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An Introduction to Seven String Guitars

For many hundreds of years, almost as long as the idea of the guitar itself has been around, there have been modifications to the conventional design - sometimes this included an extra string! When you hear the term ‘seven string guitar’, your mind naturally wanders towards heavier, more aggressive styles of music. However, this is not always the case and we will be learning about some of those today.

The modern seven string guitar as we know it, with a solid body and menacing styling, was popularized in the mid 1980s by Steve Vai who lent his name to a design by Ibanez guitars. The purpose of this blog post is not only to introduce the idea of extended range guitars, but also to open your minds to what can be achieved with them.

What Is a Seven String Guitar?

Today we will be talking about seven string guitars that have a lower string added to a standard six string configuration. Just like the name suggests, it is a guitar with seven strings. The function is exactly the same up to the seventh string.

Typically, the guitar is tuned as follows:

However, we must add another note to this (highlighted in green). So, we have the following notes with the open strings (from seven to one):

It is possible to find guitars that have an extra string on the higher pitched side of the guitar, though this is less common. In this case, the extra string would be a high A note instead. Also, most modern tuners are easily capable of accurately tuning to this new, lower pitch. Some tuners even have a seven string mode!

Notable Players

The best players have their own unique approach to playing with the extra string. Sometimes it’s really heavy, other times it is not. Here are a few of my favorite ones:

Mikio Fujioka (藤岡幹大)

This guitarist is perhaps one of my favorite players of all time and I was deeply saddened by his untimely passing in 2018. In this particular video he demonstrates the more aggressive side of his playing, though his other material demonstrates a wondrous knowledge of harmonics and played with a unique style that is unmistakably him. 

Equally at home with six or seven string guitars, acoustics and even the ukulele, he uses the extra string as a tool to create the music in his head, and it is not his identity. 

Steve Vai

I mentioned Steve Vai at the start of this post, and I have chosen to include him again here because of his obvious contribution to the world of guitar. The song I linked above is by the band Whitesnake whom Vai played with for a short time - the album itself is considered by many as the turning point for seven string guitar becoming a regular feature in a guitarist’s arsenal. 

According to the man himself, the reason for using extended range guitars on this album was to help fill out the sound between his own playing and the other guitarist, Adrian Vandenberg. So the addition of the string wasn’t for stylistic reasons, and more for aural ones. 

John Pizzarelli

The Pizzarelli name is very well known in the world of jazz guitar, and John Pizzarelli is well known for using a seven string guitar, and making great use of the addition. Listening to any of his music, you could be forgiven for not realizing that it wasn’t a conventional guitar he was playing. 

I recommend you check out his back catalog to really get a feel for how he uses the instrument in a style that couldn’t be further from heavy metal. 

Extended Harmonic and Melodic Possibilities

I personally like to use seven string guitars for the extended harmonic and melodic possibilities. This means that I would have, depending on the number of frets on the guitar, up to 24 more notes to play with. 

From a harmonic viewpoint, I can spread chords further and power really slow, heavy sounds. However, perhaps my favorite use of a seven string guitar is playing a moving bassline, typically a root-five pattern you hear in many styles, typically played by a bassist or piano player. For those interested, you can see an example of a basic bossa nova-style progression in G Major, that uses the seventh string this way.

You can also take something as simple as the major scale and start on the lowest string - bear in mind that this is but one of the many permutations of the major scale that you can achieve in this way. The example below is in the key of D Major:

It is possible to do this with literally any scale, the B string isn’t alien and contains the same notes as the other B string, so you can always copy those if you get a bit lost!

Crushing Riffs

There must be a mention to some of the absolutely crushing riffs played on a seven string guitar. After all, that is what they are known for! Here are some of my favorites:

Jeff Loomis - Jato Unit

The guitar in this example is tuned to as normal, but half a step down - basically, the seven string version of Eb tuning. Brutal! Check out some of the incredible six string sweep picking and tasteful use of the whammy bar too!

Jeff once said that he was criticized for playing too many diminished arpeggios… it sounds good to me!

Trivium - Down From the Sky

This was the very first song that I ever learned on a seven string guitar. There are plenty of dynamic changes, and two distinct guitar parts so you can get used to big chords and supplementary riffs also. It also seems that this song doesn’t rely too much on chugging that low B string - something we’ll touch upon later. 

I think this song is brilliantly arranged too! There are many different sections, but they work very well with each other and it doesn’t feel like too much.

Dream Theater - Dance of Eternity

There are so many masterful aspects to this song, I don’t really know where to begin. The song is basically a showcase for the instrumentalists of the band complete with ridiculous time signature changes, intricate lead lines and many key changes. The mind boggles just listening to it - it makes you envious seeing how they make it look so easy!

Here is a fun challenge - try to figure out what time signatures are being used when the big chords come in after the intro.

Final Thoughts

There is an inherent danger when picking up a seven string guitar for the first time, and that is basing all of your riffs around that open B string. It is great fun to do the first few times, in fact I still enjoy it now, but you should try and avoid letting it take over your playing. Remember, you still have the other six strings to play with so in that sense, it is still an ordinary guitar. 

Be even more wary of buying a seven string guitar online. The guitars tend to have much wider necks to accommodate the extra string and that can be very off-putting the first time around. It takes a lot of work to become accustomed to it properly. Strings don’t really cost any extra, though don’t be surprised if there is a bit of a difference. My last piece of advice would be to carefully consider how you hold the guitar when you stand, and adjusting the strap as needed. This is because the wider neck means you end up holding the neck differently and the last thing you want is any playing related injuries.

Not everyone has experience playing with a seven string, so your teacher might not be able to help in the best possible way. Speak to them, or some of the teachers at The American Guitar Academy to see if they can help you out.

Keep rocking!



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