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Don’t even THINK about playing guitar without these essentials

 

By Jon Chappell, Phil O'Keefe, and Craig Anderton

 

temp.jpgHaving the right guitar accessories can do  everything from help you play better, to sound more interesting, to survive a  live performance meltdown. But what exactly constitutes the "right" set of accessories? Well, you've come to the right place to ask that question.

Following is our list of essential pieces of gear no guitar player should be without, otherwise known as Stuff Guitarists Need Besides a Guitar. And if you’re in gift-giving mode, consider that if your intended already has one of the following items, he or she could certainly use two. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if each guitar had its own capo and tuner that could reside right in the case of the instrument it was ideally suited for? You could put the ornate, exhibitionistic Kyser in the Martin case (because capoing is de rigueur for acoustic guitar), while the subtler Shubb goes the Tele case for when you want to do your Albert Collins thing, but you don’t want to broadcast that you’re using a “cheater.” But even if you’re just doing a reality check for your own kit bag, read on for our must-have accessories that every recording guitarist should own, and the supporting reasons for them.

 

 

TUNERS

The bottom line is simple: you sound better when the instrument is in tune. You can mess around with old-school tuning references such as pitch pipes and tuning forks, or go with a high-tech solution like Gibson's Min-ETune, but quality electronic tuners are so inexpensive and common it's crazy not to have one.

Guitar tuners today are faster and more accurate than ever, and using them is quite easy to learn, and there's much less guesswork involved for the neophyte player. Tuners come in a variety of shapes and styles. Pedal-shaped tuners and portable tuners have been popular for years, and clip-on tuners have also become quite popular recently.

Everyone has to tune sometime; sometimes surreptitiously, so as not to disturb other activities (stage patter, etc.). There are many time-sensitive sessions where you can’t even make noise, much less find a break in the action to tune; an easy solution is having a tuner placed inline with your guitar, effects and amp, so that you can check your tuning periodically. Once you get the hang of tuning visually, you can actually tune faster than tuning by ear, and it is definitely more reliable when ear fatigue sets in.

An electronic tuner (see Fig. 1) can also aid you in alternate tunings within the same piece of music, or within a quick segue that would normally prohibit a retune. You could, for example, play one passage in standard tuning, rest for eight bars, come back in drop D tuning, rest again, and again re-enter in standard tuning for the next passage. All multi-effects processors mute the output when you enter their onboard tuning mode, which is a great convenience, especially in the sometimes tense goings-on of the recording studio.

temp.jpg

Fig. 1: An electronic tuner is essential for playing in perfect tune in the studio.

 

 

STRING WINDERS

Sooner or later, your guitar is going to need a new pair of strings, and when it does, you'll find the process of changing strings goes a lot smoother and faster with the right tools - and that means a string or peg winder. This handy tool allows you to wrap the string on to the post much faster than doing it by hand.

Dunlop String Winders.jpg

Fig. 2: Dunlop's string winders also include a gripper for pulling bridge pins out of acoustic guitars.

 

A slot in the front of these Dunlop String Winders (Fig. 2) also serves as a handy gripper for pulling bridge pins out of an acoustic guitar without damaging them like you would by using pliers to grip them, and it's generally easier than trying to push them out by reaching into the soundhole to push or tap them out.

Bass players, don't feel left out: string winders are also available for bass-sized tuning keys. The Planet Waves Bass Pro String Winder even has a string cutter built-in… which leads us to the next essential accessory - a good set of tools.

 

 

WRENCHES AND OTHER TOOLS

General guitar setup and maintenance requires the right tools. This can be one multi-tool, a few select tools, or even a pre-configured collection of guitar setup tools, but you need to have something that can cut strings, adjust the truss rod, bridge height, and string intonation settings. Depending on what type of guitar(s) you have and the tools required, that might mean a couple of allen wrenches, string cutters, and a small screwdriver. You may already have these tools in your toolbox. If not, there are affordable guitar-oriented toolkits available, and also multi-tools designed specifically for guitar.

How important is it to know how to adjust your guitar? Once when interviewing Eric Johnson for an article on his guitar technique, he picked up his Strat and began to play, stopping almost instantly because it had developed a slight buzz on the 3rd string. In a matter of mere seconds, he reached into his case, pulled out a truss-rod wrench, administered a couple of cranks, and eliminated the buzz—without ever breaking his conversational stride.

This shows what an intimate knowledge of your instrument can bring. You can not only play it, but also make adjustments and minor repairs to it too—often on the fly. These repairs can be as simple as fixing fret buzzes and intonation problems, which can happen as a result of an environmental change or some other event’s causing a misalignment of your guitar. To obviate the negative effects quickly and accurately, you must know the mechanical elements of your guitar and be facile in dealing with them.

If you have a floating bridge system with a locking nut, make sure the corresponding hex drivers (Allen wrenches) are within reach should a string break. A small Phillips-head screwdriver is usually what’s required to raise and lower pickups if they ever get too far from or close to the strings. Pliers and wire cutters can accomplish in seconds what might take an unaided human hand minutes to complete. A socket wrench enables you to tighten or even remove the output-jack nut, should you ever develop a problem down there.

While it's not that hard to assemble the tools you need to do minor repairs and adjustments, one of our favorite "all in one" options is CruzTools' GrooveTech Guitar Player Tech Kit (Fig. 3; there's also a version for bass).

 

CruzTools.jpg

Fig. 3: The CruzTOOLS GrooveTech Guitar Player Tech Kit includes metric and inch hex keys, thickness gauge, ruler, capo, cutters, string winder, 6-in-1 screwdriver, LED flashlight, and ball end truss rod wrenches. It’s also very handy to have around when setting up a guitar.

 

Depending on the guitar and rig you have, you should also develop an additional "electronics" toolkit that includes extra fuses, alligator clips (for making temporary electrical connections), spare batteries, and even extra tubes for your amp, so that you can problem-solve virtually any situation within your technical abilities.

 

 

CAPOES

A capo is a device that clamps around the strings and underside of your neck, pulling the strings to the fretboard at a given fret—like a permanent 1st-finger barre (see Fig. 4).This allows you to transpose the guitar chords from the actual “concert” (true or absolute) key you’re actually in.

Capo.jpg

Fig. 4: A capo clamps over the strings at different frets, allowing you to transpose easily.

 

For example, if you want to play D chord you can either play it as an open-position D, or capo the 2nd fret and play a C chord, which will sound as D. This might seem arbitrary until you consider what happens if the required chord is Ab major. Here, you can either barre the 4th fret as an F-type chord, or you can capo the first fret and play an open-position G chord. If it’s supposed to sound like a ringy, open-string, fingerpicked part, it’s better to pop on the capo and play it in “G” than to grip an Ab barre chord. Capoes can save your life when people decide to switch keys up or down a half step, which often happens when playing and recording with vocalists.

Some players consider the use of a capo a "cheat", and in some respects, it can be. So while it's important to learn how to play in all keys, there are other advantages to capoes that even technically-proficient players can appreciate, such as the timbre shift that also occurs when using a capo in higher positions. Savvy players have been using capos to get different tones out of their guitars for ages - like the acoustic guitar part that opens "Here Comes The Sun" by the Beatles.

For example, suppose you’ve just recorded a song on acoustic guitar using A, D, and E7 chords, all in first position. The producer likes the full-bodied sound of the part, but thinks the overall mix lacks some sparkle and high-end activity in the accompaniment. This is a perfect opportunity to put on the capo at the 9th fret and play the open chord-forms C, F, and G7, which will come out sounding as A, D, and E7—the original chords in the rhythm part. The difference is, these capoed chords are played way up the neck with higher notes. What’s more, the capo gives them an open-string quality. If you’re the one who laid down the original part, you can usually play the new one exactly in rhythm, which can sound more like a “doubled” guitar than two different guitars playing at once. Suddenly your double-tracked guitar sounds more like a 12-string, but with an expanded range. This situation would work well for a Nashville-tuned guitar, which would yield a similar effect. 

There’s an important musical reason for using a capo, too. By playing a part in “C” that’s really in D (to take our previous example) you also end up playing C licks instead of D licks. Each open-position key on the guitar has idiomatic properties to it. For example, some people find it easier to play acoustic blues in E than in G. So if they encounter a song in F or G that’s supposed to have a swampy, Delta feel to it, they’ll probably slap on a capo at the first or third frets, respectively, and play out of an E position.

 

 

SLIDES

There are a variety of objects that can be fashioned into a slide, from the medicine-bottle type (Duane Allman used a Coricidin bottle) to a length of brass pipe to a wine-bottle neck to an actual nickel-chrome machined slide for a pedal or lap steel (see Fig. 5). Which one is right for you is largely a matter of individual taste and comfort (as is the decision to play the guitar itself on your lap or upright in the normal guitar-playing position), but a well-versed recording guitarist should have some slide facility in several styles. Facility means not only having a clean, noise-free and in-tune technique, but also being able to play idiomatically, i.e., knowing some licks. Slide players play both in open tunings (G and D, and their relative transpositions A and E, being the most popular) as well as standard tuning.

