More Than Six
or Playing the Notes Other Guitars Cannot Reach, by James R. Smith

1. Intro | 2. Guitar Types | 3. Strings | 4. Learning | 5. Repertoire | 6. Conclusion | This article was originally published in Classical Guitar Magazine






1. Introduction

We are all heirs to the Segovian view of what constitutes a classical guitar, viz., a six-stringed instrument, tuned in E and of relatively large-scale length ­ at least 65cm. Guitars have not always been in this form. In the Renaissance, they were smaller and had four courses, in the Baroque, five, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century began to emerge in six string form. Thus, change in the number of strings has covered a period of perhaps two hundred and fifty to three hundred years. This can be contrasted with what happened to the lute over the period 1500 to 1650, say. Starting from a five course lute in late Medieval times, it had six courses in the earlier half of the sixteenth century, seven and eight were common by the end of this century, with nine and ten following on rapidly, and by the mid-seventeenth century eleven and thirteen courses were used by the serious player. Thus, the lute expanded its courses by a factor of about two, in about half the time it took the guitar to reach its currently common format. The reasons for this probably lie in the usages of the two instruments, the lute was used for 'art' music and was expected to perform the elements of polyphony and complex harmonic structures, whereas the guitar, although having some complex music composed for it even in its four-course form, had a long history as an instrument for strumming, that is, simple song-accompaniment or as part of the rhythm section of an ensemble.

In its current six-string form, there has been, without question, much fine music written and adapted for it, especially in the last century. While all instruments are of limited compass, the guitar with its accessible range of just over three octaves, quickly reveals its limitations when trying to adapt pieces written for keyboard or ensemble. The problem reveals itself in two ways. Given that the guitar plays an octave lower than seemingly indicated by its treble clef, endeavouring to play a keyboard piece (for example) shows that while one expects to find the notes from the treble clef on the guitar, notes from the bass clef can only be accommodated in correct octave relation down to E (second space down), or D (middle line) if bass D tuning is envisaged. Lower re-tunings do not usually help as the sixth string becomes too flexible, and higher bass notes are often awkwardly fingered. If the piece is of a suitable 'character' for guitar, key transposition may help. In the course of the arrangement, one is also likely to find that the top and bottom notes certainly exist on a guitar, but it is not possible to 'stretch' the left-hand to play them, or fret them in conjunction with other required notes. One is therefore required to delete or 'jump octaves' to make the chord or sequence playable.

Nevertheless, it is often truly impressive as to what a skilled arranger can achieve, witness Scarlatti sonatas and many works by Granados and Albeniz. I am sure you can all think of many other examples. The problems can be addressed by a group of guitars, ranging from a duo of tenor guitars, to ensembles using the full guitar family from bass to octave. However, this option is not open to the solo player ­ and most of us are solo players, though perhaps not soloists! While the idea of limitation has been introduced by the problem of arrangement, there is clearly an opportunity for enhanced musical expression if the guitar adopts a similar strategy to that taken by the lute many centuries ago. It is the purpose of this article to explore the possibilities and associated issues. Before starting, I am sure many readers will already be thinking something along the lines: "Surely it is well-known that multi-string guitars (that is, guitars with more than six strings) suffer from a problem of excessive sympathetic resonance / over-ringing that constitutes a serious barrier to effective performance?". It is certainly true that some ten-string instruments introduced in the 1960's did suffer from this problem. My impression is that changes in construction over the last twenty years have considerably reduced this tendency. Note, all experienced players have to address this problem even with six strings. In the case of additional bass strings, similar techniques apply to those already used for six, and, in any event, where general resonance does start, a passing light touch with a convenient part of the right hand is all that is required to bring matters under control. In my experience, sympathetic resonance is NOT a major issue. As I hope to show, the advantages of multi-string guitars are so considerable that concern over this issue is misplaced.

The article will start by describing traditional multi-string guitars and some current developments, move on to learning to play, strings, and close by discussing repertoire.

NEXT | 1. Intro | 2. Guitar Types | 3. Strings | 4. Learning | 5. Repertoire | 6. Conclusion

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