Eleven String Classical Guitar:

Altabasso or ArchGuitar

John Marsh Bigelow. wanted more depth of expression, sonority and applicable range for the guitar. He workd with luthier Walter Stanul, who made multi-stringed vihuelas and other instruments, to develop a proto-type for a unique, expanded range eleven-string classical guitar. It was further developed by the world-renown luthier, Manuel Velazquez. This instrument of 4 1/2 octaves, with a unique high A string and four additional bass strings, accommodates arrangements which permit fuller realization of repertoire often inaccessible or necessarily compressed on the traditional six-string classical guitar. Pieces originally written for harpsichord, organ, piano, and accompaniments to voice (operatic arias and modern songs) are now realized with greater freedom of expressio. Mr. Bigelow also performs on the Renaissance Lute and Small Harp, augmenting programs of specific or varied themes appealing to all audiences.

About the 11-string guitar:
In this Q&A formated section I answer frequently asked questions and provide other information about the 11-string. Caution- I have endeavored to give concise information at the beginning of each response to a question, but when writing this, released as I am from the constraints and practical parameters of actual conversation, and easily influenced as I am by the verbaholic chimpanzee that lives in my head who takes control in such situations, it is quite likely that I have continued beyond what would be minimally sufficient information, and you may be informationally subjected to more than you want to know about the 11-string guitar. Proceed at your own risk.

Q: "What is that?" (or "Is that a guitar?", or "Is that a twelve-string guitar?") or "What do you call that?

A: Yes, it is a guitar, but an unusual one that was made to my own design. Normally a guitar has six strings; mine has eleven.

Often people think when they first see it that it is a twelve string guitar because they have heard of them but have never seen one. The "twelve string guitar" does exist as a conventionally manufactured instrument with six pairs of strings; the strings of each pair are close enough together so that the two strings are played as one. Most of these pairs are tuned an octave apart so that a densely textured sound is produced.

My instrument, instead, has eleven individual strings, each tuned to its own pitch and played separately.

I usually just call it, prosaically, an eleven string guitar, or more precisely an eleven string classical guitar because it has nylon strings, and a flat fingerboard which adjoins the neck at the twelth fret like a conventional six string classical guitar, and the same string spacing as a classical guitar, in which the strings are a bit farther apart than on a steel string.

However, if one likes, and as I sometimes have done, one can call it an "archguitar", a term which is historically precedented by the term "archlute" (Archlutes were lutes made during the Renaissance with a similarly expanded number of strings - lutes are the oval bodied round backed stringed instruments, like large mandolins, that one is likely to see in movies about Robin Hood, or that feature kingly court scenes). The meaning of "arch-" here is to denote an elevated form of something, a particular thing that is above or other than an ordinary example of its type (like an archbishop being above a bishop in the Catholic hierarchy). Today there are other players of guitars with more than six strings who like to use this term regularly.

I have also used the term "altobasso guitar" (literally "high-low"), an expression I coined in reference to the fact that the tuning range of the instrument is expanded, in comparison to that of a six string guitar, to include pitches both higher and lower than the normal range.

But most of the time I prefer the plain-English descriptive "eleven-string" (even though this may not satisfy the desire that people who ask the question have to be given a new exotic sounding name for this monstrous oddity with which they've just been confronted), because it conveys exactly what it is. To respond to the question with some contrived name usually serves only to defer momentarily an explanation of what it is, anyway, and there we are back at the beginning [ "Wow! So you call it ... (archguitar? altobasso? expando-chordium? Yermami?)... Neat! So what is an... (arch-, alt-, exp-, yer-, etc.)?"].


Q: "How is it tuned?"

A: If it is known how a normal six string guitar is tuned, then the answer is that I have the six strings of a normal guitar as my 2nd through 7th strings (guitar strings are conventionally numbered from the highest sounding string to the lowest- so the 1rst string on any guitar is the highest sounding string, i.e. the one that is closest to the floor when the instrument is held in normal fashion). My 1st string is a high A, above the E-A-D-G-B-E of the normal six (this is articulated from low to high- oddly, even though the strings are numbered from high to low, when people refer by letter name to the gamut of pitches represented by the strings they are usually listed in reverse order, from low to high). Below the low E string I have strings which give me pitches in descending steps from the low E to a low A- i.e., I have a low D, C, B, and A (sometimes I re-tune them for certain pieces- I often need to raise the C or D to a C# or D#- or even lower the A to a G#) .

However, I don't have them arrayed in that descending order on the instrument. Instead of the pitches descending E-D-C-B-A , immediately below the low E I have my low B as my 8th string. After that I have the low D as the 9th, C as the 10th, and the 11th is the low A. This may seem odd in that instead of a nice, neat and orderly progressive descent in pitch I've loused things up by having the bass strings, when played in order of position from the 7th to the 11th, go down in pitch, then up, then down again. Or, if sounded in the other direction in what might seem a natural strum, they go up, then down, then up again in pitch This seems messy and unneccesarily confusing; to most people it feels anti-intuitive to have a string lower in pitch than others located nearer the center of the string array than the higher pitched strings.

