Guitars with more than six strings? What for? An overview

Following my Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar post, a few people have asked me what else guitars with more than six strings are good for.  In response, here is a quick overview.

The standard guitar, of course, has six strings tuned (scientific notation) E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. There are a variety of alternate tunings being used in especially nonclassical music, of which I will only cite a few examples:

  • Drop-D: D2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4 as used by many metal and alternative rock outfits
  • Drop-C: C2-G2-C3-F3-A3-D4 as used by bands like Killswitch Engage
  • Open G tuning: D2-G2-D3-G3-B3-D4 as used by, e.g., Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
  • “New Standard Tuning” C2-G2-D3-A3-E3-G4 as advocated by Robert Fripp of King Crimson

But those merit another article. Suffice to say that some of the more exotic tunings require restringing with lighter or heavier gauge strings.

“Baritone guitars” are standard six-string instruments with longer necks, tuned a fourth or fifth lower than standard.

Seven-string guitars come in both “classical”/acoustic and electric varieties

  • acoustic, Russian: open G tuning with extra top string tuned to high G4
  • acoustic, Brazilian: standard plus an extra bottom string tuned to low C2.
  • electric: typically with an added low B1 string. Somewhat popular in progressive rock and metal. Stevie Vai and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci are acknowledged virtuosi on the instrument. In heavier genres, the bottom string may be tuned down to A1 (Korn).

Eight-string guitars likewise come in classical and modern varieties

  • acoustic: “cello guitar” or Brahms guitar. Originally devised for playing Theme and Variations, Op. 21a by Brahms. Adds low A and high A strings to standard: A1E2A2D3G3B3E4A4
  • electric: either with extra bass and treble string), or with two low strings (“djent” guitars, as favored by “math-metal” band Meshuggah), which can be tuned F#1B1. Or E1B1, giving it the same low-end range as a standard bass. (e.g., Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders switches between guitar and bass parts thay way.)

Nine-string guitars are rare: the rare examples are like six-strings with the three upper strings (in pitch, not geometry) being doubled up into pairs. (“Courses” in guitar speak.)

Ten-string guitars exist in three types:

  • “harp guitars” (see below)
  • Narciso Yepes guitar: the famed classical guitarist played an all-frettable 10-string with the top six strings in standard, the remaining four chosen to maximize sympathetic resonance: F#2-Ab2-Bb2-C2-E2A2D3G3B3E4 Note that this tuning is “re-entrant”, i.e., the strings do not go from low to high in a neat row.
  • English guitar: C-E-GG-cc-ee-gg (two strings plus four courses)

Harp guitars exist in (at least) 11-string, 13-string, and 10-string variants. The idea of a “harp guitar” is that below your standard strings, you have a set of 5-7 bass strings that are tuned harp-style, on a diatonic scale. You can then use the thumb of your picking hand to strike bass notes as open strings, and accompany your fretted playing.

This was a common performance practice on the Baroque lute, and harp guitars are indeed used for this type of repertoire. The bass strings may be retuned half steps up or down to fit the scale of the piece being played. For instance, here is a piece by the lutenist and composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a contemporary of J. S. Bach:

Last but not least, we are left with twelve-string guitars, which have seen some notable use in folk, rock, and pop music. 12-strings are strung in six courses. The standard tuning has the bottom four courses in octave pairs, and the top two in unison pairs. In scientific notation:

E2-E3—A2-A3—D3-D4—G3-G4—B3-B3—E4-E4

Playing what would normally be single lines on the bottom four courses effectively turns your part into parallel octaves, and chords on a 12-string sound particularly rich and full, kind-of like double-fisted piano chord played Rachmaninoff-style 🙂

If one wishes to reproduce the 12-string sound in the studio without an actual 12-string guitar, the answer is to have two guitarists play the part on standard 6-strings, one tuned normally, the other strung with lighter-gauge strings and tuned E3—A3—D4—G4—B3—E4, i.e., to the upper half of each 12-string course. (This is known as “Nashville tuning” in guitar lingo.)

Many folk musicians use an open-chord variant of this tuning. Some jazz musicians tune courses to intervals other than unisons or octaves in order to generate more complex chords. For instance, on the album Twelve by Anthony Phillips (a personal favorite of mine), the erstwhile Genesis guitarist uses this tuning throughout

D2D3—G2G3—C3C4—D3D4—G3G3—A3E4

“June” is my favorite tune from that album. Here is a cover by “hyperboreal”: His instrument’s tuning is a little off, and he flubs a few runs, but you will get the idea.

Let me conclude with Anthony Phillips himself, in a rare on-camera performance since crippling stage fright made him quit the stage: