As with many things in modern music, designs are changing, and even the more “out there” instruments are becoming pretty mainstream. Guitars are a perfect example – not only do guitars come in all shapes and sizes now, but they also come in a number of string setups.
In this KillerGuitarRigs guide, we’ll be lifting the lid on the frequently asked question “how many strings does a guitar have?” and teaching you all about alternative designs and extended range guitars.
Where it All Started
The guitar as we know it today came into existence somewhere around the middle of the 19th century. It evolved from medieval stringed instruments, some of which you may have heard of, such as the lute.
Until this point, guitars didn’t all have 6 strings and their tuning scales varied depending on who made them, but eventually, most players leaned toward the setup we know and love today – 6 strings tuned to EADGBE.
The reason that EADGBE tuning was settled on isn’t exactly documented, but it is believed that a combination of comfort, practicality and volume drove the design to that direction.
As synthetic plastics weren’t invented until around 1907, and steel strings weren’t yet in use, these early guitars replied on animal products such as intestine for their strings, hence the phrase “gut strings”. The use of natural products did give a particular warmth to the tone, but they were inconsistent and difficult to work with.
Modern Six Strings
Today’s six string guitars are tuned the exact same way as those early classical instruments of the mid-1800s. The biggest variation in the strings from then ‘til now, is, of course, the technology used, and the materials employed.
Classical guitars now use nylon strings as a gut substitute, while electric and steel string guitars use metal strings comprised of various alloys, each designed with different tones, volumes, and performances in mind.
In either case, the strings are still tuned to EADGBE, and are sometimes referred to by string number as shown below:
The 1 string, or high E is the thinnest string. The rest of the strings get progressively thicker towards the low E, or 6 string. It seems counter intuitive, but the 6 string is the string that sits closest to you when holding your guitar in the playing position.
The three strings at the bass side, E, A, D (6, 5, 4) are known as wound strings. They have a central core wrapped in a metal coil. This allows for manufacturers to make the strings thicker, while still retaining strength and flexibility.
Bass guitars provide the lows in a band, and to do so they need to use vastly different strings to a standard six string guitar. To produce the deep notes, a bass guitar needs much thicker strings than a guitar.
A standard bass has 4 strings, tuned similarly to a guitar – E, A, D, G. Bass guitars are typically plucked with the index and middle fingers, although some players, particularly in genres like punk, where speed is required, use a pick.
Like guitars, basses are also available in extended range, with 5, 6, and sometimes even 7 strings. 5 String basses are continuously increasing in popularity due to their increased versatility, but 6 and 7 string instruments remain fairly niche.
The name is something of a giveaway, but just in case, these guitars are equipped with 12 strings. Unlike extended range guitars, however, they are tuned in six pairs, or courses. On most 12 strings, the lower four courses are tuned one octave apart, while the top two courses are tuned in identical pairs.
As far as playing goes, each course of strings is treated as though it were a single string. Because of this, the pairs of strings are mounted close to one another, with larger gaps between courses. This helps to prevent the guitar from needing an excessively wide neck.
If you’re interested in the possibilities for 12 string tunings, check out our guide on how to tune a 12 string guitar.
Extended Range Guitars
Extended range guitars come in both acoustic and electric, although it is much more common to find them as electrified instruments.
7 String guitars follow the standard 6 string tuning setup but add an additional B string below the low E at the bass end.
8 String guitars used to be rare, exotic instruments, but these days they are as widely available as a 7 string, and they’re widely carried by all major guitar retailers. Standard tuning is F#, B, E, A, D, G, B, E, although as extended range guitars are widely used for metal, some crazy drop tunings are frequently used.
Guitars with 9 or more strings do exist, but honestly, they are more of a novelty than anything else. They’re difficult to play and have limited use within mainstream music.
Jimmy page made the legendary Gibson EDS-1275 famous, but many other huge names in rock have adopted it, and other multi neck guitars. These instruments can have any number of strings depending on the combination of scales they utilize.
A double neck could have a 6 string and a bass neck, or more commonly, a 6 string and a 12 string. British comedian and musician, Bill Bailey, owns and even plays an extraordinary 6 neck guitar with a grand total of 40 strings!
While most people automatically think of guitars and assume 6 strings, there are in fact many different styles of guitar with varying numbers of strings. Each will require time and practice to master, but because of the standard EADGBE tuning invented way back in the mid 19th century the principles remain the same, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting started with a more unusual guitar design.