Extended Range Guitar

11 String Guitar

Like most classical guitarists, I play the conventional Spanish guitar with 3 nylon treble strings and 3 silver wound nylon filament strings.

While I still enjoy the 6 string guitar, I have always appreciated lute music and early music in general. I have also made many guitar arrangements of music for other instruments such as lute and keyboard.

The lute is pear shaped, largely strung with gut courses (mostly pairs of strings tuned in unisons or octaves), has a low action and is most effectively played with the flesh of the fingertips. These points make it difficult for a musician to combine performing on lute and guitar using right hand fingernails and modern guitar technique.

My interest in making arrangements of other instruments' music and in playing early music more faithfully than possible on 6 string guitar, eventually led me to seek a guitar that had additional strings. In 2019 I commissioned my first 11 string guitar from the Swedish luthier Heikki Rousu.

11 String Guitar in Conventional Tuning by Heikki Rousu, 2019

In the case of my primary guitar, the first 6 strings are as on a normal guitar and the extra bass strings descend diatonically from the E 6th string, as in the Romantic tuning of a 10 string guitar. Strings are usually tuned (1-11) E, B, G, D, A, E, D, C, B, A, G but the extra basses are altered chromatically depending on key. 11 string guitars can alternatively have all strings of the same length and on the fretboard, in which case special strings are needed which gradually increase in thickness.

On my guitar the highest sounding 8 strings are frettable & of the same length (approximately 650 mm scale length). Strings 9-11 operate like diatonic harp strings, played open, and increase incrementally in length. The left hand stretch beyond 8 fretted strings is rarely needed in lute music so having a fretboard under strings 1-8 only, makes the neck less heavy. Having strings 9-11 as unfrettable, gradually increasing in length, means normal E 6th strings can be used, ensuring an even tone and easy availability. Strings 7 & 8 are respectively high and extra high tension E strings.

The advantages of my guitar compared to 6 string guitar are:

  • more sympathetic resonance

  • wider range in the low register

  • ability to play directly from Renaissance lute tablature (with 3=F# tuning)

  • more faithful transcriptions of Baroque lute music, Bach's music and better arrangements of the music of other instruments

  • somewhat easier left hand fingering (as more bass notes are available as open strings).

The potential disadvantages are:

  • frequent and more complex damping of the bass notes is needed to avoid a sustain pedal effect when not wanted

  • right hand disorientation due to the unfamiliarity of the position of the extra basses, necessitating much practice, time and effort to use them effectively and accurately.

The best known 11 string guitarist is probably Moran Wasser: https://youtu.be/abbSA08CBP0

11 String Alto Guitar by Roman Kutzenov, 2021

11 string alto: this is the more common type of 11 string guitar. It is similar to the above guitar by Heikki Rousu, but is higher in pitch, usually tuned as a normal guitar but up a minor 3rd from conventional tuning. My version is tuned up a major second. It has a shorter scale length than the Rousu guitar, the neck joining the body at the 10th rather than 12th fret, and only 7 strings are frettable. The originator and most famous maker of 11 string alto guitars was Georg Bolin. The alto guitar's first and most celebrated performer is Goran Sollscher: https://youtu.be/PNXwkpsALJw

Other accomplished alto guitarists include:

Andreas Koch - here playing one of my compositions: https://youtu.be/5jAkr05Wras

Paulo Martelli: https://youtu.be/wJ_-robIesw

Afshin Torabi - who strings & tunes his alto in Baroque lute Dm tuning so he can play directly from Baroque lute tablature: https://youtu.be/o-erqoEDmww

Nils Klöfver: https://youtu.be/BsdgMzfj6Zc

Carsten Grøndahl: https://youtu.be/gD92vUOQLSc