry advice on the podcast The Fascinating Business of Music.