BE­YOND THE SIXTH STRING

SIX STRINGS JUST NOT CUT­TING IT ANY­MORE? THE WORLD OF EX­TENDED-RANGE ELECTRICS CAN BE DIZZY­ING, BUT WE’VE SIM­PLI­FIED IT ALL FOR YOU RIGHT HERE. CHRIS GILL.

Australian Guitar - - Feature - WORDS BY

Ibanez In­tro­duced the in­dus­try’s first mass-pro­duced seven-string solid­body elec­tric guitar - the Uni­verse UV7, de­signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Steve Vai - in 1990. Al­though gui­tarists over­whelm­ingly ap­plauded this new in­no­va­tion that ex­panded the in­stru­ment’s range, Ibanez sur­pris­ingly dis­con­tin­ued their Uni­verse model seven-string guitars in 1994 af­ter an un­usu­ally short pe­riod of pro­duc­tion. This caused a few mu­sic in­dus­try ob­servers to pre­ma­turely con­clude that the seven-string guitar was just a pass­ing fad with lit­tle more than nov­elty ap­peal.

The tim­ing of the dis­con­tin­u­a­tion was un­for­tu­nate, how­ever, as seven-string guitars were just start­ing to catch on with an in­creas­ing amount of play­ers around the same time. Dur­ing the mid’90s an im­pres­sively di­verse va­ri­ety of bands and gui­tarists em­braced and pop­u­larised the heav­ier sound of the seven-string guitar, in­clud­ing Can­ni­bal Corpse, Deftones, Dream The­ater, Fear Fac­tory, Korn, Meshug­gah, Mor­bid An­gel, Nev­er­more, Uli Jon Roth, Voivod and many oth­ers.

Gui­tarists who favoured the ex­tended range of a seven-string guitar grew to sig­nif­i­cant ranks over the next few years, and Ibanez soon re­versed course and started build­ing seven-string mod­els again in 1997. Other ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers also in­tro­duced seven-string mod­els dur­ing this time, al­though it took al­most an­other decade be­fore sev­eral com­pa­nies started to of­fer more than just a hand­ful of seven-string mod­els in their prod­uct line­ups.

The mar­ket for seven-string guitars has changed rad­i­cally over the past 15 years, as have the de­signs of many of the instrument­s. To­day gui­tarists can choose from sev­eral hun­dred dif­fer­ent mod­els, and a hand­ful of man­u­fac­tur­ers each even of­fer a larger va­ri­ety of mod­els than what the en­tire in­dus­try pro­vided at the dawn of the new mil­len­nium.

About the same time as the seven-string surge took place around a decade or so ago, a hand­ful of com­pa­nies started to of­fer the first mass-pro­duced eight-string mod­els, pro­vid­ing yet an­other tempt­ing al­ter­na­tive in­stru­ment for gui­tarists in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing a wider sonic range than that of a stan­dard six-string guitar.

Over time, the de­sign of the seven-string guitar has ex­panded to in­clude instrument­s with ex­tended scale lengths and al­ter­nate tun­ings, which has made the de­ci­sion process more con­fus­ing for new­com­ers as well as ex­pe­ri­enced gui­tarists shop­ping for their first seven- or eight-string guitar.

While the ba­sic fea­tures on a stan­dard six-string and seven- or eight-string guitar are es­sen­tially the same, many of these at­tributes on sev­e­nand eight-string guitars re­quire more care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion based on how one plans on play­ing the in­stru­ment (such as riffs, so­los, chords and rhythm or all of the above), the tun­ing one prefers to use (stan­dard, drop tun­ing or al­ter­nate tun­ings) and other play­ing and per­for­mance de­tails.

For­tu­nately, price is no longer as much of an is­sue as it once was (the high cost of the first Ibanez Uni­verse guitars ac­counted prob­a­bly more than any­thing for their ini­tial fail­ure to catch on), and a wide va­ri­ety of bud­get-priced instrument­s are avail­able to choose from as well as ex­pen­sive bou­tique mod­els that can be cus­tomised to a player’s pref­er­ences.

To help de­mys­tify to­day’s seven- and eight-string guitars, we’ve put to­gether the fol­low­ing shop­per’s guide that dis­cusses sev­eral of the most im­por­tant fea­tures to con­sider be­fore mak­ing a choice.

In some re­spects, the seven- and eight-string guitar are al­most like en­tirely new instrument­s, but the dif­fer­ences be­tween them and stan­dard sixstring guitars is not as vast as the gap be­tween a six-string guitar and a bass. Once a gui­tarist knows what to look for, buy­ing one’s first seven- or eight­string is as easy as choos­ing an­other guitar to add to one’s grow­ing col­lec­tion.

SCALE LENGTH

Prob­a­bly 99 per­cent of all six-string solid­body elec­tric guitars made to­day have scale lengths that fall some­where be­tween 24.5 and 25.5 inches, but the scale lengths found on seven-string guitars span a much wider range, gen­er­ally be­tween 25.5 inches to 27 inches or above.

Eight-string guitars typ­i­cally have scale lengths that are at least 27 inches, while a hand­ful of ex­am­ples (like the Ibanez M80M Meshug­gah sig­na­ture) mea­sure al­most 29.5 inches long. For a gui­tarist who is used to play­ing a Gib­son Les Paul with a 24.75-inch scale, play­ing a guitar with a scale that is 1.5 inches longer or more than they’re used to can lit­er­ally prove to be quite a stretch.

A seven-string guitar with a 25.5-inch scale is the best choice for a six-string gui­tarist look­ing to make a quick, easy and com­fort­able tran­si­tion. How­ever, instrument­s with longer scales of­fer cer­tain sonic ad­van­tages, par­tic­u­larly for play­ers who want to tune down the low­est string a whole step or the en­tire guitar a whole step or more.

On a shorter scale guitar, tun­ing down re­duces string ten­sion to a point where the low­est strings can feel too slinky and loose, which also makes those strings dif­fi­cult to play in tune as even the slight­est amount of ex­cess pres­sure while fret­ting notes can bend the pitch. Some play­ers use heav­ier string gauges to com­pen­sate, but in­to­na­tion can be­come prob­lem­atic for heav­ier gauge strings on shorter scale instrument­s and heav­ier gauge strings may not fit into the tun­ing pegs.

Longer scale lengths re­quire greater string ten­sion when tun­ing to the same pitch as a shorter scale in­stru­ment, which al­lows play­ers to use lighter string gauges that they are more com­fort­able with (espe­cially on the high E string) in­stead of the heav­ier gauge strings re­quired to main­tain ad­e­quate ten­sion on instrument­s with shorter scales. Con­versely, longer scales al­low

“IDEALLY, THE GUITAR SHOULD CON­STANTLY RE­MAIN IN A BAL­ANCED, COM­FORT­ABLE PLAY­ING PO­SI­TION WHETHER YOU’RE STAND­ING UP OR SIT­TING DOWN.”

play­ers to use heav­ier strings at lower ten­sions, which can make heavy strings eas­ier to play, espe­cially when bend­ing notes.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies now of­fer seven-and eight­string guitars with fanned frets (also known as mul­ti­ple-scale fret­boards), where the nut, bridge and frets are in­stalled at vary­ing an­gles in­stead of per­pen­dic­u­lar to the strings. These instrument­s pro­vide the best of both worlds - shorter scale lengths for the tre­ble strings and longer scale lengths for the bass strings - de­liv­er­ing the com­fort­able “slinky” playa­bil­ity gui­tarists pre­fer for the tre­ble strings along with bright tone and re­li­able in­to­na­tion af­forded by ad­e­quate ten­sion on the bass strings.

Fanned scale lengths gen­er­ally range from

25.5 inches for the high

E string to 26.5 or 27 inches for the low B string, or even as much as 25.5 to 28 inches for an eight-string in­stru­ment.

NUT WIDTH

The rule of thumb for seven- and eight-string guitars is ba­si­cally the same as it is for a six-string guitar: nar­rower nut widths are gen­er­ally more com­fort­able for play­ers with smaller hands while wider nut widths are bet­ter for play­ers with big­ger hands or who want more space in be­tween each string to fa­cil­i­tate fret­ting notes more cleanly.

De­pend­ing on the nut width of a seven- or eight-string guitar, the ad­di­tion of an ex­tra string or two can re­sult in strings that may feel too close to each other or a neck that feels un­com­fort­ably wide and un­wieldy. This is one in­stance where gui­tarists need to try out instrument­s be­fore they buy to see how com­fort­able the neck width feels in their hands.

Some seven-string necks are as nar­row as 42 or 43 mil­lime­tres (cer­tain ESP and Ca­pari­son mod­els, for ex­am­ple), which is about the same nut width as a stan­dard six-string Stra­to­caster, so with the ad­di­tion of an ex­tra string the strings are now much more closely spaced to­gether.

Play­ers who pre­fer the same av­er­age string spac­ing as a six-string guitar should look for sev­en­string guitars with nut widths around 47 to 48mm. How­ever, if you’re us­ing lower tun­ings you may pre­fer to opt for even wider nuts that mea­sure 49 to 51mm to pro­vide the low­est bass strings more room to vi­brate freely and make it eas­ier to fin­ger chords when us­ing heav­ier gauge strings.

It’s par­tic­u­larly es­sen­tial to try out an eight­string guitar as some play­ers may find instrument­s with wide string spac­ing very dif­fi­cult to play, par­tic­u­larly when fret­ting chords on the lower strings. Some play­ers may find that eight-string guitars with the same string spac­ing that they’re nor­mally ac­cus­tomed to on six-string instrument­s are im­pos­si­ble to play, so a nar­rower nut may be the bet­ter op­tion.

Try play­ing riffs and chords all over the neck, while pay­ing at­ten­tion to the fret­board’s width up and down the neck to eval­u­ate the in­stru­ment’s over­all com­fort and playa­bil­ity. Hav­ing to ad­just your play­ing style is nor­mal at first, but if your fret­ting hand feels stiff or sore af­ter a few min­utes you’ll prob­a­bly want to try instrument­s with wider or nar­rower string spac­ing un­til you find your per­sonal com­fort zone.

NECK PRO­FILE/RA­DIUS Be­cause the necks on most seven-and eight-string guitars are wider than those on six-string guitars, the shape of the neck pro­file and cur­va­ture of the ra­dius can seem more ex­ag­ger­ated. Gen­er­ally, most seven-string and par­tic­u­larly eight-string guitars have thin and rel­a­tively flat pro­files as even an av­er­age C-shaped pro­file can seem overly thick and un­wieldy. The trade-off for the eas­ier, faster playa­bil­ity of a flat, thin neck pro­file is that the tone may not be as full and rich or the neck may not al­ways feel solid, so you have to de­ter­mine your pri­or­i­ties here.

Be par­tic­u­larly care­ful when con­sid­er­ing cheaper instrument­s with flat, thin neck pro­files as the ma­te­ri­als, con­struc­tion and truss rod sup­port may not be solid enough to han­dle the ex­cess string ten­sion, caus­ing the neck to bend eas­ily (and tun­ing

“TRY PLAY­ING RIFFS AND CHORDS ALL OVER THE NECK, WHILE PAY­ING AT­TEN­TION TO THE FRET­BOARD’S WIDTH UP AND DOWN THE NECK TO EVAL­U­ATE THE IN­STRU­MENT’S OVER­ALL COM­FORT AND PLAYA­BIL­ITY.”

sta­bil­ity to go out the win­dow) when play­ing. Try strum­ming the open strings while ap­ply­ing steadily in­creas­ing pres­sure to the back of the head­stock as if you’re push­ing the head­stock for­ward. If the pitch dives with only slight pres­sure, you might want to con­sider an in­stru­ment with a more solid and sturdy feel­ing neck that doesn’t budge as eas­ily.

Most seven- and eight-string guitars also have a larger, flat­ter ra­dius than a stan­dard six-string guitar. While a vin­tage Tele’s 7.25-inch ra­dius may seem per­fectly fine (espe­cially if you just play open cow­boy chords on the lower frets), on a wider seven- or eight-string neck it will seem ab­surdly rounded.

On a wider neck, even a 12-inch ra­dius will have no­tice­able cur­va­ture. Fret­boards with a ra­dius of 15 inches or larger more closely repli­cate the “flat” feel of a mod­ern six-string shred guitar neck. Many mod­els fea­ture a com­pound ra­dius that be­comes flat­ter fur­ther up the neck, which can make it eas­ier to play chords in the lower reg­is­ters while fa­cil­i­tat­ing string bend­ing fur­ther up the neck.

STRING GAUGES

One com­mon over­looked con­sid­er­a­tion is the gauges of the strings that the in­stru­ment was de­signed to use. Never as­sume that any sevenor eight-string guitar can ac­com­mo­date what­ever gauges of strings the player plans on us­ing. For ex­am­ple, play­ers who find the low­est string on a 25.5-inch scale guitar too loose and floppy may want to use heav­ier gauges on the low­est strings, but on some guitars the hard­ware may have dif­fi­culty ac­com­mo­dat­ing strings that are wider than .060 inches.

The hole or slot in the tun­ing peg may not be wide enough, or the string may be too wide to fit into a lock­ing nut or the holes for a stop, through-body and tre­molo tail­piece where the ball end (or string end) is an­chored. Also, on a shorter scale guitar the bridge sad­dles may not pro­vide enough travel to prop­erly in­to­nate heav­ier low-end strings, so the bridge will need to be ei­ther re­placed or moved. On some instrument­s, the ac­tion may be too low to ac­com­mo­date heav­ier strings, which can cause fret buzz and other prob­lems that one may not be able to fix by ad­just­ing the bridge and/or truss rod.

Hard­ware can be mod­i­fied or re­placed, but in the long run it’s bet­ter to get an in­stru­ment that can ac­com­mo­date the strings you plan on us­ing right out of the box, as mod­i­fi­ca­tions can cause strings to break eas­ily if not per­formed prop­erly and re­place­ment parts may not al­ways fit prop­erly. It’s bet­ter to get an in­stru­ment that’s right from the be­gin­ning. There are so many dif­fer­ent mod­els avail­able to­day that one should be able to find an in­stru­ment that can han­dle a player’s pre­ferred string gauges with­out mod­i­fi­ca­tion.

TUN­ING The most com­mon tun­ing for a seven-string guitar is (low to high) B-E-A-D-G-B-E, and for an eight­string it’s usu­ally the same but with the ad­di­tion of the low­est string tuned to F#. Some play­ers pre­fer to tune the low­est string down a whole step to A on a seven-string or to E on an eight-string.

How­ever, don’t as­sume that all seven- or eight-string guitars are de­signed to ac­com­mo­date these tun­ings. Some instrument­s, par­tic­u­larly those with longer scales and/or heav­ier strings, may be de­signed to be tuned down a whole step or more, or they may be de­signed as bari­tone instrument­s with heav­ier string gauges bet­ter suited to play­ing chords and riffs in­stead of so­los and bent notes.

Be­fore you go into the guitar store or place an or­der on­line, do a lit­tle re­search to ver­ify what tun­ing the in­stru­ment was de­signed to best ac­com­mo­date. Also, bring a tuner or smart phone with a tun­ing app with you (un­less you have per­fect pitch) to make sure that the in­stru­ment you’re try­ing is prop­erly tuned so you can bet­ter eval­u­ate how it is sup­posed to play and feel as shipped from the fac­tory.

ER­GONOMICS

Be­cause many seven- and eight-string guitars have wider and longer necks, the neck may also be heav­ier and not well bal­anced with the body.

It’s im­por­tant to try the in­stru­ment with a strap in a stand­ing po­si­tion to make sure that the head­stock doesn’t dive to the ground un­less you’re okay with sup­port­ing the neck an en­tire gig with your fret­ting hand. Ideally, the guitar should con­stantly re­main in a bal­anced, com­fort­able play­ing po­si­tion whether you’re stand­ing up or sit­ting down.

Many seven- and eight-string guitars also have wider and longer bod­ies, so make sure you’re com­fort­able with the larger size. Body con­tours can in­crease play­ing com­fort, but make sure that they con­form or fit to your body and arm po­si­tions. Instrument­s with neck­through-body or set-thru de­signs usu­ally have a seam­less tran­si­tion where the neck meets the body com­pared to the bulky heels on most set neck and bolt-on neck de­signs.

As a re­sult, a neck-through-body or set-through in­stru­ment is usu­ally more com­fort­able for gui­tarists who of­ten play above the 15th fret, al­though plenty of gui­tarists aren’t re­ally both­ered by neck heels. It’s all a mat­ter of what’s re­ally im­por­tant and com­fort­able to you.

Most seven- and eight-string guitars weigh about the same or a lit­tle more than a stan­dard six-string solid­body, but don’t be dis­cour­aged should you find a model that you par­tic­u­larly like that’s a lit­tle

“FANNED FRET INSTRUMENT­S PRO­VIDE THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS – SHORTER SCALE LENGTHS FOR THE TRE­BLE STRINGS AND LONGER SCALE LENGTHS FOR THE BASS STRINGS.”

heav­ier than you’re used to.

Us­ing a wide strap and wear­ing the in­stru­ment a lit­tle higher and closer to your body can com­pen­sate for the added weight to the point that you won’t no­tice the dif­fer­ence.

ELEC­TRON­ICS

When try­ing out a seven- or eight-string guitar, you should play it through an am­pli­fi­ca­tion rig sim­i­lar to one you al­ready own or plan on buy­ing. You’ll want to pay par­tic­u­larly close at­ten­tion to the low­est bass fre­quen­cies while play­ing clean and dis­torted tones to de­ter­mine if the clar­ity and def­i­ni­tion meets your needs and pref­er­ences.

If the bass notes sound muf­fled or flabby or if they dis­tort too quickly while other notes re­main clean, you may want to try a dif­fer­ent rig and/or an in­stru­ment with dif­fer­ent style pick­ups. This also is a good time to lis­ten for fret buzzing (which may or may not be easy to fix) and rat­tles com­ing from in­side the in­stru­ment (in which case you should prob­a­bly se­lect an­other guitar).

Pas­sive pick­ups work great with guitar and bass alike, but de­sign fea­tures that work great for stan­dard six-string guitars (wind­ings, shape and strength of the mag­netic field, etc.) don’t al­ways work well for lower fre­quen­cies. Ac­tive pick­ups tend to de­liver greater over­all clar­ity across a wider fre­quency range, and the at­tack can be faster and more pro­nounced (which can be very de­sir­able).

It mainly de­pends on which tonal char­ac­ter­is­tics mat­ter more to you per­son­ally. If you pre­fer warm, fat tones with midrange em­pha­sis and greater dy­namic re­spon­sive­ness, pas­sive pick­ups may be bet­ter, but if you are more into pre­cise clar­ity and brighter over­all tone with a wider fre­quency range, ac­tive pick­ups can be a bet­ter choice.

Note that the se­lec­tion of pickup con­fig­u­ra­tions for most seven- and eight-string guitars is less var­ied than that for six-string electrics. In fact, the ma­jor­ity of these instrument­s have dual-hum­bucker de­signs, while only a hand­ful have a pair of sin­gle­coil pick­ups, a sin­gle-coil in the neck or bridge po­si­tion along with a hum­bucker, or, in very rare in­stances, three pick­ups (usu­ally a sin­gle-coil in be­tween neck and bridge hum­buck­ers).

Many dual-hum­bucker mod­els also have coil­split/tap fea­tures that pro­vide sin­gle-coil tones.

Most instrument­s also have only mas­ter vol­ume and mas­ter tone con­trols, and many have only mas­ter vol­ume con­trols, so if you pre­fer hav­ing sep­a­rate vol­ume and tone con­trols for each pickup or more so­phis­ti­cated tonal shap­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties for ac­tive pick­ups, you may have to con­sider buy­ing a cus­tom-made in­stru­ment.

AM­PLI­FI­CA­TION/EF­FECTS

Most mod­ern high-gain am­pli­fiers can han­dle the ex­tended bass fre­quency ranges of seven- and eight-string guitars pretty well, espe­cially if you are pri­mar­ily us­ing dis­torted tones. How­ever, ex­cess dis­tor­tion tends to em­pha­sise the up­per har­mon­ics of bass notes over the fun­da­men­tal fre­quen­cies, so the over­all tone may not be as deep, boom­ing and punchy as you’d ex­pect or want it to be.

If you want more low-end boom and rum­ble, you re­ally don’t need as much gain as most play­ers would use for a stan­dard six-string guitar, and you ac­tu­ally may pre­fer the tones of an amp with greater clean head­room that pro­vides bet­ter clar­ity, at­tack and punch.

Speak­ers are a more im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion as most 10- and 12-inch speak­ers de­signed for guitar have prom­i­nent midrange fre­quen­cies and sig­nif­i­cantly roll off bass fre­quen­cies start­ing around 100 to 70 Hz. Be­cause the low B on a sev­en­string guitar has a fun­da­men­tal fre­quency of about 62 Hz, that means the low B’s fun­da­men­tal fre­quency could po­ten­tially be -10 to -20dB qui­eter than the fun­da­men­tal fre­quency of the low E string.

Sub­ject­ing stan­dard guitar speak­ers to lower bass fre­quen­cies also can cause them to dis­tort ear­lier than they do when sub­jected to nor­mal guitar fre­quen­cies, and in some cases the speak­ers may be more likely to blow out. Us­ing speak­ers with a wider, flat­ter fre­quency re­sponse is one al­ter­na­tive, al­though these speak­ers can make reg­u­lar guitar midrange fre­quen­cies sound cold and ster­ile.

In­stead, it’s bet­ter to use a sub­woofer with a built-in cross­over to boost the low­est of low-end fun­da­men­tal fre­quen­cies while still us­ing a stan­dard guitar cab­i­net for more sat­is­fy­ing guitar tones.

Many seven- and eight-string play­ers pre­fer to use dig­i­tal mod­el­ling amps like the Frac­tal Au­dio

“THE VA­RI­ETY OF SEVEN- AND EIGHT­STRING MODEL GUITARS AVAIL­ABLE TO­DAY IS TRULY STAG­GER­ING, AND IT CAN BE DIF­FI­CULT TO KNOW WHERE TO START.”

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