You may have asked yourself this question after seeing some of John Petrucci’s 8 string guitars or Steve Vai’s wild Hydra guitar.
Surely the guitar can hold more than just 6 strings….so why does it have ONLY 6 strings?
Basically, after literally thousands of years of experimentation in various ancient cultures, and all the way up until the last century….
The 6 string guitar simply gives us the widest range along with the most comfort and playability.
To understand why, we need to talk about some other related instruments, and how they morphed into the standard 6 string we both love…
The History of Lutes and Mandolins
While the word “lute” can refer to nearly any plucked string instruments, what we think of as lutes is similar to what you’ve seen in renaissance fairs or movies involving D’Artagnan and the musketeers.
Lutes have a long rich history extending all the way back to ancient Egypt and Greece, and cultural records exist of their appearance throughout the middle east and asia.
What’s important to note about the lute instruments played within this timespan is that they were played using a quill. This was the option used to brush the strings similar to how we strum chords today. It wasn’t until the European Renaissance that documents exist showing a move away from strict strumming and towards fingerstyle plucking.
This one step increased their popularity with composers of the Baroque era of classical music as it expanded tonal and harmonic possibilities of the lute instruments. One famous example is the lute suites composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The construction of lutes went through much experimentation during the Renaissance and transformed into some of the instruments we know and use today, like the mandolin from Italy, and the guitar from Spain.
The guitar itself has records of appearing in Spain as early as the year 1200, thanks to the presence of the Moors and other Muslim communities.
READ MORE: What’s In A Name?: The Origins Of The Guitar
Rising Popularity in Early 20th Century and Acoustic Guitars
There is a good reason I’m going through the history of the guitar to explain why we have 6 strings. I’m glad you’re still reading!
So by the late 19th century, songwriters like Stephen Foster came about who made the idea of being a successful musician more accessible to those without a classical background. This brought about a demand for affordable musical instruments as not many could afford a grand Steinway piano nor the musical lessons.
By this point, the mandolin, the fiddle, and the acoustic guitar had started to become more accessible too as their construction had become more standardized. This meant that luthiers knew which materials were the sturdiest and the most affordable.
Also around this point, the early roots of blues, gospel, and country music had started to grow. It was still a few decades away from the widespread use of the radio, but sheet music was readily available throughout the Western world.
Add all of these factors together, and the 6 stringed guitar was primed to take over popular culture by the 1950s.
How Guitar Started as a Rhythm Instrument (Modern Guitar)
What’s also important to understand at this point in time is why the guitar has never been featured as prominently as the violin or the piano.
As you may know, the guitar is not as easy to write sheet music for as it is for other instruments. The high E string note can be played in several different places on the fretboard!
The great French composer Hector Berlioz even wrote in his Treatise On Instrumentation that it’s easier to write for guitar if you already know how to play it.
So for a long time the instrument was only used for accompaniment to a singer or other instrument, or as part of a big band once Jazz music evolved to the big band format.
Composers had long known of the wide range of the instrument, but didn’t know how to utilize it.
On the other hand, the modern guitar can be a relatively simple instrument when its reduced to playing chords backing up another instrument or a singer. This is why the instrument took off in the 20th century!
When Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt, and Andres Segovia started to showcase what the instrument was truly capable of as a lead instrument did the later innovations come about…
Why Modern 7 And 8 String Guitars Came About (Electric Guitars)
So the reason 7 and 8 electric guitars didn’t come sooner was that basically they were difficult to make, and many composers didn’t know how to utilize the instrument before the late 19th century. Composers like Isaac Albeniz, Francisco Tarrega, and Niccolo Paganini were some of the very few that had even attempted to make music for the instrument.
To fast forward through Robert Johnson, Elvis, and Led Zeppelin…we now come to modern progressive guitar heroes like John Petrucci, Tosin Abasi, and Steve Vai amongst many others.
The addition of a 7th or 8th string now expands the instrument to a degree that nearly matches the piano.
So why aren’t these the standard now?
It’s simply because it requires more wood and sturdier materials to hold down this many strings.
From a technique standpoint, there is only so much that even the best guitarists can play with just one hand to fret notes and another to pluck the strings.
And this is truly why the 6 string guitar had always been the standard choice! It’s a great compromise between playability, affordability, and pitch range.