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10 Important Things You Need To Know About Seven and Eight String Guitars

10 Important Things You Need To Know About Seven and Eight String Guitars
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Ibanez In 1990, the Universe UV7, designed in collaboration with Steve Vai, became the industry’s first mass-produced 7-string solidbody electric guitar.

Despite widespread praise for this new innovation that broadened the instrument’s range, Ibanez abruptly discontinued their Universe model seven-string guitars in 1994 after an unusually short period of production. As a result, some music industry observers concluded prematurely that the seven-string guitar was merely a passing fad with little more than novelty appeal.

However, the timing of the discontinuation was unfortunate, as seven and eight string guitars were just starting to gain popularity with an increasing number of players around the same time.

Cannibal Corpse, Deftones, Dream Theater, Fear Factory, Korn, Meshuggah, Morbid Angel, Nevermore, Uli Jon Roth, Voivod, and many other bands and guitarists embraced and popularised the heavier sound of the seven-string guitar during the mid-’90s.

Guitarists who preferred the extended range of a seven and eight string guitars grew in number over the next few years, and Ibanez quickly reversed course and resumed production of seven-string models in 1997.

Other major manufacturers introduced seven-string models around the same time, though it took nearly a decade for several companies to offer more than a handful of seven-string models in their product lines.

Over the last 15 years, the market for seven and eight string guitars has changed dramatically, as have the designs of many of the instruments. Today, guitarists can choose from hundreds of different models, and a few manufacturers each offer a larger variety of models than the entire industry did at the turn of the millennium.

Around the same time as the seven string guitar boom, a few companies began to offer the first mass-produced eight-string models, providing yet another appealing alternative instrument for guitarists interested in exploring a wider sonic range than that of a standard six-string guitar.

The design of the seven and eight string guitar has evolved over time to include instruments with extended scale lengths and alternate tunings, making the decision process more difficult for both newcomers and experienced guitarists looking for their first seven and eight string guitar.

While the basic features of a six-string, seven and eight string guitar are essentially the same, many of these attributes on seven and eight string guitars require more careful consideration based on how one intends to play 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 tuning), 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 was probably more than anything to blame for their initial failure to catch on), and a wide range of budget-priced instruments, as well as expensive boutique models that can be customised to a player’s preferences, are available to choose from.

We’ve put together the following shopper’s guide to help demystify today’s seven and eight string guitars. It discusses several of the most important features to consider before making a purchase.

The seven and eight string guitars are almost entirely new instruments in some ways, but the differences between them and standard six-string guitars are not as significant as the difference between a six-string guitar and a bass. When a guitarist knows what to look for, purchasing one’s first seven- or eight-string guitar is as simple as adding another guitar to one’s growing collection.

Factors That Matter in Seven and Eight String Guitars:

Length of the Scale

Probably 99 percent of all six-string solid-body electric guitars made today have scale lengths between 24.5 and 25.5 inches, but scale lengths on seven and eight string guitars are much wider, ranging from 25.5 inches to 27 inches or more.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

Eight-string guitars typically have scale lengths of at least 27 inches, with a few exceptions (such as the Ibanez M80M Meshuggah signature) measuring nearly 29.5 inches. A guitarist who is used to playing a Gibson Les Paul with a 24.75-inch scale may find it difficult to play a guitar with a scale that is 1.5 inches longer or more than they are used to.

A seven and eight string guitar with a scale length of 25.5 inches is ideal for a six-string guitarist looking to make a quick, easy, and comfortable transition. Longer scale instruments, on the other hand, provide certain sonic advantages, particularly for players who want to tune down the lowest string or the entire guitar a whole step or more.

Tuning down on a shorter scale seven and eight string guitar reduces string tension to the point where the lowest strings can feel too slinky and loose, making those strings difficult to play in tune as even the slightest amount of excess pressure while fretting notes can bend the pitch. Some players compensate by using heavier string gauges, but heavier gauge strings on shorter scale instruments can cause intonation issues, and heavier gauge strings may not fit into the tuning pegs.

Longer scale lengths necessitate more string tension when tuning to the same pitch as a shorter scale instrument, allowing players to use lighter string gauges that they are more comfortable with (especially on the high E string) rather than the heavier gauge strings required to maintain adequate tension on shorter scale instruments. Longer scales, on the other hand, allow players to use heavier strings at lower tensions, making heavy strings easier to play, especially when bending notes.

Several manufacturers now sell seven and eight string guitars with fanned frets (also known as multiple-scale fretboards), in which the nut, bridge, and frets are installed at varying angles rather than perpendicular to the strings. These instruments offer the best of both worlds, with 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 as well as bright tone and reliable intonation provided by adequate bass string tension.

Fanned scale lengths typically range from 25.5 inches for the high E string to 26.5 or 27 inches for the low B string, and up to 28 inches for a seven and eight string guitar.

