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.

Written by

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.

Latest comments
  • looking forward to the new East of the Wall!

  • It is a well noted fact that the more stings you have on your instrument the better the guitar player you are. People know I am a shitty guitar player because I only play a 6 string Schecter (that I tune to drop A Flat).

    • Holy fucking low

      • It actually holds the tuning quite well. That is why I can’t figure out why I need a 8-10 string guitar? They feel really weird to me but I grew up playing old school Nu-metal when only rich people could afford 7 string guitars and I just had 6 string guitars. I guess I never quite adapted to more than 6 string guitars.

  • Dude…..bass is especially important in doom and stoner. dem bass solos ;-;
    (most bands i know wont go beyond 7 strings….thats low enough for us)
    (also, might want to clarify, it sounds like you’re trying maybe unintentionally, to lump stoner and doom bands in with post-meshuggah crabcore stuff. we predate all that shit by a good 20-30 years :p )

  • 7 strings is overkill for me. Thanks to bands like Korn I now have bad associations with “7-string metal”. 8-strings seemed crazy at first, but Meshuggah made it work. 9-strings (even though they’ve been around for awhile now along with 10-string guitars) sounds like a ridiculous idea, but who knows.. maybe something good will come out of this relatively new fad. For me personally slanted frets don’t make sense from practicality standpoint (however I do realize that it must compensate for the intonation shift).

    • Another argument is that fanned frets help with the ergonomics and economy in your hand. How your hand wants to point one direction at one end of the fretboard, and a different direction at the other end, can potentially be solved with fanned frets.

      • Hmm, never thought of that.

  • Nerds gonna nerd.

  • fuq u all 145236 strings or gtfo

  • why are 9 strings suddenly a thing? did people not care to search these out before NAMM said they were “cooll?” Oakland Axe Factory, Agile, Oni..they all make 8/9/10 strings…ranging from affordable like Agile to completely handmade custom Oni..

  • https://soundcloud.com/filipepereira-2/scythe

    Just bass and some synths get the job done…

  • And if I remember correctly, the first sevens weren’t intended for low-end rumble. Guys like Steve Vai and Michael Angelo Batio played sevens with that extra string being an A above the high-E.

    • Incorrect. Steve Vai used the low B for much the same purpose as other bands use it now, but he used more of the instrument’s range.

  • When I see a band without a bass player, I usually just assume that they didn’t have any friends who stink at guitar and got stuck playing bass. It’s unfair to both bass players and bands that think “outside the box’ but it’s what comes to mind first.

  • 9 string bass, your argument is irrelevant..

    • 12 string bass.

      • 24-string bass, 2 years later! The ERB life just keeps getting (worse?) better.

  • What’s the guitar in the picture? Anyone?

  • Steve Vai actually pioneered the 7-8 string guitars. At any rate, with the continued addition of strings, guitars are morphing into Chapman sticks just with a different form factor.

  • The center of this discussion is RANGE. How deep does your music need to go ? How high ? Uli jon Roth goes into violin territory. What do YOU what to do with your extended range ?
    I have played 7 string for years and own several expensive beatitul sounding amps (Marshall and Splawns) and Cabs (Engls) and imo if I go below deep B it sounds like utter crap.
    The amps and cabs just aren’t designed to make a guitaristic sounds that low.

    If you buy a Digitech Whammy Drop Tune pedal you can take your six string into both the deepest (Meshuggah) and highest (Uli Jon Roth) ranges. And not a single person in the audience can tell that you arent playing a 43 fret 9 string if you play through a standard guitar rig.
    In short, sound is also an issue if you go too low, OR too high.

  • It’s subjective and just depends on the specific sounds the artist is going for. If you need a piano, you get a piano. If you need a fucking 30-string axe and a fiddle, go for it. As long as someone is trying something different, instead of subscribing to sounding like every single fucking popular metal band out there. If you’re not having fun musically, you’re just trying to fit in. If you’re trying to fit in, you’re a fucking pussy. 6,7,10 strings or a 100, it simply doesn’t fucking matter.

  • It’s subjective and just depends on the specific sounds the artist is
    going for. If you need a piano, you get a piano. If a fucking
    30-string axe and a fiddle is your preference, go for it. As long as someone is trying
    something different, instead of subscribing to sounding like every
    single fucking popular metal band out there. If you’re not having fun
    musically, you’re just trying to fit in. If you’re trying to “fit in” and “be like that guy”
    you’re a fucking pussy. 6,7,10 strings or a 100..If you’re having fun, it doesn’t
    fucking matter in the end.

  • Now this is more like the kind of piece on 9-strings I’d like to read. As I said in my comments on the previous article, I was against 9-strings becoming a trend that, along with lower tunings, musicians begin to follow, simply to fit in. There’s the danger of it becoming another checkbox to tick off in metal, regardless of whether it actually does anything for the music. But if you’ve got some ideas that would really work great on an extended-scale guitar, please be my guest.

  • I know I’m a little late with this discussion but here goes: I couldn’t agree more Chris! I’m 37, a multi instrumentalist and music producer and have been playing guitar since I was 11 years old. About the time I turned 13 I started tuning down to a B when I realized bands did that at all (this was back when bands like Carcass could only fill a room of maybe 100 people and no one knew what the hell a Cannibal Corpse was). Tuning anywhere lower than a D was always scoffed at because no one did that at the time and people always treated me like I was a moron for even trying, (even though they lacked the common sense to put higher tension strings on the guitar and change the EQ on the amp to accommodate such low tunings) but time and time again I would watch those same people look surprised when I did something cool. (A good friend of mine relates to this topic by talking about how much he got teased for liking superheroes and comic books and now it’s all the rage in movies & cinema and everyone likes Batman etc…). Fast forward to now and I hear people say “Anything past seven strings is just ridiculous and really a six string baritone is all you need”. I completely agree if all you do is chug on your low string, but a lazy noncreative musician doesn’t mean the instrument itself sucks. And being quick to decide without considering all these things that so many have had such successful application with that are now common standards, says a lot more about the creative limitations of the people making these statements. Overtime popular opinion changes and adapts and those who hang onto to the past don’t ever seem to remember what jackass statements they made to people like myself. A disinterest in a 9 string I totally understand but being repelled by one is just stupid. Why would you need those low notes when there’s a bass guitar? Well, tell that to someone sitting in front of a grand piano who crosses over their hands to do crazy arpeggios from low to high and try pulling that off between a bass and a guitar without there being interruptions in tonality (and even if you could it wouldn’t sound the same as a guitar doing it). Also if you do like a clear precise sounding low-end but want that low-end distorted crunch with palm- muting you can treat the 9 string guitar as the top end (roll off the low) and the bass as the low-end (maybe roll of a bit of the high) regardless of the octave they play in. Just imagine how stupid someone would look telling Tosin that an eight string was a bad idea? Or telling Drewsif that metallizing a pop song isn’t going to work. Laughing at Les Claypool for having a stupid Bass that looks like furniture instead of a badass 80s hair metal bass is another thing that comes to mind. Those popular opinions were clearly made by creative geniuses who unfortunately remain unknown. Just like you, Chris, I’m in no way saying that extended range guitars should replace a bass guitar. Creative diversity happens through BEING CREATIVE and DIVERSE and people with narrow opinions aren’t the ones moving it forward that’s for sure.

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