0:30: How is your guitar tuned?
1:28: Why are your frets crooked?
4:05: Who built your guitar?
4:58: What strings/gauges do you use?
8:12: What kind of wood was used in the construction of your guitar?
9:05: What pickups do you use?
10:08: What are all the knobs and switches for?
11:19: What tuners do you use?
Guitarist, teacher, composer, and podcaster Ged Brockie of the Guitar and Music institute interviewed me in 2019, and we ended up talking mostly about my guitar. You can find the audio recording of my interview here or click the play button below on the left.
Although I love the guitar, I've often been envious of some of the things pianists can do that guitarists can't. (A Freudian might say I suffer from deep-seated "pianist envy.")
I had been aware for years that guitarist George Van Eps, one of my heroes, played a seven-string guitar with an extra low A string (a fifth below the low E) and also that Lenny Breau, another hero of mine, played several different seven-strings later in his career that had high A strings (a fourth above the high E). In my quest to be able to play more extensive contrapuntal ideas, play chords with more notes and that covered a wider range, and just in general to expand the possibilities of what I could do on guitar to narrow the gap between myself and the average pianist, I thought, Why not have an 8-string that does everything?
Since I first had the idea for the instrument sometime in the late 1990s, I had thrown around thoughts with different people (most notably my good friend, bassist Randy Ward, who knows a lot about a ton of topics and more about guitars than most guitarists I know) and had come up with the basic idea for the design. After a failed attempt to piece the instrument together from parts Frankenstein-style on a shoestring budget, I gave up and decided to find a builder to make me one from scratch.
In 2000, after an extensive search, I finally settled on Conklin Guitars which was a bit of a gamble since the company is located in Missouri and I live in South Florida and wasn't that familiar with Bill Conklin's work. Nevertheless, I got a really good vibe from Bill immediately and found out that he'd already built several eight-string guitars. I picked up my guitar from him in person in September of 2001, and I've been very pleased with the instrument he built; the workmanship is first-rate, and it really gets as close as anything could to the sound I heard in my head.
My guitar uses the Novax fanned-fret system to accommodate the different scale lengths required (23 5/8" at the high A string down to 25 1/2" at the low B string), pickups that Seymour Duncan custom-made for Conklin, and an RMC piezo/synth pickup (the synth pickup is set to trigger the top 6 strings; current guitar synths aren't built to trigger more than 6 strings).
The neck is a multi-laminate of purpleheart and maple with a rosewood fingerboard, and the guitar's body is swamp ash—solid with hollow chambers—and is Conklin's "Crossover" style which is somewhat of a hybrid between a Les Paul and a Telecaster in design. As might be expected in a chambered solid body, the sound is somewhere between a solid body like a Telecaster and a semi-hollow like an ES335.
I use a mix of D’Addario XL and DR Tite Fit strings:
High A: .009 D’Addario
High E: .013 D’Addario
High B: .016 D’Addario
G: .020 D’Addario (unwound)
D: .032 DR
A: .038 DR
Low E: .050 DR
Low B: .080 D’Addario bass string
I like DR strings, but I don’t notice any appreciable difference between the sound and lifespan of the DR plain strings versus D’Addario, and D’Addario strings are less expensive. Price is also the reasoning for using a D’Addario string for the low B.
That part wasn't really that tough to get used to. However, it can be a challenge to keep my left wrist straight with the extra-wide fingerboard. As a result, I have dealt with some tendonitis issues in my left hand and wrist, but that's partially my fault for being lazy about my technique. One thing to consider is that, if you're accustomed to wrapping your left hand thumb around the neck and playing notes on the low E string with your thumb, you won't be able to do that anymore. I do occasionally play notes on the low B string with my thumb, but it's not nearly as comfortable to do that as it is on 6-string.
That's probably a good way of putting it. One major breakthrough that happened for me a few months into playing the 8-string 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. An example might be soloing over "Giant Steps" at a fast tempo. For a while, I couldn't even pretend to do something like that on the 8-string, but once I'd gotten past that initial hurdle, I started to be able to mostly ignore the high A while maybe adding it into the mix every once in awhile. Of course, I would still always try in my practice to force myself to play all eight strings equally, but in a performance situation, it was comforting to be able to tune out the extra ones when I needed to.
One thing that was a challenge for me, that I didn't predict at all, was the fact that (and I never realized this before) for my whole guitar-playing life up until I got the 8-string, my left hand used the edge of the neck by the high E string as a reference point. That was a huge challenge to overcome with regards to being able to ignore the high A when I needed to. I slowly had 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 started getting accustomed to that, the less trouble I had switching back to 6-string when necessary.
As far as the low string goes, 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. However, when I started doing duo gigs with a singer, that changed because I was having to improvise bass lines, and I realized I was pretty clueless. For the most part, I had to do the "ignore" thing and throw in the low string when I could. 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 its fifth on the same fret on the low B string, so I 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.
I can only speak for my own guitar, which was under $4000—keep in mind this was 2001. 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" style (if I understand your meaning correctly), which is right up my alley. My 8-string neck is pretty wide but fairly shallow in depth—not unlike one of those '80s shred machines like Kramer. 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.
Yes; I wouldn't worry about that aspect. As a matter of fact, I feel like the fact that I'd 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. Although, if I hadn't played 6-string for so many years, it might not have been as easy to switch back to it when I needed to. 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.
Fanned frets are purely for the purpose of having multiple scale lengths on the same neck. As far as the tuning and intonation, my experience is that it is exactly the same as a regular guitar, no more or no less in tune or well-intonated. 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 fanned 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 25 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 would be better to have an even 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 choice of scale lengths is a suitable compromise between sound and playability.
I'd say, of all the differences, the fanned frets have been the least difficult part to adapt 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:
F# 1st string 2nd fret
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 becomes so slight that it's not really noticeable at all.
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 crazy 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 "aux 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 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.
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 awhile now with excellent results.
I suppose, technically, the neck will probably weigh more since it'll be wider, but I haven't noticed an appreciable difference. The two additional tuning machines won't make it more headstock-heavy or anything. 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. I mainly play sitting down, but when I've stood, the guitar still feels balanced and comfortable.
I love my guitar as it is. I sometimes wish I’d done a couple things differently, but only sometimes. If I had to do it over again, I might change the pickups. The pickups in my guitar are active, which means that they need a 9-volt battery, and when the battery dies, the guitar either goes completely dead or starts distorting (and eventually dies). If I forget to keep up with changing the battery regularly, it can be a pain (and embarrassing) to have to change it in the middle of a gig. I’ve also thought that the pickups contribute to the guitar sounding kind of overly bright and perhaps a bit brittle and “synthetic.” When I’m playing jazz, I almost always end up rolling the tone knob on the neck pickup all the way off to get a sound that is warm enough for my taste. I just can’t get a good jazz tone out of some amps with my guitar, but as long as it’s the right amp, I’m happy. I have considered swapping the neck pickup for something a little more like a vintage humbucker, but I’ve always ended up sticking with the guitar the way it is, with the idea being: if it works, don’t mess with it.
I do sometimes wish that I’d had the guitar made as a semi-hollow rather than a chambered solid body. I have an old Gibson ES-335, which I love the tone of for jazz, and I’ve often fantasized about having an 8-string that sounded just like it. But, I’m sure the difference between a semi-hollow and a chambered solid body is pretty minimal at the end of the day. I’ve also always been a big fan of Ted Greene and Lenny Breau, and both of them were known for often playing solid body guitars. In fact, when I had the Conklin built, the idea in the back of my head was to have a guitar that would be sort of like one of Ted Greene’s Telecasters, but with eight strings.
So, the short answer: If I had to do it again, I’d probably make sure to get more traditional passive pickups and might consider a semi-hollow body (but maybe not).