I walk these streets
A loaded six-string on my back
I play for keeps
'Cos I might not make it back
- 'Dead or Alive' - Bon Jovi
The guitar. It seems an innocuous sort of instrument, doesn't it? Just some wood, some strings, and maybe pickups and other bits and pieces if it's an electric guitar. What can possibly go wrong..?
Now that ain't workin', that's the way you do it
Let me tell you, them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb
- 'Money For Nothing' - Dire Straits
As anyone who has ever tried to learn to play the guitar will tell you, one of the hardest parts is waiting until the fingertips of your fretting hand1 develop the calluses necessary to play for more than five minutes without sucking your fingers and moaning slightly. Some of the problems can be lessened by learning on a nylon-stringed classical guitar rather than going straight in with steel strings, but if you want to play the guitar, then one day you're going to have to face the problem.
Less common than fretting-hand injuries, the plucking hand can also be in the firing line:
... no plectrums for my lovely new acoustic when I first started. Therefore I have tough fingertips and also the cuticle on my second finger is shiny and raw.
Mind you, some people don't even get as far as playing the guitar before they damage those sensitive fingertips. Just stringing the thing, and having 0.009-inch diameter pieces of steel stabbing into your fingers, can be surprisingly painful. And if you're new to the whole process...
On the ends of strings there's that little thing that the string is wrapped around to keep it from slipping out. Well, when I had just started, I broke a string and thought that you had to keep it, so I suffered multiple puncture wounds trying to unwrap the string from it.
Of course, the true musician doesn't let any of this get in the way of entertainment:
Isn't it amazing how adrenalin blocks the pain at the time? I played the second half of one gig through a blister on my thumb; it was only a few minutes after I got off stage that I felt it.
Guitars that Draw Blood
Got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five-and-dime
Played it 'til my fingers bled
Was the summer of '69
- 'Summer of '69' - Bryan Adams
Often, but not exclusively, related to the previous item, there are many ways in which your seemingly friendly guitar can wound you sufficiently to produce those tell-tale red drops that can really add a splash of colour to any gig...
When I'd just started playing, and I was using my mum's steel string, I did too much finger-sliding and sliced my middle finger.
And even if you have been playing for a while, it is still possible to get caught up in the moment while on stage and suffer for that uncontrolled enthusiasm...
When playing a particularly extravagant downwards strum, I often catch the side of my index finger on the edge of the centre pick-up. In one gig I bled all the way through the second half of the set.
And it's not just six-string players that suffer: Bass guitar players have fingers too...
The jazz band I was in had been given a decent piece to learn for the concert, a nice number called 'Phunky Speakin'. As the name suggests, it is actually quite funky and I was delighted to see that I got a slap bass part. Come the night of the school concert, I thought I'd really give it some, despite feeling slightly sore from practising. I let rip and was quite pleased about the result. It was only afterwards, as I grinned at the audience, that I noticed that my thumb had split parallel to the nail, and the E and A strings had gone the same colour as the paintwork!
And some people just go looking for trouble...
Cut meself pretty messy once, when using a chopped-off bottleneck for a slide...
Then again, some types of music require a little pain:
... but at the time it felt absolutely right and in perfect accordance with the painful blues. Probably due to the fact I'd just lost my woman and had taken great personal interest in making absolutely sure that the bottle was emptied prior to altering its shapes to suit my artistic demands.
A vicious guitar and a supply of alcohol. What a combination.
You shut the guitar up in a dark case, you haul it about, you drag it up on stage and pound music out of it. Is it a surprise that, sometimes, guitars fight back?
I remember at one gig about a year ago, my bass attacked me. The strap-lock at the neck end just broke and my strap came off. Of course, worried about damaging my bass, I bent my head down to check it, which had the unfortunate consequence of the headstock slamming into my face at a speed normally reserved for Formula One cars. One night in hospital and a broken nose later, I could begin to feel really stupid.
No need to feel too stupid - you're not the only one...
The strap knob came out of the hole in the strap and, at that moment, I did a really big downstroke, so the headstock catapulted up into my face and I got a face full of tuning knobs. Black eye, split lip...
Fortunately, some high-tech solutions are available for dealing with these little problems:
...I stuck some duct tape on to keep [the strap] on...
So that's all right then.
Give us a Tune
So, you have your guitar. It has strings on it. You've developed solid steel fingertips. The strap is firmly secured. All you need to do before you start playing is tune it.
While tuning the first string, I noticed that the E was unusually flat. I must have been overzealous in my attempt to get it into proper pitch because, half a moment later, the string (steel, mind you) had snapped over the back of my hand, leaving a supremely painful welt and beads of blood...
Of course, there's a bright side to everything...
