Gabriele Pala

Extended Range Guitars & Chapman Stick Player

Why so many strings?

22 February 2015 - - Theory & Philosophy

A lot of people, mostly from the places I live in, continuously ask me why I need to use guitars and instruments with more strings than what it should normally be (6 for guitars and 4 for bass). Somebody even complain about this, saying that “they are not needed”.

At a first glance, they are right: they are not actually needed in order to produce “good music”. With the term “good music” we can imagine a memorable melody, something to sing or move the body along, or even something like a simple riff or a chord sequence. Did Ritchie Blackmore need an 8 string guitar to write the iconic Smoke On The Water riff? No! So, yes, they are right… all these things can be produced with few notes, then few strings.

So, again, why so many strings?

Well, my main response is basically that I don’t like the guitar! Surprised? Let me explain 😉

For me, the guitar, like any other instrument, it’s a tool, a dead piece of wood and other fancy metallic artifacts that I use to produce my music. The name itself is meaningful: “musical instrument”. It’s like a wrench or a screwdriver or a drill. It just serves a purpose. It’s not the purpose itself. That’s all for me.

As a tool, it should provide all the possibilities to produce the sounds I have in mind, it should provide enough “stuff” to play whatever I want on it. We can make a better example by comparing playing music with speaking with somebody (actually making music a form communication – and not only, but that will be discussed in another post)

At this point, it’s clearly evident that we cannot mess up the order of these things to make an effective communication, thus it’s again evident that the guitar is just a simple mean of sound emission, and it should allow me to pronounce my message, whatever it is.

In my musical vision, the message simply needs a lot of extension, spreading from very low notes to very high-pitched sound. I like to use wide-voiced chords. So I need musical “tools” that enables me to play those notes. I don’t mean that I constantly use the extreme sides of the spectrum, but, when I need them, they are there!

Having an 8 string guitar doesn’t mean that I always play Meshuggish chugs on the thickest strings: a lot of other things can be done, like expanding the sound of some chords or adding a bass line to a melody when a bass is not available or busy to play something else in the arrangement. A lot of time the lowest strings are not even used for entire periods.

Another example is piano. 88 notes, with more than 7 octaves of range. Did anybody ever complained about that? No, right? Why? At a simple glance, piano is actually the king of all extended range instruments, with more lows and more highs than anything else, but it’s commonly accepted.

There is another point, this time guitar specific. Most of the people have a very low level of musical education, the just know the mainstream names of the past and the present (there’s no need to name them), and they think that guitar is just that, because all these great guys use a 6-strings guitar. They don’t know that guitar was initially derived from the lute and started its life with 10 strings like the lute, and this form of guitar actually lasted for many decades. Only from late 1800 our beloved guitar shrinked down to a 6 strings instruments and remained like that till our days, assuming the role of “instruments for the masses” (less strings is considered easier to play – even if it’s not – cheaper and more accepted). Nowadays we are returning to the origins of the instrument. It seems that the 8 strings guitar is becoming a sort of standard, thanks to people like Meshuggah or Animals As Leaders, who founded en entire movement of extended range guitarists.

Guitar brands are also following this trend, producing a lot of extra strings models. Every season they are adding more, 8…9… are we returning to the real 10 strings guitar? 😉

Remember: all strings are there to give further possibility, but expression should remain to you: don’t be a slave of the instruments, whatever it is and whatever the number of its strings is: you are master!

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