Nov 28 2004
Written by SuckaInA3Piece
Interview with EVH's guitar tech, Lonnie Totman
Lonnie was gracious enough to grant me this interview right after he came off tour, so I personally want to thank him for that. I'm far from a journalist guys, but hopefully everybody will dig this one.
1. So how long have you been involved with guitars Lonnie?
My first experience learning to play was about 29 years ago. Approx. 4 years later I started to take it somewhat seriously. From day one I was taking them apart and trying to figure out how they worked. I eventually started to take apart amps and pedals, then switchers and midi pedals etc. Hasn't ended and still rip things apart!! I have found a way to keep it a hobby when at home for enjoyment and learning. Studied some electronics over the years as well. A lot of this development was long before all the info on the internet etc. It was a 'figure it out on your own' situation and I loved every minute of it.
2. Of all the gear you've had over the years, what would be your most prized piece of equipment?
1967 Marshall plexi 50w head and a 1966 Marshall 4x12 with greenback 20's (not25's). Killer amp. Also a pair of Lexicon PCM 42 delay's.
3. Describe a typical day on tour: pre show, during the show, and post show.
This is going to be a long answer, hope no one minds. There is no typical day but I'll try to present it that way. It's also slightly different for each band. Generally I get up at 7:30am ish. If we have driven overnight to the next gig my first mission is get off the bus and find a shower in the arena. Very important start! Generally I don't have to start working until approx. 11am however. The extra couple hours I create for myself here gives me time to contact suppliers for parts etc. when needed, so thats the time where I catch up on e-mails and phone calls. On the VH tour our stage manager knew I was in the building early everyday and we used that to our advantage by directing the band gear from the tractor trailer to the necessary location. That allowed it to be in place for the other backline guys when they arrived. Its all about teamwork. There are a couple other things I did at this point that were specific to Ed's setup because it was specific to the stage layout. This doesn't apply to every tour. For example: running his loom under the stage while the carps are building set stuff on top of the stage. Next up is guiding the band gear onto the stage and getting it into position with the local hands. This is where things move at a faster pace with wiring the rig etc. Your trying to get it done efficiently/quickly yet properly to get to the maintenance aspect as soon as you can. Next you generally try to get the guitars restrung, batteries changed,necessary cleaning etc. as soon as you can. Now it starts to get interesting because its different everyday. The maintenance can entail anything and generally you never really know what will come up. It can be anything from intonating a guitar to changing a speaker to changing damaged guitar parts to fixing a broken cable, or re-setting up the gain structure of a section of the rig, or re-programming some patches that the player mentioned were not quite right the night before, or replacing a broken switch or led on the pedalboard. Sometimes it can get more specific like replacing a relay in a switcher, or a dc to dc converter in a patchbox etc. This kind of stuff depends on the techs level of knowledge or experience. Some send it out to be repaired. Like I said, its different everyday. Next up is playing the rig for a bit and dialing the amps a little so it sounds right in the room and try to keep it in the ballpark of what the player is looking for. At this point we do line check which is basically the audio guys making sure they are receiving everything at front-of-house. Sometimes if something is not sounding right to them we work together to figure it out. Once this is out of the way you get back to your maintenance program. Hopefully you have time to hit catering for a quick lunch about now. Sometimes, depending on the gig of course, I get into modding some of the gear and that can be alot of fun. It really depends on the player and your time schedule. This is not a required part of being a guitar tech but I really enjoy working with the player in this way. Its great when you can make something sound alot better and of course its all about getting the player in a zone that he likes. With Ed we didn't get into that too much because he pretty much wants his gear the way it is as long as its consistent. I had some fun doing a few mods for one of our opening acts (Jonas). Their guitar player (Cory)and I were chatting one day and that lead to modding his old Marshall and Tube Screamer for him. He was really happy with the results and that was a fun way to get some of that creative side out. Generally its getting close to sound-check at this point so you spend the last bit of time making sure the guitars are tuned and all the small details are in place to make the player feel comfortable. Sound-check is different for every band. Some don't do it at all, some keep it short and some are as long as a show. Alot of it is the band working with the monitor people to make sure everything sounds right on stage. This is also the time when the player will point out if they want something adjusted a little differently and this can be anything from the guitar to a processor to an amp. Again, you never really know. Once sound-check is over you try to bang off as much of the changes that came up in sound-check as you can. Dinner!!!!!! Another important part of the day and a little bit of time to getaway from the job hopefully. Then I head back to my tech world and finish up last minute things. Usually I have about an hour or a half hour here plus the time during the opening act. Changeover is next and its very fast paced. This entails placing pedal-boardsand connecting them, putting down set-lists