Thursday, January 17, 2013

Breaking the Limits of Music: The Seven String Guitar

Quick announcement: For the Spring Semester, starting in December, due to authors traveling abroad (to Italy, South Africa, France, and more!), Unleashed is being published once a month. 
We warmly welcome, once more, the words of Matthew Grasso!

Playing the Extended 7-String Classic Guitar


Perhaps contrary to popular thought, there have been many diverse configurations of the 7-string guitar. The Russian 7-string guitar of the 19th century featured an open G-major tuning (DGBDGBD). Napoleon Coste played a 7-string that had a floating bass string tuned to a low "D" or "C". The modern 7-string usually has a low "B" or "A" string. Occasionally I have seen a 7-string with a higher "A" string as in one of Lenny Breau's guitars. A former student of mine plays an electric 7-string that is a hybrid of a bass and a guitar. It has the first five strings of a guitar (E, B, G, D, A), and the two lower strings of a bass- E and A, and it is fan fretted. Thus, the conceptions of a 7-string guitar are seemingly endless.

I had the great honor of having northern California luthier Greg Byers build my instrument. The low seventh string on this guitar has two extra frets below the nut in an "extended" configuration. The scale length of the seventh string is 729.6 mm; the other six strings are at the standard 650 mm. The seventh string can be tuned to a low "A" or "G". In addition, the first string on this instrument has twenty-two frets or a high "D" as opposed to the high B at the nineteenth fret of most classic guitars- so the upper range of my Byers 7-string is extended as well.

Greg Byers included another unique design innovation on the 7th string of my guitar - a Schubb sliding capo originally conceived for use on the fifth string of the 5-string banjo. The capo is attached to the edge of the fretboard and slides up and down the first five frets of the 7th-string, adding even more versatility and almost instant tuning options. Very little fine tuning is required. When the open 7th-string is tuned to a low "A", I can stop the string chromatically up to a low "D", or if tuned to a low "G", the player can stop the string chromatically up to a low "C". The open string tuning allows me to choose between two string tensions.

The sliding capo on the 7th string allows a change in tuning without having to touch the tuning machines, learn alternate tunings or physically change the 7th string for reasons of optimal string tension. For instance, if the 7th string is tuned to low "A" and I set the capo at low "C", the notes above the "A" or "C" remain the same from a reading or fingering perspective.

I use D'Addario Pro-Arte hard tension strings for the standard 6 strings and a D'Addario NYL056W (.056 gauge) for the 7th string. I have experimented with .052 and .054 gauge strings for the 7th and they simply do not have enough tension for a low B or a low A at 650mm. Whether or not you have a 7-string guitar with the extended 7th string feature, I recommend the .056-gauge D'Addario for the 7th string. I buy my strings from Strings by Mail

I think of the "extended range" of my instrument in two ways: melodic and harmonic/contrapuntal. My guitar's overall range is a major 6th lower and a minor 3rd higher than a traditional guitar. Thus, I have one octave more in melodic range, and in any position I have greater harmonic/contrapuntal facility. This guitar provides access to a range of two octaves and a sixth, up to three octaves in any playing position. In some transcriptions I play notes that exist within the melodic range of the 6-string, but which are simply not possible to play on a 6-string; i.e., they are only accessible in the harmonic range of the 7-string guitar.

(Example 1)

The extended 7-string facilitates a greater number of possibilities in chord voicing, and the number and variety of possible counterpoint lines are also enhanced.

(Example 2)

Transcribing for the 7-String Guitar

Here are some general ideas about transcription discovered through orchestrating for guitar solo, duo, trio, and quartet- all using the extended 7-string guitar to some degree:

Solo Guitar
If the melody is in the soprano voice, I suggest sketching that part first, then the bass line. The inner voices in piano or orchestral writing seldom work as written. You will need to rearrange the voice leading to fit the guitar. With Bach's music, however, I am able to add bass lines to fill out the implied harmonies. Obviously, the added 7th string affords more bass line possibilities as well as greater opportunities for variations in chord voicing.

(Example 3)

Guitar Duo
A skilled guitar duo can sound like one giant guitar. One way to orchestrate four parts for the duo format would be to delegate the bass and alto voices to Guitar 1 and tenor and soprano to Guitar 2 (Example 4). This approach will produce an "interlocking" effect. The 7-string guitar makes it possible to double the bass in which Guitar 2 will play the contra bass, tenor and soprano. I developed this idea from symphonic orchestration; if you listen carefully you'll notice that the cellos and contra basses are often doubled in octaves. This technique really fills out the sound (Example 5), whereas playing the bass part in octaves on one guitar will weaken the orchestration.

(Example 4)

(Example 5)

(Example 6)

Guitar Trio and Quartet
In my opinion, the guitar trio and quartet become less intimate and sound more like chamber or orchestra music. My transcriptions for guitar trio consist of one 7-string guitar and two 6-string guitars, whereas my transcriptions for guitar quartet consist of two 7-string guitars and two 6-string guitars. One of the most monotonous things you can do when transcribing for guitar trio or quartet is to have all the guitars playing all the time. When you hear a full symphony orchestra play, are all the instruments playing all the time? By allowing certain instruments to rest, you promote timbre and dynamic contrasts.

Notation Issues
With the added range of the 7-string guitar, I have encountered two major notation issues. The first problem lies in how to write the lower notes without excessive ledger lines. One solution is to write an "8" beneath any bass note lower than low "D".

(Example 7)

The second problem lies in writing chords with excessive ledger lines. My solution is to use the bass clef written at pitch.

(Example 8)
Some would argue that the bass clef should be written as though sounding an octave lower in pitch, just as guitarists use the treble clef. If the bass clef is written at pitch, however, you'll never exceed three ledger lines above or below the staff; by contrast, writing the bass clef as though sounding one octave lower in pitch can lead to some very high ledger lines above the staff.

(Example 9)

Chord Voicings, Scales, Etc.
The extended 7-string guitar presents the arranger and player with a myriad of new fingering and chord voicing possibilities. For example, let's take the "F" chord. There is only one way to play the voicing of this chord on a 6-string guitar, but on the 7-string, this chord voicing can also be played across the 7th through 4th strings. This fingering gives the chord a much richer sustaining quality as all the notes are being played on the bass strings.

(Example 10)
In playing scale passages one can reduce the amount of shifting because of the extended range available in a single position. The three-octave G-major scale can be played in two positions.

(Example 11)

The cross-string trill shown in Example 12 is not possible to play on a 6-string guitar, but is completely idiomatic to the 7-string.

(Example 12)

The "F#" chord shown in Example 13 is the only chord voicing possible with this bass and soprano on a 6-string guitar. On the 7-string guitar, however, I am able to add the fifth to the chord, creating a richer voicing.

(Example 13)

There is a similar problem in the Bach lute suites. The E major and E minor chords that should be voiced with the root in the bass and soprano voices are compromised on the 6-string guitar by altering the chord to its first inversion or playing the chord with no third.

(Example 14)

So why change to an extended 7-string guitar? I converted for a number of reasons. I am a symphonic musician at heart and love orchestral music more than the traditional guitar repertoire. Like the piano, the increased range of the extended 7-string offers more voicing options; this guitar brings me closer to the piano or orchestra aesthetic.

One day, while transcribing Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2 on a 6-string guitar, I realized I needed something more than 6-strings. Jim Kline, who played an 11-string arch guitar, opened my ears and mind to the potential of the guitar. I loved the sound of the added bass range, but was put off by all those strings. The design features of the Byers extended 7-string guitar gave me access to both lower and higher notes, affording me a greater melodic range than an 11-string. Adding only one more string made more sense in my mind.

I admire all multi-string guitarists, but not one multi-string guitar encompasses a perfect conception of a musical genre; they all present pluses and minuses to varying degrees. The stepwise basses of an 11 or 10-string guitar work better for diatonic music, such as the Baroque style. I felt a certain restriction, however, with having only diatonic bass possibilities, and craved the versatility of chromatic basses.

Although the 7-string guitar has presented me with a bigger mountain to climb mentally and physically, the extra possibilities it affords have made it worth the effort. I had to abandon my previous 6-string guitar repertoire. This led me to create new transcriptions of such works as Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun", and Rachmaninoff's Symphony no.2. I have also composed a handful of new works for the 7-string guitar, including a concerto. The compositional and arranging possibilities afforded by this instrument are truly exciting.

