I’m writing to you from a plane.
I’m 30,000 feet in the air, en route to tomorrow’s gig.
It’s my version of a commute.
The last few years we mostly toured by bus––weeks at a time of sharing a Manhattan-tiny apartment with eleven friends, chewing up hundreds of miles of highway each night as we slept.
This year we have more short weekend trips, and we tend to go by plane.
These “fly dates” can be tricky things.
By the time you start setting up your rig and realize that you failed to return that patch cable you borrowed from yourself last week, you’re hundreds of miles from home, with no car of your own.
All the work put in by your bandmates & the crew has come to a grinding halt, while you call around some small town looking for a music store that’s open on Sundays.
Your little oversight has derailed the whole production.
Other times it’s not your equipment. Sometimes you have to borrow a tie from a bandmate. Or you have to take the stage in a black suit… and brightly-colored running shoes, because you failed to pack your dress shoes.
This is why it’s better to stress out when you’re packing than it is to stress out everyone in the building once you arrive.
But wouldn’t it be nice to not have to stress out at all?
This morning I woke up a few short hours before my flight. lt took me 15 minutes to pack everything I need. I did it without rushing around, and with ZERO stress.
I used the same technology the pilots are using right now to fling me across the country.
The Power of The Checklist
Maybe it seems strange to refer to a checklist as a piece of technology, but that’s exactly what it is: a tool for improving human lives.
As Atul Gawande explains in his kick-ass book The Checklist Manifesto, checklists are how pilots manage the complex task of flight. They’re how doctors manage risk during & after surgery. They’re how line cooks prepare their stations for the dinner rush.
It’s what I use to make sure I pack everything I need for the gig.
I’ll share my checklist below, but first I want to introduce you to an even more important concept.
Mise En Place
It’s the French term that cooks use to describe putting their stations in order––everything from stocking their cooler, to the order they put the garnishes in, to having the right spoon for each sauce, to making sure they have dry towels for handling hot pans.
Mise en place is like a religion for them, and it’s frequently the only thing that stands between them and disaster––a way to stay focused and efficient in chaotic situations.
Touring is a lot like professionally cookery––you’re doing the same thing over and over again, trying to consistently put out a high-quality experience, but something is going all wrong, all the time.
This isn’t an obstacle to be avoided.
It’s the standard working condition for your chosen profession.
Mise en place keeps the clusterfuck gremlins at bay.
I have a checklist of everything I carry, and every single item has its own home. I know where it all is at all times.
Need a sharpie?
Spare guitar strings?
A portable speaker?
The charging & audio cables for using your phone as GPS in the rental van?
A copy of the laws regarding flying with musical instruments to fend off the overzealous gate agent trying to get you to check your guitar?
It’s all here, accessible in five seconds or less.
Things that get used the most are organized according to the precepts of “first order retrievability”––i.e. you shouldn’t have to move something else out of the way in order to find what you’re looking for.
Details on each specific piece are below, but you can view my checklist here.
Mise En Place And Your Gear
Although this level of nerdiness about my mise en place might seem over-the-top and stifling, it’s actually tremendously liberating.
And it’s equally powerful at home as it is on the road.
Ask a room full of people “Who never loses their car keys?” and some subsection of them will raise their hand.
Ask that subsection what the secret it is, and they’ll answer in unison: “Always put them in the same place.”
The same is true for your gear.
Convincing you to join Team Mise is the real purpose of this article.
Ok, maybe (like me) you have a bizarre fascination with other people’s gear. But I’d much rather hip you to a system of organizing than some niche brand of distortion pedal.
How do you get started with mise en place?
Load your car in the same way each time.
The cables you use every night? Put them together into one compartment. Put some spares in another.
Set up your rig in the same order each time. Tear it down in reverse order. (Pro Tip: pull your guitar out last and put it away first––that’ll keep the drunks from knocking it over.)
Play different rigs on different gigs? Either each rig should have its own tuner, cable, batteries, & spare strings; or you should have one small bag that accompanies whichever guitar/amp combination you’re bringing out that night.
