The Other Side Of The Stage: Neil Moxham

Written by
Logan Tabor
Published on
January 22, 2021 11:44:43 AM PST January 22, 2021 11:44:43 AM PSTnd, January 22, 2021 11:44:43 AM PST

How did you get into being a guitar tech and how long have you been doing it?

I get asked that a lot and it’s like a ramp, you know?  It’s a ramping adventure.  In 1985, I got interested in playing but, out of the band, I was the most technical person out of the batch, so I became the band tech for equipment, and sound, and fixing the gear in that era.  Then we can wind back even more to about 1981; I was probably 13 years old and I started out as a drum tech for this 12-year-old drummer. He was in a band that played regionally with his two brothers.  He now plays with Blue Man Group and I now tech for Godsmack...so he got somewhere and so did I, I guess.But that’s a hard question because it’s been a ramp; there was always something technical with equipment, whether it was sound or guitar-oriented equipment.  I just kept grabbing at more and more skills over time.  Whether it was the guitar work itself, or building racks, or just the flow of touring.  A lot goes into it that isn’t the actual guitar “tech” portion of it.  A lot of it is real-estate management, and time management, and coordinating with local stagehands.    

Do you do any amp tech'ing as well?

Yes and no.  I’m not nearly as in-depth, component-level skilled as many techs that I know who come from an amp background.  On the road, it’s tough to do that sort of work because of the time pressures.  And we also have support from amplifier companies so we have spares on hand; when one amp has really badly gone down, I just send it out instead of working on it, usually.  Those guys have the time to diagnose properly.  I can do things like re-tube, bias, and get something running the next day. And I have an understanding about the real fundamentals,  but in general I would say not any more than a race car driver is rebuilding his own motor.    

How does a guitar tech go from doing repairs in a shop to tech'ing for a touring artist?

There isn’t anything more than ‘right place at the right time.’  I know very few people that were shop repair people before becoming touring techs.  They tend to just be good shop repair people or end up working for larger companies in a support scenario.  I’m sure they’re out there, but if I sat with 100 guitar techs and asked them all, I wouldn’t hear that story very often.  It’s mostly being at a theater or at a show or with a band; most of the time I was helping a band and then they got signed.  Or I was in the alleyway helping to move gear with a young band who just got signed, and they trusted me, and then poof: the next thing you know they’re off and flying by the seat of their pants.  

Do you tech during recording sessions as well?

I do.  And that’s a 50/50 thing with people I meet. If my compadres or touring friends have this conversation maybe fifty percent of them will say that they were a recording tech at the same time.  I have done it and I enjoy that because I have a wider skill set than someone who is just a drum tech or personal assistant; I can do keyboards, I understand how to move equipment, how to understand MIDI, how to know when things are failing.  If certain guitars, or amps, or speaker combinations need to be put together for noon time because they are going to track these songs, I have a wide enough breadth of skill set that I might get hired before someone else.  It doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t do it, but those can be long expensive days and it can be easier to have one solid person to get it up and running.   

How many months are you on the road each year?

Well in the last 2 years it was a little less than I’d hoped because of cancellations or ‘redirects,’ for lack of a better word; but usually maybe 8 months each year.  Even though you’re doing it the entire time, you’ll realize later that there was 2 weeks off here, or 10 days off here, and you don’t really notice those scraps until you put them all together.  But it feels like you’re always on full; you come home to get caught up, and transition from going to or coming from Europe, before you know it you’re out again.  Time between fly dates and festival runs, all those little days add up.  So I would say my paid time is probably three quarters of the year.    

Any favorite guitar shops that you like to visit when you can?

I don’t arrive in a town and say ‘I have to go to this shop,’ because I already spend all week doing that.  But if I have a day off and the boss says ‘hey, let’s go check out some vintage gear,’ I’ll go along.  I enjoy it, and we’ll bone pick through some places that are known to have interesting stuff, but I’m not drawn to do it because you mentally want a day off and you tend not to go jump into those things again unless you need a tool or something.  I have been to places that I’ve found by accident or by looking on Google, and then I was blown away by the place.  I don’t know that I need to go back, but I enjoyed them.  

