7-String Guitar Explained

A 7-string guitar usually adds one extra low B note below the E string for a deeper sound, and it's a popular electric guitar type for metal and fusion.

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The 7-string metal guitar has been around since the late 1980s, with Ibanez being one of the first manufacturers to mass-produce the instrument.

Steve Vai, a virtuoso guitarist, collaborated with Ibanez to create the Universe series, which popularized the 7-string electric guitar. But the 7 string has a long history before that.

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Compared to the standard 6-string guitar, the 7-string offers a lower B string, extending the range and allowing for deeper, more aggressive tones. An 8-string guitar takes things further and adds another low string for F#.

In this article, I’ll explore the benefits of the extended range and low tuning, the use of 7-string guitars in metal and fusion music, essential playing techniques, gear and equipment considerations, and advanced concepts that can be applied to 7-string guitar playing.

History of the 7-String Guitar Explained

The history of the seven-string guitar spans over 230 years, with its origins dating back to the Renaissance period (c. 1400–1600) when European guitars generally had four courses, each strung with two gut strings. By the mid-Baroque period (c. 1600–1750), five courses became more common, and by the early 18th century, six double-strung courses were widely used.

Around 1800, the introduction of quality metal-wire strings led to the adoption of single-strung courses, eventually leading to the modern six-string guitar. The seven-string guitar emerged during this time, likely as a result of players’ desire to increase the instrument’s range.

Development In Europe

In Europe, the seven-string guitar gained some popularity, with composers like Napoleon Coste (1805–1883) and Mario Maccaferri (1899–1993) producing works for the instrument. However, it was in Russia where the seven-string guitar truly flourished, with the development of the Russian guitar or “semistrunnaya gitara.” Andrei Sychra popularized the instrument and wrote numerous compositions for it.

Development In the Americas

In the New World, the guitarra séptima or guitarra sétima, with fourteen strings in seven double courses, was known in Mexico since at least 1776. In Brazil, the seven-string guitar gained prominence in the late 19th century as a steel-string instrument used in choro and samba music. The Brazilian style of “baixaria” counterpoint and accompaniment technique was developed throughout the 20th century by musicians like Dino 7 Cordas and Raphael Rabello.

7-String History in Jazz

George Van Eps had a 7-string jazz guitar built for him in the 1930s. Van Eps, who was known for his sophisticated chord melody style, used an additional low A string. This allowed him to play complex basslines and chord voicings that were reminiscent of a piano. Bucky Pizzarelli, who was influenced by Van Eps, also used a 7-string guitar with a low A string, which he used to play intricate chord melodies and solo arrangements.

Tuning the 7th string to A lets you play the same chord shapes as standard tuning just with the traditional A string moved up two strings.

In the 1970s and 1980s, jazz guitarists like Howard Alden and John Pizzarelli (Bucky’s son) continued to use 7-string guitars in their music. Alden, who was known for his virtuosic technique and deep understanding of jazz harmony, used a 7-string guitar with a low A string to play complex chord voicings and solo arrangements. John Pizzarelli, like his father, used a 7-string guitar to play intricate chord melodies and solo arrangements in the style of the great jazz guitarists of the past.

In the 1990s and 2000s, jazz guitarists like Ron Eschete and Lenny Breau began using 7-string guitars with a high A string instead of a low A string. This allowed them to play intricate melodies and solos in the upper register of the guitar, while still maintaining the ability to play complex chord voicings in the lower register.

Today, the 7-string guitar is used by a wide range of jazz guitarists. The 7-string guitar has become an essential tool for jazz guitarists who want to play complex chord voicings, intricate melodies, and solo arrangements in the style of the great jazz guitarists of the past.

7-String History in Metal and Rock

The first mass-produced seven-string solid body electric guitar was the Ibanez UV7, a signature model for Steve Vai. The seven-string guitar gained prominence in the 1990s when the band Korn featured Ibanez Universe guitars on their debut album. During this time, the seven-string guitar was adopted by many heavy metal guitarists, although it briefly faced a stigma as a “nu metal” instrument.

As the popularity of the 7-string guitar grew, manufacturers like ESP, Jackson, and Schecter began producing their own models, each with unique features and specifications. Genres such as metal, djent, and progressive rock embraced the extended range and complex compositions made possible by the 7-string guitar. Influential guitarists like John Petrucci of Dream Theater, Misha Mansoor of Periphery, and Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders further popularized the instrument.

Today, seven-string guitars are used in various genres, including classical, jazz, heavy metal, and folk music, with a range of tunings and configurations to suit different playing styles and preferences.

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Extended Range and Low Tuning

The added low B string on a 7-string guitar allows you to achieve a broader range of pitches, particularly in the lower register. This extended range opens up new possibilities for riff writing, chord voicings, and bass lines. Low tunings like the standard 7-string tuning (BEADGBE) and drop A (AEADGBE), are commonly used to create a heavy, aggressive sound that is well-suited for metal and other heavy music genres.

Pitch shifters and baritone guitars are sometimes used to achieve similar low-end sounds, but the 7-string guitar provides a more natural and integrated approach to extended range playing.