Mise En Place In Action
My friend Paul plays drums, keys, bass, & guitar. For each instrument he has a separate cable bag. Even though he uses the same model of DI for both bass & keys, and the same brand of cable for all of them, he’s learned that it’s better to own duplicates than it is to show up at his bass gig and realize that he left something crucial with his keys rig.
My friend Jo Ann plays keys and her husband Ryan plays drums. They have a household rule: Don’t rob the cable bag. If he needs a mic, cable, & stand for a gig, he can’t just dip into her gear and borrow it––it’s too likely that he’ll forget to return it and she’ll show up at a gig unprepared.
Showing up unprepared is something Pros don’t do.
My friend Dan sings while playing keys & drums––all at the same time. It’s a freaky awesome skill set.
But his gear is a perpetual shit show. It goes into his truck in a different way each night. Every cable he owns is all tangled together in one big duffel bag. When he loads in, his gear is strewn all over the bar.
When I lent him my spare PA rig, it came back with a tiny dent, backwards in its bag, with all of its cables poorly wound and stuffed into random pockets. Amateur shit.
Being a pro means getting your mise together.
And as I’ve mentioned before, being a pro is about so much more than your playing.
I know an awful lot of professional musicians, and I can’t think of a single one who doesn’t have some sort of system in place for making sure they’re prepared for each and every gig.
Is everyone’s system as detailed and nerdy as mine? Of course not. But they all either a) have a system, b) are successful enough to pay someone else to have a system for them, or c) aren’t as successful as they ought to be.
Ok, enough with the mise en place sermon. Here’s what I’m traveling with these days.
Fender American Special Telecaster – The least-expensive USA-made Tele. It came with Texas Special pickups, but I’ve since replaced them with Seymour Duncan Five-Twos.
This goes into an SKB semi-hard case and gets checked. These semi-rigid nylon-over-styrofoam cases are the way to go for flying.
Like gig bags, they’re easy to carry and they don’t freak out the TSA. But if forced to check them, they provide serious protection from mishandling and thermal shocks.
When flying, it’s a bad idea to travel with fragile, rare, expensive, or irreplaceable gear. The AmSpec Tele is perfectly fungible.
If a baggage handler or TSA agent manages to break it (or it gets stolen), I can buy another one just like it for less than a grand. (And of course it’s insured.)
Also in the SKB Tele case: cables, picks, strings, tuner, stand, string winder, multitool.
Baden A-Style – This is my second one of these guitars and I absolutely love it. Plays and sounds like an instrument three times its price and has classy understated looks that are right up my alley.
This goes into a TRIC semi-hard case and gets carried on.
Also in this case: strings, picks, capos, batteries, sound hole plug, a wireless pack that I don’t really use on this gig, and a few pages covered in dense legalese.
Why the legalese?
The FAA and the USDOT have ruled that if there’s room in an overhead bin or closet at the time you board, they have to allow you to carry on your instrument.
Southwest’s entire fleet is 737s, which means there’s always room in the overhead bins (provided you were smart and dropped the $12.50 on Early Bird Check In). For a musician, they’re the best thing going for domestic US travel.
For any other airline, I check SeatGuru.com to see what type of aircraft we’re flying. Even on tiny Embraers and CRJs, there’s usually a coat closet.
The gate agent will probably give you a tag for gate-checking it. Be super nice. Take the tag.
If he wants to take the guitar from you right there, tell him you’re going to try getting it in the overhead or coat closet first, but that you’ll be happy to gate check if that’s not possible.
Only if he persists should you play your trump card and lay that USDOT ruling on him.
Again: be super nice, but firm.
Line6 POD HD500 – Modeling has come a long way. Still not the same as playing through a tube amp, but close enough for most purposes. I bought this before they replaced it with the HD500X, which is more or less identical except with more firepower under the hood and improved switch illumination.
The HD500 is amazingly powerful and flexible. For example, when we show up at a venue with a backlined amp, I can turn all the amp settings off with one global switch and run the POD into the “power amp in” on the amp. That gives me all the effects & EQ from my sounds, with the heavy lifting done by an actual amp.
