You may never have heard of Fred Kowalo, but I guarantee you’ve heard of guys like: Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society / Ozzy Osbourne), Nick Catenese (Black Label Society), Jasin Todd, Brad Stewart, Zach Meyers (Shinedown), Mike Inez and William Duvall (Alice In Chains), James Lomenzo, Chris Broderick, David Ellefson, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Kirk Pengilly (INXS), and Boogie Street Guitars these are just a few of the people Fred has worked with.
Fred is a guitar and bass tech and one of the major hitters that are responsible for making the rock, roll. Right now, and for the past few years he has been responsible for keeping the stage left of a Megadeth show running as Chris Brodrick’s and David Ellefson’s tech.
How did you get started as a tech?
I was a stagehand in Pittsburgh, so I worked with a lot of the rock concerts that came through. I’d set up the lights, the sound, the stage or whatever they needed me to do. I’d always wait for the guitars techs to appear then I’d hit them with a thousand questions, like ‘How they do what they do?’ and ‘Why they do it that way?’
So was that your education?
Yeah, just by looking at the instruments and talking to all the techs I met being a stagehand. I’d also fix my friends guitars for free to get the experience of actually working on different guitars. I read a lot as well.
Who was you first big job for?
It didn’t happen fast, but if you fast-forward ten years I got a call from Nick Catanese who was a friend of mine. He asked me to fix one of his (Gibson) Les Pauls because he needed it in a hurry. So, I got it sorted and got it back to him, and he goes off and plays a few shows with Zakk Wylde.
Some time goes by and I got a call from Nick saying that Zakk wanted me to come to Wrestlemania in Philadelphia to fix one of his guitars (the Bullseye) because he had loved the way Nick’s had felt. Anyway, I went down and met Zakk, who was a super awesome guy. We spent a lot of time drinkin’, for the three or so days I was there, eventually at the Wrestlemania after party there’s Me, Zakk, Phil Ondich and Steve Austin all sittin’ there drinkin’ and Zakk turns to me and he says “You drink pretty good…do you want a job?”
…I never did fix that guitar.
What is a typical show day for you?
On a typical show day I’ll start by first unloading all the gear from the truck and set up the backline on stage. After that I get to work stringing the guitars, I usually start with the basses first because they’re the easiest and then I set about (Chris) Brodrick’s Floyds because they do take a bit longer.After that I stretch the stings. I’ve got my certain songs that I play that’ll get them good and stretched, one of the challenges with Floyd Roses are, you want to stretch them to the point they wont go out of tune, but not too much that the strings are dead.
I wont leave the stage, I’ll eat on stage in my tech world and I’ll stay there till show time, going over all the gear making sure everything is working properly. I also do all Chris’ patch changes during the shows, regardless. I think, that is very important because that way, all he has to do is concentrate on going out there and playing and I concentrate on being a tech.
How does that differ from a festival?
As for festival shows, well they’re slightly different. The most important thing is to say calm, because you don’t have the time or the space and no one is going to give you the time or space, because all the other techs are in the same position as you. The backline usually gets set-up last minute because there is just so much going on and so many other bands there that are trying to do the exact same thing.
What I’ll usually do is go to one of the trucks and set-up my world there and that’s where I’ll do all my string changes, setting up wireless packs and stuff like that. Then when we get the call we’ll roll it onto stage. After that it’s pretty much normal.
On show days it seems as though there is a lot work to be done, so what is a typical day off?
When I was younger with Zakk it was typically a lot of drinking, but now that I’m a little older, I’ve got a wife and kids, a day off usually consists of a sitting in the hotel room on Skype with them. Although, I do love history so on a day off if there is anything of historical significance, you’ll find me there checking it out.
I done a whirlwind tour of Paris, I managed to get to the Louvre, then I had to run from there to the Eiffel Tower, climb it, then to the Arc de Triomphe and from there to Notre Dame running all the time because I only had like four hours to see it all…I hurt after that one. Having said that, I’ve been around the world so much that I’ve pretty much seen everything I want to.
How much time out a year do you spend on the road?
Well, it does vary from year to year, but usually it’s about six to eight months. And when I’m not on the road I’ll go back to working as a stagehand.
How do you approach new rigs when working for new bands?
