"Ever since the guitar evolved into it's 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 trebel string arrangement and three-tuners-per-side headstock. The symmetry is further emphasized by the fact that. On a standard six-string, the guitars 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 existance, adventurous players have been endeavouring to extend the range of the instrument by tweaking it's tuning - often slacking the low E down to D or C, and sometimes even as low as B or A. Extended tunings offer player 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 player who add a seventh string 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.
"There was a period of 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 definately had some influence. I was 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 ot Ibanez with his 7-string concept, and they embraced it immediately.
Whether Vai's muse was mystical pragmatic, it's no stretch of the imaginationto 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 demures. "in the Jazz world, there was George Van Eps and Lenny Breau, and Uli John Roth had a seven 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 favours a typical 7-string tuning, extending the standard guitar tuning down one more fourth to the 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 the guitar either .009 - .042 or .010 - .046, depending on how much he's playing. "When I'm in the studio producing, recording, and doing all sorts of different things, i use .009's to show my fingers some mercy. When I'm gigging a lot, I'll use the .010's. 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 Tounge. 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 seven 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 an 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 Seven 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 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 seven 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 on end.
Of course, all that 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 to place the mics as close as possible to the amp. but it's not a 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 cancelation 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 the 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 bandwiths 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 yellow jacket trying to find it's hive. That might seem like a fun idea, but it may kill the song. And that bass player's not going to be too excited about working with you again."
In the past couple of years, Vai has gone back to the 6-string as his main axe, but says that he'll be playing more 7-string in the near future. "There was a period in the early 90's that I very rarely played the 6-string, but a few years ago, while i was putting a new record together, I started listening to some demos of the music i had written before I got the 7-string. Working around 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."