EIGHT STRING FAQ

The following is a series of questions about the eight string, and my answers, that were originally part of a post on rmmgj, the jazz guitar newsgroup:
Does it take a lot of time getting used to a wider neck?
somewhat; that part wasn't THAT big of a deal, though.
Do you feel you can do most of the things technique-wise that you can with a regular electric 6 string, maybe with some adjustment here and there?
that's probably a good way of putting it. One major breakthrough that happened for me a month or two ago was that I finally reached the point where I could, within reason, ignore the extra strings when playing something challenging enough that I had trouble dealing with the extra strings (like soloing over Giant Steps at a fast tempo, for example; for a while I couldn't even pretend to do something like that but now I've gotten to the point where I can sort of ignore the high A and maybe add it into the mix every once in a while) Of course, I still try in my practice to force myself to play all 8 strings "equally" but in a performance situation it's comforting to be able to "tune out" the extra ones when I need to. Not that this always works, of course. I still hit several wrong strings per gig.
One thing that has been quite a challenge for me, and that I didn't predict at all, has been the fact that (and I never realized this before) my left hand uses the edge of the neck by the high E string as a reference point. That was one big thing that was screwing me up with regards to being able to "ignore" the high A when I needed to. I'm slowly having to retrain my brain to think of the high E string as not being on the edge of the fingerboard. Oddly enough, the more I get into it, the less trouble I have switching back to 6 string. It's almost as though now the 6 string seems like a toy.
Is it a lot more like a classical neck feel?
I guess so; because the neck is so much wider it sort of forces you to use more of the classical left hand position. For example, if you're used to hooking your left hand thumb around to play bass notes of chords on the low E, that won't work anymore (though you can do the same thing on the low B/A). It's also pretty tough to do the typical blues/rock bend left hand position.
Are lower string/lower frets just a bitch or what?
you're talking about the low string? I found that to be not that difficult, although I think mainly because those notes are usually just used as bass notes rather than inner chord voices or melody notes. When I started doing duo gigs with a singer that changed though, because I was having to improvise bass lines and I realized I was pretty clueless. For the most part I have to do the "ignore" thing, and throw in the low string when I can. One thing that is cool, at least about the low B tuning (which is what I use rather than the more common "jazz 7 string" low A tuning), is that any bass note on the low E string has it's fifth on the same fret on the low B string, so you can just move the finger back and forth between root and fifth without expending too much precious extra brain power in the heat of the moment.
What about the overall "feel" of the necks on the 8 strings available around $4000 (chunky, slim, fast...)?
well I can only speak for my own guitar, which was under $4000, incidentally (more like $3500). At that price, you're paying for a custom built guitar, so you can have it made any way you want it. Bill Conklin does great work. My impression is that he also tends to be into the "slim and fast" thing (if I understand your meaning correctly), which is right up my alley. My 8 string neck is pretty wide and flat, but fairly shallow in depth. Not unlike one of those '90s shred machines like Kramer, ect. I've always tended to like necks like that. My ES335 is actually quite wide and flat compared to most others I've played. I just lucked out with that one; I didn't have a clue back when I bought the guitar.
Do you think it would make sense to switch (or add an axe) and work on getting used to an 8 string, and work on potential solo arrangements, even before I feel like an "expert" on 6 strings?
yes; I wouldn't worry about that aspect. As a matter of fact, in a way I feel like the fact that I've spent so many hours playing 6 string already in my life was somewhat of a disadvantage, at least in some ways, when it came to getting used to playing the 8 string. The only thing I'll say is that if it wasn't for the fact that I've played 6 string so much time for so many years, it might not be as easy to switch back to it. I DID go through a bit of an awkward time at first where if I spent too much time with the 8, I had a hard time with the 6.
Depending on the style and my state of mind, at this rusty juncture I'd characterize my playing as intermediate to advanced intermediate (though I've been playing on and off for more than 15 years). Is it just silly, considering this, for me to consider an 8-string/$4000 monster? It seems like it would work so well with my main bag (solo guitar/vocal) and with my penchant for open tunings.
I can see that, although as for open tunings, I always thought part of the reason for them was to compensate for the guitar's lack of range and make certain combinations of notes easier (or possible). With the extra low string and high string, you may find that you can play some things in "standard" tuning that you used to have to use alternate tunings for.
What about the fanned fret idea? Does it really help with keeping the guitar tuned right?
well if you're talking about intonation, I don't thing so. It seems to be about the same. But if you want to tune a steel string up to an A, it's almost a given that it needs to be a short scale. And I can't imagine trying to tune a string down to a low B or A on a shorter than normal scale instrument. I used the fan fret system on my guitar and at the high A the scale length is 23 5/8", while at the low B string the scale length is 26 1/2". This seems just about right to me. With this scale length, the high A is a bit tight (I use a .09; I tried an .08 which worked better tension wise but sounded too wimpy), so ideally it'd be better to have an ever shorter scale, and the low B would be a little less "thumpy" with a slightly longer scale, but then the fret angles would be so extreme that it'd be pretty uncomfortable to play. I think my solution is a pretty good compromise between sound and playability.
(I have a phobia or something about the strings never being in tune...people get mad at me sometimes...I was so happy to hear Frisell say he waves his neck around mainly because he can't stand never being quite in tune.) I do like to play around with altered tunings when doing solo work--are the fanned frets helpful with that?
I've never used alternate tunings, but I don't think so. The high A is tight enough that if you tried to change the tuning much it'd probably snap. I've found that once I get it up to pitch it's okay if I just leave it pretty much where it is (with minor adjustments for day to day tuning of course), but if I try to detune it and tune it back up it snaps every time.
Does it take much getting used to the fanned frets in general?
I'd say of all the things I've mentioned, the actual fanned frets have been the least difficult thing to get used to. In fact, the only place on the neck that they really took any getting used to was on the first few frets. Many of the "cowboy chords" are pretty awkward to play with those frets angled, the good old F barre chord being one of the weirdest. On the other hand, I've developed some fingerings that would be difficult or impossible with non angled frets. For example, play this on a regular 6 string;

