METALLICA’S members performed more than enough hijinks and shenanigans to earn their reputation for alcohol-fuelled hedonism. For the past 16 years, Chad Zaemisch has been along for that ride — just don’t count on him for too many debauched stories from the road. While James Hetfield is playing the opening riffs to “Nothing Else Matters” or “Master of Puppets” to thousands of adoring fans, Zaemisch is the guy who made sure the guitar was set up, restrung and in tune, that the ever-evolving amp and effects rig was in order, that the wireless system isn’t pulling a Nigel Tufnel and that the metal god is, in general, a happy deity.
Zaemisch is one of the all-too-often anonymous guitar techs, a profession that is done best when nobody in a gigantic audience realizes he exists. Going by stereotypes perpetuated by pop-culture oddities like 1980 comedy Roadie (a forgotten film whose unbelievable cast includes Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, Roy Orbison and Blondie) or the Tenacious D song of the same name, life running the backline is a cycle of shlepping amps and then partying till you puke. The reality, according to Zaemisch, is far more mundane. On Metallica’s recent summer tour, his day started at 9 a.m. to load in and didn’t stop until well after tens of thousands of fans had filtered out of the venue.
“By that time, it can be 11:30 or 12 at night. It can be a little hard to wind down after all that excitement and work and that level of energy,” he says. “Next thing you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re thinking about having to get up at 7:30 so you’d better try and get some sleep.”
As with rock stars, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. But for guitar techs, it’s also a path marked by insane hours, lots of manual labor and constant, tedious re-stringing. It’s not for everybody, but helpers to some of rock’s biggest names told Guitar World the truth about life 20 feet away from stardom.
FOR SOMEBODY WHOSE LIFE revolves around guitars and guitar accessories, it comes as a surprise that Zaemisch started off as a drummer. While his mom taught him a few guitar chords, he focused on the skins, playing in bands through high school and eventually drifting through a few jazz classes. A course in sound engineering led to a revelation — a life was possible that combined the creative and technical aspects of creating music. Drawn by the energy of live performances, he started working live sound.
“I wanted to tour, I wanted to get out and see the country and whatever else I could see,” he says. “That was sort of my path to doing that.”
During a stint with one company around 1993, he met a fellow roadie gearing up to work on an upcoming Lollapalooza tour. They passed along word that Nineties alternative rockers the Breeders were looking for a guitar tech. Zaemisch once ran the band’s monitors, so the gig seemed like the perfect fit. The festival turned out to be a perfect networking opportunity. On the road, he met people working for the Breeders’ management. Another of their clients, Hole, were looking for a guitar tech and they turned to Zaemisch. “You tour, you meet people and work with people, you can find other bands through management companies or friends or people you know,” he says. “That’s how you get a lot of the not-so-serious people weeded out as you start working for bigger and bigger bands.”
The connections soon paid off in a big way. While Zaemisch was on tour with Garbage, Kirk Hammett’s longtime tech Justin Crew came aboard as a fill-in drum tech. The pair hit it off.
“We got along famously, we had a good time working together and had a lot of laughs,” Zaemisch says. “It was a few years later where I saw Justin, I think I was filling in for him with Tori Amos. He said, ‘James let his guitar tech go last night.’ I said, ‘Well, put my name in the hat,’ and he did.” Zaemisch ended up being shortlisted and was soon flown out to California to meet with Hetfield. “He asked me about who I was and what I had done and what my philosophies were. It was the first job interview I’d been on in probably 20 years or something. It was a little nerve wracking. They called me half an hour later and said, ‘You’re hired; James likes you.’”
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