14 of the worst onstage disasters for guitarists

It doesn't get much worse than this
It doesn't get much worse than this (Image credit: Brian David Stevens/Corbis)

Getting up on a stage in front of actual, living humans isn't easy. But it's a whole lot harder when things go wrong. And they will go wrong, friends. So very wrong.

Whether you've played one gig or a thousand, you'll have encountered a plethora of panic-inducing onstage nightmares. Perhaps it's the universe's way of keeping guitarists' feet on the ground. Maybe it's the inevitable result of mixing slabs of wood and wire, electricity, and beer.

Whatever the reason, we at MusicRadar don't like to leave our readers unprepared. So here, in all their gut-loosening glory, are a handful of the worst things that can happen to a guitarist on stage. Wince and be ready - it could happen to you…

1. Brain freeze

The gig is going well. So well, in fact, that you've earned yourself an encore and/or guitar solo spot. Congratulations! But you've only rehearsed 10 songs, forgotten any and all scales, and your brain doesn't seem to be able to conjure any more. It's the stuff anxiety dreams are made of.

Anyone who has ever been stood on stage like a lemon, hoping beyond hope they'll remember something, anything, and knowing deep in their heart that nothing is ever going to come, knows that musical brain freeze is a real and debilitating problem. Don't let it happen to you. Learn more songs, and in the case of guitar solos, learn more licks. Don't end up like poor Nick Jonas here.

2. String break

There's nothing quite like the adrenalin surge that comes when a string breaks halfway through a song. And you'll need that sweet shot of adrenalin if you're going to navigate your way around the problem. You'll have to improvise a new solo, figure out different chord phrasings, and somehow stop yourself from simply breaking down mid-song and sobbing.

Unless of course you are Stevie Ray Vaughan, in which case you'll give your roadie the nod and carry on as if nothing has happened. Now that's how to stay calm under fire.

3. The demon drink

Every band has a wildcard. For some, being a musician is little more than an excuse to get out of their noggin three to five nights of any given week. And it's these poor, lost souls that are the biggest liability come stage time. Will they remember their parts? Will their interpretive dance take on a violent new edge? Will they turn up at all? All are valid concerns when dealing with the wildcard. Prepare for all eventualities, like a boy scout or a marine. Oh, and if you don't know who your band's wildcard is? It's you. Please stop.

4. Dodgy drummer

The best drummers are a dream. They play to the song, add a musicality to the band that didn't exist before them, and drive the whole thing along with fluidity and confidence. A band is only as good as its drummer, as the old saying goes.

All of which means that if you're saddled with a bad one, life is about to get interesting, son. Erratic timing, unscheduled time signature changes midway through songs, unwarranted and unnecessary drum solos, the dreaded 'rock outro' - these are only a few of the pitfalls you'll have to avoid with the dodgy drummer.

5. Faulty cable diagnosis

If you're saddled with a bad drummer, life is about to get interesting, son

We've all been there: you're playing an absolute blinder, until that middle 8 in song three when your guitar sound goes from full-fat tonal nirvana to a trickle of signal. Your mind races as you desperately attempt to diagnose the problem before your set's out: could it be your guitar lead, speaker cable, effects loop? Or - horror of horrors - a faulty patch cable on your fully loaded pedalboard?

Cue frantic tugging, twisting and general attacking of the wires connecting your 10-strong stompbox arsenal as you try to figure out which of your £2-a-piece six-inchers is the culprit. Save yourself the stress and invest in a decent set for the next gig, yeah?

6. Inciting a riot

Jim Morrison did it. Guns N' Roses did it. And you, given the right circumstances and the wrong phrasing, can do it, too.

Crowds are not people. People can be reasoned with, talked down. Crowds are multi-cellular organisms with no brain and a vast well of untapped rage waiting to rip down lighting rigs. We've seen everything from short sets to ill-advised political rants lead to stages being rushed and amps being smashed. So be warned: keep the crowd sweet or it may very well eat you alive.

7. Power cut

What's an electric guitar without electricity? Quiet, that's what. Remove the power from an electric warrior and you're left with a man in tight trousers wearing a very expensive necklace.

Whether it's a tripped fuse or an early sign that the zombie apocalypse has finally arrived, a power cut is a sure-fire way to ruin any guitarist's evening. Unless you're a waistcoat-clad folky, of course, in which case strum away into the night, safe in the knowledge that you don't need none of that 'lectric to have a good time. Unless it really is zombies. They you're just as buggered as the rest of us.

8. Volume Wars

You've gone through a painstaking soundcheck. You're happy with levels. Monitor mixes are perfect. You are ready to blow the balls off the crowd with your rock cannon. And then, halfway through the first number, convinced that he can't hear himself and oblivious to the fact that he's going to give the soundman a heart attack, the bass player turns up. Ego overrides all critical faculties and you follow suit. Pretty soon you're all playing like it's the mid-'60s and PA technology hasn't been invented yet. Tinnitus awaits, you proud, fickle fool.

9. Pick drop

Pretty soon you're all playing like it's the mid-'60s and PA technology hasn't been invented yet

Picture the scene: you've patiently waited two full minutes for your solo to arrive. It's your moment of triumph, your favourite part of the set, the one opportunity you have to shred the living shit out of your thunderous rock machine - and then, disaster.

Through some combination of bad luck, sweaty fingers and inattention, your plectrum slips out of your fingers and pings off into the darkness, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. You are not prepared for this. You are doomed. Maybe next time you'll remember to tape a few spare plecs to the mic stand, eh?

10. Fistfight

Most bands are powder kegs packed with ego, insecurity, and anxiety. The most dysfunctional outfits can throw substance abuse, licentiousness and full-tilt insanity into the mix. It's a potent brew. And in the pressure-cooker situation of a live gig, anything can cause it to boil over into violence - a look, a shove, an ill-advised comment.

The result is always mayhem: fists flying, Telecasters brandished like cudgels, leads used as whips, you name it. We've seen many a band break down into fisticuffs halfway through a set, and it is never pretty. Hilarious, sure, but not pretty.

11. Amp explosion

A fizz, a bang, the tang of smoke on the air and that's the end of your beloved amplifier. This one doesn't tend to happen so much these days, thanks to manufacturers being pretty hot on making sure their products don't explode, but that doesn't mean the problem has been completely eliminated.

Battered old amps from the time before safety standards are still a live threat. Take the advice of those who have seen the sparks fly from the back of a poorly maintained piece of musical heritage from the mid-'70s: keep your electronics in check. Your actual life may depend on it.

12. The Heckler

It's almost as if prancing about in the dark, half-pissed, while attached to a cable that might have been custom-designed to trip human feet, isn't particularly safe

He's been standing in front of you all night, jeering at you between songs, pointing out your mistakes and telling you in no uncertain terms that you suck. His seventh pint is rested on his ample belly. His piggy little eyes dare you to say something. What do you do?

It's a quandary bar-room guitarists have faced for decades, and there are no easy answers. Ignore him? He'll get louder. Argue with him? THAT'S WHAT HE WANTS. Garrotte him with a top E? Prison and a place in forensic history await. Sometimes all you can do is turn round, turn up and hope there's a huge queue at the bar when he inevitably goes for that eighth pint.

13. Enter Sound Man

Perhaps when you arrived for soundcheck the fabled wizard of the mixing desk was nowhere to be seen, like Gandalf after fighting the Balrog. Maybe you committed the most heinous of crimes and didn't turn up for soundcheck, or accidentally insulted the sound guy - they're a notoriously prickly species, after all.

Whatever you did - and it's always you - he's not playing ball come showtime. He's tuned your monitor in to Radio 4, your mic is dead, and the crowd look baffled and in pain. Learn your lesson, and learn it well: the soundman must be treated like a minor royal at all times. Anger him and ye shall pay the price...

14. Physical injury

As Elvis Costello once sang, accidents will happen, and they seem to occur with alarming frequency to guitarists. It's almost as if prancing about in the dark, half-pissed, while attached to a cable that might have been custom-designed to trip human feet, isn't particularly safe. And that's before you throw in stage-diving accidents, getting stuck in stage props or simply falling from a great height.

There's a bonus to onstage calamities though: if you soldier on and finish the gig (see: Dave 'oh shit, I broke my leg' Grohl), you'll become a bona fide legend in your own underpants.

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