I’ve been around for twenty odd years and I’m pretty loyal to the guys that I work for, so I’ve got a good idea of their rigs and how they work. Occasionally though, I do get asked to work for people I don’t know that much about. I got asked by Kirk Pengilly of INXS to do a tour with them as his tech, so I had to go and look up his rig and find out how it worked.
I remember also on that tour I was asked to look after saxophones, I’d never done that before so that was a bit of a learning curve. Most of the time though I know enough about the gear to get the job done and if there is anything more ‘in-depth’ I’ll learn that when I need to.
How much input do you have into the rigs you work with?
A lot of the time the rig is there and the player knows what they want, so all I have to do is maintain it. Having said that, I remember this one time when I was with Zakk, we were talking about his sound and he was saying that it wasn’t quite what he wanted it to be, but after a bit of a chat I had a good idea of what he wanted. Zakk is one of these guys that you could mess with his guitars as much as you wanted but just DON’T touch the amps.
Anyway, this one time we were setting up for Ozzy rehearsal so I had three days without him and I adjusted the amps, but I kept my mouth shut. Zakk comes in and starts playing. Afterwards turns to me and says, “What the hell did you do?” I said ‘Why?” because I was pretty sure I was right in what I had done, and he says “Because this is the sound I hear in my head!” Where as with the likes of Chris (Brodrick) he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.
A guitar tech wouldn’t be a lot without his toolbox, what’s in yours?
First off I am the king of junk tools! My box is pretty basic, I don’t go crazy with fancy tools because you loose them on the road…people have sticky fingers. I keep all the fancy, specialized stuff that I get from Stew Mac at home. So my box is just filled with the kind of tools you can buy at Home Depot. or places like that. The way I look at it, if you can fix a guitar on the road with basic stuff like that then it makes it much easier when you get home and have all the ‘good’ tools.
What type of tuners to you use?
I stick with Korg, they were nice enough to give me tuners when I was a nobody all those years ago and as I said I’m pretty loyal to those guys. In my box at the minute I’ve got one of the old DTR-2000’s as well as a Pitchblack Plus. I’ve tried Petersons and love ’em, (David) Ellefson is a Peterson guy, he’s got one in his rack, but I stick to my Korgs.
On a loud stage it can be hard to tune an acoustic guitar, how do you do it?
Usually you know, I’ll have it all sorted before show time; I’ve stretched the stings out real good so I’m pretty confident they’re not going to go out of tune. Come show time all I need to do is a wee bit of tweaking, and for that I’ll use a clip-on type tuner like the Peterson Stroboclip or something along those lines.
Something goes wrong and all of a sudden there is no sound from a rig, how do you troubleshoot it?
I usually start with the power and make sure everything has power going to it, then I’ll work from the guitar back; check the wireless, the amp then to the speaker cabinet. Inevitably something is going to break or stop working and when it does the most important thing to do is stay calm, which can be hard because you’ve got your guy on stage with no sound, dying in front of a screaming crowd. A lot of the time though, the guys are cool with it because they know you’re working on it.
What do you think is the most likely thing to go wrong at a show?
Cables! Cables go wrong the most you know; you’ve got people walking over them and rolling cases on wheels over them, they just take a pounding. Which is why it’s important to have good cables. Other things like output jacks on guitars and tubes in amps do go sometimes too, but when I get the chance I’ll clean everything to reduce the chances of that happening as much as possible.
What cables do you use?
I’ve been a Monster (cable) guy for years so that’s what I usually use, but at the minute Ellefson’s and Chris’ rig are wired up using Mogami and Monster.
How is it you monitor your guys on stage?
We use in-ear monitors; I’ve got a mix of Ellefson and Chris as well as some drums and vocals so I can get my bearings for the patch changes for Chris. Where as Willie (Dave Mustaine’s guitar tech) I think only has, Dave’s guitar and some drums.
Do you find you get a bit of ‘boy in a bubble’ syndrome when you are really concentrating?
Sometimes I do, yeah; I’ll get into my own little world. A lot of the time though I’ll only have one earphone in that way I get a feel for who’s around me and I can talk to Chris, but of course he has in-ears in too so he can’t hear a word I’m saying, there is an awful lot of smiling and nodding.
So here you go guys, that’s what it is like to be a tech on the road, as seen through the eyes of Fred Kowalo. I’d like to take this chance to thank Fred for taking the time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk me. Cheers Fred!