Width of the Nut

The general rule for seven and eight string guitars is the same as for six-string guitars: narrower nut widths are more comfortable for players with smaller hands, while wider nut widths are better for players with larger hands or who want more space between each string to facilitate fretting notes more cleanly.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

Depending on the nut width of a seven and eight string guitar, adding an extra string or two can result in strings that are too close together or a neck that is too wide and unwieldy. This is one case where guitarists should try out instruments before purchasing to determine how comfortable the neck width of seven and eight string guitar feels in their hands.

Some seven and eight string guitars 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 the strings are now much more closely spaced together with the addition of an extra string.

If you prefer the same average string spacing as a six-string guitar, look for seven and eight string guitars with nut widths of 47 to 48mm. However, if you’re using lower tunings, you might prefer wider nuts that measure 49 to 51mm to give the lowest bass strings more room to vibrate freely and make finger chords easier when using heavier gauge strings.

It’s especially important to play an eight-string guitar because some players may find instruments with wide string spacing difficult to play, especially when fretting chords on the lower strings. Some players may find that playing eight-string guitars with the same string spacing they’re used to on six-string instruments is impossible, so a narrower nut may be a better option.

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

String Gauge

The gauges of the strings that the instrument was designed to use are a frequently overlooked consideration. Never assume that any seven and eight string guitar can accommodate whatever string gauges the player intends to use. Players who find the lowest string on a 25.5-inch scale guitar to be too loose and floppy may want to use heavier gauges on the lowest strings, but the hardware on some guitars may have difficulty accommodating strings wider than .060 inches.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

The tuning peg’s hole or slot may be too narrow, or the string may be too wide to fit into a locking nut or the holes for a stop, through-body, or tremolo tailpiece where the ball end (or string end) is anchored. Furthermore, on a shorter scale guitar, the bridge saddles may not provide enough travel to properly intonate heavier low-end strings, necessitating the replacement or relocation of the bridge. Some instruments’ action may be too low to accommodate heavier strings, resulting in fret buzz and other issues that cannot be resolved by adjusting the bridge and/or truss rod.

Hardware can be modified or replaced, but it’s better in the long run to get an instrument that can accommodate the strings you intend to use right out of the box, because modifications can cause strings to break easily if not performed properly, and replacement parts may not always fit properly. It is preferable to start with a high-quality instrument. There are so many different models available today that a player should be able to find one that can handle their preferred string gauges without modification.

Neck profile and radius

Because most seven and eight string guitars have wider necks than six-string guitars, the shape of the neck profile and radius can appear exaggerated. Most seven-string and especially eight-string guitars have thin and relatively flat profiles because even an average C-shaped profile can appear excessively 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 must decide what is most important to you.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

When considering cheaper instruments with flat, thin neck profiles, be especially cautious because the materials, construction, and truss rod support may not be strong enough to handle the excess string tension, causing the neck to bend easily (and tuning stability to disappear) when playing. Strumming the open strings while gradually increasing pressure on the back of the headstock, as if pushing the headstock forward. If the pitch dives with only light pressure, you might want to consider an instrument with a more solid and sturdy neck that doesn’t budge as easily.

The radius of most seven and eight string guitars is also larger and flatter than that of a standard six-string guitar. While a 7.25-inch radius on a vintage Tele may appear fine (especially if you only play open cowboy chords on the lower frets), it will appear absurdly rounded on a wider seven- or eight-string neck.

Even a 12-inch radius will have noticeable curvature on a wider neck. Fretboards with a radius of 15 inches or greater mimic the “flat” feel of a modern six-string shred guitar neck more closely. Many models have a compound radius that flattens out further up the neck, making it easier to play chords in the lower registers while allowing for string bending further up the neck.

Ergonomics

Because many seven and eight string guitars have wider and longer necks, the neck may be heavier and unbalanced in relation to the body. It’s critical to test the instrument with a strap in a standing position to ensure that the headstock doesn’t dive to the ground, unless you’re comfortable supporting the neck with your fretting hand for the duration of the gig. Ideally, whether you’re standing or sitting, the guitar should always be in a balanced, comfortable playing position.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

Many seven and eight string guitars have wider and longer bodies, so make sure the larger size is comfortable for you. Body contours can improve playing comfort, but they must conform to your body and arm positions. In contrast to the bulky heels on most set neck and bolt-on neck designs, instruments with neck-through-body or set-thru designs usually have a seamless transition where the neck meets the body.

As a result, a neck-through-body or set-thru instrument is usually more comfortable for guitarists who frequently play above the 15th fret, though neck heels don’t bother many guitarists. It all comes down to what is truly important and comfortable for you.

Most seven and eight string guitars weigh the same or slightly more than a standard six-string solid-body, but don’t be discouraged if you come across a model that’s a little heavier than you’re used to.

Using a wide strap and positioning the instrument higher and closer to your body can compensate for the extra weight to the point where you won’t notice the difference.

