I Suppose I Should Write a More Serious Article Defending 9-String Guitars

Earlier this week, I posted what I thought was a fun, lighthearted article about the the 9-string guitars that the community has been laughing at recently. Of course this post was the one to go viral, or at least more viral than the average piece of Gear Gods content. And because the internet is a grim and angry war zone, people took my hyperbole very literally and read it as a call for death to all bass guitars and so forth. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading the comments section, but it looks like you guys really want to have this conversation.

Well fine, let’s have it, because I do believe in the core point I was making. So let me clarify…

I: The Role of Bass in Slow, Downtuned, Heavy Music

First of all: I’m a bassist. I’ve played guitar in bands, but I got my start on the bass, and bass is the instrument I handle in my main musical project. So yes, I’m very cognizant of the “role” of a bassist in a traditional rock band. The bass locks in with the rhythm section. It bridges the gap between the melody and the percussion. It can provide counterpoint. Maybe you want to play notes when the drummer hits the kick drum. We’re on the same page here, so let’s jump past that point in the conversation. Not that all, or maybe even the majority of metal bands actually use the bass this manner; but it would be nice if more did.

But in specific styles of metal, especially the ones where players tend to buy extended range guitars, these lines tend to become blurred. My last 9-string guitar article was really directed at bands that tend to hang out on their lowest notes most of the time: bands that are heavily influenced by Meshuggah, doom bands, stoner bands, and even nu-metal ones. So if you’re going to point out the pivotal bass work of Sean Malone or Joe Lester, don’t bother. I’m really only speaking to specific subgenres here.

I’m going to focus bands on that aren’t terrible as reference points because if I start using, I don’t know, Emmure as an example, people are going to say “they’re awful so who cares” – even though thousands of kids are influenced by those Emmure ones and zeroes. So let’s take Fit For an Autopsy, or Acacia Strain. If we’re talking about bass as a “role” in a band, as a job that an instrument has to do, then those groups are playing music based around the bass. No, not the guitar. These are bass-focused bands. You could make the argument that it’s the guitar that’s being eliminated.

Yes sometimes there will be a high guitar part, usually providing some harmony or atmosphere. But the meat and potatoes of post-Meshuggah, down-tempo, downtuned songs are single-note percussive riffs in a low register. They’re played on guitars, but the mentality behind them belongs to the bass guitar. How many of these bands have basslines that vary wildly from the guitar parts?

So here’s my point: if you’re already going to be tuned as low as a 4-string bass, playing in unison with a bass, then why is that perfectly acceptable? And yet, tuning as low as a 5-string bass is the dumbest idea in the world?

II: Frequency and Timbre

The second half of my article was the part where I said “to hell with it, you’re already playing bass in a band, so just go all the way.” This was the main point of contention, it seems, judging by the comments. And no, my point was not that “there’s no point in having a bass guitarist in a band.” As I argued above, the bass guitar as a role is inherent to the music: the guitar has simply co-opted that role. It’s the guitar‘s seat that’s largely been eliminated, conceptually speaking.

But what about the timbre of a bass? Even when tuned to the same note, guitars just don’t have the same sound. You’ll be lacking some of that earth-shattering fundamental. It’s essential for your band to have a guitar and a bass playing those riffs in unison if you want to achieve that mountain-rending bigness, right?

Maybe, but maybe not.

No, a guitar tuned to low C# with not sound like a 5-string bass hitting the second fret of its deepest string. Who cares? If there’s one thing that’s endlessly frustrating about the metal scene, it’s the deeply ingrained traditionalism. Why do we need the same instrumentation as the Beatles? Or even as Meshuggah? Oh, your band won’t get the same tone as your idols? You know what? Good. Because you know who sounds like Meshuggah? Meshuggah do. And 50 billion other bands lately. It’s done.

If you want a bassist in your band, have a bassist. Know what might be even cooler? Use two basses. And no guitars. Have two drummers, two basses, a keyboard, and a cello. Or have three downtuned guitars, taking turns covering the low end and the melody, and no bass. Or just make the world’s most metal drum circle. I want to speak as a member of the metal press and impart a valuable lesson: the best way to get us to ignore your band is to sound exactly like your influences.

And yes, I was being hyperbolic in my previous article. I’m fully aware that 90% of the bands out there probably want an instrument dedicated to covering the low end, even if other instruments also play in that frequency range.

But you could change things up. That was my point. And that’s supposed to inspire creativity, not fear and anger. No one is trying to take your bass away. You have a Second Amendment right to bear bass. But maybe you want to try something different? Unfurl those withered leather wings of yours and soar at least a foot or two before you peter out and lie back down on the couch for nap time.

One of the things I like about bands with no bassist (e.g., Mares of Thrace, Black Cobra, Behold the Arctopus, Jucifer, Beast in the Field, certain Hella records) is that the character of the low end is distinctive. It creates a different type of space and mood. Yes, the song might not have pavement-cracking rumble, but not every record has to have a mix that’s hyped all to hell with cutting highs and brown note-inducing lows. The obsession with maximum bottom is a modern phenomenon. All of the bands I’ve listed above have a mix that works for their sound.

Finally, you’ll be surprised at the bass-like tone you can get out of a downtuned guitar if you approach it with the right mindset. Sure, if you just plug into a 5150 you won’t get the proper chunk. But what if you approach your rig with tone sculpting in mind? Get a amp with lots of headroom and KT88/6550 tubes: a Bogner Uberschall Twin Jet, VHT/Fryette Deliverance, Orange Thunderverb 200, or Verellen Meatsmoke would be an ideal choice. Why not run a guitar preamp into a bass head, or a guitar and bass head? Use 10″ or 15″ speakers. Get creative.

Again, I’m not saying everyone should do this. But oh how I’d love if more bands tried it, just like I’d be overjoyed to hear more of them with no guitars at all.

III: I Was Totally Wrong About Meshuggah’s Nothing Having No Bass Guitar on it

I stand corrected.

IV: Summary

Extended range instruments have been around for ages. It’s not like a Chapman Stick or Warr guitar sounds exactly like a traditional bass either; all of these instruments have their place. And if you want to get creative and use them to make music with a unique (or at least less common) configuration of instruments? I’m all for that.

I’m specifically not addressing the quality of individual 9-string models. I haven’t played the new Schecter that I saw at NAMM, for example. Maybe the scale isn’t ideal and it gets flabby. Maybe it’s perfectly fine. That’s beside the point. Even 8-string guitars feel alien to me. But in a world where Warrs and Chapmans and 8-strings exist, drawing the line at 9-string guitars doesn’t make sense.


But 10-strings? That’s so fucking stupid.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.