 

Slides.jpg

Fig. 5: A variety of slides offer new playing options.

 

 

PICKS

Unless you play fingerstyle exclusively, you'll want a good selection of guitar picks (Fig. 6) made from a variety of materials and in various thicknesses.

Picks.jpg

Fig. 6: Picks are available in all sizes, shapes, materials, and - colors!

 

This not only gives you a bunch of different picks to try out (so you can see what models you prefer), but it also provides you with the multitude of different tonal options and flavors that are available to you just by changing your plectrum. And as your pick collection grows, you'll probably want some kind of pick holder as well.

 

 

STRAP OR FOOTREST

Unless you're a classical guitarist who always plays from a seated position, you're a good candidate for a nice strap (Fig. 7).

Strappic.jpg

Fig. 7: The Vee Strap distributes weight more evenly over both shoulders.

 

Just like picks, straps are available in a wide range of styles and colors. Harmony Central has done some strap reviews, such as Planet Waves' Black Satin Planet Lock Guitar Strap and the innovative Wells Company Vee Strap. And if you're a classical guitarist who doesn't need a strap because you play while sitting down, feel free to substitute a footrest (Fig. 8) in place of a strap.

Classical Guitar Footrest.jpg

Fig. 8: Modern adjustable, lightweight footrests are a huge improvement over the essentially wooden boxes of yesteryear.

 

 

STRAP LOCKS

If you're using a strap, consider adding some strap locks (Fig. 9).

Strap Locks.jpg

Fig. 9: A strap lock is one of the least expensive insurance policies against a damaged guitar.

Trust me - the first time you drop a guitar because the strap accidentally detached, you'll kick yourself for not having spent a few bucks for the protection that strap locks provide. And it's not a question of "if" your guitar strap will accidentally become detached, only a matter of "when" - and a fall from a strap can lead to significant damage to your cherished instrument.

 

 

GUITAR CASE HUMIDIFIER

Listen up, acoustic instrument players - you need a guitar case humidifier, particularly if you live in a dry climate, or in an area where it gets cold enough in the winter that you have to heat your home. In low humidity, the wood in your instrument can actually dry out and shrink to the point where frets stick out past the edges of the fingerboard. Low humidity conditions can also lead to cracks developing in your acoustic's top, and cause bridge and other action-related issues - all of which can be prevented by keeping a humidifier inside your guitar case.

Case humidifier in case filling.jpg

Fig. 10: Basic humidifiers require adding water which then gets dispersed with your case.

The operating principle is simple (Fig. 10). With basic models, you inject water into an absorptive object, like a sponge. This then inserts into your case, or in some bases, between guitar strings, which holds the humidifer in place. However, be careful not to add too much water - wood can absorb water in high-humidity conditions, which may lead to warpage.

Planet Waves' HuMIDIpak Humidity Control System is more costly than other systems as it requires periodic pad replacement, but maintains a constant 45\\\% relative humidity level by raising or lowering humidity as needed. For more about controlling humidity, check out the article Maintaining a Healthy Humidity Balance for Guitars.

 

 

GUITAR STAND

Sure, you can lean the guitar up against your amp, or drop it back into the case, but many players appreciate the safety and convenience of a good guitar stand (Fig. 11).

Tubular Guitar Stand.jpg

Fig. 11: A good guitar stand will keep your guitar handy and secure.

 

One piece of advice: The cheapest possible guitar stand isn't always the best idea. Spending even just a couple dollars more can make a big difference in longevity.

If you have multiple guitars, you might want to consider some of the multi-guitar stands that can hold up to five guitars.There are even models that hold up to seven guitars (Fig. 12).

Multi Guitar Stand.jpg

Fig. 12: If you have a lot of guitars, there are stand options for you too.

If you're more recording-oriented and don't gig a lot, you may want to consider wall hangers (Fig. 13) instead of stands.

Wall Hanger.jpg

Fig. 13: A wall hanger is a practical alternative to guitar stands, and keeps the guitar off the floor.

These allow you to hang the guitar from the wall, where it is not only readily available, but displayed like a piece of art for all to see. However, note if the back of the guitar contacts the wall; if so, affix something soft (like a cloth) on the wall where it's contacted by the guitar.

 

 

A CASE OR GIG BAG

And while we're in a protective mood, don't forget a quality instrument case (Fig. 14) or gig bag. If your guitar came with a gig bag, you might consider upgrading to a hardshell case.

Guitar Case2.jpg

Fig. 14: A hardshell case is a worthwhile upgrade from a soft gig bag.

