This page has descriptions of the gear used by one-person bands I've seen and heard myself:
There's also a small (but, happily, growing) collection of links to other solo setups.
When I first crossed paths with Frank Davis, in 1965, he was playing guitar and singing as part of a duo called Frank and Kay, performing their somewhat twisted "folk" repertoire in Houston coffee houses, ice houses and the occasional art gallery. The act broke up when Kay left town upon the long odyssey which culminated, twenty years later, in her overnight success as country singer/songwriter K. T. Oslin.
Bereft of his duo partner, Frank turned his imagination loose upon the problem of performing solo. When I next saw him, around 1970, he had created the world's first Daddy Banjo.
After dismembering a Fender Stratocaster (the same one, he claimed, heard on the circa 1960 instrumental hit record "Raunchy"), Frank reassembled it-- with a snare drum for a body. Two of the guitar's three pickups sensed the vibrations of the strings; the third pickup he fastened to the bottom head of the drum, now the back of the Daddy Banjo, to pick up the vibrations of the snare. More about this below...
Inside the drum, Frank mounted a bass drum pedal. A string attached to the pedal emerged from a hole in the rim and terminated in a loop around his foot, which was thereby empowered to create the Backbeat from Hell. But wait... there's more!
Protruding from the rim was a gooseneck, which supported a microphone, which fed a mixer mounted mostly inside the instrument; mostly, because the controls sported knobs of the type common on mixing boards of the 1950s, which is to say that they were about two and a half inches in diameter. These knobs sprouted from the rim like a row of mushrooms, leading away from the gooseneck. The audio output of the instrument went to the house sound system-- but Frank controlled the entire mix himself.
Remember that pickup positioned to sense the snare? During a performance, Frank would laboriously tune the snare, by ear, to provide an amorphous drone sound, its pitch roughly centered on the root note of the next song's key. During this lengthy process, he would tell ethanol-fueled tales which never seemed to end, but of such hilarity that the song itself was often an anticlimax. In fact, sometimes during a story he'd change his mind about what the next song was to be. If that involved a different key, the retuning process would begin again. It was not unknown for Frank to play only two or three songs in an hour, but no one seemed to object...
Following a concert one evening in one of Houston's less fashionable districts, Frank was relieved of custodial responsibility for the Daddy Banjo, by a lover of the arts who, in the process, also relieved him of an upper incisor.
Rich played guitar, sang, and played neck-racked harmonica; in addition, he played percussion with both feet, using a tambourine and the base of the microphone stand as his instruments.
The tambourine was secured to a wooden fixture Rich had made. This device stabilized the headless tambourine at a comfortable height and angle, allowing Rich to tap the rim with the toe of his left foot without undue fatigue. In addition, and of at least equal importance, it discouraged members of the audience from grabbing the tambourine and attempting to play it themselves. (Everyone thinks s/he can play tambourine; almost no one can do it musically, but that doesn't stop people. An unsecured tambourine in a bar is sure musical disaster, and I thought of Rich's rig often in later years.)
Rich's microphone stand was also a key element of his rig. His vocal mic and a kazoo were secured to the stand with duct tape. In addition, a second mic was taped to the stand about a foot above the base, pointing down. By tapping the base of the stand with his right foot, Rich created a creditable bass drum sound with the amplified vibrations. Having the microphones and kazoo taped in place also made for quick roadie work.
Rich played a Harptone acoustic guitar, with a Bill Lawrence FT-145 magnetic pickup in the sound hole. At that time (and still), I had the same model pickup in an old Martin O-18. Rich's guitar sounded infinitely better than mine, though his amplification was nothing at all special. I asked his secret, and he was kind enough to tell me that he was using Bill Lawrence stainless steel strings, designed in conjunction with the pickup. I tried a set, and became an instant believer. I now have four acoustic guitars strung with stainless steel and equipped with FT-145s; a fifth has a Lawrence FT-345.
I first saw Grayson playing a happy-hour gig in a steakhouse lounge. He was playing a deepbowl Ovation guitar, neckracked harmonicas, and the tiniest bass drum ever made, concealed from the audience within a nicely finished wooden box (whether for resonator effect or simple concealment, I didn't ask, and he didn't offer).
Grayson's playing confirmed a psychoacoustic phenomenon hinted at by Rich Farrell's playing: A bass drum and a bass string on a guitar, played at exactly the same time, can create an extremely good illusion of a bass. I later took advantage of this phenomenon for several of the years I spent playing with drum machines.
Grayson was apologetic about the simplicity of his harmonica playing. However, it was quite tasteful, and an inspiration to me later, when I realized my own newborn solo act was in desperate need of variety. It was an important reminder that an instrumental part need not be fast or complex to be effective.
A hat rack populated by about two dozen different chapeaux was Top Hat's gimmick, and a very effective one it was. Wearing a different (and appropriate) hat for every song not only engaged the attention of patrons at the moment, but ensured that they'd remember "Top Hat" years later, though they might not remember his name. (I'm pretty sure it was either Kenny or Henry Thomas...) It was a powerful lesson to me, that people listen at least as much with their eyes as with their ears.
But Top Hat really didn't need the gimmick; he was one of the best all-around solo musical performers I've ever seen. Naturally equipped with a superb voice, he had developed himself into an astonishingly good singer. He was also an amazing guitarist. A Martin flattop with a piezo pickup was his only apparent instrument-- but appearances can be deceiving...
"Keep as 'live' a stage as you can," Top Hat told me, and he practiced what he preached. In addition to a vocal microphone, his mic stand supported a second mic at approximately guitar level. The gain settings on his mixer were much higher than most people would use, and Top Hat "worked" both microphones more effectively than anyone else I'd ever seen, from almost swallowing the vocal mic to more than two feet away.
Percussion from the guitar's strings, from the guitar's body, from foot taps, from his mouth, and from anything else he could hit were key ingredients of Top Hat's music-- not a steady, constant beat, but exactly the right sound, at the right volume, and at the right moment to maximize the emotional intensity of the music. I don't think I ever heard him play a pure guitar solo; it would always be supported by his voice, imitating another instrument or simply supplying the right vowel sound, at the right pitch, to create a whole significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
It ain't what you got-- it's how you use it.
The Dixie Dregs, the Dregs, the Steve Morse Band, Kansas, Deep Purple... Yes, this is the Steve Morse I mean. But when I saw him, in the mid-80s, he was solo, doing a clinic in a music store for Ernie Ball products. The encounter changed my life.
Steve played his then-new Ernie Ball Steve Morse Model guitar, which featured a hex pickup and the necessary electronics to drive a Roland GR-700 synthesizer. His rig included a couple of digital delays-- one of them capable of sampling for two or maybe even four seconds, and replaying the sample in a continuous loop-- and five different amplifiers (they were all Randall, not that it makes much difference). I didn't take notes, and it's been a long time, so I don't recall the brands/models of the delays, nor would I take an oath regarding the exact signal path(s). I can say with certainty that the amplifiers were allocated to:
Steve began the clinic very informally, saying that he'd brought a couple of digital delays since he was alone, "and I don't have a drum machine, so..." Without finishing the sentence verbally, he began to play.
Repeatedly, he laid down a groove, sampled it, and soloed over the top. On a few occasions, he underpinned these musical structures with a sustained chord from the GR-700. I wasn't hearing a band-- I was hearing a whole orchestra. By the time Steve put period to that partly verbal, mostly musical sentence, ten or fifteen minutes later, I was a different person.
As he played, a small part of my brain was taking notes... "So that's what you can do with a sampling delay!" "Could that possibly work for me?" "I gotta get a guitar synthesizer!"
The biggest part of my mind was in that space where we'd all like to send all our listeners-- not ready to die, exactly, but wanting to feel exactly this way when the time comes.
And in one tiny part of my brain, looping endlessly, was the single thought: "He made every sound I heard, while I was watching and listening..." I had been married to a drum machine for several years at that point, and that looping thought was to nag me until an amicable divorce was arranged, several years later.
I also knew during that few minutes that "guitar synthesizer" and sampling delays were tools I would have to acquire and learn to use, or remain forever discontented.
Marti was a polished, confident veteran solo performer, who accompanied her strong and beautiful alto voice with amplified acoustic guitar and drum machine. When the time came for me to begin performing solo, she was generous with tips about sound systems, repertoire, booking, dealing with hecklers, drunks, and clubowners-- every aspect of working alone. I'll always be grateful for those two, three, even four-hour phone conversations.
Within a few months of my solo debut, Marti and I were talking about adding pedal bass to our respective acts. She acquired a Bass Mate self-contained pedal keyboard and analog bass synthesizer. I decided to go the MIDI pedal keyboard route, with a separate digital synthesizer. I found a Casio CZ-101 for cheap, and, taking a deep breath, ordered a MIDI Step sight unseen.
Marti's first gig with her pedal keyboard was on a Friday. For once, I was delighted not to have a gig, so I could be there.
