If you play guitar, you’ve probably been there: Rockin’ out hard, maybe even in the middle of a solo, when a string snaps and throws you off your game. It’s bad enough when it happens in your bedroom, but what about when it happens while you’re on stage in the middle of your set? What you do next is what separates the pros from the wannabes.
Where the amateurs will stop and make some excuse about having a broken string, the pros take it all in stride. The first time I ever saw a guitarist re-string a guitar mid-song was right here in town, actually, a few years ago at The Historic Red Dog Tavern. I was standing near the front while The Spades played, and I noticed that James McKenty had broken a string. Without even the help of a roadie (who needs one of those?), he grabbed another string, replaced the broken one on his guitar, and then kept playing as if nothing had happened – all in the middle of a song.
I was damn impressed.
— Ken Elrick II (@DrPatchbeard) November 25, 2012
I was originally inspired to write this, however, after seeing how B.B. King reacts to a broken string mid song by doing the same thing James McKenty did:
The man does not miss a beat, removing the old string and replacing it, all while still singing directly into the microphone. I mean, sure, he doesn’t play any more after he’s got the string on there (at least in that song, but the show wasn’t over after the song was), but that’s B.B.’s style anyway – to let another guitarist handle the rhythm duties while he sang and played leads. Not the most complicated, note-filled leads either. Long-held notes and a lot of string bending, but when he played, you felt it. And for a guy who surely has at least half a dozen fully-stringed and in tune guitars sitting on the side of the stage, the mid-song string change wasn’t really necessary. B.B. was a true entertainer, though, and believed that something like this adds to the mystique of the show and is far more entertaining for the crowd to watch than just a quick guitar switch. And he wasn’t wrong. I mean, we’re here talking about this now.
So that’s just one of the options when you break a string. Fellow blues man Stevie Ray Vaughan has a different (yet equally impressive) solution to that same problem:
Now on one hand, you could say “Pfft, he just switched guitars. What’s so impressive about that?” Sure, he didn’t change the string himself, but he didn’t have time to either. He’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he doesn’t play with any other guitarists. The fact that he and his guitar tech are able to pull this off so seamlessly is impressive. I mean, look what SRV does, all the while singing into the microphone:
- Remove one end of the strap
- Remove patch cord and hold it in his hand
- Remove other end of strap with patch cord still in hand
- Pass guitar to tech with left hand
- Grab other guitar with right hand
- Move it under the microphone and plug patch cord in
- Hold it in place with right forearm and left wrist, and start playing as if nothing had happened
But of course, without his guitar tech there with another axe ready to go, none of this would be possible. As you see, the guitar tech also replaced the strap on the guitar so SRV could keep wailing away, effortlessly.
It just goes to show how underappreciated roadies generally are. Whether it’s being ready to swap guitars at the drop of the hat or finding 1000 brown M&M’s to fill a brandy glass, roadies play a very important role.
Another slightly less impressive example of the quick guitar switch can be seen here in Porcupine Tree‘s Arriving Somewhere DVD. It happened in the middle of what’s probably my favourite song of theirs, Trains. Skip to around 3:22 if you just want to see the string break, but it’s a great song so I recommend listening to the whole thing.
So there’s a couple options of what to do when you snap a string, but there’s always other options, like… Continue playing. Slash knows what that’s all about:
Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Fruiscante isn’t afraid of playing down a string, as you’ll see here. Skip to 2:40 for the string break:
There are some people out there, however, who look at regular guitarists and think “Who needs that many strings?” One such person is One String Willy:
Another such guitarist is Jamaican Brushy One String, whose music is damn catchy:
I guess ultimately it comes down to this: It’s not the number of strings you have, it’s how you use them.