Backstage and on the Road: Johnny Starbuck Discusses 30 Years of Life as a Roadie for The Rolling Stones (Part 2)
Feb 3, 2012 Line 6 General
Posted by Line6Miller
Being a roadie or tech for a band is not easy. Being a roadie for arguably one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever in my mind is just plain frightening but that’s exactly what Johnny Starbuck has done. Johnny has been traveling as a roadie with The Rolling Stones for over 30 years and when the opportunity to interview Johnny for the Line 6 blog arose I was thrilled! The Rolling Stones are undoubtedly one of my favorite bands in the universe and I just couldn’t wait to get a small glimpse of what life is like behind the scenes and on the road with a juggernaut act like The Stones.
In part two of this blog, Johnny shares some cool stories, tips on what it takes to make it as a roadie or tech in today’s music industry, and some insight into the guitars the used by The Rolling Stones over the years.
If you missed part 1 of this blog please make sure to check it out HERE .
Special thanks to all of the Line 6 Facebook fans that asked questions for Johnny via the Line 6 Facebook wall!
What would you consider the most glamorous part of your job? What would you consider the most unglamorous part of your job?
These two are easy. There is no glamor in show business. It’s something perceived by the people that aren’t in show business because they don’t see all the hard work and long hours that everyone puts in to put on a show. And that’s true not just for us working behind the scenes, but for the stars as well. Oh, sure… they get to go to parties and award shows that are full of rock stars and movie stars and that’s glamorous I suppose. But it’s not part of the job. It’s a lucky perk that sometimes comes along. Mostly show business is hard work and long hours. So my answer to the first question would be “None of it.” And the answer to the second question would be “All of it.”
Was there ever a particular problem or malfunction during a show where you were like “Man, how are we going to get through this?” How did you end up solving it?
Once at Madison Square Garden, maybe the most prestigious venue on Earth, the band were playing on the B stage – that’s the small stage out in the audience that the band goes to, about halfway through the show, so the people in the back can have better seats for three songs. Ronnie had the intro for ‘The Last Time,” but as he started playing, nothing was coming thru his amp. He was playing, but it was dead quiet. It must have been something wrong with his wireless. Keith, being the consummate professional, went right to “Little Red Rooster” and off they went playing a different song. But Ronnie’s guitar was still not working. It may not sound like much, but for the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden it was a huge gaffe.
Fortunately I had a guitar cord handy and I jumped up on stage to plug him in. I hate having to do that. It doesn’t look good. But there was no telling why Ronnie’s wireless wasn’t working and I knew that, whatever it was, I wasn’t going to solve it in time, so Ronnie played with the cord. After the show when I was breaking down the B stage gear I found that the cable that goes from the wireless transmitter to the amp thru a hole in the stage was unplugged at the back of the transmitter. I never found out how that happened because it had worked earlier in the day when I tested it. But there it was, and I was responsible no matter how it happened. I knew that the band were going to want to know what had happened. The blunder had even been written about in the next day’s newspaper; it was that noticeable.
But I bit the bullet and went to Ronnie and told him that it had been my fault. His reaction was “You have to tell Keith!” I wasn’t looking forward to that, but when I did explain to Keith what had happened and ready to take the heat, he just smiled and said, “Well, then I guess THAT won’t happen again.” And he was right. It started a process of not just double-checking, but triple-checking everything before the show.
As I was leaving Keith’s dressing room, he stopped me and shook his head and said, “Johnny, did it have to be at Madison Square Garden?” Of all the places for me to make a mistake that effected the show, it had to be there.
In Keith Richards’ book LIFE there was some guitar talk about his tunings and specific guitars, but what about amplifiers? Does he have a “Keith” sound ampwise, or is his sound more about the Teles and his attack?
Keith Richards’ sound is definitely about the Teles and his attack, but the amp is important too. Very simply, when he was a boy and first heard American rock and roll a lot of it was played on a Fender guitar through a Fender amp. He dug it and hasn’t changed his mind. Keith’s amp of choice is a Fender Twin and he’s got lots of them.
I see Keith primarily uses an extremely rare Fender guitar. What else is in his arsenal?
Keith uses several rare Fenders and some Gibsons as well.
To what extent, if any, has Keith allowed modern technology in on his instruments, amps, and general equipment or is it vintage and vintage only?
Keith’s guitar tech, Pierre deBeauport, has a few things in his electronics rack that add to the sound of a Fender guitar through a Fender amp, like for instance a fuzztone for “Satisfaction.” But basically the answer is… vintage and vintage only.
What advice do you have for any newbie roadies trying to get into the field?
I guess the only advice I can give is to do it pretty much the way I did. You would have to be around bands offering to help as much as possible, whether at their gigs or their rehearsals. You would have to be up on all the latest equipment and technology and have the knowledge that would make you in demand. The more you know, the more you can beat out the other guy for the gig.
These days roadies aren’t so generic in their knowledge. They are specialists. There are guitar techs and keyboard techs and even drum techs. If you’re after one of those positions it would of course be better to be able to play whatever the instrument was, unlike me.
I still don’t play any instrument, but when I started out a roadie was pretty much the same as a carnie. We were only expected to hump the gear and drive the truck and get very little sleep. We weren’t expected to have any real technical knowledge. It’s different now. The more technical knowledge you have, the better off you are.
Line 6 is in no way affiliated with The Rolling Stones.