Guitars aren't complete without strings, but how many strings do they have? The string is the means by which the soundwave is created and then resonated through the guitar's soundbox after plucking. As is the case with any other instrument, guitars have many variants, as they have been evolving over time from other similar string instruments.
How many strings do guitars have? The standard guitar has 6 strings, and the standard bass has 4 strings. Many have additional strings for extra range (7+ string guitars and 5+ string basses). 12-string acoustics and multi-neck guitars are also built. There are other guitar types with strange string counts beyond 6 (or 4 for bass).
Whenever we're asked how many strings a guitar has, one is tempted to answer with a set number according to a standard definition. Nonetheless, the meaning of guitar is not bound by its string count. In this article, we'll discuss the standard guitar along with the variety of guitar string count variants.
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How Many Strings Do Guitars Have?
Guitars, as we've traditionally known them, are designed with six strings.
However, the bass guitar has historically been built to fasten four strings, tuned according to the four lowest notes of a guitar, albeit one octave below.
Over the years, we have seen the rise of many different alternative configurations that defy the “orthodox” six-string standard. Some of these variants stretch far back in history. For example, the Russian guitar (also known as the “gypsy guitar”) is an example of a 19th-century guitar with a 7-string setting, tuned to open G (DGBDGBD).
Many modern guitarists utilize 7-string electric guitars to take advantage of that extra bass sound, essentially adding a B-string below the E-string (similar to how a standard 5-string bass is tuned).
This extended low-end range has been expanded to 8-string guitars, which are becoming popular in metal and progressive music subgenres. 9 and 10 strings guitars are also being built, though they are less popular (how low can you go, really?).
12-string acoustic guitars, as the name suggests, are designed with 12 strings. These string sets are designed with pairs of strings. The high e and B strings, which are typically thin, unwound and tuned high, are doubled in unison. The 4 lowest strings, which are thicker and wound, have an unwound partner string designed to be tuned an octave above.
Multi-necked guitars are also a curious display. They rose to popularity in Hawaii (and the rest of America, as a result) in the form of lap steels, which were the earliest versions of multi-necked electric guitars. Still, They played unconventionally, as in, on the lap (hence the name). Multi-necked guitars come in various sizes and ranges, and some of them may surpass the 20-string count very easily.
Bass guitars, while usually built to accommodate four strings, can also reach very hefty configurations. Extended-range bass guitars can attain surprisingly wide ranges, with the resulting neck being too difficult to handle at times. The most common types of extended-range electric bass guitars carry five strings, but six strings are not uncommon.
Harp guitars have been around since the late 18th century. No particular brand stands out, but its very peculiar shape and use case makes the harp guitar stand out amongst most designs. They usually come with 20 strings, six attached to the neck as a conventional guitar, while the rest are free-standing and tuned to a custom scale, ordinarily diatonic.
One advantage of using a harp guitar is the ability to seamlessly play broad arpeggios or fuller chords and the capability of employing a wider range of bass and treble notes that can be played in unison. By contrast, double-necked or multi-necked guitars, while sporting similar features, are not aimed at attaining a fuller harmony but are rather built as a convenient way to shift between two guitar types without changing gears.
Lastly, we have the smaller guitar types, some of which are directly linked with Renaissance instruments. They often come with four strings, although each type carries a different tuning. The Portuguese/Brazilian cavaquinho, the Venezuelan cuatro, and the Hawaiian ukulele are notable examples with their alternative versions. Of course, these “variants” may very well be considered their own musical instruments at this point.
A Bit Of Guitar String Count History
The guitar is purported to have been devised in Spain at the turn of the 16th century, although some scholars speculate that the earliest form of the guitar came from Ancient Greece. The very word “guitar” appears to come from the Greek kithara, and it was posited that Hermes created the first guitar ever from a turtle shell.
Canonically speaking, though, the guitar's predecessors were the oud and the lute. These early instruments are of unknown origin but can be found depicted in Ancient Egyptian tombs and other assorted archaeological findings of great value.
Renaissance lutes played an important role in European chamber music and served as basso continuo accompaniment during the Baroque era. They had also evolved in such a way that they could fit up to 30 strings.
