The pro musician’s life in the 1970s was both toneful and shatteringly loud but as Phil Harris recalls, there was a high price to pay in pain and sweat
F or all my love of vintage equipment, there’s certainly one thing I’m not fond of: lugging it all about. Sure, when I was a kid, hauling a guitar and my Watkins Dominator around on buses and trains made me think I was King Rock Star. In those days you couldn’t afford proper cases or gig bags; your guitar was put in this thin bit of plastic with a zip at one end. When you did get the money together, having a proper Fender or Gibson case really brought you up in the world – and if you had an original ’50s or ’60s case you really felt like you were a million Lira!
After having done my time on public transport, my good friend Robbie (sadly no longer with us) used to drive us around to gigs in a Frogeye Sprite. If you know about cars, you’ll know you’d have trouble packing a transistor radio into one of those, never mind packing them with guitars, amps and people. These days you wouldn’t get 100 yards down the road before you’d be pulled over by the police, but back then you got away with it… as long as you didn’t actually crash.
Eventually, Robbie got a van. That made life a lot easier. And when I later joined my first pro band I thought I’d made it when I saw they had a proper van, with aircraft seats and everything. Sadly, another aspect of guitar playing hadn’t got any easier: carrying the equipment in and out of the venue.
When it came to backline in those days, there were no nice, compact PA systems condensed to two sticks, or back-friendly modelling amps. In addition, there was an arms race going on between guitarists (and musicians of all types) in those days in regards to volume. Back then, each guitar player had a minimum of two 4×12" stacks, at least – and that’s before you think about the bass player, the drummer and the PA.
I have to admit that I was the biggest skiver when it came to hauling the gear, if I could get away with it – the equivalent of a tight-fisted so-and-so who always went to the toilet when it was their turn to buy a round.
One time I played a gig at Nero’s in Southsea and had to lug everything up three big flights of a fire escape on the outside of the building on a cold, wet and windy day in March. Once we’d done a dozen trips each up and down those stairs the band and myself were ready for casualty, not playing a gig. And of course, you had to do the same thing again when you finished.
It made me realise at that point that although I was a professional guitar player, I hadn’t really made it at all.
Eventually I joined a band that had a roadie, but I never let them touch the guitars; my Les Paul Standard, Strat and Les Paul Junior were too precious to be let out of my sight. But after a while that got a bit much, so I stopped using the Junior as it meant that I didn’t need to make an extra trip to the car!
Guitars like Les Pauls – and certainly amps and cabs – weren’t built with health and safety to one’s back in mind. But in some ways I’d endure some backache in order to have something that truly rocked, and I’ll always think that a heavy Les Paul is better than a lightweight model. However, it’s easy for me to say that now. I spend most of my time playing while sitting down…
1974 GIBSON TWIN-NECK
A true monster – and when it comes to weight, the case is just as bad as the guitar. I once saw someone carry one of these instruments in a case, and after five minutes you’d think he’d crossed the Sahara, he was sweating that much. Not for the faint-hearted
1960 GIBSON LES PAUL CUSTOM
I carried Gibson Les Pauls around all my working life, and Customs such as these don’t do your back any favours. If you have any spinal issues then stay away from Customs made in the late ’60s and ’70s, when they got even heavier
1981/'73 FENDER PRECISION
While guitar players often have a moan, bass players have always had it far worse. Basses made in the late ’70s and early ’80s were generally like cement, and the Burns basses you could get back in the ’60s weren’t particularly forgiving, either
1966 MARSHALL 4X12 CABINET
There were plenty who wanted a wall of Marshalls back in the old days, quite understandably – but not only did they blast your ears, they could also crush your vertebrae with the greatest of ease
1968 ORANGE HEAD AND CAB
What you see here is heavier than it looks, and these are the relative babies of the bunch. Orange amps and cabs were the heaviest of the lot. It meant they lasted, but carrying them was like trying to lift the Titanic