Quick Onstage Fixes

Don’t Be Caught Off Guard

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It’s perfect. After years of personal and collective effort, dedication, sacrifice, and selfless teamwork, you finally find yourself in the opening slot of a sold-out show at the biggest venue in your town. The headliner’s monitor guy, upon noticing your lack of crew, not only offered to do your mix, but is boppin’ to your songs and giving you a big thumbs-up. There are actually people in the audience singing along with your tunes. Real, live celebrities are standing in the wings, smiling and nodding their approval. The whole band, including, no, especially, you is playing like a fiend. It’s perfect.

Suddenly, with the split-second speed of a sucker-punch, before your brain can even tell exactly what it is, you know something has gone terribly wrong. As a nauseating shock shoots through your entire body, your mind tells you it’s your kick pedal. It’s not returning. You look down to see the headless shaft of the beater buried in a rip in the head, and in that incapacitating nanosecond, which is the shattering of what was perfection, you must somehow find the clarity to shut out the panic and assess and solve the situation.

Now, no doubt when the editors at DRUM! assigned this article, they sought a player who was the perfect combination of McGyver and village idiot; someone sufficiently half-witted to get himself into such predicaments, while being (usually) resourceful enough to get himself out. So join me, won’t you, as we draw upon a long career fairly teeming with such terrifying moments, and try to retroactively make some good out of a few of the horrifying experiences I’ve endured.

Keeping in mind that we don’t all have the same hardware, let’s just go around the kit and look for potential problem areas. It’ll be tough to be specific, but there are a few broad strokes that apply to us all. Paramount among these is gaffer’s tape, aka duct tape, or as some simply call it: “rock and toll tape.” This stuff is responsible for more foolproof fixes than the Nevada Boxing Commission. Don’t skimp on the quality — get the good stuff; it can be found at most serious hardware or plumbing supply stores. The black cloth tape is the strongest and will leave the least amount of sticky residue when removed (you really should remove it and actually fix the problem at some point). It’s not cheap, but it’s well worth it. I keep a roll in my backup snare case that stays next to me on stage. Oh yeah — have a backup snare.

By now you know a broken head (change those heads!) can put a huge gap in your groove. When your snare drum craps out, throwing a new drum into play is often preferable to trying to do an on-the-spot repair. Having a second snare already set up will accomplish this. With the help of, say, a monitor person, the transition can be made smoothly and quickly. Also, I’ve arrived at gigs to find, to my horror, that the bottom head on my snare is torn. Try finding a snare head at 7:00 P.M. in Altoona, Pennsylvania. I always pack new batter and snare heads, upside down, inside the top rim of the backup snare. New snares and cords (or whatever you use to attach your snares) fit snugly inside these. If your snare stand goes, it’s generally a tape-up job — and lots of it!

As far as your stool is concerned, not much can go wrong here. Bear in mind though that however unlikely collapse might be, if that stool goes during your show, it goes fast — and usually with disastrous results. Always give it a quick once-over during set-up.

Okay, your hi-hat — plenty of margins for error here. I’ve found the two most popular trouble spots to be the clutch and the pull rod, and it’s usually one of two things: something’s either stripped, or has come unscrewed. I always carry an extra clutch in my stick bag; they’re small and can get you up and running quickly without a lot of repair/down time. Always check first, though, to see if the lower (inside) threaded washer has simply backed off. The pull rod is not so simple. Typically, the lower and upper pull rod assemblies come apart. Again, make sure the bottom one (or the top one) hasn’t just backed off. The threaded connector between the two rods will occasionally back down the lower rod, due simply to gravity and time. This leaves insufficient room for the upper rod to be adequately screwed in. During set up, occasionally check to make sure this is not happening. If the grooves on any of the three pieces have stripped, you’ve got the thin hope of gaffer’s tape to hold it all together, which isn’t terribly likely if you tend to stomp that pedal. Often, your best bet is to set the cymbals at the distance relative to that which you most often play, i.e., slightly apart for sloshy sounds, closed tight for funk stuff.

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Speaking of pedals, the bass drum offers a hornet’s nest of possibilities. I carry an old, collapsible pedal in my trap case. Today’s pedals are often permanently mounted on a footboard, but many older ones fold down flat for storage. These take up very little space and will almost certainly take less time than remounting a spring assembly, or even refastening a thrown beater. To address the nightmare situation described in the introduction, I carry a cutout section of an old floor tom head for patching purposes. If your bass drumhead rips, secure the patch to the beater side of the head, and cover (and I mean cover) the patch concentrically, inside and out, with — right you are — gaffer’s tape. (Note: Although the patch requires layer upon layer of tape, be sure you don’t get tape in the area where the beater makes contact with the head. If this happens, the beater will soon wear through the tape and begin to stick to the adhesive beneath — trust me). More than once, this little trick has gotten me to the break, when I can put on a fresh head (stored the same way I stash the snare and all other spare heads).

In the event of the “dancing drum” (slipping bass drum), a small, heavy object, placed directly against the front of the drum, with — you guessed it — the bejesus taped out of it, will usually get you through the set. Occasionally, stagehands will have sandbags or iron weights that will serve the purpose. There are still venues out there that, mystifyingly, don’t have drum rugs. I purchased a rubber-bottomed doorway rug at one of those behemoth hardware stores for about $15. Well worth the investment.

“How about cymbal stands?” you may well ask. This is a good place to recommend the “bag of tricks”: a baggie filled with felt pads, washers, wing nuts, rubber sleeves, tension rods — all the little necessities that are the percussive equivalent of laundry day’s mysterious missing sock. The bag fits nicely into the pocket of your stick bag, and you’ll be glad you have it. Certain pieces of hardware, specifically pedals, require Allan wrenches for adjustments. The “B.O.T.” is a good place to keep these tiny, easy-to-lose tools. As to the actual stands, it’s (the envelope, please), once again, “butt-loads of tape!” Should a leg collapse, prop it up and lay on the tape. If a tilter should strip out, a “splint” can be fashioned out of a broken stick or two, and gobs of tape that will reconnect it to the main arm of the stand. Not ideal, definitely not permanent, but usually acceptable for the moment — not unlike your plans for the end of the evening.

Okay, let’s see … broken tom heads. Simple. Remove the Swiss Army-style knife from your stick bag (you do have one, right?), and with the scissors, cut away as much head as possible, then flip the drum over. Come break time, you just replace the heads (being sure to secure new ones as soon as possible, as you never know when a good head will go bad).

Memory locks are useful devices, not only during set-up, but at repair time, as well. For instance, if the positioning/locking assembly on your floor tom leg strips out, the drum will rest more stably on the memory lock, and can be secured with — do I even need to say it? If your hardware didn’t come with these cool little gadgets, you can use hose clamps, purchased at a hardware or auto supply store for next to nothing. Word of warning: Because hose clamps won’t stay as secure as the factory-installed units, frequent retightening is required.

Cymbals are the only thing left I can think of, and I’m afraid there are not only no quick fixes, but no guaranteed repairs of any type. The only surefire cure for a cracked cymbal is a new cymbal. The one good thing (if one can call it that) about a cracked cymbal is that it usually takes quite a while to spread to the point at which the cymbal is unusable, and is therefore highly unlikely to be a show-stopper — a mood-buster, yes, but not a show-stopper. My one suggestion for staving off the inevitable is to drill a hole slightly larger than the crack, at the point at which it stops — a sort of “cul-de-crack,” if you will. This will hopefully arrest the spread and give you and your cymbal more time together before it’s relegated to the practice kit.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with one piece of advice more valuable to your future than everything else in this article combined: Buy stock in gaffer’s tape, and buy big. Your children will thank you.