7-String Guitars in Metal Music

Metal music has embraced the 7-string guitar, with many bands and artists utilizing the instrument to create crushing riffs, virtuosic solos, and tight, syncopated rhythms. Genres like djent, progressive metal, and nu-metal have particularly benefited from the extended range of the 7-string.

Notable metal bands and artists known for their use of 7-string guitars include:
  • Korn
  • Meshuggah
  • Dream Theater
  • Periphery
  • Animals As Leaders

The 7-string guitar has played a significant role in the evolution of metal subgenres, allowing for more complex and heavy compositions.

7-String Guitars in Fusion and Jazz

Fusion music, which combines elements of jazz, rock, and other genres, has also seen the adoption of 7-string guitars. The extended range allows guitarists to navigate odd time signatures, advanced chord progressions, and intricate improvisational passages with greater ease. There are also traditional jazz players who use 7-string instruments.

Notable jazz guitarists who use 7-string guitars include:
  • Charlie Hunter
  • Howard Alden
  • Jimmy Bruno
  • Ron Eschete
  • Bucky Pizzarelli
  • John Pizzarelli

The 7-string guitar’s expanded range complements the complex and experimental nature of fusion music.

Techniques and Playing Styles on a 7-String Guitar

To fully utilize the potential of a 7-string guitar, players must adapt and apply various techniques and playing styles. Some essential techniques include:

TechniqueDescription
TappingUsing the right hand to tap notes on the fretboard
Sweep PickingPlaying arpeggios with a sweeping motion
String SkippingPlaying non-adjacent strings to create wide interval leaps
LegatoPlaying smooth, connected notes using hammer-ons and pull-offs
Alternate PickingStrictly alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes
Economy PickingCombining alternate picking with sweep picking for efficiency

Adapting these techniques to the 7-string guitar requires practice and adjustments to accommodate the additional string and extended range.

If you’re thinking of switching from a 6 to a 7 string, know that a 7-string can be a bit harder to play at first. You might hit the low B string on accident with your picking hand when playing riffs based on the open E string. It’s also a bit difficult getting used to how open chords feel with the lower string. But after a few hours of playing you’ll make sense of it.

Gear and Equipment for 7-String Guitars

To get the most out of a 7-string guitar, it’s essential to pair it with the right gear and equipment. High-gain amplifiers, such as the Peavey 6505 or Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, are popular choices for achieving the heavy, distorted tones associated with metal and heavy fusion music.

Effects pedals, like overdrive, distortion, and delay, can further shape the sound of a 7-string guitar. Some popular pedals for 7-string guitarists include:

  • Ibanez Tube Screamer
  • Boss DS-1 Distortion
  • Fortin 33
  • Horizon Devices Precision Drive

Pickups designed specifically for 7-string guitars, like the Seymour Duncan Nazgul or DiMarzio Crunch Lab, can help to capture the full range and clarity of the instrument.

Proper setup and maintenance, including intonation adjustments, truss rod tweaks, and string changes, are important for keeping a 7-string guitar playing its best.

Exploring Advanced Concepts on a 7-String Guitar

The 7-string guitar’s extended range opens up new possibilities for exploring advanced musical concepts. Microtonal tunings, which divide the octave into intervals smaller than a semitone, can be used to create unique and exotic sounds. Prepared guitar techniques, such as placing objects on the strings or using unconventional playing implements, can further expand the sonic palette.

Incorporating dissonance, syncopation, and polyrhythms into 7-string guitar playing can add depth and complexity to compositions. Applying music theory concepts, such as modal playing, chromaticism, and counterpoint, can help guitarists navigate the extended range and create engaging, sophisticated pieces.

Some advanced concepts to explore on a 7-string guitar include:

  • Phrygian dominant mode
  • Diminished scales
  • Polymeters
  • Call and response phrasing
  • Post-tonal theory and atonal chords

By diving into these advanced concepts, you can push the boundaries and create truly unique and innovative music.

7-String Guitar: Conclusion

The 7-string guitar is a powerful tool that offers guitarists an extended range and a vast array of sonic possibilities. From the heavy, aggressive tones of metal to the complex, improvisational nature of fusion, the 7-string guitar has found its place in a variety of music genres.

By understanding the history, techniques, gear, and advanced concepts associated with the 7-string guitar, players can unlock its full potential and create innovative, genre-defying music. As more guitarists embrace the 7-string and manufacturers continue to develop new models and features, the future of the instrument looks bright and exciting.

7 String Guitar Explained: FAQ

Below are a few frequently asked questions about 7 string guitars:

Who was the first jazz guitarist to have a seven-string electric guitar built for him?

George Van Eps had a seven-string guitar built for him by Epiphone Guitars in the late 1930s, which may be the first regular-production seven-string electric guitar.

What was the first mass-produced seven-string electric guitar?

The first mass-produced seven-string electric guitar was the Ibanez UV7, a signature model for Steve Vai.

How did the seven-string guitar gain prominence in the 1990s?

The seven-string guitar gained prominence in the 1990s when the band Korn featured Ibanez Universe guitars on their debut album, leading to its adoption by many heavy metal guitarists.

What genres is the seven-string guitar used in today?

Today, seven-string guitars are used in various genres, including classical, jazz, heavy metal, and folk music, with a range of tunings and configurations to suit different playing styles and preferences.