Her bass playing was almost exclusively simple 2/4 roots and fifths. I noted how much it added to the music without getting in the way. It was a strong reassurance that my investment in a pedal keyboard rig wouldn't be wasted even if I could do no more. I also noted that her sound system, though small (Peavey XR-500 powered mixer and a pair of Peavey 212H columns), handled guitar, vocals, bass and drums adequately. This was another reassurance, since at the time I couldn't afford to invest in a bass amplifier.
I noted that whatever she was sitting on was just a little too high-- she had to stretch to reach some of the pedals, and she was struggling to keep her deep-bodied Ovation guitar from sliding off her thigh. This showed me that choosing the right seat would be very important to my own playing.
The next day, my MIDI Step finally arrived, and I had a gig that night, so it was Sunday or Monday before I called Marti. She'd been booked in the room where I'd seen her for both Friday and Saturday, but the owners, disgusted by the way the customers ignored her, had paid her for both nights and told her she didn't have to subject herself to that kind of treatment again on Saturday. And she had decided that, after playing music professionally, mostly solo, for 18 years-- more than half her life, at the time-- it was time to find another career. A few weeks later, she was selling water beds.
I couldn't understand her decision at the time. A few years later, though, I understood perfectly.
When I first met John, I was struggling to learn how to play a pedal keyboard. His act was everything I wanted mine to be, and more; he sang well, and played guitar, harmonica, and a BassMate bass pedal unit, doing each of these things as well simultaneously as a good musician does any one of them alone. (For more on John's phenomenal pedal technique, see the page about Pedal Keyboard Playing Techniques.)
John's amplification deserves some detail, because most people wouldn't dream of going on stage with a rig like his. His basic sound system was a silverface-era Fender vacuum tube four-channel powered mixer-- in essence a Showman-style head with four microphone inputs. Alas, I don't remember the model designation. This drove a pair of Kustom speaker cabinets, each housing a 15" woofer and a small horn. His guitars (an early Ibanez Roadstar when we first met; later, a Guild "solid-body acoustic" with a bridge piezo pickup) ran through a tiny 10-watt, solid-state practice amp, with a microphone in front of the speaker routed to a more conventional stage combo amp. The output of the BassMate ran through a stomp-box parametric equalizer to a small practice bass amplifier, with a direct preamp output feeding the Fender. A drum machine's output claimed yet another input on the mixer.
John had cobbled this rig together from resale shops, flea markets, yard sales, and starving musicians, paying very little for any given piece of gear. By conventional wisdom, it was grossly underpowered, and an invitation to sonic disaster. I heard him numerous times over a six-year period; settings ranged from noisy bars to outdoor gigs, where sound dies instantly. But despite the adverse conditions, the horrible intermodulation distortion one would expect from mixing bass, drums and vocals in a tube amplifier at or near maximum power was never audible. This was because John constantly adjusted gains to prevent it from happening. I never heard him sound less than good.
It ain't what you got...
Levi Chen's meditative music seamlessly combines electric guitar with the long Asian zither called gu-zheng in China and koto in Japan.
When I saw Levi in April 1998, he was playing in a sidewalk booth at an outdoor festival. The zither was on a table in front of him, positioned so that his right hand had to move only a few inches between the strings of the two instruments. Less often, his left hand would dart from the guitar neck to bend strings behind the zither's bridges. Only occasionally would there be a "solo" passage; most of the time, both instruments were sounding.
The signal from Levi's mid-70s Fender Stratocaster went through four or five stompboxes to a Maxi Mouse amplifier. The zither was also amplified. Unfortunately, I was wrestling with my very unhappy three year old son when I encountered Levi, so I had to leave before I could note details of the rig. Before I left, though, I bought Levi's "live in the studio" recording, Meditation of My Soul. ("No synthesizers," say the liner notes. "No samplers. No overdubs.") It's available from Yin Yang Records.
Eric Royer's Guitar Machine Band incorporates foot-operated acoustic guitar and electric bass, in addition to banjo, lap steel, harmonica, and more.
Luthier/songwriter/singer/one-person-band Steve Cloutier offers an elegant graphic and text depiction of his rig, which incorporates both MIDI guitar and looping.
Matt McCabe describes his gear in detail in the King Never Manifesto.
IronMan Mike Curtis offers sound samples of his work with guitar, harmonica and pedal keyboard, and, on another site, outlines the major elements of his rig, including details of his homemade harmonica pickup.
Niles Hokkanen plays mandolin and a MIDI Step pedal keyboard. "And, along with the pedals," he writes, "I assembled/constructed a one-footed drum-kit with hats, snare, bass, 2 crash cymbals controlled by 6 pedals (all possible directions)." See a picture.
In my dreams, this section of this page is the biggest part of this Web site. Obviously, that's not yet the case. Does a link to your site belong here? If so, please let me know!