If you’ve recently attended a concert, you might be wondering why the guitarists kept changing guitars during the set. Whilst you might not know it, there are actually a whole host of reasons why guitarists do this.
So, why do guitarists change guitars on stage? Guitarists will commonly change guitars in order to use a different tuning, obtain a different tone or compensate for a technical issue. In addition, they may be showcasing a new product range (as part of an endorsement deal) or visually expressing the mood of the music they’re playing.
Keep reading for an in-depth explanation of each of the above points.
To Use A Different Tuning
This is one of the most common reasons a guitarist will change guitars on stage.
The tuning refers to the pitch of the guitar strings. Guitarists may make use of a range of different tunings for the following two reasons:
- Playability: Certain chord voicings are much easier to play in an altered tuning.
- Sound: Different tunings produce different sounds and moods (ambient, heavy etc.)
Here are a few common tunings that guitarists may employ throughout a set:
- Standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E): As the name suggests, this is the default and most commonly-used guitar tuning. It works well with almost any genre.
- Half step down tuning (Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb): This is where each string is tuned half a step (one semitone) down from standard tuning. Whilst many bands will record material in standard tuning, they may employ half step down tuning for their live performances. This is because half step down tuning enables vocalists to sing slightly lower (therefore, making it easier) and provides a slightly heavier sound.
- Drop D tuning (D-A-D-G-B-E): The same as standard tuning, but with the lowest string detuned by a whole tone. It produces a heavier sound and makes power chords much easier to play. It’s commonly used in the rock and metal genres.
- DADGAD tuning (D-A-D-G-A-D): This tuning is known for its ambient and ethereal sound. It’s commonly used by acoustic guitarists and played fingerstyle (as opposed to playing with a pick).
To Obtain A Different Tone
Tone refers to the way a guitar sounds. There are a wide variety of factors that affect the tone of a guitar, including:
- The type of wood
- The shape
- The size
- The pickups
- If the body is solid or hollow
Therefore, different types of guitars will have very different tones. Here are a few examples:
- Stratocaster: Produces a mid-heavy, ‘quack-like’ tone. Many Stratocasters feature a whammy bar, which allows the player to produce a vibrato effect. Commonly used in the rock, pop and blues genres.
- Telecaster: Produces a thin, ‘twangy’ sound. Commonly used in the country and blues genres.
- Les Paul: Produces a warm, full-bodied tone. Commonly used in the rock and metal genres.
- Semi-Hollow: Produces a slightly acoustic tone, with less sustain than a solid-bodied guitar. They’re extremely versatile, being able to play everything from jazz to rock music.
To leverage this, guitarists will use different types of guitars for different songs. A heavier song might call for a Les Paul, whilst a more blues-tinged song might require a telecaster.
To Compensate For A Technical Issue
If you’ve ever seen a guitarist change guitars in the middle of a song, it almost-certainly will have been due to a technical issue. As much as a band and their crew may work to prevent technical issues, they’re an inevitable part of live performance. Here are a few common examples:
- Poor tuning: This is the most commonly-occurring technical issue. Whilst it might seem counter-productive, stages are extremely bad environments for guitars. Excessive heat, humidity and moisture (from perspiration) can all affect the tuning of a guitar. If a guitar goes out of tune mid-song, a guitarist may not have the opportunity to re-tune.
- String breakages: String breakages are caused by aggressive technique, the climate or the strings being old. It generally takes a couple of minutes to change a guitar string, which a guitarist won’t have time for in the middle of a performance.
- Faulty electrics: When touring, a guitar will likely experience rough handling and a wide variety of climate changes. This can damage the electrics, causing the sound to suddenly cut out mid-song.
As all of the above technical issues are unable to be resolved mid-song, a guitarist will simply switch to a backup guitar. The backup guitar will often be a similar model to the one experiencing a technical issue.
To Promote A New Product Range
It’s common for guitar manufacturers to loan a new range of guitars to a well-known guitarist for the duration of a tour (commonly known as an ‘endorsement’). This is a form of influencer marketing; it allows manufacturers to associate a particular guitarist with their product, then subsequently promote it to hundreds of thousands of people. Therefore, guitar players who are influenced by the endorsed guitarist will be strongly inclined to purchase the same model of guitar, with hopes of achieving a similar tone.
A typical endorsement will see a manufacturer loan a guitarist between 5-10 guitars, asking them to equally showcase each model on each night of the tour. The guitarist may also be required to take part in interviews regarding the new product range, which the manufacturer can use within their marketing material. The guitars are commonly given back to the manufacturer after the tour, before being loaned to a different guitarist.
Occasionally, guitarists will change guitars purely for show rather than for practical or sonic benefit. There are two common reasons guitarists will change guitars for show:
- To represent different ‘eras’ of the band: Many guitarists are well-known for using a particular guitar (or model of guitar) at a particular stage in their career. Therefore, they’ll use the instrument to perform the material it’s associated with, thus representing a distinct ‘era’ of the band.
- To visually represent the mood of the music: Guitars are often decorated to represent the mood of different songs. For example, a guitarist may use a road-worn guitar that’s covered in stickers to perform punk-influenced material. Similarly, they may use a black guitar when performing heavier material.
So, there you have it! A summary of the common reasons why guitarists change guitars on stage. If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer them as soon as I can.