 

This not only provides protection for your instrument when you're traveling and safe storage when it's not in use, but also gives you some place to store some of the other accessories that we've mentioned in this article.

 

 

EXTRA STRINGS

Seems obvious, right? But there is a way to be smart about something as simple as extra strings. For example, don’t just pack one extra set. Keep three Gs, Bs and high Es, because these break more than the lower, wound strings. It’s not uncommon to break the same string twice in one session, especially if you’re doing multiple takes on some outrageous bent-note passage.

 

 

CLEANING AND POLISHING CLOTHS

Have some soft, lint-free cloths handy - and not only for cleaning your guitar's body to keep it shiny.

Cleaning and polishing cloth.jpg

Fig. 15: The Music Nomad Edgeless Microfiber Guitar Detailing Towel costs under ten bucks, and does the job.

A cleaning cloth is also essential for wiping your strings down after you've finished playing, which can help them last and remain fresh-sounding longer. Consider keeping at least two cloths around - one for wiping down the strings, and a microfiber cloth (Fig. 15) for cleaning and polishing.

 

 

CLEANING SUPPLIES

In addition to cleaning cloths, don't forget about cleaning supplies. These include not just polish (Fig. 16), but also fingerboard conditioner and string cleaning products like FastFret and Finger Ease.

Guitar polish.jpg

Fig. 16: Gibson's Pump Polish has been an old standby for years - not just for guitars, but for basses, banjos and mandolins as well.

 

 

BATTERIES

Now let's transition into more of an electronics vibe, starting with batteries. Take an inventory of what kind and how many you use in your setup and have a complete replacement set. Upon insertion of any new battery, stick white masking tape on it and write the date. Come to think of it, pack the tape and the marker in your bag, too. Masking tape can also be used to reduce rattle on a trapeze tailpiece or Dobro cone.

If you want a higher-tech solution for testing batteries, Keith McMillen Instruments' Batt-O-Meter (Fig. 17).This not only reads the voltage, but gives an estimate of remaining capacity, Even better, with most effects and active pickups, you don't even need to remove the battery - just plug into the pedal's input jack that switches the battery on and off.

 

battometer.jpg

Fig. 17: The Batt-O-Meter lets you check most effects batteries by simply plugging in to the effect.

 

 

METRONOME

A metronome is one of the most time-honored practice aids. They're been around for nearly two centuries, and greatly assist you in terms of keeping a steady tempo as you practice. Today's electronic models (Fig. 18) have largely replaced the larger, wind-up models of days gone by, and you can even get apps for your smartphone that turn it into a virtual metronome.

Metronome.jpg

Fig. 18: Korg's MA-1 digital metronome is inexpensive and accurate.

Handy practice tip - when struggling with a tricky part, try playing it at a very slow, easy to play tempo. Once you have the part down to where you can play it correctly and comfortably at the slow speed, set the metronome tempo a little faster. Repeat the process while gradually increasing the tempo each time until you're able to play the part at full speed.

 

 

CABLES AND ADAPTERS

The cable part is easy: Have at least one long and two short in reserve. Don’t wait for total failure before substituting the cord, either. Intermittent crackles can kill a take just as dead as a totally non-working cable, so at the first hint of trouble, swap for a new one, and work on the problem after the session. Adapters are items many guitarists don’t pack, but they can be the “crescent wrench” that saves the day. In a pro studio, you probably don’t have to worry about scaring up, say a direct box, but in a demo studio, if you bring your own, you’ll be self-sufficient, should you decide to go direct and there’s not a spare D.I. around.

Music electronics is a surprisingly simple, intuitive affair if you can locate the source of the problem; sometimes a cursory look will reveal the defect—a broken solder joint, a loose wire, a dirty contact. Alligator clips will hold two contacts together, but if you have the time, drop a glob of solder onto the connections.

 

 

CABLE TESTER AND VOLT-OHM METER

These items cost about $12 and $20 respectively, and earn their keep the first time they diagnose a bad or reverse-wired cable (see Fig. 19). Learn how to use the volt-ohm meter with respect to your equipment; i.e., know what power supplies you have and what the appropriate settings are on the meter. You can impress your friends with your “gearhead geek” aptitude.

 

Cable\\\_Tester\\\_Final.jpg Multimeter.jpg

Fig. 19. A cable tester and a volt-ohm or multi-meter can help make electrical troubleshooting a breeze.

 

 

FUSES

Any new environment—even a studio—can have unpredictable wiring schemes that could cause havoc with your gear, and especially to your amp. Your amp’s first line of defense is its fuse. If the house current is weird, the fuse will blow. Having replacements is your responsibility, just like having extra strings. If you blow subsequent fuses, alert the engineer and asked that your amp be moved to a different circuit.