Can you tell us about what an average day is like for a tech before, during, and after a show?

As a backline technician on an American touring schedule, you might be starting at 10am because you’re the last people needed in the arena; you can sleep late, have coffee and breakfast or whatever.  But for me, I’ll do kind of a walk-around and see the path my gear has to take that day, because shortly after that I have to wrangle the stagehands and go.  Knowing the best path to distribute all the gear, if you’re a little bit prepared and you talk with your crew, it may only take a sentence or two to get everyone on the same page.  Then it’s maybe fifteen minutes of work at that point, and then each department member will separate and do maybe an hour and a half of shoe-horning and assembly.  You’ll break away for lunch around noon or one, then you’ll be expected to be around, depending on if you’re the first act or headliner.  After that it kind of moves around a little bit.  As a headlining act you probably line check and sound check around 2 to 3pm, then have another hour and a half to get ducks in a row; you want your real estate in place and to be able to check all of your gear to make sure it’s working correctly.  Then you’ll do a line check/sound check; the artist may or may not come out and run through some material.  Then it will rotate; the stage manager will say okay, “rollback,” or “set change,” or any number of terms.  At that point, you’ll get everything tucked up and maybe go into your guitar work because you’re not chasing the clock at that point.  Maybe 3 to 6 pm you’ve got time to kind of work on things, and test things, and do what you want to do without the pressures of ‘being ready.’  Then I’ll go to my station maybe a half hour prior to when I have to actually go into set change.  I’ll double-check batteries, frequencies, neck checks, turn everything on, run through everything, make sure my cabling is nice and loose and free.  When that happens and the preceding band is done, then that becomes pretty automated for us.  We know what we need to do and no words are spoken with crew members because it is all more 'choreographed.’ That might be a twenty or thirty minute change.  Festivals might be quicker.  All the communicating is with in-ears; they’ll start calling for different channels or mics to be heard.  We have one hundred and something inputs and it can take a while, but at the same time we do it very quickly.  Then all the noise and special effects and things have to be tested on my end.  Then I have three-and-a-half to five minutes to kind of gather myself and double check that we’re good.  At some point you’ll start seeing flashing lights in the distance and the artist is coming.  He’ll get his head sorted, he’ll reach for the guitar, you’ll tap him on the butt and he’ll go up!  My department is probably a half hour to forty minute load out at the end.  One full tractor trailer.  Everything in reverse but much faster.  

What challenges do guitar players face with their rig while on the road? Does traveling to different climates present any problems?

Traveling to different places absolutely plays an effect on stringed instruments or drums.  Anything wood-based is subject to temperature and humidity; it’s huge.  Next biggest problem is power.  All around the world, even around cities of the US; old theaters with old wiring.  The original wiring is a band aid, on top of a band aid, on top of a band aid.  And tube amplifiers are notoriously prone to picking up this stuff; they are the first things to “complain,” and you’ll know right away.  If someone coiled up a bunch of cable underneath the stage within 10 feet of you, you’ll know right away.  It’ll start humming like crazy.  So in the guitar world, having your racks and your system really well grounded and shielded is a huge advantage.  Really diagnosing or being able to see it and know it before we even start to setup.  With an old, old theater -- one of those mini-theaters -- I could walk in and go, ‘there’s the old dimmer panel,’ or ‘that’s where the power is hanging.’  You can almost see it radiating problems.   Those are the things that you’re going to be dealing with all the time.  If your rig is really well put together, you’ll still deal with it sometimes.  Guitars, by nature, are very archaic. They’re pretty unbalanced systems.  The better you can shield the cavity in the guitar, the better the cabling is shielded, the better off you are.  It’s a better band aid, but that’s all it is.    

What’s the biggest guitar emergency you've had to handle during a show?

