Welcome to this week's dose of guitar wisdom!
We like to think that the best sort of wisdom comes through simplicity. So today let’s think about the practical aspects of being a guitarist. And with guitar playing, as with just about every other hobby or trade, it’s always important to be prepared when you leave the house. After all, a plumber wouldn’t set off to work without all the essential tools, and a climber would ensure they’re fully kitted up before scaling the next cliff.
So, what should a guitarist ALWAYS make sure they’ve got packed and ready to travel with them and their instrument? Whether it’s to a jam with friends, a lesson, a gig, or even just taking their beloved axe on holiday?
The Bare Necessities
First off, we’ll assume you’ve got your instrument safely packed into a hard case or gig bag. A garbage sack just isn’t acceptable. Neither is simply throwing your guitar onto the back seat or straight into the trunk of your car.
Let’s then assume that your guitar case/bag has some storage compartments or pockets. Which means you should have no difficulty in carrying the following essential items at all times…
Yup, the most obvious essential items come first. Strings break – usually when you least expect it – and just one broken string means that your guitar will no longer function the way it’s designed to. Or possibly not function at all if you’re using an electric with a floating tremolo system.
This situation is annoying enough at a lesson, rehearsal or jam, but at a gig it becomes a nightmare (you won’t get paid for starters…) So make sure you’re carrying AT LEAST one full set of replacement strings that match the current gauge fitted to your guitar. Better still, have a few extra spare 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings tucked in ready to go, since these are the most likely to snap.
The guitar plectrum is, for some reason unknown to science, the most easily-lost item known to mankind. It’s also the most commonly ‘borrowed’ (OK, we really mean ‘stolen’) item between guitarists. Lend a pick to even your best friend and you’re unlikely to see it ever again – he/she will either ‘forget’ to give it back, or probably lose it themselves.
So, make sure you’ve got a bunch of your favourite strummy tools packed in your case. Even if you know they’re inevitably gonna end up dropped on the floor, tucked into the one pocket of your jeans that you forget to check before laundry day, or simply just inexplicably vanish without a trace…
There’s every chance that your guitar strap lives on your guitar permanently, which makes this the one item you’re least likely to forget to take with you. But hey - double-check it’s with you before heading out the door, ok? Turning up to the show and then spending the night playing sat on a chair whilst the rest of the band are throwing shapes all over the stage is just embarrassing.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again; your guitar needs tuning EVERY TIME YOU PICK IT UP. This rule applies both in and out of your home. And since you can buy a clip-on tuner for less than $5 (or even download a free tuning smartphone app for heavens sakes), there’s really no excuse for being out of tune wherever you’re playing.
Very useful devices for changing key easily, but oh-so-easy to leave lying around by mistake. Lots of guitarists keep these attached to the headstock of their instruments at home (making them very easy to find), but this isn’t always ideal when packing your guitar away for travel. So, it’s maybe worth having a spare one always ready in your guitar case or bag.
Jack to Jack Cable
An electric guitar that you can’t plug into an amplifier is basically a heavy wooden fashion accessory. And cables are surprisingly easy things to forget when taking your kit out on the road. Even if you’re playing a gig or going to a studio where someone else will be providing the amplifier, don’t assume they’ll also provide you with a way of plugging in!
“A towel? I’m not taking my guitar for a dip in the pool?!?” No – you’re going to be playing it. Meaning all the natural oils, grease, sweat and whatever other kinds of muck you have on your hands will transfer themselves onto your guitar (even if you’ve washed your hands before playing).
Strings don’t like this at all, so giving them a good wipe down with a towel or lint-free cloth after playing will massively increase their lifespan. And if you’re playing a particularly energetic gig or similar session, you can also use the towel to wipe yourself down. Bonus!
These products are designed to be applied to your strings and fretboard both before and after you play. Think of it as guitar lube, allowing you to play faster whilst protecting the strings, fingerboard and frets. GHS Fast Fret is a popular choice, but there are many other alternatives.
Along with spare strings, it’s definitely worth keeping a string winder in your guitar case as well. Unless you don’t mind your audience getting bored with you taking 5 minutes to wind on a fresh string of course.
The ability to perform essential maintenance to your guitar is just as important wherever you are, so keep some basic tools handy in your guitar case. We’d suggest a Leatherman or similar multi-tool, allowing you to turn screws, pull out bridge pins and trim excess string length, along with a few hex keys for making adjustments to the bridge or truss rod if you’re feeling confident enough! You can now even buy multi-tools designed for guitarists that cover all these jobs and more.
Any guitars using batteries in their circuits (which means most electro-acoustic instruments just for starters) won’t work with a dead battery. Always carry a spare, no matter how confident you are that the one you’re currently using is fully charged.
For writing down lyrics or notes, signing recording contracts or even just providing the occasional autograph…
The essential guitar playing accessory that, unlike all the others we’ve mentioned here, you probably won’t need when playing at home. Things tend to get louder when you’re out working with other musicians (particularly drummers) and being able to protect your ears from damage is just common sense.
Wrapping it up
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but covers the simple essentials for most guitarists - whether you’re playing electric or acoustic. And trust us, it’s FAR easier digging a replacement string or spare pick out of your case than it is to find a music shop open at 11pm on a Saturday night. I learned that one the hard way…
And that concludes the lecture for now! As usual, keep your eyes peeled on your inbox for next week's article. Until then…