I should be thankful that it didn't break the bones, and that I was wearing glasses.
Sage advice. Eye protection may not be a bad idea when tuning a temperamental guitar2.
... the end of the string caught me in the left eye. 'Ouch!' I thought, rubbed it, and carried on. Next morning, my eye seemed a little more bloodshot than usual. As the day progressed, it became gradually redder, more watery and a lot more painful. It hurt when my eye was open. It hurt when my eye was closed. It hurt when I dried off the excess tears. It hurt when I left it wet. It hurt.
And then there's the type of injury that can only occur when tuning someone else's guitar.
- I see you have a guitar. Mind if I play?
- Go ahead
- Hmm... seems a little out of tune. I'll just tune it for you...
*wind wind wind*
- Hey, you've bust my guitar!
The solution? Don't let anyone but you tune your guitar.
I met a guy from the Isle of Lewis who told me that he never let anyone do that - if they protested any of the strings were out, he'd simply look hurt and say 'But it's my favourite Hebridean tuning!'
We've finally made it on stage with a strung, tuned guitar. Surely it's all plain-sailing from here? Assuming you make it through the soundcheck, of course...
Many bars and clubs are famous for poor electrical wiring, complete with bad grounds or ground-faults, and all it takes is a really hot day for one to forget to wear some shoes whilst doing a quick sound check and ZZZAAAAPP!3 [I] blew the bass amp's fuse, three house fuses and developed a slight numbness all down my right side for a day or two.
But when the gig starts, you can just relax and bask in the admiration of the crowd, right?
I was singing at a friend's wedding - I'd hoped modestly to be somewhere inconspicuous but for the sake of the wedding video I had to stand in front of the altar-rail, a sort of wrought-iron picket-fence thingy with pointy bits on top. All went well until the end of the song, when I thought I'd slip the strap off and walk elegantly back to my pew. The loop of the strap caught round the altar-rail, which fell forward onto my leg... No major problem apart from the indignity and a scratched leg from the pointy bit... Except at the end of the collapsing altar-rail was a tall stand with an enormous and elaborate flower arrangement on top...
Of course, in these days of modern technology, it's not all over when it's over.
No amount of pleading and financial inducement would persuade my friend's new spouse to edit the debacle out of their wedding video.
And even if you manage to avoid injuring yourself, there's always the rest of the band to worry about.
... managing to fire a plectrum at a mate.
And if they decide to get their own back, you might be in trouble...
Hit me with your rhythm stick
It's nice to be a lunatic
- 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' - Ian Dury and the Blockheads
There are people who know precisely what Mr Dury had in mind...
I was signalling our drummer that the time had come for his 15 seconds of fame in the middle of a song. I did this by pointing at him with my right index finger, one of the two fingers I use to persuade my bass to produce any sound. He had chosen that very moment to whack one of his cymbals, clearly with the intention to send it flying from the stage. The drumstick hit my finger instead. And although it didn't fly from my hand, the finger instantly became useless and stayed that way for the best part of the gig.
And if you don't injure yourself, and you're not injured by the other band members, then how about the audience? Be very careful when playing an old acoustic round a campfire lest people get fed up with your 2-hour drunken rendition of 'American Pie'/'Stairway to Heaven'/'Smells Like Teen Spirit'/any Bob Dylan song and try to wrap the guitar neck around yours.
Just because it hasn't drawn blood or left you battered and bruised, doesn't mean your guitar can't hurt you. Many musicians have an ego that is just waiting to be punctured...
One of my mates is a bass player in a rock 'n' roll band. They are a really tough-looking lot and their gigs are always somewhat sinister and menacing. One time my mate decided to jump off the stage in the middle of a song, with the intention to continue playing while strolling through the audience. Unfortunately, the stage was a trifle higher than he expected, so that when he landed he pulled the lead out of his amp. To make things worse for him, it took three frantic attempts and considerable support from members of the audience to get back up again!
And then there's 'damage' in a more metaphorical sense, which tends to occur when buying a new guitar.
That [guitar] is the reason I have a poor credit rating...
Still in one piece? Well, don't give up just yet - your fretted friend still has a fair few tricks up its soundhole...
The guitar player in my band has this thing for feedback, y'see, and we're all lucky if we leave practice without bleeding ears.
... chipping a huge amount of wood from the fretboard and then stepping on it...
And, of course, you can drop the guitar on your toe, get run over by the tour bus or crushed to death by fanatical groupies, set fire to yourself while attempting pyrotechnic effects, the list is endless.
But if, after all this, you're tempted to take that guitar and throw it straight out of the nearest window, just remember that guitars have feelings too.
With every mistake we must surely be learning
While my guitar gently weeps
- 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' - George Harrison