I carry a spare power supply for it because they’re not something that a local music shop stocks.
This goes into a little Gator soft case (that’s intended for a keyboard controller) and that goes into the bottom part of a split roller duffel (along with my shoe bag and some mobility tools).
Fishman Aura Spectrum – If you play acoustic instruments live, you need this.
The wizards over at Fishman record an instrument both from its pickup and with a bevy of nice studio mics, then figure out how to extrapolate the mic’d sound from the pickup sound.
The result is the only live acoustic guitar sound that doesn’t make me want to stab my own eardrums.
Line6 G50 – The best bang-for-the-buck wireless out there. Sounds almost indistinguishable from a cable, great battery life, no dropouts, inexpensive.
TC Electronic Spark Mini – I love all these little micro pedals on the market. This is a clean boost with an ingenious feature: the switch is both momentary and latching depending on how you step on it.
Step on the switch like normal and it latches on (and off). Press and hold and it’s momentary, turning off when you step off of it––perfect for smooth segues between solos & singing.
The Aura, G50, & Spark Mini are attached to a PedalTrain Nano pedalboard along with a OneSpot power supply & distro cable.
This goes into the Nano’s soft bag. Also in that soft bag is a mic bag that holds Panasonic Eneloop batteries & their charger (and a spare 1/4” to miniXLR for the G50’s transmitter).
That soft bag goes into the top part of the split roller duffel along with my suit, the packing cube with my gym gear, and my winter coat if it’s going to be cold where I’m going.
Minaal Carryon – This carryon-in-a-clamshell-backpack is my constant companion. It holds an alarming amount of stuff, but still meets carryon requirements and fits under the seat in front of you.
I use the Minaal to carry all my non-music gear (and a few music items too).
I’m big on segmenting my mise, either in pockets or using packing cubes. For the latter, I have some Minaal prototypes and some from Eagle Creek.
This large two-sided packing cube holds clean clothes & acts as a hamper.
This little one holds all the cables.
This small one holds drug store-type stuff.
The laundry bag, the cable bag, and the pharm bag go into the Minaal’s main compartment, along with a…
Shedrain Umbrella – I had no idea that luxury umbrellas were a thing! There’s a cool store in Seattle’s Pike Place Public Market that sells nothing but umbrellas, and that’s where I snagged this bad boy. Looks great, comfortable curved wooden handle, not too heavy, lifetime warranty.
Sensaphonics custom molded in-ear monitors – These are so cool. An audiologist cleans your ears out, tests your hearing, and then packs your ear canals with putty. The putty hardens over the course of ten minutes, then they pull it out and use it to make earbuds that perfectly fit your ears. They sound so much better than other earphones, and––because they seal so completely––have better bass than big over-the-ear headphones.
Square water bottle – the bottom comes off for easy cleaning, it doesn’t roll away, the lid comes off with one 90° turn, and the handle is big enough for a grown man to carry comfortably. I managed to destroy my first one, so they sent me a new one for free.
The top pocket holds stuff I need easy access to, first-order-retrievability-style:
Kindle Paperwhite – this is my third Kindle. I love love love the “front lit” screen that lets me read in bed (or in a tourbus bunk) without disrupting my sleep with a too-bright backlit screen. The newer model (Kindle Voyager) puts the page advance buttons back on the side, which is my only complaint about this one: page advance by tapping the screen means that even with huge hands, it can be tough to read one-handed.
Rayban New Wayfarers – Wayfarers never suited my face, so I was excited to discover that the New Wayfarers did.
Cables for charging my phone & connecting its audio to a rental van – first order retrievability is one of the principal advantages of having your mise dialed in. Unless the venue is providing ground transport, I also save the relevant addresses from the itinerary/daysheet into Google Maps before leaving home so it’s easier to jump in the van and go.
Additionally, although you can’t see it here, it’s wise to mark your chargers––just about every musician has an iPhone, and someone is going to inadvertently walk off with your charger if you don’t distinguish it somehow.
The next pocket holds my toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, hand sanitizer, & lotion.