This is my greatest story.  I was a bass tech and we were high on a ridge in New Mexico at an amphitheater.  Everything was great at dinner, sound check and line check went beautifully.  Everything was great.  I went to dinner, I took a nap, and then I was a little late in my pre-show;  I got thrown off by about 15 minutes, so I was kind of behind the gun.  All of a sudden, for some reason I got sidetracked and then I heard the show’s intro music playing.  I picked up the bass my boss needed right away, I had my earbuds in and I was hitting the strings and the tuner was all over the place.  I held the instrument up and I looked down the length of the neck and...something must have happened on that hill in New Mexico with humidity and temperature.  It was so extreme; I’d never seen it ever before, and I hope to never see it again.  That thing was completely bowed backwards and the strings were laying on the frets.  I grabbed the truss adjustment tool, shoved it in the hole, and cranked it back.  Knowing not to mess with the tuning because it would come back pretty darn close, I just cranked it until I saw the action was about right, touched it up and was literally running and throwing it around my boss’s neck as he went on stage.  I knew better, but I was just late that day and sidetracked.  But I'm happy it happened because I never forgot it and I’m really on top of it now.

What’s your most important tool while traveling?

My favorite guitar tuner -- it’s actually an app that I helped develop.  It shows me things I don’t normally see; things I can’t see with any other tuning app or tuner that I’ve ever used.  I often use two or three different tuners because they all tend to react differently.  If you have to set up behind a big subwoofer and you’re dealing with an acoustic guitar, it’s just going to vibrate and ring, and you get a lot of false readings; so I developed some stuff years ago to get through all that.  If someone said ‘grab the one thing you have to have right now,’ it would probably be my iPad mini with that particular app.  The app is called Tuner T1 and Tuner T1 Pro.  The free version with ads is Tuner T1, and the paid (or Pro) version is $1.99.  There’s great filtering (it filters low end), and there’s a clock on it, you can see Hz and the note, and you can see how many cents above or below you are.   

Tell us about your set up - your bench. Are there any signature elements that you take with you on every gig? A mascot that you travel with?

There’s a lot of people, on their big fancy work boxes they travel around with, that have trinkets they like to set up.  I’m not so much into that, but there is this one little happy plastic smiling Buddha-type thing that I saw once.  And it’s nothing to actually do with Buddhism but it’s just a little fat guy sitting cross-legged and smiling.  It just reminds me to stop and breathe.  No matter how bad your boss is yelling at you, or how cold you are, or how bad this day is going just stop and breathe.  And it’s kind of cartoonish but I just enjoy it.  Every day I look at it and I just sort of chuckle.  Almost like the Gerber baby in a way.

Can you share a classic guitar tech moment that all guitar techs will experience?

Sending the guitar out without the pack on. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t done it.  If they told you they haven’t done it, they’re lying.  It’s kinda one of those things.  You have a routine, you turn the packs on and off, or you’re changing batteries, or whatever.  And the people that don’t mess this up anymore are the ones who have done it and have been embarrassed in the past.  They’ve learned how to not do it.  I worked for the Moody Blues for a few years, and one time I sent out an instrument with the pack off.  Not only was it off but it was a backup that hadn’t been re-frequencied, and I was kinda out of my headspace and I mounted the backup or grabbed the wrong strap or something and I sent him out there.  And it turned on but it didn’t transmit anything and it was an embarrassing moment.   

Are you an artist as well? Anything you’d like to share about the projects that you work on personally?

I don’t have a project now, but I started as a guitar player.  I liked instrumental rock stylings but I played in modern Pop-country bands not too long ago.  I played in Rock bands in the 90s in-between touring.  I have power trios that I play with in-between tours; when I have some time off we’ll get together and collaborate and write neat stuff.  I can’t tell you how important I believe it is to be an actual player when you’re working as a technician.  I know a lot of guitar techs that don’t play.  To have played in a band and to know when your amp or guitar is not feeling right, or when it’s not behaving correctly; those are those fine-tuned moments when you understand and learn when things are either right or not right.  You obviously don’t have to be an amazing player to be a tech. However, if an engine mechanic doesn’t understand feel, in the hot seat driving, and doesn’t understand when a car is not behaving correctly from a driver’s standpoint, then when the real driver comes back and says ‘there’s a problem,’ there’s going to be something lost in translation.