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:

Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian:

Enjoy!