How to survive when everything goes wrong
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 or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.