Willie Gee has been Dave Mustaine’s guitar tech for years. I’ve worked with him on numerous Megadeth and Testament tours, and he’s one of the best. Willie Gee says what he means and means what he says. Brace yourself.
How did you get your start as a guitar tech, and how long have you been doing the job?
I used to mess around with my own guitars – changing pickups and whatnot, and pester guys doing repairs locally….read the guitar magazine columns and all that. When I was playing in local bands, I tended to have an odd setup I’d run – splitters that allowed me to run talk a talk box, guitar synth, etc. – so of course, I’d have problems and I had to figure out how to troubleshoot. A friend of mine asked me to fill in for him for a while on a tour he was on so he could ditch to do a “bigger” tour, and I sort of just….fit in, I guess. Since I’d had so many chances to figure out what was going wrong with my own stuff, I usually could figure out what was wrong with everyone else’s.
I’m about 12 years in, for the most part now – pretty new, compared to many others working in the touring business right now!
You’ve worked mostly for heavy bands such as Megadeth, Anthrax, Lamb of God and King Diamond. Do you pursue metal gigs because it’s where your heart is at?
That’s kind of accurate. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m pursuing metal gigs or if they are pursuing ME ! I love heavy music, pretty much always have …. I can’t see a time when I will ever NOT do metal touring. Money is important, as anyone knows….but I am spoiled or something…. I don’t feel as much at ease on other gigs as I do on metal gigs. I suppose I am too immersed in that subculture. I started doing some gigs for Black Eyed Peas, and some of their crew members crack jokes now and again about being “the metal guy”. I can take it. Also, it seems like acts other than metal acts that tour have more “chefs in the kitchen” so to speak, and it makes it a lot harder to get anything done than it should be. I don’t like red tape and people in charge that in actuality do nothing.
Do you ever perform any other jobs on the road such as tour manager, production manager or stage manager?
I was stage manager with Megadeth for a while…. I hated it. A lot of times on tours with smaller acts, you sort of wind up assuming a lot of duties simply because there’s no one else to do them! I’ve done a smattering of other things, such as being an LD, I’ve done a bit of drum teching, keyboards, etc… people have asked me about doing a stint as stage manager, production manager – even tour manager for some younger acts…. I don’t really want any part of it. No one seems to want to take my advice or do things that I direct, so I don’t need the job title and responsibility that goes with it. When something goes wrong, I’m usually blamed anyway!
How much longer do you think you’ll continue working on the road?
I will be out there until my back finally gives out, until I simply cannot stomach any of the bands anymore, until they outlaw heavy metal ( or power pop because I still want that Cheap Trick gig ), until I finally find that extremely hot, rich, blind, mute woman of my dreams, or until I finish my line of future New York Times best-selling children’s books… I think…
What will you do for a living after your life on the road is over?
I’m seriously working on a children’s book – at least ONE of them! We’ll see where that goes. I’ve always wanted to do animation or comic art. I was into drawing, cartoons and comics before I was really into music… I have some ideas but I’ve not taken sufficient time to do anything with that yet. It’s been suggested – and I’ve been softly looking into it – that I try to get some voice-over work. Let’s face it, they’re not going to be able to use Morgan Freeman forever.
I’d also like to go to luthiery school and learn to turn bits of wood and wire into functioning art such as the almighty guitar. I used to work in the printing field, I suppose I could brush up my Photoshop/Illustrator/QuarkXpress skills and get back into that…..I liked doing that stuff.
I have a few different things I’m interested in. I suppose it’s too late for me to try to be an astronaut.
What is your best memory of your job on the road?
That’s a tough question. Also hard to answer without making me look like more of a punter fan boy than most people already seem to think I am! Hey – I like what I like.
Some things come to mind, mostly because of the sort of ludicrous aspect of it…. and a lot of them have nothing to do with the actual job itself. When I was helping out Damage Plan in Europe, Dimebag nicknamed me “The Bass Tech from Hell”….never quite knew what he meant by that, it can be taken both ways! I think any time a musician that I respect asks for my opinion of some particular gear, setup or sound, I feel pretty good about it.
On a tour in South America, I wound up playing Ramones songs with some band in a Hell’s Angels clubhouse in Argentina….then the tour manager started singing some of them….that was a little off the path, I guess. Not really part of my JOB, but still….
What is your worst memory of your job on the road?
I have more than my fair share of those also! I’d have to say, off the top of my head, that being with a band with only a few guitars and watching a Les Paul’s headstock break right before the song it was to be used on, and THEN the singer’s only guitar break a string during the same song ranks up there.
During a lot of the earlier “code orange” terrorist scare BS, I was out with a band who had a show moved from an armory to a skating rink on a reservation in New Mexico. They had some stage in there…supposedly the same stage Waylon Jennings(?) had a heart attack on. The power went out there, TWICE, and the stage was overrun all show long by people stage-diving and grabbing stuff – ages 6 to 20somethings. At one point, the guitarist jumped off the stage for some reason, then clipped his shin climbing back up. I noticed him a bit later, standing in a pool of his own blood – he’d severed the muscle at the front of his shin or something. I wrapped his leg up in a towel, made a gaff tape tourniquet, he finished the gig and I carried him offstage to where we put him in an ambulance.
All the power on stage right ( where MY setup happened to be ) going out at a Big 4 show during a live national (Scandinavian ) television broadcast wasn’t too cool either. Other than obvious things like people dying, those are some of the worst.
What do you like most about your job on the road?
Well, I suppose it’s the same old story about sometimes being able to see places that I might otherwise never go to. I don’t suppose I’d have ever made it to The Great Wall, Pyramid del Sol, Taj Mahal or anyplace like that working a desktop publishing job, let alone at 7-11 or Bakers shoe store. I’ve gotten to meet some pretty interesting people with some great stories to tell, and that sort of thing is pretty priceless. And I kind of like not usually being in one place for more than about two weeks at best, usually.
What do you hate most about your job on the road?
Not being in one place for more than about two weeks at best usually!!! It’s a double-edged sword. I also hate not being able to have a dog….. or do some things that people with a more “conventional” job are able to do. I hate Loves truck stops. I hate being asked for swag. I hate thieving stage hands. I hate unusually early load-ins. If you ask most people, I have a LOT of things to hate!
If you could work with any artist in the world, which one would you like to work with most?
The first person who comes to mind is Peter Frampton. I’ve been a fan of his playing and songs since I was in grade school, he still inspires me – his playing is very lyrical and he seems to really love making music. There’s too many jaded, bitter musicians and not enough who seem to realize how fortunate they are to be able to make music for a living. Supposedly he’s a really nice guy, also. I’d like to work for Steve Vai also….or maybe Vernon Reid. They both are very experimental and into new technology and I think working with gear of theirs would be a great experience.
What do you consider to be the hardest part of your job as a guitar tech?
Most of this job, I don’t think is all that hard….sometimes I get a guitar that is problematic and just doesn’t want to cooperate, with electronic gremlins, a neck that wants to be a hunting bow or a skateboard half-pipe when it grows up or something like that. That’s always a nightmare. The toughest part is probably just keeping a level head and solving an issue when and if it happens during a show. Sometimes it’s hard suppressing the urge to choke the bejeebus out of someone you’re working with, but that’s a different story. Other than that, I’ve noticed over time that some techs just don’t seem to care about what they are doing, like they’re burned out and just waiting out the day to collect a paycheck. I think you have to care about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and I know that can be hard to do.
Do you feel that a person has to be able to play guitar well to be a good guitar tech?
Not at all – that’s sort of like saying you need to be a Nascar or Formula One driver to be able to work on a race car, to me. I think that a person should have an ear for sounds and have great attention to detail. Being able to play helps quite a bit, I am sure…if you can play it, you can test certain things and notice a problem or inconsistency that someone who can’t play may not be aware of. It’s possible that the ability to actually play the instrument is sort of on a sliding scale of importance in relation to the person/act you’re working for. It’s probably just as or more important to be a good bartender as it is a good musician to a lot of these bands.
Where do you suggest people go to learn how to be a guitar tech?
I have absolutely no clue. I am not sure of anywhere besides places like Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, Musician’s Institute, Chicago School of Guitar Making and a few places like that where you can go to learn building and repair skills and techniques. I’m still trying to learn this stuff myself! But we are in the information age…. there are COUNTLESS books, videos on VHS and DVD, YouTube tutorials, etc. that will demonstrate how to do almost ANYTHING that you’d want to learn how to do. I’d say look on Craigslist, eBay, music stores and/or pawn shops, buy some P.O.S. beater guitar and some tools and have at it. If the instrument gets ruined, you’ve not lost much.
Touring as a tech isn’t totally about the skill level all the time, either – as nutty as that sounds. You have to remember that you are working alongside people and there are a LOT of different personalities out there….sometimes the toughest thing is learning to work with and basically live with a LOT of people without wanting to go homicidal on them or having them dump you in a cable trunk and load you into a truck for an 800-mile drive. I’ve known a lot of people who were GREAT at working on gear, but after a couple of weeks at best everyone they worked with wanted to punch them in the face. Then, there are others who have been absolutely USELESS but someone liked them hanging around so ….they were around.
So…as silly as it sounds, sometimes the best way to learn is just to DO it. You’re not going to make any money doing this, initially anyway. Find a band and start helping them. If you’re good at it, eventually you’re going to get paid – by SOMEONE.
In what ways do you feel that touring has changed since you first started out?
I haven’t been touring all THAT long, but I remember the days of trying to call various company reps, management offices, even home from a pay phone! More than anything else, technology has changed touring more than anything else. Broadband technology has definitely made touring a lot easier, as communication and information transference is of such high importance. I’m pretty curious about some of the new digital wireless products that have been coming out too, speaking of broadband…. everyone who’s had to work with wireless gear in the recent years knows about the problems with increased broadband interference.
The situation with the September 11th tragedy, the “war on terrorism” and all of that has definitely made touring a bit different. Anyone who travels a lot for ANY reason knows what a pain in the ass traveling has become ever since 2001, and to make that worse, doing a show in places like New York City with their vehicles and trailer restrictions as of late doesn’t make for a pleasant experience either.
On a more petty scale, the popularity of social networking….ugh…. something else that didn’t exist until somewhat recently. At every gig, there are people showing up that act like they are entitled to some sort of special treatment because they think they have some connection to something or someone because they “follow them on this” or are “friends with them on that”… I say this a lot: in the past when there was a show, people bought their ticket in advance, waited to get in, watched the show and went home. Now, people get sold a VIP ticket package with a meet and greet involved or whatever, and they always show up late when they knew what time things were scheduled for, but because they’ve spent money, they expect to get a private audience or something. ANNOYING. Just buy the ticket, watch the show and go home. Don’t forget to BUY MERCH ON YOUR WAY OUT, also.
What advice do you have for young people hoping to work on the road as a guitar tech?
There’s always more people that think it’s a good idea to become a touring tech than there are ( decent ) job openings for them. I recall being at a truck stop ( probably a Loves ) and a guy working there asked me if I thought “the road” was a good place to hide out from the law, because he thinks he just got his third strike and didn’t want to go to jail. Yeah, there’s a lot of those out there, and I’m sure there’s a few people crazy enough to hire them.
So, if you want to work often and work on good gigs, there’s a lot of things you can – and probably should do. And this is a “do as I suggest, not as I do” sort of thing…..
You probably know if you’re a jerk or not. DON’T BE A JERK. No one is amused by you. You don’t have to be a dishrag either – don’t stand for obvious B.S. But if you’re a jackass from Day 1, chances are you are not going to last very long.
Get the best gear you can possibly get – high quality tuners and tools, a proper case of some sort to house them, etc. At the end of the day, you’re expected to make certain things happen. Having something break or fail on you is going to make you look bad. You don’t want that.
Pay attention to what’s going on and try to learn something – even if it’s what NOT to do – as often as you can.
Don’t treat touring like some sort of extended spring break vacation. You’re there to work. People may go to shows to party, but that’s not what you’re there for. Don’t overdue “the party”, get rest, stay healthy. And for the love of God, take a shower.
If you think you’re going to become some sort of rock star and starting out as a roadie is your ticket “in”, do everyone a favor and go get a job doing something else.
Touring seems to be more and more of a global thing, lately…. I seem to spend more time outside of the U.S. than touring domestically, it seems. As odd as it may seem, I would recommend learning another language. Since so much touring seems to happen in Latin America and Europe, I would recommend Spanish. If you know Spanish, add French. Try Japanese for kicks, if you’re the sporting type. You’re going to be working in places where English is NOT the language of choice and sometimes the interpreter may not be around. You may even find yourself being hired more often, or even hired for positions other than backline if you speak more than one language.
Learn how to solder.
And most importantly: if someone asks you for guitar picks, tell them NO. You’ll be doing yourself a favor in the long run.