The Tools Every Gigging Guitarist Needs

I play a lot of shows.

Okay, that might be an understatement. I play two or three shows every week.

And in that time, I’ve run into every problem you can imagine—broken strings, malfunctioning pedals, shot cables, you name it. But as they say in showbiz, “the show must go on.”

If you’re playing a gig and disaster strikes, often your only option is to press on and keep playing. But you don’t have to be helpless. You might not be able to prepare for every calamity, but if you keep these things on hand, you’ll be in much better shape.

A String-Changing Tool

By now, you probably know that you should always keep a pack of strings on hand in case you break one. But when you’re onstage, time is of the absolute essence. You need to get back in action as soon as possible.

A lot of people will recommend that you have a string winder, a wire cutter, and maybe a pair of pliers in your gig toolbox. But when the pressure is on, finding two or three separate tools can add stress to an already stressful situation.

Instead, opt for an all-in-one string changing tools. I have three of these—one in my practice space and two in different guitar cases. I can’t tell you how much trouble it’s saved me when I’m down a string in a live show and need to add a string fast.

Extra Cables

Nothing lasts forever. This includes instrument cables.

When you’re playing a gig, the last thing you want is for one of your cables to go bad. This is especially true of those of us who are managing huge pedalboards with dozens of short patch cables. When cables twist and contort, stress gets put on the connections and can cause the solder to break, resulting in crackling, weak signal, or no sound at all.

And when that happens in a gig, it can be bad news. Nothing is worse than your guitar cutting out right before your killer guitar solo in your band’s most popular song.

The best advice is to bring a few extra cables with you in case things go bad. You might not be able to stop problems before they happen, but you can fix them as soon as they come.

And, a brief note: we’ve all had those cables that work when they’re in just the right position. You might feel like you can live with that, but trust me: no one wants to wait around for you to wiggle your cables into place. And, I can promise you that they’re going to fall out of place when you’re moving to and from the gig. Do everyone a favor and just replace the cable.

A Screwdriver

Not every problem is external. Every once in a while, your signal will go dead and there’s no amount of cord swapping that can get it back. The problem might be with a jack or a volume knob. Or sometimes, your amp might start flaking out for no reason.

And there’s not a whole lot you can do to fix those without getting inside of the unit.

A screwdriver is a simple tool, but it can cover over a multitude of technical difficulties. You can pop off your guitar’s input jack, access the electronics of a pedal or amplifier, or even use it as a mini prybar to pop off a stubborn battery cover.

You won’t use a screwdriver every gig (hopefully). But for those rare cases where you do need it, you’ll be glad you have it with you.

A Soldering Iron

There are a lot of soldered connections in a guitar rig. Just between your guitar and amplifier, there are easily a dozen points that are soldered together. Add in some pedals and the patch cables between them, and that number can easily get up to the hundreds.

That’s a lot of opportunities for Murphy’s Law to rear its ugly head.

Your best defense is to get a soldering iron and familiarize yourself with basic soldering techniques.

Realistically, you’ll probably never use a soldering iron at a show, but you will definitely get a lot of use out of it between them. Personally, I’ve soldered many of my own patch cables to custom lengths to make my pedalboard more efficient, but I’ve also had to do some surgery on some of my fussier effects pedals.

If you have any interest at all in vintage effects pedals, you’re going to need to beef up your soldering skills. Unfortunately, effects pedals don’t show error messages when they malfunction like a PC, so you’re going to need to do the troubleshooting on your own.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a vintage effects pedal (heck, and newer pedals too), but if you have a soldering iron handy, you’ll be able to take care of most problems.

Extension Cords, Power Strips, Ground Lifts, Etc.

If you’re playing out at different clubs, bars, and venues, there is absolutely no telling what the power situation is like until you get on stage.

I’ve played gigs shows where there were isolated outlets every six feet. I’ve also played gigs where the entire band (and sound guy!) had to share the power out of a single outlet in the wall (amazingly, we didn’t trip the circuit).

The best case is to be prepared for anything. I can’t tell you how many times a simple extension cord has saved my set, or that bringing my own power strip was the only thing that let me power my rig.

Bring a couple of each to every show. In the case where the only available power is a two-prong outlet, a ground lift adapter might be the only way you can actually play.

You might not need all of these items for every show. In fact, if you do, you should probably invest in a better set up. But on the day that you do need them, you’ll be glad you have them onhand.

Other guitarists: what’s in your emergency kit? Let me know in the comments.

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About the Author

Nathaniel Fitzgerald
Nathaniel FitzGerald is a longtime audiophile and independent musician living in South Bend, IN. He has been collecting records and vintage stereo equipment for over ten years. He also runs a blog called A Year of Vinyl, where he reviews every record in his (sizable) collection one disc at a time.