How easy is it to start your own band? How much does it cost? Rosalind Russell looks at 999’s equipment and goes round the shops with Gaye Advert to buy a new bass guitar
OUT OF THE whole new wave shebang, one thing must have become very obvious: you don’t have to have the backing of Howard Hughes to get a group on the road, and you don’t need as much equipment as Led Zep to make a satisfying amount of noise.
If these facts are obvious, it’s more than likely you’ve entertained secret thoughts of forming your own band and BEING somebody. It’s certainly preferable to rotting quietly away in Grimsby, Penzance of Aberdeen, knowing your name is never going to get further than the local registrar’s book in the fame and fortune stakes.
Once you’ve got this far in your reasoning, you may be put off by the idea of forking out for gear. If you’re that easily put off, there’s no point in reading anymore. If you’re more determined — really determined — read on.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to buying equipment, but two bands, 999 and the Adverts, will give you an idea of how much you may have to save and the dedication you’ll need to get through.
Most bands are made up of people who have learned to play an instrument already and have the basic gear. If you’re a guitarist, it’s likely you’ll own a guitar, even if it came from Woolworths; if you’re a drummer, you’ll have a drum of sorts.
So it’s rare for bands to go out all together to a store and buy their gear all at once. And if you did, the chances are you’d be sold stuff that may not be suitable, or which might put you in hock for the rest of your life.
Most bands get their instruments secondhand, through ads in the paper, or a shop which deals in good gear. As with anything else, it pays to go around all the shops and see which offers the best expert service. If they care about your coming back when you’re famous, they’ll care enough to help you with your first buy.
999 have been professional for only a couple of weeks. Until then, they kept on their day jobs, to pay for their equipment. They’ve got a single out and are working full time with the band, but it doesn’t mean they’re making a fortune.
They only gave up their day jobs because it was getting more and more difficult to get up in the morning after working late the night before. And they don’t consider making a lot of money as their prime return for being in a band.
“If that’s what you want to do,” said bass player John Watson, “you have to be prepared to put all your time, money and energy into it. You have to give up everything for the band and if you’re not prepared to do that you might as well forget it.”
John paid £6 for his first bass guitar from a junk shop. He’d only had it two weeks when he joined the band.
“That bass never got further than my bedroom,” he says, “but it was a start. I had a 12in speaker standing in a bucket, wired up to an old RAF amp.”
He now has a Fender Jazz bass which he got for £150 second-hand, through a friend.
“I was lucky, I got a good deal with it. I have a 100 watt Hiwatt amp and I got that through a friend too. That was £50 second-hand. I could never get HP because I’ve never worked long enough in one job and my wages have never been big. I had to scrape to get the money together.
“I got one of my cabinets from a broke musician for £25. He was desperate for the money. It’s a Sound City 4 x 12. I got the other one through an ad in the paper and that was £40.
“Unless you’re loaded there’s no point in buying new stuff. It works out twice as expensive. I think kids probably get ripped off buying new equipment. They don’t buy the right things for their money.”
Like most other bands, 999 hire the PA for gigs — that can cost from £25 upwards a night depending on the size of the rig. And if you’re only getting paid £25 you can depend on losing money for a while, until you can up your fee. Still interested?
999 have just made their biggest outlay — on a Ford Transit van, also second-hand, which cost £1,200. They were fortunate in not having to shell out for rehearsal studios too — they found a derelict bakery in South London where they could practice for free.
Drummer Pablo LaBrittain says his kit cost him about £400: “But you can start with a kit for about £30 if you look about in junk shops. I used to have a snare resting on a dustbin and I sat on a dining room chair.
“I didn’t even have drum sticks. I cut sticks from the woods. My cymbal was an old LP screwed on a pole. It didn’t make any noise, but it was a start. Get yourself something cheap and nasty until you get to know yourself.”
Having pulled together all their equipment and done a number of gigs, the band decided they’d like to make a single — without first signing to a record company because they didn’t want to rush into any contracts.
“It cost roughly £1,500 to make. We put in all our gig money and took just the amount we needed to live. We got so used to playing and not getting the money, it was quite strange when we started getting it again. We had our personal money — about £15 each — and just ate breakfast in the hotel we stayed in.”
The total cost of 999’s gear is close on £2,500. That looks like a frightening figure — but remember the Transit was the biggest single item, and you don’t have to start off with a £300 Gibson guitar, which is what Nick Cash owns.
But when you do have that much property, remember to insure it. It would be an awful loss if some one ripped the whole lot off and you had to start again.
A final word of advice from John Watson: “If you don’t have friends who can help and there’s nothing in the ads, I’d recommend The Swop-shop in Tooting Bec, London.
“Even if you have a camera or something like that, you can take it along and trade it in against an instrument. Start with something really cheap. I mean, you might decide not to go on with it after three months.”
Friends, and contacts in the instrument side of the industry are undoubtedly an asset, though not an absolute necessity. The Adverts’ guitarist Howard Pickup, was first a folk singer, so he already played acoustic guitar, and then worked as a roadie in a PA hire company.
“As a result, I met musicians who had instruments for sale,” says Howard. “When I started with the band I had the acoustic, but the strings kept breaking and it slowed things up having to change them all the time.
“Now I have a Gibson which cost £200 second-hand. New guitars are useless — they don’t have the craftsmanship. I’d advise people to get second-hand stuff. Some people think there’s a difference in sound between old and new but I don’t think so.
“The thing is, if you buy a new guitar, it’ll lose its value, where an old one is likely to gain.
“My amp is a combo which was about £250.”
The Adverts hire a PA and say it costs between £45 and £150 a night, depending on the company you go to.
Howard reckons Laurie Driver’s drum kit cost about £120 and Gaye paid £180 for her bass.
“She also had an amp but she was ripped off. She didn’t have the first idea what to get, so I got the rest of her equipment together for her.
“I got her an Avon copy of a Gibson for £25. She also has a cabinet which cost £100 and the amp was £85.”
Lemmy from Motorhead has also taken a hand in helping Gaye choose her equipment. He’s been taking her shopping for a new bass.
“My stuff is worth about £625, but really the guitar is worth more as it has value other than monetary,” went on Howard. “We have no spare amps or cabinets, so if one blows, that’s it. With a lot of other bands nearly all the gear you see onstage is spare.”
The Adverts’ costs are slightly lower than 999 because lead vocalist TV Smith doesn’t usually play an instrument onstage. So he uses only the mike which come with the PA.
What advice would Howard offer you? “Don’t bother. It’s depressing, it makes you hate people and become suspicious. I don’t know why I do it. I like playing guitar to people and I enjoy playing onstage. It’s a mood thing really. It’s just the way I feel today. Last night I didn’t want to go onstage.”
His feelings were justified: he had to dive into the audience to rescue the tour manager and ended up with broken glass in his hand and a few bruises.
The Adverts travel to gigs in a hired van which costs them £120 a week. But of course if you were just playing locally to start with you could get to the gig in a cab or on the bus or even scrounge the use of a van. And they pay about £2 an hour for rehearsal rooms.
At the moment, they’re earning about £25 a week each, so although they have a certain amount of fame, fortune is a long way off. You should take that into account if you’re earning a comfortable wage and running a flat.
Once you’ve managed to get together as much gear as you need and actually played a number of gigs, you can try to get into bigger venues by supporting a bigger band.
If you don’t actually have to pay the headlining act for the privilege of supporting them — and this is common practice — you may have to pay if you want to borrow their PA.
“Sometimes the support bands ask if they can borrow the PA and I always say yes, but really it’s down to the road crew that comes with the PA. If they don’t want to do it, they won’t. And some of them ask for payment.
“I remember the bother we had when we were supporting, so I try to help. I let a guy borrow my amp the other night, but that’s taking a risk, because he may play louder than I do and blow the amp.
“When we were supporting on one tour the mixing guy asked for payment or he wasn’t going to do it any more. What can you do? People forget that the sound is dependent on the PA and the guy behind the mixer.
“All sorts of things can happen — the vocals or the guitar can be mixed down, or it can be too loud. All kinds of tricks. Some headlining bands wouldn’t want to be… what’s the phrase… blown off the stage.”
But all these problems come later. I took Howard to a major London instrument store, Macari’s, in Charing Cross Road. They don’t deal with drums, because they take up so much space, and need a shop to themselves. But they do deal in everything else, including second-hand instruments.
And as proof that you don’t necessarily get ripped off buying through shops, the manager of the store said if a new band went in to kit out, he’d advise them to buy second-hand, from their selection.
“It’s amply good enough to buy second-hand gear,” he told me. “In the store we have two guys who specialise in keyboards, and another who specialises in guitars.”
They also have good lines in copies of more expensive models.
“We have a fairly large turnover of second-hand equipment,” the manager told me. “We get Gibsons second-hand and we do a big line in Fender Stratocasters, they’re the most popular.
“A new Gibson SG costs about £420. A new Stratocaster costs £327. As we buy in bulk, about 50 at a time, we can sell them for the special discount price of £240.
“You can get a good copy of a Fender Jazz bass for £95. New Marshall stacks would cost about £600 each, but a second-hand stack would perhaps be £190.”
The message is clear: don’t rush yourself into debt when you’re just starting. Buy the cheapest until you know what you can do — and until you know whether you’ve got the determination to go through with it. Learn how to hustle yourself cheap or free transport and rehearsal space. Ready to go?
See you at the Vortex.
© Rosalind Russell, Record Mirror, 1 October 1977