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Rock & Roll Stage Fright: It’s Really Fear of Frying

Getting fried is one of rock’s occupational hazards but a wireless mic may change that

Rock & Roll Stage Fright: It's Really Fear of Frying

Electrocution

Bertrand Demee./Getty Images

Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico thinks about the Guinness Book of World Records at the oddest times—like the time he found himself standing in a puddle onstage in Central Park. He wasn’t thinking about breaking Mike Palmer’s record for the longest guitar solo (122 hours). Nor was he thinking about breaking the Who’s record for being the world’s loudest rock band (120 decibels). Craig had another record in mind, one he didn’t want to break. “I began to think about guitarists getting electrocuted,” he explained. “And then I thought about the Guinness Book of World Records.” Put simply, Craig didn’t want to wind up as the guitarist who got zapped by the strongest electrical current.

But lest you think Craig is some sort of wimp, consider this rock & roll casualty list:
• Guitarist Les Harvey of Stone the Crows was killed onstage in 1972 when he touched a poorly connected microphone.
• Keith Relf, former lead singer with the Yardbirds, was electrocuted while playing his guitar at home in 1976.
• Peter Frampton and George Benson “were damn near killed,” according to a Frampton source, before they appeared on Don Kirshner’s TV Rock Awards last October.
• Several other musicians, most notably Les Paul and Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, have also had near misses. And scores of other musicians, including Chaquico, have been jolted onstage, in the studio or at home.

“I was playing in a high-school football stadium with a group called Steelwind,” recalled Craig. “We were in the middle of this song, and I walked up to the mike. I saw this blue flash shoot out of the mike, and I completely forgot what song we were doing. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back. I just saw stars.”

Then there’s Les Paul’s description: “I was in the studio and I had just built a transmitter. I stuck one hand in the transmitter and the other was on my guitar. It was like being struck by lightning. I fell to the floor. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t holler help. And I couldn’t open my hand. My grip just kept getting tighter and tighter. My whole chest was strained. Fortunately, my bassist came into the control room and saw me and threw the main power switch just in time.”

In other words, getting fried is one of rock’s occupational hazards. And that hazard has become even greater as the house PAs and small amplifiers of fifteen years ago have been replaced by stacks of amps, banks of electronic keyboards, massive PAs and sophisticated lighting and special-effects systems that require huge amounts of electricity. Bands can no longer just plug their amps into a wall socket. In fact, most groups now use three separate power circuits: one for the PA, another for the amplifiers, and yet another for the lights. And as an example of how much power is needed for a large-scale rock concert, consider that the equipment for the Wings over America shows required 435,000 watts of electricity.

The key to using such enormous amounts of electricity safely is a good ground. In fact, as Chaquico found out, if everything is properly grounded, a guitarist could stand in a puddle and play without worrying too much about it being his final performance. On the other hand, if everything isn’t adequately grounded, a microphone, a guitar and even a glass of water could become lethal weapons. And the more power sources a group uses, the greater the chance that everything won’t be grounded correctly.

Besides increasing the amount of power needed for a show, stage gimmicks increase the threat of electrocution in other ways. Ace Frehley’s near miss was caused by a leaky dry-ice machine. The leak created a puddle that ran from a power source to a metal railing on Kiss’ set. When Ace touched the railing, he completed the circuit and had to be drop-kicked free by some roadies.

And then there’s the problem of equipment failure. In amplifiers, for example, only a five-cent capacitor stands between the musician and death.

All these factors considered, however, preventing shocks isn’t really that difficult. At least that’s what most road crews claim. “It all comes down to a musician’s roadies,” said Chuck Conein, road manager for Peter Frampton. According to Conein, no one should be zapped if the crew is careful and takes the time to make certain everything is grounded properly (which could mean checking as many as 450 individual light bulbs to be sure each one is grounded) and then watches to he sure that nothing breaks down or that nothing is tampered with (by flipping the ground switch on his amplifier to eliminate a buzz, a guitarist could throw the entire system out of phase).

“Most shocks are caused by equipment being mishandled,” Conein said. “You can usually pinpoint it to someone who didn’t do his job.”

And to make sure that Frampton’s road crew does do its job, Conein has developed a sort of initiation for new roadies. He has them place one hand on the bare end of a guitar cord that is plugged into an amp and place the other hand on a microphone. The resulting jolt tends to impress upon the roadies the importance of proper grounding, Conein said.

Besides being extremely careful, there are other ways to minimize the threat of electrocution. One common method is for a band to carry its own power sources on the road. This way the crews are familiar with the system, which makes it easier for them to be sure that everything is connected correctly. And as for the problem of equipment failure (which Conein claims is extremely rare), there are monitoring devices that can detect such breakdowns and cut off the power.

But despite these and other safeguards, it remains that just about every rock musician gets zapped at one time or another. A relatively new invention, however, may come as close as possible to eliminating that problem. The wireless microphone, perfected about a year ago by Ken Schaffer, is a cigarette-pack-size radio transmitter that, when plugged into a guitar, sends a signal that is picked up by a similar-sized receiver in an amplifier. By eliminating the need for electrical cords, the wireless system removes the musician from the electrical circuit, virtually eliminating the possibility of electrocution.

Ironically, however, Schaffer did not have the shock problem in mind when he developed the wireless. “I originally liked it for aesthetic purposes,” he said. “It gives guitarists more freedom onstage.” But when Schaffer began marketing the device, he quickly found that there was more interest in something that would make musicians shockproof. “The Electric Light Orchestra was my first customer,” Schaffer said. “I had heard they were looking to go wireless because Jeff Lynne was almost petrified to go onstage for fear he’d be electrocuted.” And after Ace Frehley’s near miss, Kiss became another of Schaffer’s customers.

But while Schaffer’s invention may drastically reduce the electrocution problem among musicians, another new device that was accidentally invented by San Diego guitar maker Bob Brown has increased the problem for the rodent population. It seems that the only function of AMIGO (short for ants, mice and gophers) is to give off electromagnetic waves that zap the rodents’ nervous systems, causing them to flee, or to enter a trance and eventually drop dead from starvation. Who knows, perhaps Ken Schaffer will find himself with a whole new clientele.

In This Article: Coverwall, Guitar

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