Access All Areas: On the road with Bon Jovi
Ever the nosy so-and-sos, MusicRadar jumped at the chance of having a backstage tour of Bon Jovi's mammoth guitar and keys rigs when latest stint of The Circle tour reached Bristol, UK.
With much gear fondling and drooling to be had, we chatted to backline crew chief Mike Rew, David Bryan's keyboard tech Bill St Amor, and Kurt Kassinoff, guitar tech to Jon Bon Jovi and longtime touring rhythm guitarist Bobby Bandiera. We also managed to sneak a look at some of Richie Sambora's live gear into the bargain.
With years of experience between them, (Kurt has worked for Fleetwood Mac and Bill for Sir Paul McCartney, among other musical luminaries) Kurt and Bill sure know their way around their respective rigs.
Dodging a never-ending tour of competition winners and tech college students traipsing through the backstage area on the day we are with them, Bill and Kurt take us around their gear-packed tech-ing stations and let us get up close and personal with the guitars and keys that create Bon Jovi's classic rock sound.
Click onwards for a Bon Jovi gear extravaganza...
Mike Rew: backline crew chief The Circle tour
How did you get your job as backline crew chief for The Circle tour?
“It was simply a case of the old backline crew chief quit, and I came in. I haven't worked for any other band – I work in a recording studio [Sterling Sound] in New York, and Jon [Bon Jovi] came in and did a record and it went from there.”
How long have you been with Bon Jovi?
“I've been with them for 12 years. I started out as a carpenter building the sets. Now I come in really late and leave really early! It's how you cut your teeth out here... you pay your dues.”
What does your job involve?
“I'm in charge of Kurt [Jon's guitar tech], Takume [Richie's guitar tech], as well as Bill [David's keyboard tech] and Joe [Tico's drum tech]. Basically I'm the one they come to when they have problems, or when they need to figure something out.
"I also mix the show – I have my own consoles backstage during the show, so all the stuff that we put on the internet and our live broadcasts go through me. Of course, I also take care of the boss [Jon], which is another job in itself. If something is wrong, he tells me in a very stern voice and then I go to someone else and tell them in a very stern voice that they had better fix it. Fast.”
What does a typical day involve for you as backline crew chief?
“Eat breakfast. Then I'll unload the truck and send all of the cases up to the crew. There's four local hands that help me unload the truck each show, and around another 20 helping to push the stuff half way around the world to get to the stage.”
How many staff do you have for The Circle tour?
“Well, there's three different groups of staff. There are two skill teams (about 30 people in each team) who build the actual structure, then there's one universal team of about 65 people. We have a bunch of truck drivers, and for every concert we use around 110 local hands – as many as we can get.”
When does your job start in relation to The Circle tour?
“My job starts when the tour starts. I've been doing this job for about two years now, and we have it down to a science. There's hardly any prep needed beforehand.”
How do you personally prepare for each tour?
“I check all of the equipment that I use to make sure it's working: my recording consoles and laptop. I bring rain gear, especially when we play in the UK. We've been soaked over here so far – it's wet all the time!”
Do you have a working knowledge of each instrument – guitar, bass, keys, drums?
“Yes. I can play them very poorly, but I know enough to be able to speak with each tech. It's not entirely essential for me to have that knowledge, because a good tech is a good musician anyway and they know the ins and outs of every piece of kit in their rig.”
If somebody wanted to get a job as a backline crew chief, what advice would you give them?
“Grow some thick skin, and don't let anything bother you.”
Rig: David Bryan, keyboards
Bill feels at home tech-ing for David, and rates him as a player.
“David has a great sense of humour and he's a fantastic player. I started with David in 2004, off and on with another keyboard tech (I would come in if he couldn't make a show). I really enjoy working with these guys. It's a great outfit and everyone has a really great attitude.”
What's the process for setting up the keyboard sounds for a new album when the band take it out on tour?
“After the band are done with a record, I'll go to Jon [Bon Jovi]'s studio with Mike Rew and we'll take all the keyboard parts that David has recorded and pull them out by themselves so that I can hear them clearly. I note all of those sounds and then I get to the synthesizers and start finding sounds that are close to them, if not the exact sounds.
“After that, I start constructing the sounds for each of the songs. David will then come in and go over the sounds with me as well, because he will have heard the record from a different perspective: I've heard it technically, he's heard it more creatively. David knows what he wants, which makes him a pleasure to work with, so it usually takes us around half a day to perfect those sounds.”
“When David is playing his keyboards onstage, with the exception of the organ and the piano, he's controlling all of the equipment backstage as well. We use samplers that have the band's signature sounds from all of their hits. Because those sounds are studio designed, you can't just go and invent them with a couple of synths, so Dave is triggering onstage the sounds that are stored in this equipment back here.
“It's the same with old synthesizers. We don't want to bring those on the road because we'd need a whole case of them, plus they're old and unreliable, so the sounds of those old synths are in here in this sampler unit. Old keyboard units have also been fitted into this sampler, and they are essential to the rig otherwise the sound wouldn't be the same as it is on the band's various albums.
“The sampler unit itself is an evolution of sorts. I'm tech number three on the evolution of this system, and I know the other two techs very well. The only thing that hasn't changed is the core of the sound producing equipment. Take the MIDI patches that we use, for example: they're not especially old, but you don't find them new these days because people just aren't doing it this way anymore.
“I've got two Mac laptops back here in my tech area that are used for live patching, so any editing that I may need to do on the fly (which isn't very often because the core of the show is programmed in), is all driven from these two Mac's.
"An example of editing on the fly is when Clarence Clemons passed away recently. Jon wanted to do a bit of a tribute to him with [Bruce Springsteen's] Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, and I needed horn patches for the song so I pulled them up and then we were live to do editing and sound creation with those particular patches. The process for that song took around 10 minutes.”
“Starting at the top of the unit, we have a Mark Of The Unicorn MIDI Timepiece. That's our MIDI patcher, so all of the MIDI information from David's keyboards come here first, and then this machine directs it to the patch where it needs to go. It's our traffic cop, basically! We have a spare Timepiece in this unit because they're hard to track down.
“Next, we have two Korg Wavestations, which are basically synthesizers in a rack. The sound they have is the sound that the band used to use back in the '80s and '90s. That's why we still have the Wavestation because you can't create those particular sounds unless you have this specific piece of equipment.
“Underneath the Wavestation we have two Akai S6000 samplers (again, one is a back-up) and they hold our custom sounds.Below that, we have a spare piano that we never use!
“We then have a Behringer Channel Mixer, which is specifically for me back here in my area. What David hears I have coming in one channel, and then I have his piano and synthesizers channelled separately so that I can boost them to me to make sure that they are working properly. In the event that something isn't working, having them boosted to me means I can get on top of the situation right away.
“There is also a third channel coming through the mixer that is very important, because it's a microphone that comes straight from David to me. If he has any concerns during the show, or if Jon has changed a song in the setlist because he's feeling like something a little different, David can let me know and I can prepare for it.
“We have a couple of digital audio interfaces in this unit that we don't use. One of the main pieces of gear in this unit is the Toshiba 1000 Series UPS. It means that if the power goes down, I don't!”
Roland FR7X digital accordion
“This is a nice piece of gear. Jon will go out to the circle part of the stage and take the four guys out with him, and seeing how we can't physically strap a keyboard to David I got this Roland FR7X digital accordion in for him.
“At the start of this tour David said he wanted to MIDI his accordion so that he could get access to our sampler system, so I did a little investigation and found out that Roland make this accordion. The FR7X is an orchestral accordion, so it's fully electronic. We can get accordion sounds of it, as well as organ, piano and strings. It sounds amazing, and David mainly uses the accordion when Jon goes out into the circle part of the stage for Saturday Night.
“It costs around $7500. When I got it I had to go through the manual, learn how to program it, then strap it on David to see what he thought of it. The accordion is a good solution for us because it's MIDI-able.
“Roland really helped us out with it because they are very hard pieces to get hold of. Seeing how it's electronic, you don't have to bellow it. Although there are settings if you do want to bellow it, which David does! It's kind of like an expression pedal for him.
“As soon as Roland got us this one at the beginning of the tour, David liked it so much that I called them, thanked them, and then I said, 'Okay, I need another one!'”
David Bryan's stage rig
“In this 'green house' area of the stage, David has a Yamaha Clavinova P-500 piano. It's a way out of production piano, but David's endorsed by Yamaha so we can get any piano we want, and they have been very gracious with us in that respect.
"What David loves about this piano is how it feels when he plays it. He can bash away and he just loves the action of it. Any other piano we've tried with him he hasn't liked, so we have two of these pianos for him – he has one at home and one on the road. We have all the parts that Yamaha have left for it so that we can keep it alive.”
Oberheim OB5 organ
"We have this really old Oberheim OB5 organ. It says Oberheim, but it's actually made by Viscount [producers of organs, pianos and pro audio equipment] in Italy. We have two of these organs out on the road.
"David loves this organ because it's analogue electronics and it has a very warm sound. If we go out and have to rent gear, say if we're flying out to do a show, we'll end up with a more current model. You can instantly hear how hard and cold the modern ones sound in comparison to this old Oberheim OB5.
“David has had this one for a while. It was real tough getting hold of replacement parts for it, but we've been keeping old Betsey alive... actually, she's been called Matilda lately because she's been giving me a little attitude. These old organs need respect like people!”
Yamaha Motif XS8 synths
“David has two Motif XS8 synthesizers. These two synths, as with all of David's equipment onstage, communicate with the sampler unit rack system downstairs that I've already shown you, so there's a lot coming from up here that's talking to the rack back there.”
Footswitches... and expensive keyboard stands
“We use custom made chrome stands. I think they cost about $10,000 to make, but they look great and are so much better than the original wood facings of the organs, and piano and so on.”
“That's his communication mic to me. On another gig we did we used footswitches, and near to each band members feet were switches. They could step on their switch if they needed help with something, and there would be a light that would flash down to us techs. We would have a row of lights in front of us so that we could see which band member was calling us.
"The problem with those footswitch lights is that you still have to go up onstage to find out what's wrong, but with this communication mic David can give me a heads-up when I'm in my tech area if anything's wrong. It means I can work easily and quickly to sort any problems for him.”
“For me, the whole rig takes about an hour and a half to two hours. I come in first thing on the morning of each show and put the stands together. I then get the keyboards fixed on each stand with help from local crew, and then I shine the chrome, make the wood look nice, clean the keys and wire everything up and make sure it all works.”
Rig: Jon Bon Jovi, acoustic & electric guitar/vocals
A relative newcomer to the Bon Jovi tech camp, Kurt signed up in December 2010 and is having a blast on the extended Circle Tour.
“A lot of the guys in the Bon Jovi camp have been here for many years, and a couple of the guitar techs were swapped out for various reasons, but I'm in this chair right now and it's a great experience.”
Jon's acoustic guitar rig
“Jon has a bunch of guitars on the road, but his main ones are these two Takamine acoustics. They are from the '80s, and I'm not even sure of what model they are because they are so old.
"On Jon's number one Takamine, he has inscribed the initials AP, which are the initials of his guitar teacher, along with the year his guitar teacher passed away."
Jon's main acoustic (detail)
“Jon plays guitar for about 75 percent of the show, and mostly it's on acoustic guitar. The initialled Takamine is the one he plays most of the time, and his second Takamine is the same model.
"The reason he has two of them is because sometimes we have different tunings, so we need to swap them out. The tuning on Jon's guitars is a half step down from standard tuning, and any different tunings come down to the use of capos.
“On Jon's main Takamine he will play songs such as Lost Highway, Blaze Of Glory, Captain Crash and Saturday Night On his second Takamine he'll play songs like We Weren't Born To Follow.”
Jon's electric guitar rig
“Jon has some great electrics, which he uses for songs like Sleep When I'm Dead and Runaway.
"We have a master setlist that the band can pull from at any one time, depending on their mood, so I have to make sure that all of the guitars that Jon may need are with us on tour. This gig involves a lot of paying attention and being prepared!"
1977 Gibson Les Paul Custom
“Jon has two Custom Shop Fender Telecasters, but his main guitar right now is a vintage 1977 Gibson Les Paul Custom – I think it was a gift from Richie. It's a gorgeous guitar and it sounds incredible. It's the most expensive vintage guitar in Jon's current rig.
“He also has a Gibson Les Paul 1993 Goldtop, which is in standard tuning. It's similar to the '77, as they both have thin necks and they feel like a 1960 kind of Les Paul Standard."
Jon's Duesenberg Starplayer TV
“Jon also uses Duesenberg guitars. They are German made, and they look and sound very cool.
"His Duesenberg guitars are kinda like a cross between Gibsons, Danelectros and Gretsch guitars. He has another Duesenberg that he travels with, which isn't in this rig here, plus a couple of other guitars in his dressing room.”
“In Jon's rig we also have iso-cabs, which are similar to what Takumi [Richie Sambora's guitar tech] has for Richie in his rig. That means there's a cabinet up onstage with Jon, but the mic cabinet that goes into the monitors and front of house are all coming from back here.
“Jon's main head is a JVM 50-watt Marshall, and he also runs a wireless rack. As far as effects go, Jon has a Fulltone Fulldrive 2 overdrive pedal. When he plays electric and goes into a solo, it boosts it rather nicely.Aside from that, he has a Boss DD-20 delay pedal.
“I also have a bunch of spare Marshall's back here... just in case.”
Rig: Bobby Bandiera, rhythm guitar/backing vocals
“In this 'green house' area that's shared with David Bryan's gear, we have Bobby's guitars. He has a Fender Baritone, as well as a Music Man Silhouette Gold Roller. It's a very nice guitar, but I'm not sure where he got it from.
“Bobby also has a Yamaha Mike Stern Pacifica signature guitar fitted with a Seymour Duncan '59 pickup. He also has a really cool white Paul Reed Smith.”
Bobby's acoustic rig
"He also has a couple of Takamine acoustic guitars – one of them has a cool lizard design crawling along the top of it."
“On Bobby's pedalboard we have an A/B switch box and a Peterson Strobe Tuner, a BBE Two Timer Delay, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, a LovePedal Superlead, a Boss Tremolo TR-2, a Boss LS-2 Line Selector, an Electro Harmonix POG2, and a BOSS RT-20 Rotary Ensemble that's a direct box for the acoustic guitar.”
Rhythm guitar backline
“Bobby's amp is a Marshall TSL122 combo, and we're using a Fender Tone-Master 2 x 12 cabinet. We sometimes use a Fender Tone-Master head as well – it goes back and forth.”
Richie Sambora's rig
With Richie Sambora freshly returned to the fold following a stint in rehab, his guitar tech Takumi showed us some choice picks from his impressive touring set-up.
Richie's FX life
Note the Uni-Vibe and sought-after Klon Centaur overdrive pedal...
Richie's FX life
...in combination with a couple of Boss CH-1 Super Chorus pedals nestled in the star's rack.
A JCM 2000 head provides the juice for Sambora's high-octane hard rock tone.
Richie's main stage guitar has an ornate, inlayed brushed metal scratchplate and a Floyd Rose vibrato bridge.
Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi
Impressively fingerprint free!
Custom Fender Telecaster Deluxe
Really, what's not to like?
Custom Fender Telecaster Deluxe (detail)
You can't deny that the amazing finish deserves a closer look.
Ready to rock
Many thanks to the Bon Jovi crew for talking us through the band's amazing set-ups. For an in-depth look at drummer Tico Torres' drum kit, check out issue 195 of Rhythm magazine, on sale 27 September 2011.