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A few years ago our church band had a gig playing early in the morning to a volunteer crew to get them pumped for the day ahead. It was about 7AM and in the 30s F. It's a good thing I was only playing for one song and it wasn't lead because I could barely feel the strings let alone play well. I asked the lead guitarist how he did it and he just said it didn't bother him. So I figure it's not impossible.

Is there anything I can do to play better in cold weather short of lugging an outdoor heater around?

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I had to do an hour set under those sort of conditions once. It was absolute misery: besides the guitar freaking out and needing to be tuned several times as it adjusted to the cold, I couldn't feel my fingers.

The instrument needs a chance to acclimate to the temperature. Major temperature swings can cause finish checking/cracking, and/or make inlay pop out, so give it lots of time to adjust slowly.

Don't open the case to let air circulate around it until the instrument is close to the temperature of the air; Remember, air circulating will speed up the temperature change.

The same caution is needed when returning the instrument to a normal temperature. If the instrument is cold and you move to a warm room and open the case and see the finish start to turn hazy, close the case and let it sit longer.

Amps can be cold but give tubes a while on standby to gradually warm up.

If playing indoors, I don't think I'd want to take a hot amp outside into cold air to sit either; That cold air would cause the amp's circuit board and components to go through some major thermal cycling.

As far as trying to stay warm, there are big gas-powered space heaters used to warm convention tents and such. They put out enough heat but you'd need a way of enclosing the space to keep the heat from escaping. Trying to do it with an electric-powered heater would use a lot of electricity with no benefit if the heat isn't trapped.

Personally, I would refuse that sort of situation based on my own experience. There isn't a good way to protect the instruments, there isn't a good way to keep YOU feeling good, and, all in all I think you'd put on a mediocre performance for what reason? Better than playing one song in those conditions, go serve hot-chocolate and play DJ, spinning tunes off your portable computer into a PA.

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Maybe not the tip you're looking for, but:

Don't play in 30-degree weather. That temperature would be devastating to the woods on an acoustic guitar. I suspect that it's not ideal for an electric guitar either. If you must play in low temperatures, bring a cheap guitar that you don't mind having cracks in the wood of.

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Fingerless gloves can help, particularly for simple things like strumming open chords on an acoustic guitar. Not so good for barre chords or palm muting.

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I have Raynaud's disease. Thus, my digits get unnaturally cold, faster than the rest of my body, gloves or no gloves. I myself have had to play in similar situations, with cold winds cutting through my flesh (sub 30F for an hour, and the only guitarist). And, of course, one cannot wear full gloves in these situations. A few suggestions:

  • Strum hard and fast with a pick
  • Keep your right fist tightened (assuming you're a right-handed player)
  • Yes, the fingers on your left hand will hurt when you fret but keep them as close as possible to the fretboard.
  • Focus on the atmosphere and the singing/worship; you deal with the pain better as your digits grow numb and you can worry about the painful thawing process later
  • Outdoor heaters won't help; better to acclimate than anything else
  • Thus, it may not be a bad idea to practice regularly in cold or gusty conditions
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Keep a lot of hand warmers around!

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