Early guitars were made during that time with a more ergonomic form that would make them more comfortable to hold and play, making them the go-to string instrument by the mid-18th century. At first, they started being crafted with five gut string courses and moveable frets. Then, during the last decade of the 18th century, luthiers started adding one more string course, resembling the standard guitar seen today.
Antonio de Torres Jurado is attributed as the father of the modern guitar. With a reduced belly, increased curvature, and a more advanced tuning mechanism, this design will be a staple for future generations. Andres Segovia would be the person responsible for establishing these guitars as concert instruments. The “classical guitar” trend started taking shape, reaching North and South America alike by the early to the mid-20th century.
Today, the most common tuning for an ordinary guitar is EADGBE. This tuning was not always the norm for string instruments, though. The mandolin and violin instrument families tuned originally in fifth intervals.
Nevertheless, the first guitar to have a similar tuning to the modern guitar was the Italian guitarra battente – appearing in the 16th century – which played virtually all modern guitar notes sans the low-G (being a 5-course guitar). To wit: ADGBE (from bass to treble).
The reason for this development, Richard Lloyd would argue, is that the larger-scale length of the guitar made it more comfortable to be tuned in perfect fourths and one major third. This configuration made fingering a lot easier, and the player could render the most commonly used scales with more dexterity. Violins, on the other hand, being small-scaled, could conversely be handled with fifths without any hassle.
Some local guitars were customarily arranged, at times, in very heterodox ways, according to the most popular chords and scales used in that specific region. The most curious aspect of these tunings is that the strings do not play in consistently ascending or descending intervals. Still, they had occasionally interjected lower notes after a series of ascending notes.
One relevant example of an irregularly-tuned small guitar is the ukulele, which plays a C right after a G, followed by an E and an A. The Venezuelan cuatro has the second-lowest note as the last note (from top to bottom), rendering the notes ADF#B (A being the lowest note) upon plucking.
In the case of 7-string guitars, the most common tuning is (from low to high) BEADGBE, while 8-string ones add a lower F#. These bass notes are favoured by many metal bands (notably djent) because of the deep tone they afford.
Now that we've traversed some important data concerning history, tunings, and other miscellaneous ideas concerning different guitar types and string arrangements, let us delve into some of the most illustrious examples of guitars that have set trends in the musical world.
1. Ibanez UV7
Ibanez's Universe UV7 is deemed the first-ever mass-produced 7-string electric guitar, developed and marketed in the early '90s, under the auspices of Steve Vai.
This guitar was discontinued in 1994 but, by a rare twist of fate, more renowned guitarists and bands started consistently using the signature guitar after that year, including Cannibal Corpse's Jack Owen, Dream Theater's John Petrucci, and the Progressive Death Metal band Meshuggah.
2. Abasi Larada 8
The Abasi Larada 8 is an 8-string guitar from Tosin Abasi's guitar company.
In addition to 8 strings, this excellent guitar features signature pickups from Fishman, fanned Ebony fretboard with 24 X-Jumbo stainless steel frets, individual bridge saddles for each string, and Abasi locking tuners at the guitar head.
3. Rutherford's Shergold Modulator twin-neck guitar and bass
This may not have been the first time we've seen a famous guitarist or musician using a custom-made guitar, but this is one of the most talked-about instances.
Mike Rutherford, a founding member of Genesis, started playing both bass and 12-string guitar, the latter in collaboration with lead guitarists Anthony Phillips (who only played for the band's debut album and Trespass) and Steve Hackett.
The way they arranged the songs eventually prompted him to develop a way to quickly switch between the two guitars, as some songs alternated rather swiftly between sections that called for both instruments. Thus, the Modulator allowed Rutherford to seamlessly play both parts without the hindrance of having to switch instruments during a live session or concert.
This uniquely designed instrument had several modular elements that allowed for more flexible odd tunings. It could be attached on a whim, allowing for a wide myriad of twin-neck combinations between lead, 12-string, and bass guitars.
The Pikasso was crafted specifically by the request of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, consisting of a three-neck structure with a capacity for as many as 42 strings. It also had a hexaphonic pickup mounted that worked in tandem with his Synclavier.
Linda Manzer, the Pikasso's designer, invented “the Wedge”, which is a feature by which the guitar's body under the right arm was thinned, allowing the player to see all the strings while playing. This reportedly increased the playing experience and the ergonomic quality of the guitar.
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