 

 

DUCT TAPE

This is the musician’s baking soda—an all-purpose utility product that cures a multitude of maladies. You can use it to fix everything from a rattling tailpiece to a broken mic clip. Even the roll itself is handy: you can use it to tilt your combo amp up for better monitoring.

 

 

E-BOW

An E-bow is a nifty little device that fits in your right hand and uses a battery-powered magnet to excite the string directly under it, without making contact (see Fig. 20). What you can do then is play the guitar as you do normally in the left hand, substituting the E-bow placement for right-hand picking. This produces attack-less notes, emulating the sound of a bowed string instrument, like the violin, viola, or cello. Because the E-bow has to magnetically oscillate (vibrate) the string into producing a pitch, the response is not as immediate as if you’d picked it, so it’s generally better on slower, more lyrical melodic passages. It doesn’t take that much technique to master an E-bow, and it can contribute a completely different flavor to a guitar part, especially as an overdub.

Ebow.jpg

Fig. 20: An E-Bow can add a violin-like texture to your parts.

 

 

FLASHLIGHT

It doesn’t have to be dark to use a  flashlight. Shadows and small sizes pose as much a problem for  diagnosing an electrical problem as the complete absence of light. If  you’re trying to locate a bad connection inside a volume pedal, you may  not see the broken bit of solder that’s causing it because it’s behind a  shadow. You can hold a penlight between your teeth as you reach into  the back of your amp to fix a broken speaker lead.

 

 

PENCIL AND PAPER

And finally, in a totally non-electronic direction...let's not forget the mundane. You can take notes, dash out substitute chord changes, and even pass notes to the other session musicians where conversation is discouraged or impractical (see Fig. 21). Write your cheat notes on a separate piece of paper, not on the chart, so that you can take your scrawlings with you, and no one will ever see “Hit the E chord when the big fat trumpet player gets ready for his entrance.”

Pencil\\\_Paper.jpg

 Fig. 21: Sometimes plain old pencil and paper will be the life-saving "gadget" that saves the day .

 

 

!!!!Jon+Chappell\\\_HCBio\\\_101x101.jpgJon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).

 

!!!!Phil\\\_OKeefe+HC+Bio+Image.jpgPhil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.

 

CraigGuitarVertical.jpg

Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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PINKUSFLOYDUS  |  September 10, 2014 at 11:30 pm

First and foremost, the guitar has to be in tune,

It also has to have had it's harmonics set up.

Don't waste money on any old tuner... get a Peterson VS-1 virtual strobe tuner... I got one on Ebay for $80.00.

I had the original Strobe Tuner and this one is better.

You can set up harmonics and do VERY accurate tuning with it. 

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HIGHSTRUNG  |  September 10, 2014 at 11:17 pm

Great I'm going to let my 17 year old son read this cause every Gig he's got I alway get called back stage and have to make a run back home.

Check him out 

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jczbluze  |  September 10, 2014 at 11:17 pm

In re: to TUNERS,

Almost every one of my students, after a year or so, gets to a point where they're convinced they NEED a new ax!  However, I only take students who have, or will purchase either a VERY GOOD 'Beginner' guitar, or a decent Intermediate Grade ax (it's too hard to get them to practice if the guitar isn't a legitimate instrument!)  The problem is, as one proceeds from  rank BEGINNER to a legitimate INTERMEDIATE guitarist, our ears get MUCH better.  With training, the human ear is capable of outperforming lower level tuners.  So when students begin to say their guitar 'won't hold tune', or, 'won't tune up at all' and the ax checks out for the obvious trouble spots; it's not necessarily time for a new ax, it's likely time for a new TUNER as it's likely your ears have progressed beyond the abilities of your tuner!  

Tuners like the SNARK are great; small, reliable and fairly inexpensive.  However, they are only accurate to between 1-2 cents.  Our ears are more capable than that & it's possible you're hearing dissonance your tuner is NOT.  So, before you drop a Grand on a new guitar; or give your friendly luthier $200, $300 or more; try a PETERSON STROBO CLIP.  

They're not cheap. On SALE, you'll pay about $70 and they're not as simple to use as a SNARK, BUT they're accurate to within 1/10 cent!  I've seen some very happy students (and ECSTATIC parents of younger students) when I show them little Eric or Jimi's guitar will hold them a couple MORE years, IF they'll spring for a tuner!  Besides that, there is a genuine JOY to hearing a well tuned guitar and your student - or YOU - will find a joy you've probably missed since the ax was new!

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