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One of my nightmares when I'm on stage is breaking a string or losing my pick. The former has happened to me before once, and also once right before I had to go on stage.

Are there any tips my fellow guitarists might have for when they lose their pick, break a string, or anything else happens that interrupts you mid-song? Do have any tips for avoiding these incidents all together?

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Sometimes you just gotta roll with these things youtube.com/watch?v=opiMHTaUEaA –  sav Jun 28 '13 at 19:29

16 Answers 16

I recall seeing a show years ago. fIREHOSE was doing a "50 states in 50 days" tour, and this show was a triple bill with Madder Rose opening. Madder Rose's bassist popped his E string, and he just knocked the bassline up an octave, which really kicked the song into fifth gear. He then spent minutes trying to beg, borrow or steal a bass or bass string, which just knocked all the momentum out of the show.

Later, Mike Watt popped his G string. (I still have it.) He nodded to George Hurley, who started in on a drum solo. Maybe a drum solo isn't the most punk-rock thing ever, but it filled the space while Mike changed a string and tuned up. At the end of it, there's Mike Watt, Greg Norton (ex-Husker Du bassist) and me, watching George get his thing on, with Mike looking at me and nodding toward George, as if to say, "That's my drummer. Isn't he good?" And he was.

The point of it is, it happens. It happens to starting out opening bands and it happens to top-of-bill bands. Things fall apart. It's scientific. But there are a few takeaway points.

1) Be able to do without - The first bassist really took the song to the next level just by knocking the bass up an octave. Word is that Jeff Beck dropped a pick, started playing with fingers and decided to always go that way. There might be things you can't do by picking with fingernails, but maybe what you can do will work out for a while.

2) Have spares - the SEALs say "Two is one. One is none." Have spare strings. Have spare picks. Have spare cables. If you need it, have two in case one breaks. If you play a Floyd Rose, getting the balance back will take longer than a song, so bring a second guitar.

That being said, it's a good idea to have several spare windings on the tuner of Floyd Rose guitars, so if the break is near the bridge, you can unlock the bridge and the nut, run some more string, and get it back together fairly quickly.

3) Have a plan - In my story, Mike Watt went to the drum solo when he had to change strings. On the Dead Kennedys' Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, there's a live track called "Night of the Living Rednecks" where, after East Bay Ray had a string break or something, the rhythm section went into a jazz groove while Jello Biafra told a story about being a punk being harrassed by rednecks, and it's my favorite track on that album. Anything is better than 5 minutes of silence while you try to get your act together.

4) Take it up a notch - 10s are a little sturdier than 9s, which is why I tend to go 10s.

5) Take it down a notch - Do you need to strum that hard? It may look like you're playing all intense, but there's only so hard you can pluck a string before it makes no difference. There's other sorts of stagecraft to look all hard and intense and be easier on your strings.

6) Don't play with knives - I used to have these Hot Licks brass picks from Dunlop. They're thin, and they sound bright and jangly, but they're metal and don't bend, unlike plastic thin picks. I was playing acoustic rhythm in an otherwise electric rock band, with in-ear monitors, and I simply could not hear myself unless I developed a strong picking technique, which I've been trying to dial back since. But I was carving the windings off my wound G string, because I was in effect sharpening this pick to get really sharp. I like it, and I use it on electric where I have a much more mellow strumming style because I have amplification backing me up, but I moved to an unwound G on an acoustic just so I wouldn't have to change strings so often, just because I didn't realize my pick was carving up my strings.

Other players may have other issues. Burrs in the saddle are common reasons why strings break. If you have a recurring string-breaking problem, the problem might be with your gear.

7) It is important - I saw Madder Rose two years later. They had another bassist. I don't know the story, but clearly, if you can play but you let the band down enough when they need you, they can find another person who can play.

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This is a phenomenal answer. I love the stories :) –  Jduv Apr 13 '11 at 19:36
    
+1 from me too. Excellent examples. –  Dr Mayhem Apr 13 '11 at 19:40
    
another thouroughly earned +1. as another example, I also developed a very strong strumming style with bass, using anything up to 3mm big stubby picks. Never managed to break a string on stage but because of the strength I needed to strum like that, I've dropped the pick before from muscle fatigue. Tried to back it up with fingers, then grabbed one of the 5 picks duct taped to the scratchplate. Worked fine but I've since started using nice and bendy 1mm nylon picks and toned down the strumming. Also, I have a spare amp which was needed at my last gig. Two is one, one is none. great answer :) –  jammypeach Sep 23 '12 at 14:06
    
Addendum: I've taken Billy Gibbons' position and gone down to .008s on my #1 guitar. I tend to play light, so I haven't had breakage issues. –  VarLogRant Nov 5 '13 at 16:43

I've broken strings quite a few times while playing guitar leads.

I think how you react to that depends on the material. In my case I'm playing original songs, and the lead parts are largely improvised anyway. So I just keep playing on the other strings - no big deal.

I think if I was playing a cover song, I would still try and improvise the lead. I don't think most people would be bothered by that.

Most chords will sound OK if you are missing a string. Presumably the harmony will still come through with all of the other instruments.

If you were playing something quite specific - maybe even classical - well, you'll just have to switch guitars, and maybe even halt the song whilst you do that. I always bring a spare guitar, and if I break a string I switch to it after the song has finished. You don't want to be re-stringing between songs if you can help it.

On losing picks: I've never dropped a pick once, but I keep an extra pick in my pocket "just in case". I think if you're dropping picks you must not be holding it correctly.

Most popular guitarists I see that tape all of the additional picks to the guitar, mainly do that so they can throw them to the audience during the show.

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"Most chords will sound OK if you are missing a string". If you have a stop tailpiece. If you have a tremolo, you could go out of tune instantly, depending on the string. –  Anonymous Apr 14 '11 at 4:18
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That's why I'm a hardtail kind of guy. –  VarLogRant Apr 14 '11 at 16:21
    
@tinman, yeah that's true. It may depend on the guitar as well. My strat seems to stay (reasonably) in tune when I've lost a string. A cheaper guitar probably wouldn't. As you say, losing the heavier strings will probably knock it out of tune more as well. –  Anonymous Apr 14 '11 at 19:57

Hiya! Well, there's a phrase that a gigging guitarist gets familiar with: "shit happens". It never hurts to be flexible and good at improvising.

Losing your pick: you can buy pickholders (they are inexpensive) that stick to either the side of your guitar, or on a microphone stand if you sing at all. Failing that, i try to keep a couple of spare picks in my back pocket too.

String breaking:

I once broke a string on stage mid-song. you have a couple of options. one is to put the guitar down, pick up your backup guitar (if you brought one) and keep going. another is to try re-calculating the song in your head without that string. you'll be surprised by how many rock songs you can actually re-work this way with little trouble. I played Wonderwall with no D string, and barely no-one noticed. if anything, you get rocknroll points for ripping the broken string off and throwing it down.

Anyway, this will hardly ever happen if you periodically and properly change your strings (say, maybe a week before gig time?). failing that, extra strings should always be in your gig bag :)

Sorry for the novel! It's just a relatable problem. Cheers!

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Exactly! And this is an example of pick holder, or this one. –  Anonymous Apr 13 '11 at 0:08
    
Unfortunately,if you are using a standard tremolo (not FR or other lockable type), if a string breaks you will go heavily out of tune. –  crasic Apr 13 '11 at 7:40

Keep a spare guitar tuned up at the back of the stage, and keep spare picks everywhere you roam on stage.

I have once played a gig without a spare and when I snapped my B early on in a song I had no option but to bend up every chord and note until the rhythm guitarist had a little instrumental break and quickly fine tuned up to close enough.

Makes you think though - and helps you break into new tonal styles:-)

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I keep a spare guitar tuned and on a stand where I can reach it fast. The last time a string broke while on stage I switched guitars immediately and was playing within seconds.

Yeah, it sounded different because I switched to my Les Paul, but that was better than dealing with the hassle of the guitar going out of tune because of the tremolo, and worrying about working around the missing string.

I keep two sets of strings, with some loose E and B strings in my case, along with some tools to fix loose screws or tighten jacks. See "What tools should every guitarist have?" for a similar discussion.