An 11″ MacBook Air goes into an STM sleeve and that goes into the laptop pocket. The sleeve acts as sort of an escape pod for carrying just the computer to a cafe (or leaving the carryon in the overhead for additional foot room–I’m tall).
In the other part of the Minaal’s laptop sleeve (which I think is intended for an iPad or Kindle), I have the three notebooks that run my life:
The Spark Notebook – This brilliant planner manages my day-to-day and keeps me pointed in the right direction.
Large Moleskine Music Notebook – Staff paper for capturing ideas and writing songs,
X-Large Moleskine Volant Notebook – for scratch paper and ideas that I know are going to sprawl too much for the other two.
Also tucked into the back compartment is a
Jambox – One of our favorite pastimes is passing DJ duties among band members–you play a song, it reminds me of another song, then someone else has a tune they want to share. It’s such a great way to discover new music. On the bus there’s a full stereo system (and I bring a 3.5mm to RCA cable), but in hotel rooms we use this little speaker.
Shaker – We also love to do some after-hours playing, and a drum kit is generally unwelcome in a hotel lobby.
Sharpies, pens, pencils, & a pencil sharpener – not much to say about these, other than that you’ll want both a black sharpie for the usual jobs and a silver sharpie for writing on black gaffe tape and signing merch.
If you’ve ever spent a considerable amount of time away from home, you’ve probably already had the realization that you own WAY more stuff than you actually need to be happy. Every time I get home from weeks away I find more stuff I want to jettison.
One of the most obvious places this manifests itself is my wardrobe. After three years of tour life, I pretty much wear the same thing every single day, no matter if I’m home or on the road.
Grey T shirt – I’ve been buying ones from Target or Express for years, but those merino wool Icebreaker Ts are awfully tempting.
Barbell Apparel Jeans – After running the 2013 Chicago Marathon, I took up weightlifting. Since then I’ve had a curious problem––if I want jeans that fit my legs & ass, I have to buy ones that are way too big for my waist. And then Barbell came along with their denim for fit people. I backed these on Kickstarter, and I love them. I wish I’d have gotten the boot cut, but whatever.
Smart Wool Socks – About ten years ago I bought everyone in my family a pair of these awesome merino wool socks for Christmas. The collective response was initially “gee… socks… thanks.” And then a few days later I got an excited phone call from each of them, talking about how they were going to replace all of their socks with these.
Minaal Travel Shirt – I wash this shirt twice a year, whether it needs it or not. I wear it four or five times a week. And yet, it’s never smelly, never wrinkly. Sadly, they’re not making these right now.
Chrome Cobra Fullzip – While we were in Seattle, I ducked into Chrome’s store for a cup of their Blue Bottle coffee on pour over and left with a $160 merino sweater. Like the Minaal gear, the people who use this and the people who make this are obviously one and the same––there’s just no other way someone could make something so incredibly right.
Everything I need to live & work… indefinitely.
What’s Next: More Merino, Fewer Guitars, Less Stuff
It’s worth mentioning that this is always a work in progress. I’m always tweaking some aspect of it, whether that’s the placement of a particular piece of gear, or upgrading to something better. In general though, any new purchases I make are with the intention of carrying less.
Last year I upgraded my computer, hoody, jeans, umbrella, Kindle, & sunglasses. All of these purchases decreased the size & weight of my pack.
This year I’m eyeing even more merino clothing (Icebreaker t shirts, Chrome socks, maybe a Wool & Prince button down), but only because they’ll allow me to carry less clothing.
Even sooner than that, I want to resurrect my old Carvin AE185 (a tele-esque semi-hollow with both acoustic and electric pickups), obviating the need to travel with two guitars. I’ll be declaring electronics bankruptcy on it and installing Fishman Fluence & Ellipse pickups.
Mizzen & Main is tooling up to make an entire suit out of the same stink- and wrinkle- free material my Minaal shirt is made of. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that.
What About You?
What’s in your mise? How do you travel? Who do you know with next-level travel-packing skills? Know something I don’t about how to pack for tour? Let us know in the comments!