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









4. Learning to Play

Taking the case of 'the serious amateur' who wishes to explore what multi-string guitars have to offer, what is it like to learn to play one of these instruments? In the well-known words of the Irishman when asked for directions: "Well, I wouldn't start from here!". In spending several years learning to play a six string, two related things will have occurred,

1) a whole range of 'visual cues' will have been assimilated 'to know where one is', both on the fret-board and simultaneously where the plucking hand is,

2) very fine motor skills will have been learnt that enable the thumb and the remaining fingers to find the correct strings during the action of plucking.

On taking up a ten string, these two interrelated activities are now subject to

1. significant disorientation ­ your visual cues are undermined,

2. your plucking hand will not readily find the required bass string, at first, not without looking at the strings ­ a potentially disabling habit if persisted in.

Unlike the six-string members of the guitar family, where adjustment takes places very quickly, typically, a first adjustment within a few tens of seconds, and significant refinement, in many cases, in a matter of minutes, your first experience of trying to play a multi-string guitar is almost certain to be disappointing. Though there may be exceptionally-gifted individuals who adjust very quickly, I venture to suggest most capable players will find,

1. trying to sight-read a simple piece with an occasional open-string bass, will result in an inaccuracy in finding the bass notes and a degree of fumbling of the top six strings that was left behind some years ago,

2. your standard repertoire, so fluently performed on your six-string, will 'fall-apart' far too often on your ten-string ­ you will suddenly find that 'you don't know where you are on the fret-board', and your plucking is not as accurate as you have come to expect.

While all this is potentially very discouraging, you will also discover that the sonority of the ten-string is so attractive, that 'the game does seem worth the candle'. The very simple experience of finishing a piece in C or D with aid of string eight or seven, will impress upon you the difference a ten-string can make. As also indicated earlier, the enhanced acoustical ambience of these instruments is a delight in itself. So, how does one build up again the fluency one had previously, noting that the best way to learn a ten-string is to start at the very beginning of one's playing with a ten-string?

Before giving ideas on how this can be done, the problems encountered in starting to play a multi-string guitar are met at full strength in attempting a ten-string in baroque tuning and this is why this type is singled-out. A seven-string neophyte will experience the same difficulties, but in reduced form and will come to reasonable terms with this instrument probably within a few weeks. An eight-string instrument does not produce the same level of disorientation as a ten, but requires noticeably more effort than a seven to achieve reasonable fluency. Thus, indications on how to familiarise oneself with a ten, apply to seven and eight, where appropriate, and success should appear much more quickly on these instruments. On the basis of this observation, Brian Whitehouse, cf. ref 1, proposes a method of gaining familiarity with a multi-string guitar by taking off the additional bass-strings. Initially, play six-string repertoire on the remaining six, for some days and thereby start the process of gaining visual accommodation to the wider fret-board. This done, add the seventh string and commence exercises and pieces to adjust to bass-D tuning. After perhaps a week, add the eighth and work at exercises and pieces incorporating the two strings. Repeat the process for strings nine and ten. This approach particularly helps the process of re-learning visual cues. A further device which offers considerable help in visual adjustment is to use a bronze / copper-coloured 7th string. This clear delineation of where the bass-strings start really does seem to offer a point of reference which is quickly learnt. For example, top-string playing does not fall-apart as readily. It is, as indicated when strings were being described, possible to have all four basses coloured, and this will help. Colour differentiation is not an instant cure for disorientation, but it does speed up the process of accommodation. The other major problem to be addressed is the re-learning of the motor skills, particularly the plucking action of the thumb in relation to the fingers. This, of course, goes on during the string-adding process, and will almost certainly have to continue after all are in place. The following exercises give an idea of the kinds of skill that have to be addressed.

Other than disorientation, the most upsetting feature of trying to play a ten-string is the inaccuracy in finding the additional bass-strings. Indeed, with them added even the sixth string becomes somewhat problematical, and the fifth a little uncertain. I recommend a process that in some ways parallels the string-adding approach.

Step 1. Find simple pieces in D but without bass D tuning, and drop the fourth string finishing note of the final chord or its fifth-fret equivalent, to the seventh string. In other words, play the piece, but simply enhance the final chord.

Step 2. Take straight-forward pieces with bass D tuning and use the seventh string instead.

Step 3. One of the crucial skills to develop is to have the thumb 'jump' accurately and quickly in a broken chord sequence. Two good examples are given in refs 10 and 11.

Further steps endeavour to repeat the foregoing as succeeding strings are added. Unfortunately, there are very few pieces with bass C-, B or A tunings, so one must take simple pieces in appropriate keys, for example, keys C or F for the eighth string, keys E / Em, B / Bm or G for the ninth string, keys D / Dm, or A / Am for the tenth string, and add open string bass notes where tastefully appropriate. With all strings in place, an extremely useful exercise is to play octave-coupled scales using the bass strings, that is, one or two octaves apart. To this should be added chord exercises, viz., devise sequences of well-known chords which can use strings four to ten as bass notes, and arrange them in sequences ascending and descending, and then jumping one string at a time, two at a time and so on, finally playing them in sequences that alternate ascent and descent of the bass-notes.

In the course of these exercises, one will be looking at repertoire, and so you would probably like to know how long is it going to take to come to some reasonable fluency. The answer is of course, "as long as a piece of string", for it all depends on the amount of practice and native ability. But if we say an hour a day's practice for an experienced amateur player, then I expect the rate of progress to be something like the following:

1. Three-to-four weeks to move from very poor performance to getting a simple piece right occasionally, but sight-reading still poor.

2. Within three months becoming confident, but not consistently accurate from memory, sight reading improved but not secure.

3. Within a further three months getting it right practically all the time from memory, sight reading much improved.

I have refrained from giving an optimistic version of events, for embarking on mastering a multi-string guitar requires determination and patience.

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

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