These days we see a bunch of 7 and 8 string guitars next to the Ol’ Faithful 6 string on the shop walls. What is with these crazy things, anyway? Why do we need one or two more strings? Are those extra strings really gonna be used? This article will unravel this battle, which seems to go against tradition in the effort to provide an extended range, giving bass players fits and providing low-end chunk for a new generation of guitarists.
Six strings? Is that all you have?
This is the guitar most people started with, were influenced by, and began several styles of music on. The 6 string took over from the 4 and 5-string banjo in dance bands, and once it was amplified we copied off trumpet and sax players and started soloing. They’re still so popular because it has an easy learning curve at the beginning, yet can get insanely difficult as we progress. Almost every guitarist in the world owns at least one 6 string, and every accessory, amp, and pedal was made for one. Stores, until recently, carried exclusively 6 and 12-string guitars, and they will likely remain the world standard for years to come.
If 6 strings don’t go low enough, you tune them lower. Use bigger stings. More gain. Six strings were good enough for Eric, Eddie, Jimi, Tony, and Ritchie. They fit our hands, and we can play barre chords up and down the neck. Those vintage Fenders and ’59 Bursts? Six strings. Songs as diverse as Stairway to Heaven and Far Beyond the Sun were done on 6 strings. Blackie and the EVH Frankenstein? Yup, 6 strings, sucker. The 6 string has tradition and a history of rockitude on its side. And after over 100 years of being around in its modern form, people are still writing new songs on it, and coming up with new ways to play. And why stop at 8? Why not 27 or 145? Congratulations, you just invented the keytar!
Yeah, that’s nice and all, but I want more strings…
Extending the range of the guitar has been around for a long time. In a past article about chord substitution, I mentioned the great 7-string guitarist George Van Eps, who was rocking the 7-string in his own way (with added low A string) back in the 1930s. He used it for counterpoint basslines for his chord melody playing, and John & Bucky Pizzarelli has kept that side of playing alive in jazz. For complex chord-melody playing, adding more strings could mean the difference between splitting your gig money with a bass player or keeping it all yourself.
Umm, ok, I don’t know who those guys are. How about some rock?
Okay, okay. Steve Vai is widely credited for the resurgence of the extended range guitar in modern rock. He may have not been the first (cough cough, Maestro Alex Gregory’s Fender Stratocaster 7 strings with Seymour Duncan custom single coils), but he did have the first widely available 7 string, and from his experiments with that low B string, we get many of today’s modern players.
Extended range players are doing more than just playing low tuned power chords on their additional strings. Many are tapping contrapuntal lines, playing 7 and 8-string arpeggios, complex extended chords, and have come up with a new vocabulary and style for solo and ensemble playing.
By adding a low B, a 7 string guitarist is already familiar where the notes are, and it doesn’t require tuning down to play conventionally downtuned songs. It provides bass notes that are in no way available on the lowly 6 string, and if you played a 7 for awhile and went back to a 6, it feels very strange – like playing on a broom stick.
The 8 string conventionally adds a low F#, although there are other tunings. The low F# keeps a 4ths tuning on those low strings, allowing for easier chords, and more natural flow of scales across the fretboard. Most 8-and-more stringers use a longer scale length (or string length, as explained in Orpheo’s great blog) for those low strings to sound their best. Fanned frets help this, and keep the small strings at a conventional length. Currently, 8 strings are more popular with the metal crowd, who get some amazing tones out of them.
So, the cons of each?
For a 6 string, the biggest con is trying to break out of what’s been done before. This requires us to learn what has been done before, and consciously not repeat it. This is especially difficult because what has been done before takes more than a lifetime to learn. I have to admit, when I pick up a guitar it’s kinda hard not to go back to those stock licks and patterns all the time. While this might work for some people, as I search for new sounds, all of that history sometimes gets in the way.
For those extended range instruments, the biggest downside is that amps and accessories haven’t caught up to the guitars. Conventional amps sometimes have problems with extreme low notes in the bass guitar range. Try finding a capo or a slide for an 8 string. Try finding an 8 string acoustic guitar. Strings are a problem, as there are not really standardized sizes yet, and many find it easier to cobble together a few different string sets. Tapping might be easier on an instrument that is designed for it (and with a bigger range) like a Chapman Stick. Necks get increasingly wider, and it gets more difficult to play chords on such a wide neck.
The good news is that pickups are pretty easy to find for 7, 8 and more string guitars. Seymour Duncan makes their Blackouts available in a variety of different housings, and their Custom Shop can make any of their 6 string models into a 7 or 8 string pickup, using any housing you want. There are also quite a few standard-production 7 and 8-string pickups, like the Sentient, Pegasus, Nazgul, Invader and Distortion.
Where I Stand
On one hand, I remain steadfastly devoted to the 6 string. It is what I started on, and it is what I am most comfortable with. I tend to extend my range with pitch transposers and guitar synth, which work for the music I write. However, I am all for someone using any means necessary to extend their creativity. I don’t care how many strings someone uses, or what style of music. It is what they say with it- good music transcends the equipment made to use it, and if someone with 11 strings is playing an ultra modern take on the blues, or using that 8 string to create a type of music I never imagined, I will be right in the front row, cheering loudly. I probably won’t even notice how many strings are on the guitar until at least the third song, too.
So how many strings do you prefer? Who are your favorite 7 or 8-string guitarists?