Greetings from Brooklyn, New York. I'm about to go on the road, and I thought I'd pass on a few tips to all the guitarists preparing to journey into the world of touring-a smelly place where soundmen don't wear shirts, monitors are chained to the stage and guitar techs are just a rumor.
But fear not, for there are solutions to these noisome problems. No matter what the bouncer says, neon signs in bars can be turned off. When diplomacy fails, I suggest covert action. The switch for many neon signs is on a string right on them, so make a special trip just before show time.
Small clubs often have their audience lights on a dimmer. Turn them off during sound check, and it could solve your problem since they're rarely on during the actual show.
At bigger shows, especially one-offs at colleges where the sound system and lighting rigs are brought in for the show, sound and light cables can often be wrapped together behind the stage. This sets up a very ugly electrical field which will cause an incredible amount of buzzing. Politely point this out as the possible source of your problem to the crew. Until they unwrap the cables from one another and run them separately (or cross them at 90 degree angles), it will be virtually impossible to eliminate the buzz.
If buzzing is a consistent problem, plug your guitar into someone else's amp. Your amp could be improperly grounded, even if it has a fancy three-pronged plug.
Ice machines or refrigerators often can't be turned off, in which case you might just have to give up. A noise gate can help keep a distracting buzz from destroying silence with a song.
An easy way to trouble-shoot this is to turn on your amp, plug in your guitar and touch the guitar strings to the microphone. If you hear a click or a pop from the amp or see sparks, you've got a live one. If you have a ground switch in the back of your amp, this is the time to use it. If your amp doesn't have a ground switch, "lifting" the ground by putting a two-prong adapter on the end of your amp's plug is a practical and quick solution to the problem.
If the problem persists, and you find yourself torn between the love of playing and the fear of frying, put a windscreen on the microphone. This will keep your lips from the metal of the mic and stop the shocks. Clubs or sound companies sometimes have windscreens, but they all smell a lot like somebody else, so I recommend the five dollar investment in a fresh one. Just leave it in the back of your amp until that twentieth show when you need it. (This tip is especially useful at "in-store" record shop appearances when there is no time to fiddle around, and the grounding can be very iffy.)
There is another fringe benefit to installing a barrier-if you park with the back doors of the van against a wall, it is almost impossible to rip off your gear without actually stealing the entire vehicle (a far more serious crime).
When this first happened to me, I immediately assumed it was my old tubes folding up from the heat, but even after replacing them, the problems continued. I came to realize the moisture in the air was clinging to the speaker as it vibrated, making it fold up. New speakers (even retro-styled ones) hold their crispness a lot longer. Replacing speakers is easy, and won't permanently scar your amp. Just leave the vintage one at home for recording sessions.
See you on the road.
Guitarist John Flansburgh has been touring with They Might Be Giants for eight years. Their sixth LP, Factory Showroom, on Elektra Records, has just been released.