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A Brief Historical Discussion About the 7-String Guitar


by Ronald L. Grosswiler

The 7-string guitar has always been a point of interest on my part since I started teaching myself the classical guitar in St. Francis, Kansas. Early on, I had acquired the Argentinian edition of the Sor-Coste method which I used in learning the upper positions since my first instruction book didn't address this aspect of playing the guitar. It happens to contain the references to using the 7-string guitar which later Spanish language editions of the method lacked. Years later, I was fortunate enough to find a Lemoine edition which was a reprint of the original edition published around 1850, which had the references. Upon comparing the two editions, I was finally satisfied that I had reliable reference to Coste's use of the instrument. Along the way, I found out about the Russian variant, bought methods for it and again taught myself how to play it. By that time, I was residing in the Denver area and already had a local luthier build me a 7-string guitar which I used for trying to learn the Russian system. I ended up using the Coste system as I lacked time to really persue the Russian.

The beginnings of the 7-string (Heptacode) took place sometime in the late 18th century and was already known in Russia and probably observed by Sor during his activities in Moscow in the early 19th century. The Russian 7-string guitar was similar in tuning to the English guitar of the time, being tuned to a G Major triad in root position while the English was tuned to a C Major triad in root position with no 7th string. The 7-string guitar of Coste was with Spanish tuning with the 7th string tuned to D or C, never stopped as it was not over the fingerboard on Coste's instrument. In the Russian system, the 7th string is stopped as it is over the fingerboard and functional as on modern instrments such as those used by jazz musicians. During the 19th century, the Russian system was retained even though the 6-string was being more widely used throughout Europe and in Russia itself. Players would go with the instrument of choice as both instruments offer musical characteristics which are appealing to whatever one's musical experience would call for.

Napolean Coste used the 7-string guitar to offer musical textures which he demonstrates in his method in an appendix through musical examples of passages written for 6-string and 7-string configuration. The section is brief as he manages very well in making his point about the possibilities one can derive by employing one extra string. I recently found some wonderful arrangements by Soffren Degen (1816-1885) of Denmark who used the 7-string guitar. These pieces are available on the Hebe website and serve to demonstrate that interest in 7-string and multi-string guitars had its advocates, ranging far and wide. Carulli wrote a method for 10-string guitar playing. Ivan Padovec (1800-1873) and Hendrik Rung (1807-1871) along with Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856) are names associated with the 7-string as well as larger guitars. Carlos Garcia Tolsa (1837-1905) in Argentina had several guitars with extra strings in his collection and the luthier Antonio Torres (1819-1893) made multi-string guitars which were in use in Spain.

The modern use of that 7th string is a personal matter as it can be over the fingerboard and tuned down to A below the 6th string. The guage of the string is important for how you intend to use it. If you feel you want to learn the Russian system, experiement with stringing as the usual stringing configuration doesn't quite hit the mark. Even though this system is not as popular in the West as the Coste system, it does have possibilities as the wonderful recordings of Oleg Timofeyev demonstrate and it is absolutely wonderful for accompaniment for the mandolin or the voice. Unfortunately, instruction books for the Russian system are hard to come by, two good ones being by M. Ivanov and P. Veshcitskii. These were published over 30 years ago in Soviet Russia and are probably out of print. They are both very systematic in their apprach, one for solo playing, the other for accomaniment. I was able to learn quite a lot, but Tarrega's famous tremolo study, Recuerdos can be touchy in B minor. With the Russian system, keys are a factor due to the tuning, which is in octaves of GBD twice with an extra D on the bottom.





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