We have all died on stage, told a bad joke, played to an audience that just doesn't get our music and so on but what you really don't want is an actual death on stage. Every year musicians end up in coffins because of electric shocks from their stage equipment and this need never happen. I want to tell you how to avoid electric shocks, why they happen and what to do about it. Reading this article could just save your life.
The most common experience is to get a shock when you touch a microphone, often it happens when you are also touching the strings of a guitar but it can come from any metal object on stage. The important thing is to recognise that this is not normal, it is not ok, it is very dangerous and something you have to deal with straight away. That's right; straight away. Even if you are in the middle of a song you should stop until the problem is sorted. Don't touch the mike or whatever, switch off the offending item and, if you can, let the audience know that there is a problem and it will be sorted in a few minutes. I'll tell you how to do this below.
If some roadie or bar manager tells you it is ok, it has happened before or that it is just static then you absolutely have to ignore them. They are wrong. You have to have it checked and fixed.
The only way to get an electric shock on stage is if there is an earthing fault. There may be other problems but if all the equipment is properly earthed you won't get a shock because all of the equipments metal casing will be at the same earth potential. You might have hum loops and you may be blowing fuses but you won't be shocked.
How Earthing Works
In the main fuse box where the electrical supply enters the building there is an earth point. This is connected to an earth point outside the building either a conducting rod banged deep into the ground or to a connection provided by the electricity supplier. This earth point is then connected to all the cables that run through the building and to all the sockets and lighting points in the building. The idea is that if any metal object that is connected to an earth wire becomes live then the electricity is carried harmlessly away down the earth wire until a fuse goes and cuts off the electricity. The problems come when there is a break in this earth circuit.
If you have had a shock then there is an earth problem. It could be in an equipment lead or it could be in the house wiring. Leads to your equipment often get damaged in the general confusion on stage or when we mistreat them. A wire may simply have come loose inside a plug or a wire may be damaged inside a cable. It could be a mains extension lead which is at fault but you should also suspect the house wiring. You would be stunned by how often the innocent looking mains socket on the wall hides a dangerous fault. Fortunately this is easy to check so check it first.
As the cables run through the building there may be hundreds of joins in the junction boxes and sockets throughout the building and if any of these connections have been wired incorrectly or have worked loose it will create problems as can rodent damage or water. In any large building with many hundreds of connections it is almost certain that someone has made mistakes in the wiring. You can check all this with a simple socket tester which you get from most hardware shops for 10-20 (UK price) You just plug them in and led's light up and tell you if there are any faults.
Fixing The Problem
Check the sockets with a socket tester. Don't use a faulty socket and report it to the management. move your equipment to another socket which has been checked.
Check your leads, both mains leads and instrument and mike leads. If you can use a meter then check earth continuity. Only switch back on when you have found the fault. Always carry spare leads.
If the problem is the mike/guitar one we started with suspect both guitar amp and PA. We often use separate mains sockets for backline and PA. You should run these out of the same mains socket which guarantees you a single earth. Sometimes earths can be at different potentials within a building and working from a single socket will avoid this problem.
Always use an RCD (GFCI) mains protector at the point where you plug into the house wiring and run all of your mains wiring from this. If there is a problem they will cut the mains quicker than a heartbeat. 7-15 in the UK.
Above all don't accept electric shocks as a normal part of being a performer. The next shock might be the one that happens at just the right place and time to stop your heart. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey may have hoped they died before they got old but you need to make it through to the encore.
I really hope this article is clear, helpful and accurate. If anyone spots anything that will improve the article don't hesitate to let me know.