Q: "What's the seventh string for?"
As if six weren't enough
Six string guitars, as we know them, were finalized in basic design at the turn of the last century. Curiously, at the present there is an interest in sevenstring guitars among jazz guitarists, as evidenced in requests that luthiers get from major players. This three part series about the seven stringer will tell you all you need to know to determine whether there is room for an extra string in your life.
What it is
A seven-string guitar is simply a guitar with an additional heavy (.80 mm) seventh A string tuned an octave lower. This low string is usually the last string on the bottom side, but not necessarily. The late Lenny Breau, for instance, put an extra light string on the highest side, keeping the standard low E on the bass. Most seven string players tune the lowest string to an A, or, alternately, a B.
Lenny Breau's 7-string - Lenny put an extra light string on the highest side, keeping the standard low E on the bass credit
Who wants it and who needs it?
Why is there popularity now among some jazz guitarists? The extra string gives greater depth and a seven stringer is fun to play, but I think the reality of economics is also pushing the trend. Jazz gigs being what they are and paying what they do, more individual musicians are playing one-man band solo guitar jobs using the seven stringer. The extra low A fills out the lower range, making the guitarist sound like he has a bassist. A two-man band for the price of one is appealing to the of music employer.
Hock your car?
Seven stringers live in the domain of custom made guitars. Even with a rising interest among players, there still isn't demand the for a guitar company to tool up and build them on an assembly line basis. What to do? Larger commercial guitar companies have custom design departments. All you need is cash. Contacting a private luthier is another-an even more expensive route. Another way is to find a luthier to either widen or replace the neck of your present guitar with a custom made seven string neck. As for a production line nylon seven string classical guitar, I've never seen one. Eight and ten string models are common, however. Expect to pay at least $2,000 for a handmade classical guitar.
Locating a used instrument
Gretsch Corporation stopped making the George Van Eps model seven string guitar in the early 70's and Ibanez discontinued the model Steve Vai endorsed in the 80's. A used seven string instrument is the least expensive way to go. You can still find them occasionally in pawn shops, music specialty stores such as Mandolin Brothers or Matt Umanov, swap meets, magazines such as 20th Century Guitar Magazine and other guitar catalog magazines. They are generally available on the web - check out the seven string guitars at jazzguitarsforsale.com.
Cobbling one together one way or another
The least expensive route would be for you to modify an existing six string. Here's how. Find a wide neck 12-string guitar (flat-tops, usually) and have the nut and saddle notched for seven string spacing. Some 12-string guitars have the same nut spacing as a standard six string, so find a wide neck instrument, not a standard width one.
Need a suitable pickup? Experiment with your cobbled creation. Try using those old pickups lying around from other guitar projects. I didn't care for the sound of the pickups on my original Gretsch seven stringer so I surface-mounted two staggered p-bass pickups (four pole pieces each) which worked fine. Seven string pickups are commercially available, too. Luthier Bob Benedetto has a line of pickups which includes three seven string pickups.
Faking 7 strings
If you are attracted to the seven string sound ask yourself if it is the additional string you like, or is it the depth of the low A (7th string) that grabs you. If it is the additional string, then you need an additional string, period. If it is the depth, you can use your existing six string to emulate the sound of the lower string. Have a hexaphonic pickup installed with strings 1,2,3,4,6 wired together (or any configuration of five strings) as one pickup, 5 as the other, and run them as two outputs using a stereo cord. Plug the 5th string output through an octave divider (stomp box device style) so that you can foot-step your way in and out of the low A world. You can wire both 5th and 6th strings together and put them through the octave divider. Finally, the simplest way to hear a low A emanating from your guitar is to actually have one put on in place of the sixth string. The obvious problem is that you are stuck with that low A. At least it is easily removed.