As far as picks, keep some in your pocket, and keep some on top of the amp. Get a pick holder for your microphone stand.

If you don't want unexpected things to mess you up you have to think about what could happen in advance, and figure out what you can do to avoid or minimize the problem.

Also think about what you'll do if a battery dies, if an amp tube dies, a fuse blows, a guitar or speaker cord gets stepped on and bends the plug....

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For the picks, have spares around. They're cheap.

For the string breaks, I've seen 3 options.

  1. Major artists like Melissa Etheridge have plenty of spare guitars (with staff to hand them off to her onstage) and the last time I saw her perform, she swapped guitars each song.
  2. For (at least one) touring tiny/garage bands (the kind that play at bars/nightclubs in one city and might travel 20-30 miles to perform), I've noticed that the sound person turns down the mix on the guitarist with the broken string and they've just pretended to be playing (they didn't have spare strings in the van, so they did it again after the break).
  3. I remember one jazz concert (I forget the name, I used to drink too much back in those days) and the guitarist just started transposing on the fly. I was close enough to see the broken strings (2 of them) and I was amazed.

I am terribly slow with restringing and tuning, so my tactic would be to have a spare instrument.

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When it comes to a string breaking Nick Harper manages to turn the situation on its head by doing a party trick

He normally plays by himself with an acoustic and when a string breaks mid song (the way he plays this happens fairly often) he just changes it without stopping

He'll typically sing a few lines of the tune acapella with minimal playing while he gets a new string out of his back pocket and then he'll gradually start playing as much as he can until the string is on. He manages to get it on and up to tune really fast, It's quite amazing to see

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I understand that Steve Goodman had a similar schtick for changing strings mid-song. I wish/hope there's video on Youtube. It's cool I want to be able to do that. But it won't work like that for Steve Vai, and if you're the sideman, not the frontman, it is best that the audience not even notice it happened. –  VarLogRant Apr 14 '11 at 16:25

I never break strings.. Must have a soft touch. I have seen good pickers turn the break into part of the act... Just keep on playing around the broken one.

As to picks, I almost never loose one either but nothing is worse than having the thing pop into the inside of your guitar.... Some guys who drop a lot of 'em buy those little stick-on pick dispensers... They're like the old change dispensers you kept in your car for toll booths.

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I ask the guitar with other guitar players who have played before and will play after my group)) I didn't drop my picks before)

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I always put some picks with gaffa tape on my mike stand, so that I can easily pluck one off in case one slips from my fingers.

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major bands will swap guitars every song, with a roadie restringing the used one backstage (yes, that's fresh strings for every song!). For those with smaller budgets and no roadies, having a spare guitar backstage and applying fresh strings to both instruments regularly will have to do.

For picks, have spares or do without. There's pick holders you can clip to your guitar strap or to microphones for that purpose.

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I have a spring loaded pick holder taped with double-sided tape next to my bridge. It is within easy reach to replace any dropped picks.

To prevent breaking strings I use a softer pick. I found that stiff picks although good for lead are not the best choice for strumming.

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Have a joke or something clever to say to make the audience laugh[?]. Steven Wilson does that when he breaks a string in their "Arriving Somewhere" DVD during the last song Trains (string breaks around 4:00).

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Eddie Van Halen uses a piece of double sided masking tape on the lower cutaway wing, to hold picks. So, if you're in the middle of playing, you can strum down with your thumb, and grab a pick on your way back up. Helps me while playing. Dropped my pick infront of 700 people. EVH saved me.

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Depends on the style of music. If it is Rock, you keep going. Use the rest of the strings. Use your fingers instead of a pick. Proceed as if you did not even notice. Don't even acknowledge it as a problem. Outcomes may vary.

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In rehearsal I used to keep playing if a string broke to get used to playing without the string. If it happens on stage reinvent the guitar part. I've occasionally found cool stuff under the gun, more often just got through it. I broke a string second song new years eve and played for an hour more remaking parts on the fly. The Audience didn't know and the drummer was amused as, because it didn't throw my time, it didn't bother him. Afterwards my hand hurt from the tension.

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protected by Matthew Read Jun 30 '13 at 6:53

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