I’ve been a touring musician for 22 years, which is about 20 years too long to do such a thing to yourself. I’m essentially a trucker who performs every night for 45 minutes, then hits the gas station for dinner. It’s not the worst way to live. I’ve learned a lot in my time out there, but no amount of therapy can save me now. Which is why, when I got the call for a tour manager/guitarist position for an artist friend of mine opening for Korn (through various C-market stadiums), I thought, “Yes, this seems like a sensibly psychotic, easy decision.”

During a post-pandemic meltdown earlier in 2022 I had decided I would never tour again, but this lifestyle has its demonic ways of pulling you back in. Obviously I was going on tour with Korn, Evanescence, and P.O.D. to get that nü-metal bag. (Yes, sometimes as a musician you do, in fact, get paid.)

If anything, touring has turned me into a professional problem-solver. As I looked at the budget, I considered my artist friend’s dwindling tour support from her soon-to-be-defunct label—killed off by the pandemic’s destruction of the industry—and all the travel expenses over the course of a three-week tour. In these impossible times for an artist to make a profit on tour, I could think of only one guitar rig that made sense. This was not an answer that was found on Gearslutz or a Reddit forum for touring on a budget. It was beamed down to me by a lifetime of deep riffs, cutting corners, and robbing every service station I’ve ever stopped at on tour for the past two decades. I knew what had to be done.

I’ve been a touring musician for 22 years, which is about 20 years too long to do such a thing to yourself

The Goal: Achieve the nastiest guitar tone worthy of a nü-metal stadium tour without paying a single cent and barely lifting a finger. Why? Because being a touring musician has turned me into a crazy person (and I hate loading the van).

The Rig: Every weak riff poser knows that the only way to save themselves from not sounding like a total hack is to plug in a Metal Zone MT-2 pedal and start chugging. Somehow, in 1991, Boss created the perfect affordable distortion pedal (roughly $50 used in 2023), arriving at a pivotal moment in heavy metal guitar playing, when a feverish and feral underground was heating up the arms race for maximum gain and ever more disgustingly hostile tones. What guitarist weaned on the precision chug of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, mind blown by the new death metal sounds coming out of Florida and Sweden, would not want to enter the Metal Zone? I was there, a ’90s kid in my basement, in the zone, and like so many other real ones I would never forget the sizzling, greasy assault of the MT-2. This nü-metal stadium tour ahead of me called for nothing less.

Stadium tours require you to bring your own amp. Usually, this means massive guitar cabs lugged by roadies (which we didn’t have), or at the very least a combo amp in the range of thousands of dollars (which is whack and I simply refuse to pay). Now, I must admit, adding a tweed Fender Blues Junior to my rig—sitting a foot and a half tall, it’s a one-speaker amp mostly meant for dads at home refining their B.B. King vibrato—was unplanned. Some might say it was God’s Plan. As I reached out to friends in the first city of our tour in an attempt to “borrow from a punk,” it was literally my only option. I could make it work.

A photograph of a very "impressive" "rig" on tour. Courtesy of Ben Cook
Enter the metal zone.

Los Angeles
The day before I left L.A. to start the tour, I knocked on the gate belonging to the stranger who had responded to my Instagram request to borrow a Metal Zone pedal. With a large joint dangling from his mouth, the stranger peered through the fence at me; I introduced myself and walked into the yard. He was friendly enough and handed me the pedal, asking me what I was using it for. I told him I was going on tour with Korn and he nodded and walked back inside. I finished packing that night and got my flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, the next morning. A friend was waiting for me when I arrived in town with a Fender Blues Junior he had thrifted for $100. My rig was to weigh approximately 30 pounds. Thirty pounds of total brutality.

My rig was to weigh approximately 30 pounds. Thirty pounds of total brutality.

Charlotte, North Carolina
In my freshly cutoff band T-shirt, a full “touring guy” look, I walked into the Korn production office. They’re gonna love me, I thought. I ain’t new to this; I’m true to this. I had secretly toured with Korn 20 years before, when my hardcore band No Warning sold out, signed to Warner Bros., and quickly faded into heavy music obscurity.

In the production office, the tour bosses of the Korn team whom I’d be reporting to daily immediately laid down the backstage laws for me, while the television show Cops streamed in the background on a screen set up on a road case nearby—which I later realized was specifically there to carry a screen to stream Cops at every leg of the tour. These assholes had no idea how good my tone was about to be. As a 40-year-old touring veteran who has somehow retained his youthful looks, I took pleasure in them calling me “millennial” and “new kid,” knowing my $150 rig was about to saw their concaved septums clean off their faces.

I played into my noob character, knowing how perfectly easy my job was and how impressed they would be when the “millennial” was more professional than the other opening band with lip fillers, a bus, and a paid-for fan base on social media. I also had a better tone than them (and mine cost about 10K less). I browsed the other band’s rig in a quick walk-by before my first soundcheck, counting up the racks they spent only to achieve a tone that I would describe as My Chemical Romance covering “Wild Horses” (but not in a good way). I hate being a musician.

The Evanescence rigs were some German boutique company not worth mentioning. Not a Metal Zone in sight, and definitely no Blues Junior. Although I’m sure there were some well-worn blues men on this road crew, I was the only real blues man today. When it was our turn to soundcheck, I picked up my extremely light amp, my guitar case, and my pedal bag with zero effort and plugged in. My ’91 chug, my basement crunch, my tweaker street metal tone rang out through the empty stadium. I was home. I knew I had been a bit of a trailblazer in my twisted career, but this was different. I was the first. To my surprise I heard a voice in the distance. “Is that a Metal Zone?” It was Kevin, the Evanescence sound guy. Sometimes real recognizes real—and in the strangest of places. “You bet it is, my guy,” I told him.

A photo of ranch taken by writer Ben Cook at catering.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch... Courtesy of Ben Cook

Pelham, Alabama
I was sitting at catering and noticed that if you want ranch dressing on a Korn/Evanescence tour, you better get there before 3 p.m. I don’t even like ranch dressing, but being on tour, sometimes obsessing over the most finite details is the only way to get through it. I decided I would try the ranch tomorrow to fit in, because besides Kevin the sound guy, my tone was only making me enemies. I think of the bitter envy Entombed must have faced when they came upon their genre-defining sound for Left Hand Path, with only a Peavey combo amp and a simple Boss distortion. Truthfully, I’ve never heard a rig over $1,000 sound good. Entombed’s $200 rig was the exact sonic replica of a Florida trailer park blasting Morbid Angel through a cloud of meth—exactly what the world needed. No IsoBox or bullshit Marshall stack could ever come close.

The Woodlands, Texas
As I plugged in my rig today, set my drink down beside me, and made sure my set list was taped down to withstand the warm evening wind, I peered into the crowd to see a sea of problematic T-shirts and curious faces looking back at me. I noticed their eyes go from my Joan Jett Melody Maker guitar down to my rig, and back up to my face. I locked eyes with a particularly normal-looking man who slowly nodded. He understood. Had he seen this rig before? Not a chance. Not in this context anyway. Maybe on a YouTube video with 213 views and some gear-testing pervert talking too much. But not here, man. As our intro music faded into the first chugs of the set, I hammered into the first notes, camouflage cap low on my face, my best nü-metal grimace matched only by the normal man in the crowd before me. He was crying. Maybe I was too. My rig was ripping him apart. Or maybe our post-pandemic PTSD was hitting at the exact same time. Either way, it was a moment. I glanced back to see tour security watching me carefully. I had never been kicked off a tour before for tone jealousy. Today could be that day.

A band performs in corpse paint on stage.
Engaging in the tone zone. Courtesy of Ben Cook

Lubbock, Texas
Ranch dressing at catering started to run out by 1 p.m. Dire shit. I haven’t had to make a single tweak to my tone or rig. It’s perfect. I was able to find a printer today and hand in our guest list to the production office in the desired format. “Surely I can just email it to you?” I had asked on day 2. “Listen, you fucking millennial, I want you to print it out, every day, hand it to me, physically, or we’re going to have problems.” Copy that, sir. Perhaps he thought the guy with the $150 rig could afford a portable printer. Perhaps he thought I gave a damn about anything except for my rig. As he drilled me with further rules that made zero sense, my eyes blurred into the stream of Cops perched atop the road case. I took a bag of Sour Kids from his desk and walked out. It was time again for the easiest load-in of my life.

Nampa, Idaho
“This looks like my eighth-grade homework,” the production manager said as I handed in a handwritten version of today’s guest list. “I’m sorry, sir, the printer at the hotel was broken.” He looked me up and down. I was on day 6 of wearing the same cutoff tee and shorts. Camo hat on my head, I stared him in the eye. “You got a Metal Zone out there, son?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Blues Junior?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Have a good set, son.”

“I will, sir.”

A photo of the writer, Ben Cook, on day 6 of wearing the same outfit.
The writer, Ben Cook, on day 6 of wearing the same outfit. Courtesy of Ben Cook

Spokane, Washington
Not my best day today. A tweaker broke into our van but only took a bottle of tequila. I imagined them looking at my rig and not bothering. Even a Spokane tweaker knows it ain’t worth shit. One of Evanescence’s personal security guards threatened my life after I asked to borrow a wine opener. Watching Korn tonight, I realized what an incredible band they are, but couldn’t help but wonder what they’d sound like with my crazy sick rig.

Portland, Oregon
The last show. Twenty-two years of touring has gone by quicker than you’d think. I’ve toured China on overnight trains, narrowly avoided jail in Russia, slept in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and had a song chart above 50 Cent in Japan, which subsequently made me famous there for about three weeks in 2004. But it was all leading up to this: a C-market tour with the almighty Korn and the dream rig of a lifetime. I think I can let go of this lifestyle now. I think I can retire knowing I went out a sizzly-crispy legend, and not once did I set foot on a stage as a no-riff hack. I can finally get a dog. Maybe even sign a lease and get a fig tree. I ended up Venmo-ing the owner of the Metal Zone $60. Never in their entire life had someone earned the right to own a used Metal Zone pedal more than I had. It belongs to me now. I don’t own a single record I’ve ever made, I’m not a fan of “stuff,” but maybe this is the one nostalgic artifact I’ll keep on the shelf to remind me of more authentic times.

Ben Cook is the mastermind behind the cosmic power-pop project Young Guv, as well as the vocalist of No Warning and a behind-the-scenes writer-producer for countless other artists.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Spring 2023 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.




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