Tuning

The most common tuning for a seven-string guitar is (low to high) B-E-A-D-G-B-E, and for an eight-string, the lowest string is usually tuned to F#. Some players prefer to tune the lowest string to A on a seven-string guitar or E on an eight-string guitar.

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

Before you go into a guitar store or place an order online, do some research to determine which tuning the instrument was designed to accommodate. Bring a tuner or a smart phone with a tuning app (unless you have perfect pitch) to ensure that the instrument you’re trying is properly tuned so you can better evaluate how it should play and feel as shipped from the factory.

Amplification/effects

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

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

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

Speakers are a more important consideration because most 10- and 12-inch guitar speakers have prominent midrange frequencies and significantly roll off bass frequencies between 100 and 70 Hz. Because the low B string on a seven-string guitar has a fundamental frequency of about 62 Hz, its fundamental frequency could be -10 to -20dB quieter than the low E string’s fundamental frequency.

When standard guitar speakers are subjected to lower bass frequencies, they may distort sooner than when subjected to normal guitar frequencies, and in some cases, the speakers may blow out. One option is to use speakers with a wider, flatter frequency response, but these speakers can make regular guitar midrange frequencies sound cold and sterile.

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

Many seven and eight string guitar players prefer to use digital modelling amps such as the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II XL and AX8 or Line 6 Spider series heads with a full-range P.A. system. This system can handle a wider range of bass and treble frequencies while still producing the rich midrange tones that guitarists prefer and are used to.

Electronics/pickups

When trying out a seven and eight string guitar, use an amplification setup similar to one you already own or plan to purchase. While playing clean and distorted tones, pay special attention to the lowest bass frequencies to see if the clarity and definition meet your needs and preferences.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

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

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

It all depends on which tonal characteristics are most important to you. Passive pickups may be better if you prefer warm, fat tones with midrange emphasis and greater dynamic responsiveness, but active pickups may be better if you prefer precise clarity and brighter overall tone with a wider frequency range.

It’s worth noting that the pickup configurations for most seven and eight string guitars are less diverse than those for six-string electrics. In fact, the majority of these instruments have dual-humbucker designs, with only a few having a pair of single-coil pickups, a single-coil in the neck or bridge position in addition to a humbucker, or, in extremely rare cases, three pickups (usually a single-coil in between neck and bridge humbuckers).

Many dual-humbucker models include coil-split/tap features for single-coil tones. Most instruments also have only master volume and tone controls, and many have only master volume controls, so if you prefer separate volume and tone controls for each pickup, or more sophisticated tonal shaping capabilities for active pickups, you may need to consider purchasing a custom-made instrument.

Alternatives

Depending on how a guitarist intends to play, a seven and eight string guitar may not be necessary, and a six-string down-tuned standard guitar, long-scale guitar, or baritone may be preferable.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

A seven-string guitar with the seventh string tuned to B adds only five notes, but it can present a significant conceptual shift (such as when playing chords on the bottom four strings) for certain players accustomed to six-string guitars, in addition to the physical adjustments some guitarists will need to make to get used to playing instruments with wider necks and potentially longer scales.

If your band has two guitarists, it may make more sense for the rhythm guitarist to play a baritone and the lead guitarist to play a standard guitar if they mostly stick to chord/riff and full-range solo roles (rhythm player) but want heavier bottom-end punch to fill out the band’s sound. If you spend most of your time on the upper or lower strings, you probably don’t need the extra string(s) or the challenge of learning the fingerings for a new set of chords.

In some bands, the expanded frequency range of a seven- or eight-string guitar may just add to the sonic clutter and serve little useful purpose (such as six-string piccolo bass, keyboards, horns, and so on).

However, if you consistently use the entire range of the guitar and want more, a seven and eight string guitar is a better choice than the various six-string alternatives. A seven- or eight-string guitar may also help players break out of a creative rut by encouraging them to think about their instruments in new ways, whereas a six-string baritone or down-tuned guitar may not.

The additional strings do provide advantages (such as the ability to play bass lines and treble chord voicings at the same time) that a six-string guitar cannot always replicate, so for some applications, a seven and eight string guitar is the only viable option.

Brands

The number of seven and eight string guitar models available today is truly astounding, making it difficult to know where to begin. Big names like ESP/LTD, Ibanez, Jackson, and Schecter, as well as up-and-coming specialists like Jericho, Legator, Strandberg, and Strictly 7, manufacture the most seven- and eight-string models.

Seven and Eight String Guitars
Source: Google

Agile, B.C. Rich, Caparison, Carvin/Kiesel, Charvel, Dean, Ernie Ball Music Man/Sterling by Music Man, Epiphone, Michael Kelly, PRS, and Washburn are some other popular manufacturers of affordable seven-string guitars. Several of these companies (but not all) sell eight-string guitars.

With so many companies making seven and eight string guitars today, it’s safe to say that the instruments are here to stay, and the model selection will continue to evolve and expand in the coming years.

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