How to be a Solo Guitar Trio

I always wanted to be a solo musician.  I also always wanted to play in a band.  I’m fully aware of the contradiction involved.  I liked solo because I’m a control freak; I wanted to play the music I wanted, to practice when it was convenient, to make all the mistakes, and claim all the glory.  And the tips.  On the other hand, I much preferred the sounds of jazz, rock, and blues ensembles, as well as the ability to stretch out and improvise: in other words, I wanted to be in a group.  

I settled for a long while playing solo acoustic guitar (hard for me to improvise in that form) and participate in monthly blues jams (infrequent, and the luck of the draw as far as your fellow musicians went). They were both fun, but neither was ideal.

Then came looping.  While the Gibson Echoplex and Boomerang loopers had been around, it was the Boss RC series that gave me my start.  Beginning with the small RC-2, I suddenly had a tool to practice, jam, and, yes, perform with.  It was best suited for open mic nights where I could plug in my magic box between my acoustic guitar and amp, riffing over chord progressions.  It didn’t make for gripping rock and roll fireworks, but it was fun, and good rhythm and improv training.

Eventually I wanted more, and looked into other options.  I wanted to expand the sound I could make as a solo player.  I was on the verge of buying a foot drum kit (apologies to Shakey Graves, but- shudder), when I started reading about the Digitech Trio.  TRIO-Band-Creator-Top_originalThe Trio uses a version of Band in a Box software to generate bass and drum parts based on your guitar input.  You select your genre (from Alt-Rock to Jazz), hit the footswitch, and begin playing.  You soon learn that the simplest one strum per beat patterns read best (unfortunately, precisely the ones that are the least interesting to the audience).  There was also no capacity to store songs once they were tweaked to your liking, so live performance meant creating your pattern before each song.  Digitech marketed the Trio as a practice tool, and although I (and doubtless hundreds of others) used it in live performance, it was not a true performance tool.
Digitech, though, was continuing to work on the concept, and soon issued the TRIO+.  The new pedal incTrioPlus-largeorporates a synchronized looper with the band creator software, adds several genres (such as Latin Jazz, Folk, and others), and, arguably most importantly, added the ability to store songs- twelve per micro-SD card.  This is the platform that has allowed me to put together a full solo gig rig.

I play electric guitar instrumentals: “Sleepwalk,” “007 Theme,” “Tequila,” “Gravity” (well, it’s an instrumental when I play it).  While running straight into an amp with the TRIO+ is possible, it produces less than full-range sound, as well as taking on any characteristics inherent (or dialed in) to the amp- gain, reverb, midrange spike/scoop, etc.  This doesn’t make for a great-sounding gig rig, so once I started gigging the TRIO and TRIO+, I put together a one-trip rig that can conquer any winery, farmer’s market, or coffeehouse with ease.

What I was shooting for: a guitar, pedalboard, and portable PA setup that was light and compact, great-sounding, and

IMG_0061reliable.  Here’s what I came up with: guitar to TRIO+ (which is controlled by a Digitech FS3X footswitch).  The drum/bass out goes into a Behringer mini-mixer (I connect it TRS instead of mono- it can work either way, but the TRS connect yields less noise).  The guitar out goes into a Polytune tuner, a Keeley Memphis Sun slapback/reverb, a Joyo American Sound amp sim, and into the mixer.  The summed mixer output (TRS) then goes to directly to the balanced input on the mighty Bose L1 compact.

So the pedal board (made by Blackbird) ends up being supremely simple: one power cord in, one guitar cord in, and one TRS-to-balanced cord out.IMG_0064


This is by no means the only way to hook up a TRIO+ system. I started by running the guitar into a guitar amp, and the bass/drums into a mini PA.  I later moved to the amp sim pedal and a Roland Cube Street EX.  My current rig, though,  sounds the best, and it’s the easiest to deal with.  It’s light, and set up is just stacking the tweeter tower on the Bose and plugging in two power cords and two sound cables.  I can easily cover a crowd of 150, indoors or out.

I mentioned earlier that the ability to save songs was, for me, the most significant step up from the TRIO to the TRIO+. I currently have two micro-SD cards with twelve songs each that can cover a two-hour gig.  I found a slim micro-SD card holder that I have Velcroed to the pedal board so I can swap cards (an admittedly finicky process made more challenging by a dark stage).  I also Velcro a laminated song list to the board, as the TRIO+ gives no readout of what song the pedal is on beyond 1-12.  If you can’t remember that song 4 on card 2 is “The Girl from Ipanema” then you’ll need a similar list.

The other must-have for gigging with the TRIO+ is the FS3X footswitch.  It has several possible control configurations, but the main thing I use it for is to switch between song sections during performance (otherwise you have to push a tiny button on the pedal itself).  If you’re like me and like to elevate your board so you can adjust levels on the fly, you can use a longer TRS cord to have the FS3X on the floor.

The results are surprisingly good.  Here is a recording made directly from the line out on the Bose of “Seven Nation Army”: 

Here’s a take on “Tin Pan Alley”:

I may be a Pollyanna, but I don’t expect pedals to replace drummers and bassists completely.  I know I’d rather be playing with live musicians than a pedal. But the reality of geography, day jobs, family obligations, and musical taste make the TRIO+ and other stompbox accompanists a great alternative for musicians of all sorts.

3 thoughts on “How to be a Solo Guitar Trio”

  1. Great article, and nice playing. I have a Trio plus and just started using it on a handful of songs in my solo acoustic gigs.

    Are you “teaching the band” live? Or going with saved songs in a live setting. I’ve been doing a combination. For more complicated songs, I use saved songs. But for a couple of more simple songs, I have taught the band live with reliable results until my last gig when the band didn’t give me what I expected.


    1. I’m doing all the teaching and tweaking at home. It’s more or less like backing tracks, but I have a lot more control over how many times the parts cycle. I also do some live mixing, dropping out the drums or bass and bringing them back.


      1. Thanks! After my last gig where the band didn’t give me what I expected, I think I need to go the same route. I’ve had 2 issues you might have encountered:
        1. Sometimes I accidentally overwrite a song. Probably operator error as hard as I try to switch to an empty song before changing anything. I wonder if there is a way to lock a song so you can’t overwrite it.
        2. For several of my songs, I add a rhythm loop on top of the band. I then solo, and sometimes the solo is added as an overdub.
        Any thoughts?
        Mahalo (as we say in Hawaii)


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