A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is playing the electric guitar dangerous?

June 26, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

How dangerous is it to play an electric guitar? I heard there was an English guy (Les Harvey) that got electrocuted in front of the audience while performing years ago. Was this a freak accident or are guitarists getting zapped left and right and we just don't hear about it?

Leslie Harvey of the Scottish band Stone the Crows in fact was electrocuted on stage in a Swansea, Wales club on May 3rd, 1972, but not by a guitar. The culprit was a microphone that wasn't grounded (in contrast to the unfortunate Les Harvey, who was). The mike had been plugged into what presumably was an improperly wired amplifier providing an energized connection to the mike cable shielding. While probably the most spectacular and widely publicized case of musically-related electrocution, this isn't the only one. Guitarist John Rostill of The Shadows was electrocuted in 1973 while playing his bass guitar in his basement studio, and former Yardbird Keith Relf reportedly bought it while plugging in his electric guitar in 1976.

Despite these incidents, electric guitars and microphones aren't particularly dangerous provided you take a few precautions. First and foremost, never defeat the safety ground. For instance, in the U.S., that third prong on your amplifier's power plug may be inconvenient when you've only got a two-prong outlet to plug it into, but it's there for a reason, and breaking or cutting it off to make it fit is a Bad Thing. If necessary, install a three-prong to two-prong adapter, which means removing the screw in the center of the outlet wall plate, plugging in the adapter, and replacing the screw, having first passed it through the green grounding tab on the adapter.  If a live wire should accidentally come into contact with the grounded amplifier chassis, the current will be conducted safely to ground though the ground wire (probably causing a fuse to blow or a circuit breaker to trip), rather than through you. Next, check your electrical cords periodically for wear and tear, especially fraying or exposed wires, and replace damaged cords before using the equipment.

Another important safety feature found on much equipment these days is the polarized plug. This is a two-bladed plug with one blade wider than the other so that it will only fit into the outlet one way. The purpose of this type of plug is to keep the "hot" side of the AC supply as far from the user as possible. For example, in a lamp with a properly-wired polarized plug, the hot wire connects to the small brass button at the bottom of the bulb socket, while the safe neutral wire connects to the silver threaded part. If you touch the latter while changing a bulb, you won't be electrocuted. Don't defeat this either. A polarized plug won't fit into an older, non-polarized outlet, so the outlet will need to be changed. The cost of having an electrician do the work correctly is far outweighed by not ending up as a smoked sausage while practicing your latest Grammy contender. Rock on!

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