Strings: A Ritual of Patience

Fellow Musicians, friends, family, and future inhabitants of earth. The following story is true. The names have not been changed to protect anyone. If you find anything familiar in this, it is certainly not a coincidence. Read at your own risk:

Strings: A Ritual of Patience

This composition is based loosely on personal experience and loathing over the act of putting a new set of strings on my guitar. Something I would fret over for days, even weeks, prior to accomplishing. And in the end, the clock starts ticking once more. A working knowledge of how to put strings on a guitar actually may make reading this slightly more understandable, but, then again, maybe not. To a non-guitarist, I would say the angst of the whole affair, for me, is roughly equivalent to a dry rectal exam.

Beyond compare, changing strings on my various guitars over the past 45 years has become, without a doubt, more of a Ritual than a task. It is a frustrating, agonizing, time consuming endeavor designed to keep me secretly desiring to become a couch monitor, or a crane operator.

Consider the latest recommendation data (when to change strings based on hours per week played) printed on the back of a new pack I used today. By these standards, I have fallen considerably short of compliance. So where is the Ritual in that? Well, let me tell you where it’s at.

Remarkably, when you take into account that possibly all of my personal musician friends, and acquaintances, have each played more gigs this year alone than I have in my entire life, one would think that my compliance in this area would be both logistically effortless, and economically prudent. Well, it isn’t.

When I started to play guitar in 1973, my very 1st guitar had no strings at all on it. So quite easily, I was averaging 100% compliance at that point. Shortly after a friend strung up the first set of strings for me, the guitar changed owners. But, not willingly, it was stolen.

It had been left unattended in the trunk of a car along Route 40 West, just outside of Gallup, New Mexico. (How it got there is a much longer and entirely different story, for a later time perhaps, after a thorough review of applicable statute laws. And, don’t even ask me about my Les Paul Black Beauty. Not the one in the summer of 1992, I had to sell to a pawn shop, while living in my car in Phoenix, in order to finish nursing school. Not that one. I am referring to another one, the 25th Anniversary one, “The one that got away!” The one that, after I had put money down, it seemed to just “walk” out of a music store in 1977!)

Sorry, back to 1973 in Gallup. The car then became, after 24 hours, “property of the Tribe.” Or so I was told by the local state policemen at the station when I went in to report the loss. The car, nor the fact that all of my earthly belongings at that time were also in the trunk, and thereby stolen too, wasn’t all that important to me. “My guitar was in there!” I said. That was my 1st guitar! Perhaps, this was the beginning of the Ritual for me.
Over the years since, the act of the “string change” has taken on enormous meaning, in part, because of who eventually strung my first guitar. He was killed in an accident. I found out that morning, on my birthday, not long afterwards. He was my friend. And slowly the process developed.

Since then, I have watched my friends, some who work in music shops, or have amassed phenomenal Luthier skills professionally and privately, throw a set of strings on a guitar while having 3 different conversations at once, and they do it with the same ease as I would lace up my own sneakers.

Don’t get me wrong, I once changed my 1st string during a song (Train kept a Rollin), and had it strung up and tuned in between lead solo’s. But that was likely a chemically enhanced moment of high octane adrenaline, that will never happen again. Like when I played Radar Love with Mic Rock and the Cows in 82’, while my right arm was in a cast. But I did discover how to get a really cool whirly sound in the chorus part by rubbing my cast across the strings in a circular motion. Just another one of those, “Moments of Madness” I suppose.

First, I do not have, nor desire to use, special automatic gizmos that help wind the strings up. I would likely sever a finger. I am accident prone. My nickname at work in the steel mill was “Jinx”. Not a very flattering moniker.

Instead, after feeding the hypodermic needle-like end of the new string through the camel’s eye, (the tuning post on the head stock) I clutch the string in both hands and slowly maintain tension as I loop it back over itself while simultaneously turning the tuner peg bit by bit. (It looks even worse than it sounds) Taking great care to not wrap it up backwards, (yes, it has happened), and to ensure slight upward pressure as it comes around to the initial insertion point, where the string originally starts its bend. Once I get a full revolution, I will at times, use the little spinnie thing to wind the string up faster. However, I still go slow enough to ensure each following loop will coil up below the last, to prevent slipping. Also, the string wants to cross over and/or under the other strings and often drop into the wrong bridge or nut slots, very annoying. (Nut Slot), there is another story in there somewhere I think.

Not surprisingly, a thousand times, if not more, I have impaled one or more of my fingers on the brutal end of that skinny pointed monster. But don’t be too harsh to judge. That can, and has happened, at any point throughout the Ritual. In fact, it happened once “During” a show, in the middle of a lead solo (Crazy train). How?

Earlier that day, tapping into my vast, not so wizardly guitar maintenance skills back in the 80’s, I chose to stop the Top string (6th one, the Fattest) from buzzing, by cutting the end off of a G string. (G string? not what you imagine, I don’t wear them, I pluck them) I then tried slipping it under the fussy little bastard up at the nut. (oddly pornographic lingo, is it not?) It worked like a charm. No buzz! But, in the intro of my solo that night, I rapidly slid my pick and hands down the neck to attain the proper sound and momentum for the solo. As I did, my left had middle finger caught the tip of the “fixer G string” and welcomed it to inoculate itself through my finger, right into the fleshy palm side above the first knuckle and hit the inside of the back of my nail about midway to the tip. It literally felt like lightning struck me! I finished the solo somehow, without my middle finger, which I frantically kept trying to ensure was still attached, and yelled for Jim (the light man) to turn to spot light on after the song. Lucky for me, it was the last song of the 2nd set. Once the light was on I saw the end sticking out of my finger. Turning my hand over, I could see the other end of the string, like a black dot, through my fingernail. I then used Ed’s (the drummer) pliers to pull on the exposed string end. Slow and steady, until it pulled all the way out. I believe Floyd (the sound guy) may have passed out here, or at least uttered some sort of guttural moan as the length was slowly revealed. I soaked it in a double shot of JD (drink of choice at the time) during the break. I then drank the shot and finished the night. Anyhow, back to changing my strings.

Secondly, I have frequently prolonged the times between the Ritual, for financial reasons mostly. But eventually, I submit myself for sacrifice, yield to facing yet another danger during the process. This is the risk of partial blindness, losing an eye, or suffering excruciating agony similar to getting stung by a bee. Only in this case it is more of “Strung” by a prick. Mainly, from the wandering bounce of wayward string ends. Occasionally one is destined to smack me in the face, and close calls to the actual eyeball occur way more frequently than I will admit. Controlling one of those skinny bitches, whipping open from their stir crazed coiled restraint, is like trying a one handed grab on a dropped fire hose with the hydrant wide open. It has never been easy for me.

Next, once all 6, (or 4 or 7 or 12) strings are attached, it is time for the stretching step, (String Yoga) of setting the strings, or “breaking them in”. And “breaking”, is not all that far off from the reality. Though I do believe a broken string is a sort of guitarists, Right of Passage, but I seriously doubt many people who play guitar will resort to wearing Doubleneck hats, and invite all their Geetar slinging buddies to join them in a G string wearing “String Break” beach frenzy. I can see them now, stumbling in perfect harmony, while chanting the lyrics to a revised Zeppelin version of ”The Thong Remains the Same”. But, ya never know right?

Never-the-less, the time has now come for the pinched faced, masochistic grimacing, while slowly bringing each string, up to pitch. Other, more professional folks I have observed, change all the strings at once. They first remove all of the old ones, and then add all the new ones. I am pretty sure this is quite faster and likely one of the best ways, unless you have a Floating Bridge. Which, I dare not discuss here. Mostly, out of fear of the Spring Tension Gods, who will most assuredly curse my Schecter, Banshee. Forever!

How many times have I ducked down, then, cautiously dared to watch, as each string sings higher and higher, in its quest for the perfect 440 vibration! I am certain that the ratio of break-per-string change is income based. When I have extra string o’ plenty, not one will snap. Whenever the funds appear lighter than usual, or if I forget to throw an extra set into my gig bag before a show, one will break, every single time.

Finally, the set is strung. The pitch is perfect and the cats are all settling down. They are quite tired after their frenzied attack directed at every step of the way, biting and pawing, jumping and grabbing at each noise and anything the swings even slightly below table height. I wonder if they knew the origin of strings, would they be as playfully oblivious while playing with Cousin Fritz’s entrails. Likely so, I know they will eat a bird whole.

My birds in fact! Those precious little morsels as they were. The little bastards managed to jimmy the bedroom door open and had a “Kitties Day Out” adventure. All that remained of the two little Budgies, were scattered groupings of feathers, some green, some blue. I suppose they each finally succumbed to fatigue, thereby signifying the end of the chase. I found a perfectly intact head under the dining room table. It was years before I could appreciate the irony of it all. I didn’t blame the cats really. It was likely the most fun they’d had in years. I was hesitant to mix species again, that is certain. I only wanted them to be able to fly around in the bedroom, so they had a little more freedom. Better quality of life. I never did get around to fixing that door. Truthfully, it is possible cats were never used as a source of guitar strings. That designation fell upon sheep, cows, horses etc., kitties were safe, but for now, back to the guitar.

Afterwards, when the tiny clipped ends are safely disposed of, Deviation Alert # 9… # 9… # 9… # 9… time for the last injection of insanity? Once, in the cold darkness of the early 80’s, a nagging limp annoyed itself to my attention. I lifted up my right foot one day while in the shower, and there, sunk peacefully into the cavernous crack of my badly split calloused foot, was a tiny 2 inch length of a 1st string. {at the time I used 8’s, so, very small diameter} It even had the little brass ball still attached! {If I had saved every one of those brass ends since 1973 I would have a lot of balls by now} Apparently, I had stepped on a dropped string end at one point during or after a “Ritual” string change. Miraculously, [or not] it lined up perfectly with the split of my callous. Gradually, my weight pushed the hooked end deeper into my foot, eventually breaking the skin and causing the “limp” of discovery. By the time I found it, it was well on its way to a serious infection. I pulled the string out, dumped Peroxide on it, and off I went.)

So, where was I? Oh, back to the beginning of the ending. After I clean up all the little ends of the strings and recoil the old ones up, I mark a section of the new pack with the Ritual date, and store it in the respective guitar case for future reference. Then we, (the cats and I), each retire to our respective corners, where we silently grieve and patiently await, yet another, changing of the Strings: A Ritual of Patience. ~ James M Desiderati 10-10-2018

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