etc. and testing all gear again. Hopefully no problems come up here because if it does you have a VERY short time to deal with it. This is where the pressure starts and you have to know how to deal with whatever comes up very quickly. Most times its cool but every once in awhile you get a curve ball. Its VERY important to get it solved quick so the player doesn't have to be involved in anyway. Its important to keep their mindset as positive as possible. Showtime!!! In short we tune guitars and hand them to the player when needed and solve any problems that might come up. On some gigs its more involved. For example: I might do all the patch changes so the player can concentrate on playing. Depends on the tour. Ed does his own switching. Its important to stay focused because you never know what will happen during the show. It can be as simple as a broken string to an amp go down. The idea of course is to work hard during the day so nothing will happen during the show but anything can come at anytime. How do you predict a fan landing on a pedalboard and messing things up? You can't and it doesn't happen often but I have dealt with it!!! If you have a rig with alot going on (ie: several amps. hundreds of feet of cabling, many pedals etc. and your signal goes out it can be anywhere. You really have to know what your doing to take that on and come up smiling. Showtime is when you (and the player) really find out what your about. Its a fix it right now kind of situation but its VERY important to keep calm while dealing with it. If your freaking out its hard to give the player a sense of confidence. Ed throws some curveballs at you during some shows as well. For example: there were several times when his amp was not quite reacting the way he wanted. Generally that comes down to tube gain structure. I changed alot of tubes DURING the show. The first time he asked this of me I was thinking "umm right now Ed"?So I swap them out and pull out my meter and start biasing the amp. Ed says"what are ya doin' ?". "Biasing your amp Ed". He responds with "Just crank it man!" This is pretty unusual but it keeps you on your toes and it kept it interesting. I had alot of tubes on hand and was ready for it after that! Shows over!! This is the fastest pace of the day. The idea is to work with local hands and get all the gear you are responsible for packed as fast as you possibly can but in a way that is safe to the people around you and not damage the gear. Alot of this stuff is very heavy and people can get hurt. The reason why we have to move so fast here really comes down to "time is money". Next up is getting the band gear to the trucks and making sure it goes in in the right order. Backline (band gear) are first in the trucks. If we take too long we hold every dept. up. The longer we take the longer everyone takes and that translates into local labor costs. The pace is crazy but it can be fun. Everyday on VH the drum tech and I had a fun challenge going on to see who could pack up faster. It kept it fun and gave us something to rib each other about. At this point we are basically done. Next I find a quick shower and get on-line to pick up e-mails. Maybe I'm receiving a package of parts tomorrow and I need to know what to expect. Its also a good time to e-mail my sister and tell her Imiss her. Now I head back to the bus and try to relax a bit. Sometimes hard to do with the quick pace of the show and loadout. Next is sleep!!!! Then its 7:30am and I wakeup in another city and do it all over again!!For those who like to count: By the time I get back to the bus at night its usually 12:30am ish. Thats a long day!!!!
4. With all the buzz surrounding the big Van Halen tour this year, how has life on the road with one of rock's most legendary acts been?
To be honest it has been a heck of alot of work. I don't view any artist for who they are in terms of fame etc. There is no doubt that Ed is an icon but I don't see how anyone in my position could view a player/band in that way and be good at. I'm here to do a job and have to take it very seriously and responsibly. Ed and I got along very well and that is important. I had fun and met some great people along the way but like I said, it was alot of work.
5. Regarding Ed's use of the chord instead of the wireless, is there really a purpose for this? And would you see him switching back to the wireless unit anytime soon? From a fan's perspective, most of us want him to ditch it so he can stop tripping over the darn thing!
The bottom line is wireless units change your tone and dynamic range. Ed has used them for years and I think he finally got tired of the loss of immediacy from using a wireless. People use wireless for freedom of movement and thats it. If your #1 concern is tone wireless is not the way to go. I have had alot of experience with everything from inexpensive units up to$13-14,000 units. Nothing beats a good cable. One of the keys to making a cable work sonically for Ed is the Axess-Electronics BS-2 buffer. We run about 75 feet of cable under the stage from his pedal-board to his head and that's alot of signal loss. Using a buffer to couple a high impedance source with a low impedance load is essential in a case like this but not all buffers are the same. The Axess BS-2 is a fantastic sounding device. If it didn't sound great whenever would have gotten it passed Ed's ears. He's very particular about how his rig feels and sounds. I don't see him returning to a wireless but ultimately that is not for me to say. The way his rig feels (dynamic range, pick attack etc.) are priorities to him. That essentially disappears or greatly decreases with wireless. I don't think he trips over it too much. It does get hung up from time to time but the trade-off is worth it. Its important for him to enjoy his experience on stage and that translates to fan enjoyment IMO. Using a cable does contribute to this factor. He feels more "connected" to his rig with a cable.
6. There are alot of rumors surrounding Ed and this band, so could you please shine some light on how these guys are, not only as musicians, but just as people in general.
There are alot of rumors flying around and there is obviously some history but Ic an only comment on how they interacted with me. At the end of the day they are people and all people have good and bad moments. There is no way you could spend that much time around someone and not see most sides of the picture but I'm notgoing to go into their personal lives too much because that is no ones business. I enjoyed my interactions with each member. Ed is an interesting person. During the solo sections he would hang in my techworld alot and we had some great conversations. He's a smart guy and we have some common interests that have nothing to do with music. Ed is a person with a big heart. Believe it or not out of any player I have worked with he is the most thankful appreciative guy. He constantly thanks you for all your hard work and lets you know that your doing a great job. That means alot. He also lets you know if things are not right but thats cool because its important to know that. Mike is one of the nicest guys is the business. Had the pleasure of hanging out with him a couple times away from the gig and he is just a great person. Always enjoying himself. I had the least interaction with Sammy because he didn't do sound-checks. He would stop by my tech world from time to time during the show for a brief chapter we would pass in the hallways and he always had a big smile. He's a cool guy and seems to like to keep it fun. Alex is interesting as well. He is really into things. He's involved in all the production aspects and wants everything to be right. He is focused and I respect that alot. The Reverend is a cool guy and I enjoyed being around him as well. He would joke with me from time to time saying "are you still here"? It was in fun of course, he knew my gig was alot of work.
7. Of all the guitars Ed uses during the course of a show (Wolfgang's, the 5150Frankenstrat, or the new EVH Charvel's) which do you prefer and why?
The guitars were fine, the problem was Floyd Rose tremolos. They are simply too soft. I'm not speaking for Ed here, you have to ask him for his opinion. As a tech I have a right to my own opinion when I'm responsible for it. When they first arrived on the market they were machined brass and they were a serious piece of machinery, but for a long time they have been made of some sort of softer molded metal. They are too soft for the abuse Ed puts them through. They also sounded alot better when made of brass.Ed is VERY rough on them, its a big part of his style. Ed requires all the bolts to be locked down as hard as possible because if its not it will move. He really gives them a workout, never seen anything like it. I was replacing so many Floyd parts you wouldn't believe it. Saddles, string blocks, you name it. Pretty much a nut every 2 or 3 shows, sometimes daily. We would crush them or strip them out. The tolerances are not tight enough either. Many of the nuts were slightly different heights. That can be a pain when forced to change them that often. The design of a Floyd is great, just wish they were a bit tougher. It works well for most players but Ed is not most players. If I had to pick one guitar however it would be the 5150 Frankenstrat. It sounds great but its just really cool. Alot of history. Also has an original old Floyd on it.
8. Describe the first time you went on stage as Edward Van Halen's tech and how it felt holding Ed's guitar?
OMG it was crazy. It was in Atlantic City NJ. VH have a custom stage so its the same layout in an arena. When we did amphitheaters we couldn't use that stage, but the riggers and carps etc. went to great lengths to keep it consistent for the band and their techs. My first show was neither situation and the only time this came up on the tour. Couldn't have made it tougher if it were planned! It was an outdoor gig in a parking lot with a rented stage. It threw everything way behind. Generally we get the band gear to the stage at about 11:30ish am and sound-check was at 4:30ish. This day we didn't get the stage until 3:30pm!!! I had no idea what cases were what. Everyone knew I was the new guy and were very welcoming, but you could tell many of them knew I was screwed that day. It started to get so late that several of them started to joke with me about it. In a situation like that you really are screwed, but I work very well under pressure and don't feel nervous no matter what situation I'm placed in. I had so little time to pull everything off that I had no time to think about it. You go into this mode and just do it. To be honest I have alot of experience as a touring tech and that helps prepare you for something like this. Its also not the first time I've been faced with this type of situation. I also have alot of knowledge in guitar rig building, amp modding/repair etc. etc. and that gives you alot to draw on. Another factor here is that I do my homework. Dave Friedman(of Rack Systems,builder of Ed's rig) is a good friend of mine. I went over every inch of Ed's rig on paper for signal flow and the best way to tackle gain structure, how its powered and grounded etc. Its not so much self confidence as much as actualizing your abilities. Another very fortunate thing was Mike Keegan, Ed's former tech. He was very kind to drop by and help me out a bit pointing out what was in what case etc. and how he sets things up. He really is a wonderful person and I'm not just saying that because of this situation. He is just a really good guy. Thank you Mike Everything ended up happening on schedule and went off flawlessly. I really didn't have time to think "hey, this is EVH's guitar"!!! Actually that never really hit me the whole tour. Maybe in time.