Gmaj7
  • B 2nd string open
  • G 3rd string open
  • D 4th string open
  • G 6th string 3rd fret
With the angled frets you can play the low G with your 1st finger, the high F# with your 2nd finger, and your hand will still be at an angle that permits you to play notes with your 3rd and 4th fingers. Try that on a regular guitar and you'll end up with your fingers in a knot. Above about the 5th fret, the angle gets so slight that it's not really noticeable at all.
(I imagine the double whammy of 8 strings and fanned frets might just fry my brain if I'm not careful...)
well once again, from my own experience; I knew it would be difficult, but it was even harder than I thought. Not to sound discouraging; the possibilities it's opened up have made it more than worth the effort. That's just my experience too. (jazz guitar newsgroup contributor) Ralph Patt was talking about Kenny Burrell picking up his 3rds tuned guitar and figuring it out in 10 minutes. I have in general tended to be a "late bloomer" type in my life, and I think it often takes me longer to get the hang of just about anything than the average person. I've had the guitar for just about a year now, BTW, and I just got to the point about a month or two ago where I'd dare to bring JUST the 8 string to some gigs.
If the guitar has RMC piezos, such as a Conklin, do you find that these pickups sound significantly better than ribbon-style under-saddle acoustic transducers?
no; in fact, it's hard to say for sure without a scientifically controlled test, but in general it seems like the L.R. Baggs systems I've played through get the best piezo sound. I've never been all that nuts actually about the piezo only sound on my 8 string, BUT I don't have the "deluxe" RMC package with the EQ and everything. I have gotten decent "faux acoustic" sounds by EQing the hell out of it, using the "acoustic simulator" on my Boss GT-3, and mixing in a little magnetic pickup for low end, but for the most part the piezo has been mostly useful to be for when I want to add a little "high end sparkle" to the electric sound; i.e. adding a hint of acoustic character to the electric sound rather than out and out emulating an acoustic guitar.
Is the MIDI tracking significantly better than the guitar-MIDI implementations of yesteryear?
well I'm not sure what you mean by "yesteryear." I think there is a little improvement in tracking with the RMC system vs. the Roland GK2a, but it's fairly slight. Either one is fine as far as I'm concerned. With midi you just have to accept that it "is what it is." You'll never be able to "play" an english horn using that technology. On the other hand there are things you can do with midi that you could never do with an english horn.
For which reasons, for an 8 string, might a bolt-on neck be better than a set neck or neck-through, or vice versa?
well I'm not sure about reasons specific to an 8 string, but to tell the truth, I tend to be "pro bolt on" in general. To me it's purely an issue of practicality; a bolt on neck is easier to work on and fix when something goes wrong, and is just a simpler, more pragmatic "everyday blue collar workingman" design. I think the same holds true with 6 string as well. I have several set neck guitars that I love, like my ES335; I'm sure that part of what I love about those guitars' sounds is the set neck, and I'm not trying to say that I think all guitars should have bolt on necks, but in general I think it's the way to go. I know Taylor and some other companies that make acoustics have been using a more complex version of bolt on necks for a while now, with excellent results.
Are they necessarily heavier (I know there are solid and hollow body options), and does the weight preclude playing while standing up (which is my preference)?
not at all. The only weight issue will be the added weight of the extra two tuning machines which will make the guitar slightly more "headstock heavy". I suppose technically, the neck will probably weigh more since it'll be wider, but I haven't noticed an appreciable difference. I mainly play sitting down, but when I've stood, the "headstock heavy" thing hasn't really been an issue. My Conklin's body is a chambered solid body, and there seems to be quite a bit of actual hollowed out space, so the body is actually pretty light.
Thanks in advance for any help and/or general reflections on 8 strings. Tom, I've read a little on Google about your impressions of your Conklin (in particular I took note that you'd been using it in a guitar/vocal duo and you thought it was working great). I'd love to hear more.
yeah; in general I really do feel like the two extra strings help narrow the gap between us plank wankers and pianists, when it comes to things like playing solo, accompanying a singer, fronting a trio, or functioning as the chord instrument in a group.

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