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I’ve had a few such episodes during my tenure as both a guitarist and guitar maker, and I’m not alone. Almost every musician or tech I meet has stories about improvised fixes. Sometimes a simple solution can be the source of a feature adapted by a guitar builder—or an entire company. I call them MacGyver moments and here are a few of my favorites.
Alan Rogan, guitar tech to some of the most iconic players in history, such as Neil Young, Keith Richards, and Peter Townshend (the undisputed king of catastrophic gear failure), tells a tale similar to mine. Townshend has a well-known habit of using his guitar as a percussion instrument—banging on the face of the guitar with the heel of his hand, boot, or whatever suits his fancy. More than a few times, he’s driven a pickup straight down into the guitar as a result. And if it’s a pickguard-mounted unit, the screw usually takes a large portion of the guard with it. Alan’s remedy is cutting a plastic 9V battery cap in half, spearing it with the screw, and re-threading it into the pickup. Rogan says a guitar pick is another option, if you don’t have a battery cap handy.
Less specialized—but one of the most obvious and ubiquitous fixes—is the practice of looping your cable through the strap. Just surf chronologically through live videos on YouTube, and I’m certain you’ll find the exact moment guitarists got tired of getting shut down by stepping on their cords and invented this fix. The “curly” cord may be an intermediate step, but if you’re still going unplugged by accident, take note.
Sean Beresford cites temperature as an often-overlooked gremlin. Both a tech and a studio engineer, Beresford has had long stints with Living Colour, Lou Reed, Third Eye Blind, and a host of others. He has quite a story about Lou Reed storming offstage in a fury when a rackmount guitar synthesizer decided to bust out solo. “About halfway through the song,” Beresford winces, “the synth started playing these wild and random arpeggios all by itself—and not remotely in the same key as the music. I don’t really remember how we made it through the remainder of the show—I’d rather forget it.” A frantic rewiring of the entire rack during the show failed to bust the ghost in the machine, so Beresford contacted the manufacturer the next day and was told the main microprocessor was particularly sensitive to heat. The short-term fix? The synth spent the rest of the tour sitting on top of the rack with a small fan blowing into it. The lesson and tip is to pay attention to the temperatures in your equipment cabinets—rackmounted or not. If it’s hot in the venue, get a fan to blow on your gear.
Sometimes a small thing can be a big solution. Gavin Menzies, currently Joe Bonamassa’s tech, shares this great tidbit. If a screw hole gets stripped and needs a quick fix, inserting part of a wound guitar string into the hole and replacing the screw is a much more permanent solution than glue and toothpicks. With that said, Bonamassa recently added a vintage 1959 sunburst Les Paul to his live show stable—Gavin knows better than to fix this guitar with halfway measures!
Although not really a fix, covered pickups deserve an honorable mention. There was a time when every pickup had a cover, but some hotshot (probably Jeff Beck) decided to remove the metal lid from his guitar’s humbucker. The reasoning for the popularity of removal isn’t exactly clear, though it was probably like taking the hood off a 1932 Ford hot rod. Almost overnight, covered pickups became as uncool as saddle shoes and golf shirts. I imagine the extra groove factor was viewed as an upgrade, though some players claimed to be able to hear the difference. Manufacturers of aftermarket pickups were certainly happy and willing to skip the expense of making the metal parts, but like the fashion industry, something cyclical happened. As dead-stock vintage guitars became desirable and their prices soared, covers became cool again.
If you’re a touring player on a budget, these simple remedies can be inexpensive lifesavers. But if you are a big-time stadium draw, your fixes may end up being more elaborate. One fail-safe apparatus is having a seasoned, pro guitar tech that is also a musician. Jim Survis has been employed by Kiss, Jimmy Page, Aerosmith, and is currently with Slash. He recalled a time when Joe Perry ran out on Aerosmith’s stage extensions at the end of their encore song, “Draw the Line.” Perry threw down his Lucite Dan Armstrong guitar (in open A tuning), removed his shirt, and began whipping the strings with it. Unfortunately, the fall to the stage had shattered the plug on the wireless and the guitar was dead. Thinking quickly, Survis switched on Perry’s spare guitar. “I watched him closely and timed it perfectly,” Survis recalls. “I strummed in time to his windmills.” As Perry lifted the guitar and ended the song using his bottleneck, Survis mimicked his every move. Later, when Survis told Perry what happened, he was shocked. Perry hadn’t even realized anything was wrong. Sometimes it’s good to have a MacGyver who can play on your payroll, but for the rest of us, a sense of humor will have to do.
Jol Dantzig is a noted designer, builder, and player who co-founded Hamer Guitars, one of the first boutique guitar brands, in 1973. Today, as the director of Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to help define the art of custom guitar. To learn more, visit guitardesigner.com.