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You’re in a pawn shop when you see a vintage guitar missing its high E string, and, inspired by stories of Delta bluesmen past, you snatch it up.
But how do you deal with chords or riffs when you’re a string short? In short, can you play a guitar with one string missing?
You absolutely can play a guitar with one string missing, or even more. If you need to do more than get through the end of a single song, though, you should look at alternate tunings to unlock the possibilities of a five string guitar.
Let’s look at why you would want to play with a missing string, how to make the most of the five strings you have left, and some players who have made missing strings a trademark.
How To Play A Guitar With A Missing String
How you approach a guitar that’s missing a string will depend a lot on the situation you’re in and the reason for a missing string. Let’s go over a few possibilities.
How To Deal With A String That Breaks Mid Song
It’s a moment that some guitarists wake up from in a cold sweat when they dream about it — you’re on stage and you move your pick to hit a string and instead of the sweet tone you expect, there is a pop and a twanging noise. A broken string mid performance is a nightmare for sure.
But it happens, even to someone like blues legend B.B. King. In the video below, he restrings Lucille, his iconic guitar, while still singing, getting a string on before the end of the song.
Not very many people could do that, so what should you do when you break a string mid-song? If you have another guitar on stage with you, it’s probably smarter to switch rather than keep playing, but that isn’t always an option.
If the broken string is either your high or low E string, you can probably keep going, as you have the same note an octave away in the other E string.
If it’s another string, you’ll have to make a decision based on how comfortable you’d be playing different chord voicings, the size of your band — if it’s a guitarist, bassist and drummer, your missing note might be more likely to stand out, compared to a much larger group — and the key of the song, among others.
The goal, if you decide to keep going, it to get the basic outline of the song right so you can stop and change the string.
How To Deal With A Guitar With One String Missing
Let’s go back to the hypothetical vintage guitar behind a pawnshop counter with a missing string — what would the best course of action be?
A lot of that depends on which string is missing and why the string is missing in the first place.
As with when a string breaks mid-song, it’s much easier to deal with a guitar that is missing its high E or low E strings, because you can just shift one finger around to deal with the missing string.
If one of the other strings is missing, playing it might be more of a challenge, though it might not be, depending on your level of experience. In particular, finger picking would be harder with any missing strings, but especially one of the middle four strings gone.
Whenever you bring home a used guitar, your first move should be cleaning it and then installing new strings. If the guitar came with five strings, look at why that might be.
Did a string break, or is there something wrong with the tuner, nut, saddle, bridge or tailpiece that won’t allow for a string to be installed? If it’s the first case, you should start by installing a new string.
If it breaks again, look at where it broke and why. Check the tuner peg, the nut, the saddle, the bridge and the tailpiece for any sharp areas or potential causes of the breakage.
If there’s an issue with how the string attaches or is held in place, look at what that is. Is there a missing tuner?
Is a nut slot broken? Are you missing a bridge pin or a string saddle?
Some of those problems are easy to fix, while some require more expertise. If you can replace a part, you might be able to use the string.
Maybe you can’t find a replacement part, though, but you still love the instrument. What can you do then?
Can You Learn Guitar With A String Missing?
Depending on the string that’s missing and your technique, it’s not very hard to learn to play a guitar with a missing string. But before we explore how, let’s look at why — and why not — to learn to play a five string guitar.
There are a ton of stories about famous players, especially African American blues musicians in the American South, learning on a homemade instrument, or making their own strings, or even, yes, learning to play on a guitar with fewer than six strings.
But this wasn’t because they wanted to do those things. It was because they had little other choice.
The time period in question, from the late 1800s to about the beginning of World War II, many African Americans in the South faced dire poverty. In nearly every story, whether true or embellished, about a blues musician who learned to play guitar in some non-standard way, their poverty was key to why they learned how they did.
So in the case of a guitar with five strings, that might mean not being able to afford a replacement string, let alone a whole new set of strings. With very few exceptions, if you’re reading this, that isn’t your situation. Today, guitar strings are cheap and plentiful, and come in a wide variety of sizes.
So if it’s just a missing string, it makes a lot more sense to buy a replacement than learn to play without one. But if there’s a problem that’s preventing you from installing a sixth string, or you just can’t resist the vibe, there are ways to learn to play in a new way.
How To Play A Guitar With A Missing String
First, decide whether you’re going to do without the high E or low E string and, if possible, switch parts around so you have the string setup you want.
Then, consider whether an alternate tuning is the right way to go. Alternate tunings shift the notes of various strings to create new sound combinations.
Among the most popular alternate tunings are known as open tunings, because when the open strings are played they sound the notes of a chord.
One big advantage of open tunings is they allow you to create a single finger barre chord, making rhythm playing very simple. The sound that finger picking or lead playing can vary from a chimelike tone to a drone, depending on the tuning and how you play.
An advantage specific to a guitar with a missing string should be pretty obvious — you have more options about which string might be gone, and alternate chord voicings aren’t necessary. When you barre the fretboard you can move up the scale in half tones, regardless of the order.
Why Do Guitarists Play Guitars With A String Missing?
In addition to those semi-mythical stories about blues musicians who learned on guitars with fewer than six strings, plenty of actual players have used a five string guitar.
One of the most famous players to do so is the guitarist for the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards.
Richards was growing bored with guitar as the Stones became more and more famous and successful. After playing with blues and roots icon Ry Cooder, he discovered open tunings, particularly Open G.
After trying with the regular Open G tuning of D G D G B D, Richards found the low D string too bassy and so removed it. With G as the lowest note, he created a new sound, heard most clearly on songs like “Start Me Up.”
The fusion of blues and rock with a healthy dose of melodic pop, helped to make Richards one of the most well known and imitated guitarists of his generation.
In this video, he explains his guitar technique.
How To Use Open Tunings On A Guitar Missing A String
Richards’ idea of removing the lowest string has created a distinctive sound that’s still recognizable today. Part of the reason for that is the lowest string is now the root of the chord, compared to a standard Open G tuning.
That gives the bass line of a song more impact and presence.
You could try the same trick with Open A tuning, which normally runs E A C# E A E. By getting rid of the low E string you make the root of the chord the lowest note, giving your tuning a more grounded and melodic tone.
On tunings like Open D, D A D F# A D, removing the lowest string would have the opposite effect, because it would make the open chord an inversion, the name for a chord where the root note is not the lowest note sounded, while removing the highest string would likely mean less chime and more drone, but would be much more grounded feeling.
The tuning sometimes referred to as “DADGAD,” and also called D Modal tuning, is a take on Open D that many guitar players used to standard tuning like because of its similarity — it’s almost like a cross between standard tuning, Open D and Open G.
Removing the lowest string would have a similar effect to what happens to Open D, but less dramatic because the notes don’t exactly form a D chord.
What you play and the setting you play it in will have an impact on the tuning you choose, and even whether you can realistically use a guitar with a missing string for your performance.
After all, not having the full range of pitches available will limit what you can do. Some people won’t mind, but a metal soloist or classical player would have a hard time doing what they’re used to, for example.
Whether you’re putting a pawn shop special into action or trying to recover from a broken string, keep things like that in mind, as well, when deciding whether to use a guitar with a missing string
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.