Sometimes you’ll see it on stage. A guitarist may change songs several times in just a one hour gig. Whilst it may seem a bit of a mystery, there are actually in fact three main reasons why guitarists change guitars during a live performance. In this article, I’ll be taking you through each reason so you’re all clued up. So let’s get started!
The Quick Answer
Guitarists usually change guitars between songs for three main reasons.
- To change to a different tuning
- To get a different tone
- If there is a fault with the guitar
That’s why you’ll often see a guitarist switching guitars two or three times during a live performance. It’s much easier to switch guitars than change the tuning, or fix a fault. Some songs also require you to have a different tone which you can’t reproduce using the same guitar.
1. To Change Tunings
One of the most frequent reasons why guitarists change guitars between songs, is because they need it in a different tuning.
The standard tuning of a guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E. However, not all songs use this tuning. Some of the main alternatives include:
- Half-Step-Down (Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb)
- D# (D#-G#-C#-F#-A#-D#)
- Drop D (D-A-D-G-B-E)
- Drop D Half-Step-Down (D-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb)
- Drop C (C-G-C-F-A-D)
- Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D)
- Open D (D-A-D-F#=A-D)
Changing between these different tunings can take a while. You need to either use a headstock tuner, or a tuner pedal to be completely confident you’re in the right tuning, unless you have a perfect ear.
It’s also not great for the audience if they have to stand there and wait for you to mess about tuning the strings.
So a much faster option is to just change guitars.
Live performers will have their guitars tuned before the gig so that they are all correct. Then they can just switch to the correct guitar between songs without having to mess around re-tuning.
Loads of professional bands do this. Here are a few examples.
- AC/DC: most of their songs are in standard tuning, however some use D# (half-step-down) tuning. For example, if AD/DC wanted to play Thunderstruck (uses standard tuning) after Highway to Hell (D# tuning) they’d need to switch guitars.
- The Beatles also used many different tunings. For example, Yellow Submarine is in D# tuning, whereas Yesterday is in D standard tuning.
- The metal band Disturbed, also use alternative tunings. For example, Stricken is played in Drop C, whereas Asylum and Divide are played in D# standard.
- Finally, Iron Maiden mainly use standard tuning, but their song “If Eternity Should Fall” uses Drop D tuning.
2. To Get a Different Tone
Another really important reason why some guitarists change guitars mid-performance, is because they need a different tone.
There are so many different models of electric guitars out there, by loads of different brands, and they all sound different. This is mainly due to the pickups, tone wood and body type.
Some guitars have single coil pickups which sound bright and twangy, whereas others have humbucker pickups which sound darker and thicker. The main body woods are mahogany, maple, ash and alder, and they all sound very different, varying from very bright to dark.
The body type also is super important. You can either get solid body, semi-hollow or hollow body electric guitars. Solid bodies sound the balanced and have the best sustain, whereas hollow bodies sound warmer and are more susceptible to feedback.
If you’re interested in this topic, then here are some articles that you may like.
- How the Wood Affects the Tone of a Guitar
- Guitar Pickups Explained
- 7 Factors that Affect an Electric Guitar’s Tone
There are plenty of bands which do this. For example, Metallica’s guitarist James Hetfield changes between an acoustic and electric guitar during songs to get a different sound.
3. If There is Something Wrong
There is also a final reason why some players like to change their guitar after every few songs, and that’s because there could be something up with the guitar.
Some of the main issues include:
- String breakage
- The guitar is going out of tune
- Electrical issues
- Guitar straps coming loose
If you’re playing a live performance, it can be a really good idea to have a back-up guitar. You may never need it, but sometimes it can save you.
For example, if you break a string mid-performance with no back-up, then you’ll have to pack up and go home.
It’s also good if you’re doing a lot of string bends or using a whammy bar and your guitar goes out of tune quickly. If you feel this happening, you’ll just be able to put on your back-up guitar and continue playing without having to re-tune between songs.
How Can you Tell Why They're Changing
Okay, so now you know that there are three main reasons why guitarists change guitars between songs, how do you know which reason they’re doing it for.
There are a couple of ways to tell.
- If the bands other guitarist or bass player changes guitar as well, it’s probably because the song is using a different tuning (reason number 1).
- If both the rhythm and lead guitarist change guitars but the bassist doesn’t, then it’s probably to get a different tone (reason 2).
- But if only one guitarist changes guitars, then it’s often due to a fault (reason 3).
This of course isn’t always true. Sometimes only one guitarist will change guitars, and that’s because they just want another tone. You’ll notice this if in the next song, the tone sounds much brighter or warmer.
It’s also worth mentioning that there isn’t always a definitive reason why some guitarists change guitars. Sometimes, they just want to show off their collection of cool guitars, and there isn’t actually a concrete reason like a tuning change or need for a different tone.
So there you go! That’s why some bands change guitars during live performances! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: