Are 7 Strings Better Than 6?

Dean Rusty Cooley Usa 7-String Xenocide Electric Guitar Graphic

Dean Rusty Cooley Usa 7-String Xenocide Electric Guitar Graphic

Guitar Player, October '98

Ever since the guitar evolved into its present form two centuries ago, it has had six strings. Not five, not eight -- six. Six is a nice, round number, just right for many of the symmetrical quirks of the guitar, such as the instrument's three bass/three treble string arrangement and three-tuners-per-side headstock. The symmetry is further emphasized by the fact that, on a standard 6-string, the guitar's two outside strings are usually tuned to the same pitch (two octaves apart), acting as musical bookends.

So, everyone's happy, right? Apparently not. For almost as long as the guitar has been in existence, adventurous players and composers have been endeavoring to extend the range of the instrument by tweaking its tuning -- often slacking the guitar's low E down to D or C, and sometimes even as low as B or A. Extended tunings offer players new possibilities, such as lower bass lines, wider-voiced chords, and farther-reaching melodic leaps.

That still wasn't enough to float everybody's boat. So someone -- lots of folks, actually -- had the bright idea to add another string to the seemingly perfect guitar. But why? What is gained by adding a seventh string? Is anything lost? And why do most players who play 7-string guitars augment the traditional 6-string scheme by adding an extra low string and not a high string? To get the lowdown, so to speak, we questioned three very different 7-string players -- rock god Steve Vai, Brian "Head" Welch of the band Korn, and jazz guitarist Howard Alden -- on just what makes seven strings better than six.

Steve Vai

"There was a period about 10 years ago," says Steve Vai, "when I was studying metaphysics and numerology, and I got very interested in the number 7. I'm not sure if that was the main impetus behind putting a seventh string on my guitar, but it definitely had some influence. I was also considering what I could do with the guitar to give it a different dimension without making it too inaccessible." Vai's epiphany was to develop a 7-string guitar based on the JEM guitar he helped design for Ibanez. Vai went to Ibanez with his 7-string concept, and they embraced it immediately.

Whether Vai's muse was mystical or pragmatic, it's no stretch to say that he was responsible for putting the 7-string guitar on the map -- at least in the rock realm. "I wasn't the first guy," he demurs. "In the jazz world, there was George Van Eps and Lenny Breau, and Uli Jon Roth had a 7-string before me. But I didn't know about their guitars when I got the idea for mine."

Vai's original concept was that the additional string could be either a high string or a low string. But he never found a gauge that would work for a high string. "Every time I tried to tune a string up to high A," he says, "the string would break. Ultimately, I settled on using a low seventh string." Vai favors a fairly typical 7-string tuning, extending the guitar's standard 6-string tuning down one more fourth to a low B. (That's B, E, A, D, G, B, E, low to high.) Vai uses a .052 for his low B, and strings the rest of his guitar either .009-.042 or .010-.046, depending on how much playing he's doing. "When I'm in the studio producing, recording, and doing all sorts of different things, I use .009s to show my fingers some mercy. When I'm gigging a lot, I'll use the .010s."

Vai got his first 7-string, a prototype, while he was working with Whitesnake, and played that guitar on most of Whitesnake's 1989 album, Slip of the Tongue. He suggested a few subtle changes -- the original neck was a little too chunky, for example -- and the prototype was soon honed into the Ibanez Universe 7-string.

Although Vai's transition to 7-string was fairly easy -- after all, he's a monster player who happens to have unusually long fingers -- he maintains that anyone can figure out the additional string. "It feels very natural," he says. "It doesn't feel like you're playing a regular guitar with an extra string. It feels like a 7-string guitar. After a few hours of playing the 7-string, your fingers develop a mind of their own around it. It's not as complex as you might think.

"And there's a lot more to work with when you have that seventh string. You can do things that you simply cannot do on a conventional guitar. If you're a jazz player, for example, you can play walking bass lines, chord structures, and melodies all in one pop. It's great for a jazz duo, where you're backing up a sax player or singer. If you're into classical music, you can play counterpoint on a 7-string that's impossible on a standard guitar. And it's the perfect guitar for a heavy rock band, because you've got all that low end. Crank that baby up, and when you hit the low notes, it'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."

Of course, all that extra low end can make recording the 7-string a little tricky. "It's best to try to get a tight sound," Vai advises. "The best way to do that is place the mics as close as possible to the amp. But it's not as simple as taking a big amplifier, turning it up really loud, and putting up a bunch of mics. You've got to be particularly careful with phase cancellation if you use a lot of different mics. If any of the mics are out of phase at all, the first thing you'll lose is all that rich bottom end, which defeats the whole purpose of playing 7-string in the first place.

"Once you've got the 7-string on tape, and you're at the mixing stage, you've got to remember to be generous to the bass player. To make a full spectrum of frequencies work, you have to delegate certain bandwidths to certain instruments. If you put too much emphasis on the bottom end of the guitar, you're going to have low-end mush going through your whole track, because the bass and guitar frequencies will be smashing together. We're not talking about brain surgery here, but it does require a little extra care and handling. Otherwise, the guitar may sound like some kind of testosterone-fueled demon, while the bass sounds like a little anemic yellowjacket trying to find its hive. That might seem like a fun idea, but it may kill the song. And that bass player's not going to be excited about working with you again."

In the past couple of years, Vai has gone back to using the 6-string as his main ax, but says that he'll be playing more 7-string in the near future. "There was a period in the early '90s when I very rarely played 6-string. But a few years ago, while I was putting a new record together, I started listening to some demos of music I had written before I got the 7-string. Working on that music, I gradually evolved back into playing 6-string. I've continued to use the 7-string for some things, however, and on my next record I'll probably use it more or less exclusively."

Brian "Head" Welch

After the shred wave crested in the early '90s, it seemed that Steve Vai's progeny -- a horde of young players wielding rainbow-swirled 6- and 7-string Ibanez guitars -- were losing interest in the acrobatic guitar that epitomized late-'80s rock. As the post-Vai generation abandoned the ideal of guitar virtuosity, they became obsessed with sounding heavy -- very heavy. Many achieved this heaviness by tuning their guitars down a whole-step or more.

That hunger for bowel-waggling chunk is what brought the 7-string back from the near-dead. Laws of physics dictate that there's only so low you can detune a low E string before it starts to sound floppy. But try a .060 tuned down to B or A, and you're ready for some serious rumble.

One of the heaviest of this new breed of bands is Korn. With not one but two 7-string players -- plus a 5-string bassist -- Korn's bottom line is way, way low. Guitarist Brian "Head" Welch, one of the band's guitarists, says that even with a low seventh string, which he tunes to A, the band didn't feel they were getting enough low end, so he and fellow Korn guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer went a step further. "We were one of the first bands to get really into the 7-string," says Welch. "After a while, we noticed that more people were playing 7-strings, so we thought, 'Let's go lower!' So my seventh string is tuned to A, and the rest is like a regular guitar, but a whole- step lower [D, G, C, F, A, D, low to high]." Welch uses a .060 for his bottom string, and the other six strings are from a standard Dean Markley Light Top/Heavy Bottom set (.010-.052).

Welch says he first became interested in the 7-string after jamming with Shaffer. "Munky had a 7-string and it sounded so heavy, I knew I had to get one," he says. Shaffer owned two at the time, and let Welch use his spare. Within a month, Welch decided to buy an Ibanez Universe of his own.

According to Welch, getting used to the 7-string was deceptively simple: "As far as figuring out where to go on the neck, it was really natural. I didn't have to think about it too much. I just looked at it, understood it, and that was it."

But that wasn't really "it." The confident Welch was in for a surprise. "I actually thought I had mastered the 7-string after one week of sitting at home practicing," he says, "and I figured, cool, I can play it now. But then I went to a Korn rehearsal, put a strap on my guitar, and stood up. It was totally different. My whole week of practicing sitting down was for nothing. I couldn't play anything standing up, because I had to reach around much more. The neck felt really fat, and I just wasn't used to it."

That's how Welch's style of playing bent over originated. "I had to do that at first so I could reach the chords," he reveals. "After another month of practicing, I got it all down and I didn't have to play bent way over like that anymore, but that posture became a habit."

In the studio and onstage, Korn works out its music to ensure the two 7-stringers don't step on each other and muck up the groove. "Everyone has a say," Welch says proudly. "Usually we're going for the fattest tone, and we do whatever it takes for each song. If it's not right, we change it."

On Korn's new album, Follow the Leader, Welch and Shaffer used a variety of high-wattage Mesa/ Boogie and Bogner amps, and a 100-watt Rivera Bonehead head that Welch paired with a 4x12 Rivera cabinet. The Bonehead has a separate sub-woofer output, which Welch used to feed a specially designed Rivera 2x12 Los Lobottom cabinet driven by a 320-watt Rivera TBR-5 power amp. The Rivera rig offers a bottomless cup of thump, and that's exactly what Welch was after.

For the new album, Welch used a trunkful of effects, including a Big Muff fuzzbox, a Small Stone phaser, an array of Boss pedals, and the ubiquitous DigiTech Whammy pedal -- which the guitarist used to extend the range of his 7-string guitar even further. "We didn't use the Whammy pedal for pitch bending," he explains, "but as a harmonizer. Sometimes I'd pitch my guitar up an octave and play something on the high strings. You can't tell it's a Whammy pedal, and it doesn't even sound like a guitar. It sounds more like a harp. On one song, "All in the Family," me and Munky pitched our guitars down an octave. When you hear our low As an octave lower, it sounds so heavy, it's sick!"

Howard Alden

"I first heard a George Van Eps record when I was about 13," jazz guitarist Howard Alden recalls. "A friend was turning me on to many of the classic jazz guitarists -- such as Barney Kessel, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Tal Farlow -- and one of the albums he played for me was Mellow Guitar [out of print] by Van Eps, on which he played 7-string. Naturally, I marveled at the sound. I had never heard anything like it." Van Eps' unique 7-string "lap piano" style stuck in Alden's head, and he spent a lot of time trying to learn the guitarist's complex fingerstyle guitar pieces.

Despite his fascination with Van Eps, Alden never seriously considered taking up the 7-string until he was in his mid '30s. "I shied away from trying it for years," he says. "First of all, 7-string guitars weren't all that available in the '70s when I was coming up as a player. Also, I had tried a friend's 7-string when I was 19, and it felt rather unwieldy and uncomfortable. I figured it wasn't for me."

About seven years ago, Alden started to become more interested in the idea of playing a 7-string guitar, primarily because of his desire to attain the wide range and harmonic independence enjoyed by pianists. "There were things I wanted to play on the guitar -- particularly pieces by pianists such as Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington -- that required an extended bass range to get the right sounds and voicings," he says. "I even experimented with lower tunings, such as dropped-D, for a while, but alternate tunings didn't work for me. I didn't like having to rethink my fingerings. That's when I started considering the 7-string more seriously, because it gives you an extended range and lets you stay in one tuning all the time.

"But what really pushed me over the edge was finally meeting and playing with George. Watching him in person, seeing what he was able to do right there in front of my eyes, that's what finally made me move to 7-string."

Alden and Van Eps got together at the suggestion of Concord Records head Carl Jefferson, who, knowing what a huge fan Alden was, suggested that he call Van Eps and ask him to make a duet record. "I was dumbstruck," Alden says. "It never would have occurred to me to simply call George Van Eps and ask him to record with me. But I did, and he said yes. We hit it off immediately, and the record -- 13 Strings -- came out great. We recorded another one a few months later, and then we did a short tour of England. We've recorded two more times since then."