The 7-string guitar is not only for those who have mastered the 6-string guitar. In fact, I have a handful of students who began their studies on a 7-string guitar from day one. Nobody thinks in terms of "Let's master the five-course Baroque guitar before taking on the big 6-string guitar." The extended 7-string guitar, like other multi-string guitars, is a manifestation of the greater potential of this instrument.

I see the extended 7-string guitar as a "restoration" of the instrument, not a new member of the guitar family. If one takes a broader historical view of plucked instruments, and considers the 13-course Baroque lute or theorbo for example- it is clear that a musical interval of a 4th or 5th beneath the low-E string was the standard range. Consider playing the extended 7-string guitar; it could transform your whole consciousness.

About the Author

Matthew Grasso is classical guitarist, composer, arranger, musical instrument innovator, and improviser began playing guitar at age twelve. He attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, were he studied with Scott Tennant, Dusan Bogdanovic, and Lawrence Ferrara and participated in master classes held by artists including Eliot Fisk, David Russell, and the L.A. Guitar Quartet. Matthew complemented this training by studying the classical music of North India at the Ali Akbar College of Music with the late sarod master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Matthew performs on an extended 7-string guitar, 25-stringed raga guitar, and a 14-note octave just intonation guitar. The extended 7-string has an additional bass string and 22 frets on the first-string. This instrument has one octave more in melodic range and greater harmonic/contrapuntal possibilities than the traditional 6-string guitar. The 25-stringed raga guitar is a hybrid of an extended 7-string and the sarod, an Indian instrument. There are 7-playing, 12-sympathetic, 2-chikari, and 4-jawari strings, plus a just intonation fingerboard. The 14-note octave guitar has 6-strings and is set in a 7-limit just intonation microtonal tuning system. Matthew has worked with luthiers Greg Byers, Scott Richter, and Waylin Carpenter to design these instruments, which provide myriad possibilities for transcribing, composing and improvising. 

In his quest for new guitar literature, Matthew has contributed to the classical guitar repertory by transcribing numerous works for solo extended 7-string guitar, including Barber's Adagio for Strings; Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; Rachmaninoff's Symphony no.2; Bach's Chaconne; and other works in the pop vocal genre from the 60’s and 70’s.

As a composer, Matthew has contributed works for solo guitar, guitar ensemble, chamber works for guitar and strings, women’s choir, music in just intonation tuning, and his Guitar Concerto for Extended 7-String Guitar and Orchestra. His music has been set to dance and film, and receives commissions from many artists.

Through his understanding of musical systems of the east and west, he has created a flexible and creative voice in improvisation and has developed a unique style of rendering classical ragas. In addition to keeping with Indian tradition, he has conceived new talas (rhythmic cycles) such as 10 ½, 27 ½, 9 ¼, and 5½, as well as original ragas (melody forms). This music can be heard on his 25-stringed raga guitar with his group, Nada Brahma Music Ensemble.

As a founding member of Trio Seven, the group has established a distinctive sound in the classical guitar ensemble genre. The group performs on three extended 7-string guitars and presents the works of Debussy, Rachmanioff and many other composers leading to groundbreaking transcriptions never imagined on guitar. Trio Seven also specializes in rendering their favorite movie themes.

Matthew performs and lectures throughout Northern California. He was a featured soloist with the Camellia Symphony, Solano SymphonyDavis High School String and Symphony Orchestra, American River College Orchestra, Solano County Youth Symphony and Auburn Symphony Chamber Players under the baton of the late Maestro Michael Goodwin. His recordings include six CDs: Intimate Settings (1995), Echoes of a Lake (1999), Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (2001), Music for the Extended 7-String Guitar (2006), The Five Deadly Talas (2008) and Past, Present, Future (2010). In addition to recordings, Matthew has published,"Playing the Extended 7-String Guitar" inMel Bay's Guitar Sessions, as well as his own compositions and transcriptions. 

Currently Matthew is on the faculty at Sacramento City College, American River College, California College of the Arts, and he teaches privately. He has designed college courses in the area of North Indian and western music, and resides in Davis, California. Matthew's website can be found at:

Matthew Grasso is the high priest at the 7-string guitar church in Davis, California.

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