“The show must go on.” That’s the maxim the musician lives by, no matter what slings and arrows of outrageous fortune come their way.
This is one of the immutable tenets of performance ethics, contributing to the surely apocryphal tale of the Titanic’s band maintaining their jam during the most infamous maritime disaster of all time. It’s also one that animates the following guitar players to keep on playing when their strings break mid-song, reducing the six-string electric guitar to five – a situation that’d reduce lesser players to jelly.
There is a lot we can learn from watching these professionals deal with a string breakage, often with an air of casual defiance, as though they were Da Vinci swatting a fly from his brow before gamely putting the finishing touches to the Mona Lisa.
Of course, we know that sometimes the show must not go on, and yet it just does, steamed by its own momentum. How many times have we stood there, riffing into the abyssal void of an empty provincial venue? Or when the crowd just look confused, and it’s only once the adrenaline has subsided that you realize you can’t hear the singer, the drums are mixed too low and you’ve missed a chorus?
Just like string breakages, these things just happen. But, even if you’ve got a Floyd Rose vibrato and a B string flapping in the breeze, the show must go on. With that in mind, here are 10 notable guitarists who kept their cool and kept on playing after snapping a string mid-song.
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan
If the American Film Institute treated YouTube footage of master guitarists playing on after a string breakage with the same reverence it reserves for the feature film, this would be talked about in the same breath as Citizen Kane.
Here, playing with Double Trouble at Austin City Limits, Stevie Ray Vaughan was just 34, and was at the height of his powers. In an all too short a time on this world, SRV was generous with his gifts. This performance of the Hank Ballard blues standard Look At Little Sister is worth studying on many levels. Perhaps the first lesson is on how to stitch together a 12-bar groove with a relaxed-fit pocket with room to swing, and how to assemble a formidable backing band and then get the best out of them.
The second, though, is all about delivering the solo, and continuing to deliver it once the string goes ‘pop’. Wait for the vest to swap out his ‘Number One’ Strat for ‘Scotch’. There is a lot of scuttlebutt with regards to SRV’s preferred string gauge. If you believe some, he used tow ropes for the wound strings. That would certainly allow him to dig in as he did.
2. John Frusciante
We’ve all been there, right? Jamming with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in Brazil on our 1960 Fender Telecaster Deluxe, and a string goes. You can’t blame it. Its tensile fortitude had been tested to the limit and beyond by a particularly fevered performance of If You Have To Ask from the Chilis’ 1991 tour de force Blood Sugar Sex Magik – the solo of which is one of Frusciante’s most freaky-deaky.
If the stage-lights hadn’t got this gossamer strand of silver blowing in the wind, no one – perhaps not even Flea, who’s directing traffic in this jam – would have noticed, with Frusciante digging into the elasticity of his right wrist to keep the funk going. It’s funny, because on the record, Frusciante receives a round of applause from those in the studio when he finishes his solo. It’s like they knew…
One of the reasons Slash’s guitar playing is always worthy of deeper study is the dichotomy between his deft use of the harmonic minor scale and its melodic grandeur to complement the pentatonic bread-and-butter, and the fact that he has a quasi-bestial playing style. It’s like Dr. Jekyll picks the notes and Mr. Hyde plays them.
The man attacks the strings. Little wonder Ernie Ball used Slash as a test pilot to demonstrate just how tough their Paradigm sets are – Ernie Ball claims its RPS (Reinforced Plain String) technology improves tensile strength by up to 35 per cent, with fatigue strength up 70 per cent.
In this fan-filmed performance of Anastasia – the centerpiece of his 2012 album with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, Apocalyptic Love – Slash is tearing it up through the solo before the B string goes bye-bye. Which, frankly, begs the question: if you were to lose a string mid-performance, which would you want it to be?
Either way, Slash is totally unperturbed. He knows his style, his gear. Those purple Tortex 1.14 mm guitar picks he prefers have very little flex, even when you’re playing a set of 11s. In other words, he knows the risks. They have been priced in. And even when things go south, you can’t let it take you out of the moment. Though, we’d wager it is on occasions such as this that Slash was more than happy he didn’t go down the Floyd Rose route like so many of his peers.
4. B.B. King
Some might have worried that B.B. King would be out of his element when he took to the stage at Farm Aid – that the wide open spaces and bright afternoon light of the Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, were too expansive for the King of the Blues to seat 80,000 people in the palm of his hand. But just so long as there was a stage, B.B. King was all right.
Organized by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young, this star-studded fundraiser must have drawn a high proportion of its audience from the agricultural community, and the cucumber growers among them would have recognized a whole new level of cool when King broke a string during a feisty rendition of How Blue Can You Get?, not taking a moment’s pause, and restringing Lucille while putting heart, lungs and soul into the vocals.
We know King was a stickler for intonation, with the fine-tuning TP-6 tailpiece one of the things that distinguishes Lucille from a garden-variety ES-345. Indeed, an unprintable curse word might have entered his head. But onstage, all that mattered was the song, the audience, the show. Total pro.
5. Tommy Emmanuel
If you are performing an unaccompanied rock ’n’ roll boogie on an acoustic guitar at a hazardous tempo – a performance so out-there in the scale of its virtuosity that we’re glad there was video to prove it was one player – and you do it all without breaking a string? Well, did you even perform such a piece.
Here, Australian acoustic maestro Tommy Emmanuel breaks a string and carries on, and that is why this performance is on this list. But this footage is more than just documented proof of Emmanuel’s god-like credentials; it’s that sort of humbling-yet-inspiring wizardry that makes people want to pick up the instrument in the first place.
And all of us who have done so already... well, it’s time to revisit the guitar and ask of ourselves; how can our technique and improvisational brio produce an étude such as this? Chet Atkins would have looked on with pride.
6. Mark Tremonti
No-one will ever or has ever questioned the physical condition of Mark Tremonti. He is the one player you do not want to go circuit training with. That goes double when it comes to exchanging lead guitar lines. Who among us would not wither like a dandelion stewing in weed control at the prospect?
But such physical condition comes with a health warning for guitar strings, and on this occasion – as Alter Bridge took to the stage at the Baltimore Soundstage, Maryland – Mr. T leaned into the rhythm figure for Cauterize and opened up a can of whoop-ass on the E string.
As the other Mr. T might say, “To have a comeback, you have to have a setback.” Well, luckily a tech was on hand with another PRS solidbody Singlecut to see the song through. Tremonti never missed a beat.
7. Eric Clapton
Here is some documentary footage of ecclesiastical importance, proving that Eric Patrick Clapton is not God. That’s right: if he really was God, do you think he would be standing onstage at Knebworth putting his Fender Stratocaster through the mill, only for a string to break?
Surely, fellow six-string theologians, this is incontrovertible proof that Clapton puts one leg of his pink suit trousers on at a time like the rest of us. Or, is this just the sort of thing that God would want us to think. Why set a bush aflame or send Gabriel with a message when a little diversion could be just as effective?
Whatever the divine provenance or otherwise of Mr. Slowhand, you have to admit that Clapton epitomizes cool here in this performance of Before You Accuse Me.
You can just picture the scene, side of stage:
Satan (laughing): “Broken string, Mr Clapton? Do you want to have a cry?”
Clapton (hair flowing in the breeze, tastefully hirsute, definitely owns a sports-car): “Get behind me, Satan! I licked you at the Crossroads, mate, and I’m gonna lick you now. You got that!? I’m onstage at Knebworth, wearing a pink suit, with Lace Sensor single-coils in my Strat – ‘cos its 1990 and that’s still legit. This is still a free country, mate!”
8. Buddy Guy
Sometimes it’s happenstance that makes a performance great. That’s especially true of playing the blues – an art form that has parallels with stand-up comedy. The storytelling discipline and crowd management requires a similar temperament, the likes of which blues great and master showman Buddy Guy has in spades.
This performance from 2010’s Crossroads Festival – since released as a concert LP and film – has an end-of-semester feel, the promise of an endless summer. Everyone played this show. But even as proceedings ease into a casual jam on the Stones classic Miss You, with Ronnie Wood and Johnny Lang as wingmen, Guy is always switched on.
When his string breakage interrupts his part and Wood steps in to offer him his Strat, Guy has that look in his eyes; it’s time to style it out and have a little fun with the crowd. “I broke my guitar string, I’m going to keep on trying to play…” His polka-dot signature Strat gets prepared, but all in good time. String breakage? Don’t let it give you the blues. Turn it into the blues.
9. Ed Sheeran
With his Chewie II loop station on hand, there are few players in the world more prepared for a string breakage than Ed Sheeran.
It’s a creative tool, of course – the looper building layers of accompaniment, with one of the world’s highest-grossing musicians ostensibly using a beefed-up busker’s rig – but it also serves as a technological prophylactic. Handy when you’re strumming the bejeezus out of a capo’d small-bodied acoustic guitar during the helter-skelter folk-pop of You Need Me, I Don't Need You... something could go.
And it does. The G string succumbs. The loop pedal hangs in there. Another five strings keep the layers going and Sheeran’s vocal delivery puts on a display of alphabet aerobics that’d see a veteran cattle auctioneer pull up injured with a twisted tongue. That’s showbiz.
10. Steve Vai
Steve Vai’s DIY DNA has stood him in good stead over the years, and its reframing of challenges – physically, creatively and otherwise – as opportunities typically leads to him doing something pretty special, and more often than not something that no-one else has ever done before.
Recent examples include Knappsack, from his latest album, Inviolate, quite possibly the most Steve Vai album ever recorded. With his arm in a sling, he wrote and performed a track using just his fretting hand, making full use of his Jedi legato training.
But what makes Vai more vulnerable to string breakages than anyone else on this list is that double-locking vibrato. As we all know, a breakage on a Floyd is panic stations for your tuning as the unit is off-balance.
Vai loses his top string, the least problematic, and yet to adapt the solo to The Crying Machine with intonation on-point is genius at work. When he gets the chance to switch JEMs, it’s like a video-game power-up has come online to see him through to the end, triumphant and divine.