Around the same time, Alden met guitar builder Bob Benedetto. Alden was familiar with Benedetto's fine archtops, and commissioned him to build a 7-string guitar. "Bucky Pizzarelli lent me one of his 7-string guitars to practice on while mine was being built," he says. "And it was a huge help to get a head start, and to be able to slowly acclimate myself to seven strings."

Alden took delivery of his Benedetto 7-string just as he was about to embark on a three-week-long tour. "I thought, 'Well, I guess I'll take my old 6-string,' because I didn't want to be traveling every day with this beautiful new guitar and end up breaking it," Alden recounts. "But Bob said, 'Take the 7-string. You should be playing it, not hiding it under your bed. If it breaks, I'll fix it.' So I took it with me and performed with it. For a week or so, I couldn't find my fourth string, because you look down and you see what looks like a sea of strings. There were a few times when I was called upon to play a solo guitar piece, and I'd have to very carefully count the strings to find where I was supposed to put my fingers. That made me get it together really quickly. It was a great on-the-job learning experience."

Alden tunes his seventh string to A, which he says is standard for players of the Van Eps school. "Most jazz players -- such as Van Eps, Jimmy Bruno, and Ron Escheté -- prefer an A, rather than a low B, because it's just like having another fifth string. All your voicings line up the same way; you just have a wider gap. I'm sure there are lots of other possibilities, but this makes sense to me. It's the tuning George uses, and it works for all us guys." Again following Van Eps' lead, Alden uses a .080 for his seventh string. The rest of his strings are a standard medium jazz set, gauged .013-.056.

Alden is currently working on a solo 7-string record. "It will be mostly electric," he says, "but there will also be some acoustic pieces as well, played on an acoustic archtop that Benedetto built for me. Now that I've been playing the 7-string for six years, I think I can make a record that will be a good representation of all of the things I can play on it."

7-String Tunings of the Stars

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Steve Vai B E A D G B E
Brian "Head" Welch A D G C F A D
Howard Alden A E A D G B E

Interested in making the switch from six strings to seven, but worried about getting lost? In the Dec. '90 GP, 7-string fingerstyle master George Van Eps explained that when he stepped up his string count 61 years ago, the trick that got him over the hump was to visualize the 7-string as three tunings in one: The high six (standard guitar tuning), the low six (strange, but easier when you follow Van Eps' advice, below), and the fully integrated 7-string tuning (a wild, but tameable, animal). --AL

"You can do what I did in 1937, when I was working on the design of the 7-string guitar that Epiphone was building for me: Get hold of an extra guitar and restring it as the low six strings of a 7-string. Eliminate the high E string and move everything up one notch, so the B string is on top, followed by G, D, A, and low E. Then put a heavy-gauge string on the bottom. You can use whatever gauge you like. I use a .080 and tune it to A. Get as familiar as you can with that tuning. Don't panic -- there are no strange notes. The bottom string is just another A string, tuned an octave lower than your standard fifth string. Start by playing anything you normally play where you use the fifth string in standard tuning, and move it over to the bottom string. That puts you down in the bowels of the bass range.

"There are basically three tunings to think about with the 7-string: strings 6 through 1 are in standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E, low to high) and strings 7 through 2 are in the secondary tuning (A, E, A, D, G, B). You'll find that things which lay in terrible positions and require long reaches on a 6-string will lay right under your fingers in the secondary tuning, which frees up your left-hand fingers to provide moving voices. The third tuning is all seven strings integrated (A, E, A, D, G, B, E). If you have any ears at all, and are willing to get calluses on your fingers and your behind, you'll learn how to put them all together."

Ibanez Jem7v7 Steve Vai Signature 7-String Electric Guitar White

Ibanez Jem7v7 Steve Vai Signature 7-String Electric Guitar White

Ibanez Apex100 Munky Signature 7-String Electric Guitar Tri Fade Burst

Ibanez Apex100 Munky Signature 7-String Electric Guitar Tri Fade Burst

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