A few Saturdays ago, I played a big bike
rally just outside of Indianapolis. I had all
my gear on the stage, except my Breedlove
Mark II, a beautiful Les Paul-ish sweetheart
now out of production. I had kept this guitar
on the bus with me because the stage
was outside, unstable, and the weather was
windy with a chance of showers. I figured
my guitar would be safer in my loving arms.
I was standing with the band outside the
tour bus, waiting to get the call to go on,
when my strap, without any encouragement
from anyone, came unattached to the front
button, and my guitar crashed head-first
into the pavement.
I was embarrassed, pissed, and worried—worried not only that I had broken this great
guitar, but also concerned about playing
the show. I was playing with a female artist
who sang a lot of her set in Eb and F#, and
there’s no way of reproducing these guitar
parts in standard tuning, so I had tuned
down this guitar a half step and planned on
playing roughly two-thirds of the show with
it, while leaving my other guitar in standard
tuning for the rest of the set. I picked up the
Breedlove, and in the dim parking lot light
saw that the headstock was not cracked and
the neck was fine (thankfully it was a bolt-on).
I hit an unplugged chord and it sounded
close to being in tune, so I thought I had
dodged a bullet.
The road manager called us onstage. I ran
up the ramp, plugged in, flipped my amp
off standby, and quickly checked my tuning.
Amazingly, the guitar was nearly dead-on
except for the third string, which rang about
5 cents flat. I reached up to the headstock
only to discover that I had only five tuning
buttons, the third having snapped off during
the head dive. And we were scheduled to
begin the set any minute.
With the clock ticking, I went into full
MacGyver mode. I tore off a corner of the
set list and wadded it into a ball, pushing
it under the third string between the tuner
and the nut, and re-checked my tuning. I
was just a few cents flat. I inserted my foam
earplug next to it, and the third string rang
straight up on my floor tuner. The road
manager pointed at our drummer, and he
counted us into the play-on music. I felt like
I had just disarmed a bomb seconds before
the bright-red digital readout hit 00:00:00.
I played the entire show without a glitch,
merely pushing the wad of paper closer
to the tuner every now and then when the
string slipped flat.
I usually carry a backup guitar and survival
pack on long tours (screwdrivers, soldering
iron, tuners, needle-nose pliers, Allen wrenches,
etc.), but there are times when only good
old American ingenuity will save you.
A few years ago on a radio promotional
show, on an outdoor stage and in front of
5000 sweaty listeners, it was just me on my
Gibson Hummingbird backing a new Warner
Brothers artist. That morning, I had changed
my strings backstage. When we plugged
in, I gave all my strings a little tug to get
the slip out of them before we played, but
when I pulled on my D string, the bridge pin
launched like a rocket out into the crowd,
gone forever. I looked around and saw a
tree near the side of the stage. I unplugged,
walked over to the tree, found a twig roughly
the size of the bridge pin, and jammed
it in there. I gave the string a hard tug and
it held. I tuned it up and then played the
entire show without a problem (although the
twig dug into the palm of my hand a bit during
muted strums near the bridge).
On two separate occasions, I’ve shown up
at gigs without straps. One time I used my
belt, and another time I borrowed a knife
from a bartender and cut out my middle
backseat safety belt, screwing the strap
buttons right into the fabric.
I’ve used a 9-volt battery out of a dressing room
smoke detector to power an overdrive.
(Obligatory disclaimer: Don’t do this.
Smoke detectors save lives.
) I’ve restrung
guitars substituting a .017 for a .013, or
a .036 for a .046, or any other ridiculous
combination that my half-empty string stash
supplied. (Although tuning is often compromised
in these situations, it’s kind of fun to
see how an odd-feeling set of strings can
make you break out of the box and play differently.)
I’ve taped broken solder joints on
pickup selectors when I’ve had a short and
no soldering iron. In short, I’ve had many a
MacGyver moment backstage.
That’s one of the magical things about
guitar. Not only does it inspire improvisation
in music, but the very instrument has
a certain make-it-up-as-you-go spirit—just
look at Van Halen’s first Frankenstrat, with
a quarter screwed to the front to block
his whammy bar, or Les Paul’s log, which
was completely jacked together. So the
next time you’re at a gig and something
doesn’t work, don’t panic—just take a
deep breath, and then grab the duct tape
and your Swiss Army knife.
A Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television,
John Bohlinger has recorded and toured with over 30
major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard
in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in
literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger