S HIFTING GEAR
America’s Toughest Tour
before a third one was brought in that
could take the demands put on it by the
mismatched power source.
24 hours to a new location in Afghanistan
made this a daily task for me.
From Left to Right is Rex Mauney (keyboards), Dave McAfee
(drums), Toby Keith, Chuck Goff (bass), Scotty Emerick (acoustic
guitar) Rich Eckhardt (lead guitar); taken in Bastion, Afghanistan,
April 23, 2009. Photo by Dave Gatley.
We were wheels up out of Andrews Air Force
Base on Tuesday, April 21, about to begin
America’s toughest tour: the annual Toby
Keith USO tour. With seven USO trips under
our belts since 2002, we’re a seasoned bunch
of musicians—but no amount of practice or
arena shows can prepare you for an excursion
in the Afghani desert.
As we boarded the USAF C- 17 jet, our guitars and luggage were palletized (loaded
onto a pallet to be transported) and stored
on the tail section. On this flight there
would be no attendants, in-flight movies
or even that tray of vaguely warm chicken
served with miniature utensils that we all
complain about. The four rows of seats
made available to us were strapped to
the deck with extra strength bungee cord.
We had only four small windows, exposed
wires, and a portable latrine. This nine-hour,
no-frills flight to Germany was only halfway
to our final destination.
After traveling in close quarters for two days
everyone was dead tired, but this was where
it all began. We had to hit the ground running in Sharana, Afghanistan. The backline
on this tour was provided by Public Address,
an audio company out of Meinz, Germany.
They did a great job providing us with all
the equipment that we needed to pull off
our trek through this barren region of the
world. The only problem we encountered was
that all of their gear was wired for European
220V and the bases were all wired for 110.
It caused slight setup delays in some of the
camps. In Kandahar, two portable generators
gave their lives in the name of entertainment
Public Address brought not only the
speaker stacks, mixing consoles and lights,
but they also hooked me up with a pair
of Peavey Classic 50s, as well as two Vox
AC30s. Having used both before, I knew
what each could do and decided to play
through the Classic 50s, leaving the AC30s
as a backup. The Classic 50, along with the
old 5150 (now called the 6505), in my opinion are the best amps that Peavey makes.
On past tours to Iraq I would plug into a
Marshall Quad 4. Its solid-state components
stand up better in the extreme 120-degree
heat of the Iraq spring than tubes would.
Afghanistan in April is a comfortable 95
degrees at the peak of the day. It had cooled
into the 70s by showtime, which provided
both me and my equipment with cozy show
conditions. For the first time on any of these
many USO tours, I was able to drive some
tubes and get the grit we all know and love
out of the speakers. I was surprised to find
that on these makeshift plywood constructed
stages I preferred the sound of the Bright
channel. Normally, brighter equals thinner,
and that’s never good. With the Classic 50,
that channel defined the sound and punched
more than the Normal channel without making the high end brittle.
I leaned heavily on my Roland GT- 8 pedalboard to do all the heavy lifting on this trip.
Having preprogrammed all of my Toby show
settings in it, I simply needed to plug in and
do a little tweaking with the amps.
Getting the pedalboard to the conflict zone
was a major challenge. In order to meet
the requirements imposed upon all of us
on commercial flights, I was forced to pack
the delicate pedal board into my check
bag, buffered by my socks and T-shirts to
protect it from the airline baggage handlers.
Once we moved to military transportation, I
placed the GT- 8 in a duffle bag wrapped in
my sleeping bag to keep it from potential
damage. I was also sure to stay with it as it
was being palletized, to ensure that it was
placed on top and not carelessly thrown
under a stack of heavy cases. Traveling every
The one guitar I took with me was my U.S.
Masters Super T. It’s custom painted with a
red, white and blue flag pattern. That kind
of patriotic display is a full-size middle finger
to the Taliban, and brings a little bit of back-home spirit to the troops. It’s loaded with
EMG Passive H4 pickups. Similar to EMG’s
active 81s, these pickups have tight bass
and crunchy highs—they’re a great choice to
cover a wide range of guitar tones on one
instrument. I’ve also fitted my Super T with
a Hipshot Extender, enabling me to change
my low E to a low D and back at the flip of a
switch. It saves me the hassle of flying extra
guitars and switching during the shows in
these extreme travel conditions.
While traveling from one guarded location
to another, our flights were complete with
Combat Landings in a C- 130. With the G
force pushing against your body, it feels as
if you’re trapped beneath a rock concert
speaker stack. Admittedly uncomfortable, it
only lasted for a moment or two as the C- 130
corkscrewed the band safely to the ground.
On this trip we performed fifteen shows
in five days before we traveled to Italy
to play yet again for the troops and their
families stationed there. Many of them had
just returned from their deployment in the
Middle East, while others had yet to go.
The seventeen-show outing was a huge success, and we managed to lift the morale of
thousands of our military men and women.
The reception from all of them—Army, Navy,
Air Force and Marines—nearly embarrassed
us; it was overwhelming. They’ve got the
demanding chore. We were just playing a
little music, easy as do, re, mi…
Rich Eckhardt is one of the most sought after guitarists
in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put
him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to
Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar for
Toby Keith. His new CD, Cottage City Firehouse, is available online at richeckhardt.com