Ever notice how some guitarists seem to switch to a different guitar for every song during a concert. There’s got to be a good reason for this. Right??
Guitar players switch to different guitars between songs for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons being:
- The upcoming song uses a different tuning than the last song
- They are looking for a different sound or tone
- A broken string or other technical problem
- Wanting a freshly tuned guitar
Every guitarist and band has a different set of needs for guitars throughout a live show. Some players may not mind spending a little time adjusting tuning knobs during a set to set up an alternate tuning. Others want to end one song and instantly roll right into the next, only taking a few seconds to strap on another guitar and start playing. Follow along for why you may see a guitarist cycling through guitars during a show.
The live set guitar swap can happen for a number of reasons but these two are most the common and practical.
- The next song on the set list is played in a different tuning than the previous song
- The guitar player is looking for a different sound or tone for a song.
The song is in a different tuning.
Based on the level of your understanding of guitar playing (possibly you have dabbled with the strings yourself) you may know that the guitar has a Standard Tuning that is the default way a guitar is set up. Many, many, many songs that you have heard on the radio include guitar sections recorded with a guitar tuned in standard tuning.
Playing in standard tuning is typically how people learn to play in their beginner lessons from day one. Thus, for most players it becomes the dominant natural method for playing the guitar.
As a guitar player becomes more advanced they may begin to experiment with learning/writing songs in an Alternate Tuning. An alternate tuning is defined by Wikipedia as:
“Alternative (“alternate”) tuning refers to any open-string note arrangement other than standard tuning.”
What this means is that a player will actually tune any or all of the guitar strings on his guitar to different pitches than what the strings would be normally tuned to in standard tuning. This is simply accomplished by tightening/loosening the strings until they are ringing at the desired pitch.
This give the player the ability to play in styles/fingerings/methods that would not otherwise be available in standard tuning.
For instance, have you ever seen a guitar player put a glass tube (aka a Slide) on his fingers and play it on the guitar? While this method can be used while playing a guitar set up in standard tuning it is much easier and provides a more robust sound to use a slide on a guitar tuned in what’s known as an Open Tuning.
Open tuning refers to tuning the guitar in such a way that all of the open strings played together combine to make a desired chord. For instance, a popular open tuning is Open E Tuning. This simply means that the guitar strings are tuned in such a way that if all the open strings were played at once, the guitar would be ringing an E major chord.
Without getting too technical, check out Justin Johnson playing a great example a guitar tuned in Open E and using a Slide.
So if a player just finished a song played in standard tuning during a set and wanted to next move to playing a song in an alternate tuning, he would have two options:
- Use the same guitar he currently has and as quickly as possible change the string tunings to the desired alternate pitches. This is a bit time consuming and could be difficult to keep the crowd entertained during the down time.
- Grab another guitar that was set up in the desired tuning prior to the start of the performance, plug in, and start playing.
Now for the next common reason why a guitarist may switch guitars during a set.
The player is looking for a different tone.
So this first example is fairly obvious but none the less important enough to mention. Perhaps the guitarist just finishes a song using and Electric Guitar and want to play a song using an Acoustic Guitar.
Now these two instruments could both be tuned the same but have very different sound qualities.
Playing multiple songs in sequence that sound very similar can become boring on the listener’s ears. Movement and change in music is what makes a song or section unique and pleasurable to the listener.
So, many guitarists and bands will cycle through different sounding songs to keep the set list fresh and void of monotony. This is one reason why a guitar player may play an electric guitar for a few songs and then switch to an acoustic or vise versa.
Now a less obvious reason to change guitars during a set may be that the guitarist is looking to project a different tone or create a different mood for the audience to absorb.
I’ll use an example of two common guitar playing styles that could commonly be included in a set.
- Rock and Roll Style
- Blues Style
Many Blues style guitarists love the smooth rich qualities that a Fender Stratocaster embodies. Think the guitar sounds you hear when listening to Eric Clapton or John Mayer.
While Rock and Roll style guitar players commonly utilize the driving, crunchy tones derived from playing a Gibson Les Paul guitar. Think Areosmith or Guns n’ Roses.
(These are just two simple, common examples of guitars that are popular for players to use. The options for players are endless due to the vast variety of different guitars/manufacturers available on the marked.)
So if the player has a variety of different guitars in his arsenal, he has the ability to traverse through different tones/styles/and genres throughout the set to continuously vary his sounds and keep his listeners attentive, interested, and impressed.
No two guitars sound the exact same so the larger the player’s collection is, the more variety of sounds he is able to produce.
The Player is experiencing a technical difficulty or broken string
If you have never broken a string while playing guitar you wouldn’t know the level of frustration it causes. Especially if you are in the middle of a live set.
It happens out of nowhere, startles you, breaks your concentration, and can cause the rest of the guitar strings to instantly go out of tune due to the loss of tension in the guitar neck.
If it happens during the middle of a live performance you can’t just stop the show mid song, change your string, and restart the song where the incident occurred.
You have to push though and try to figure out how to finish the song without playing any notes on the now broken/dead string.
So, players with bigger equipment budgets have a backup plan. A similarly tuned guitar waiting on standby in case the unfortunate string breaking event occurs.
With all larger performances there are many moving parts and equipment all interconnected/relying on each other’s ability to perform their given task. The guitar in the player’s hands is a key link in the chain.
And as with any man-made object, a guitar can have any number of technical difficulties at an inopportune time and cause the need for it to be swapped out for a working instrument.
If the sound crew is quick enough the player can run off stage, swap the non-working guitar for a fresh one, plug in and continue playing with minimal damage to the performance. Imagine the speed of a NASCAR pit crew changing tires and refueling with maximum efficiency. The same effort must be applied to keeping a live performance running at its highest level.
The player wants a freshly tuned guitar.
Large productions with long sets require maximum efficiency in regards to the time spent in between songs. No one wants to pay good money to see a sloppy, unorganized performance. A seamless fluid show is impressive for spectators and requires quick action between songs.
So even though the next song in the set may be in the same tuning as the previous song, the guitarist may want a freshly tuned guitar. This may be especially true for a lead guitarist that does a lot of extreme bending on his guitar strings. The more often, longer, and harder you bend a guitar’s strings, the more they will tend to loosen and go out of tune.
Many guitarists have tuners built into their stage equipment so that they can quickly tune up their instrument between songs with a digital tuner display at their feet. If one of the band member is engaging with the crowd in between songs it could be a sign that the band is buying a little time to get their instruments back in tune.
Thanks for reading. I hope this gave you some insight to what may be going on behind the scenes at the next live show you attend. Keep Rockin!