When Keith Richards felt he’d gone as far as he could go with the six-string guitar, he took one string off and played five, a trick he learned from Ry Cooder. These days, the trend is to go in the opposite direction, up to seven or eight strings for highly technical progressive metal compositions and downtuned “djent.” Traditionalists may balk at this. A five-string, after all, is a modification easily accomplished with a pair of wire-cutters. But oddly shaped eight-string guitars seem like weirdly rococo extravagances next to your average Stratocaster, Tele, or Les Paul.
Ideas we have about what a guitar should be, however, come mostly from the marketing and public relations machinery around big brand guitars and big name guitarists. The truth is, there is no Platonic ideal of the guitar, since no one is quite sure where the guitar came from.
It’s most easily recognized ancestors are the oud and the lute, which themselves have ancient heritages that stretch into prehistory. The six-string arrived rather late on the scene. In the renaissance, guitars had eight strings, tuned in four “courses,” or pairs, like the modern 12-string, and baroque guitars had 10 strings in five courses.
Closer in time to us, “the jazz guitarist George Van Eps had a seven-string guitar built for him by Epiphone Guitars in the late 1930s,” notes one brief history, “and a signature Gretsch seven-string in the late 60s and early 70s…. Several others began using seven-string guitars after Van Eps.” Russian folk guitars had seven strings before the arrival of six-string Spanish classical instruments (two hundred years before the arrival of Korn).
Meanwhile, in the hills, hollars, and deltas of the U.S. south, folk and blues musicians built guitars out of whatever was at hand, and fit as many, or as few, strings as needed. From these instruments came the powerfully simple, timeless licks Keef spent his career emulating. Guitarist Justin Johnson has cultivated an online presence not only with his slick electric slide playing, but also with his tributes to odd, old-time, homemade guitars. At the top, he plays a three-string shovel guitar, doing Keith two better.
Further up, some “Porch Swing Slidin’” with a six-string cigar box-style guitar engraved with a portrait of Robert Johnson. Above, hear a stirring rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on an oil can and a slide solo on a whiskey barrel guitar. Finally, Johnson rocks out Ray Charles on a three string cigar box guitar, made mostly out of ordinary items you might find around the shed.
You might not be able to pluck out Renaissance airs or complicated, sweep-picked arpeggios on some of these instruments, but where would even the most complex progressive rock and metal be without the raw power of the blues driving the evolution of the guitar? Finally, below, see Johnson play a handmade one-string Diddley Bow (and see the making of the instrument as well). Originally a West African instrument, it may have been the very first guitar.