This actually makes sense, though, if the general tuning plan of a guitar is considered. Musically, the strings of a guitar are tuned a fourth apart from each other (with the exception of one pair that is tuned a third apart). This means that in playing a scale passage which moves from one open string to the one adjacent to it, either up or down, there are two notes to be fingered by the left hand on the lower of the pair on the way from one open string note to the other. Therefore the span or "distance" from one open string note to the next encompasses four notes of a scalar section, which is why the interval is called a fourth.

With the low B next to my low E string, I have extended the tuning system in fourths an extra string downward, which gives me the same fingering patterns between those two strings as I am used to using elsewhere. The same consideration applies to the other side of the fingerboard, the high sounding end, where my high A string is a fourth above the high E, which is the highest string on a normal guitar. In fact, the original concept of what I wanted for guitar with more than six strings consisted simply of the normal six with the addition of these two- I first thought only as far as an eight string!

On the bass side, having strings to use that are tuned to D and C, the notes in between the low E and low B, might at first seem to render the effort of planning in order to preserve this similarity of usage pattern to be pointless- "So if you've've got open strings on which to play those pitches anyway, what difference should it make to have the same fingering pattern if you're not going to be using it?" But I am going to be using it, and I do, for several reasons.

It is useful: when I need a chromatic note not represented by either the open C or D strings (i.e., if I need a C or D sharp or flat, or a natural of either if I have the string previously tuned to a sharp or flat), when I want to control how long the note will last simply by lifting the finger that is holding the note, whereas to stop the sounding of an open string requires additional overt action, and if I have two or more notes in that range in very quick succession, because (1) it is much more convenient for my right hand if all or most of the notes are located on one string, rather than bouncing my thumb quickly and accurately around to different strings, especially because of the more open configuration of the hand and the greater territory the thumb must cover as compared to on the six string guitar, and (2) playing a phrase consisting of notes of short duration, if they are located on different strings which continue to sound beyond the written note value so that the notes overlap sounds muddy and indistinct in the low range, though it is a very nice effect in the treble.

O.K., so why have the open D and C if using them is such a problem? 'Cuz they're not a problem when used at the right time to give me greater flexibility.

Much of the time the notes played in the bass, though they may form a coherent line, are not present in quick succesion as components of melodic phrases. Rather they constitute a relatively slow moving part consisting of notes sounded as a foundation for the harmonic milieu within which quicker action takes place in the upper parts. Having such notes obtainable on open strings leaves my left hand free to devote itself entirely to meeting with the exigencies of the upper part action, and the extra effort to mute such notes at the right time, if their natural decay hasn't rendered this unnecessary, is little trouble so long as it is at infrequent intervals.

If these notes are chromatic notes which do need to be fingered, though this does pin my hand down to one position for the duration of such a note and deprives it of the use of one finger and some flexibility, having the low D and C strings still gives me choices I wouldn't have otherwise. For instance, in my "standard" tuning I have a low D# available on the first, third, and fourth frets, which gives me considerable options as to what finger I can devote to the task of holding the note, and how doing so will best fit in with the rest of what I have to do.

Finally, having the low D and C strings means I don't lose access to at least some of the notes between the low E and B when I move to upper positions.

Every guitarist who does his own transcriptions is familiar with the problem alluded to in this last point as it exists analogously on the six string guitar. We've all wished at some time, while availing ourselves of the upper reaches of the fingerboard, to have an extra finger or two with which to reach back for a low F, F#, G. or G#, which are the fingered notes between the two lowest strings. A famous example is in a piece known to any classical guitarist familiar with the basic intermediate repertoire, one of Bach's "little" preludes. This particular one is usually referred to as the "little prelude in c", because when played as originally written on a keyboard instrument, it begins, apparently, in c minor. It ends in G, the dominant of C, though by the time this happens there is no vestige left of a C centered tonality and G has become the tonic- so it ends in a key other than that in which it began, which is unusual (in any key, the "dominant" is chord which we hear as having a tension and inherent tendency directed towards the tonic or "home" chord as the most likely chord to follow and satisfy or "resolve" that tension. 99.99% of all pieces written end with a harmonic movement or "progression" from a dominant chord to the tonic). In the guitar transcription this piece has been transposed up a whole step, so it begins in d minor and ends in A, but nevertheless has still often been referred to in guitar programs as the "little prelude in c".

There is a very long section in this prelude in which on the downbeats of several successive measures there is a constant reiteration in the bass of the same note, while chords change above it. This sustain or constant repetition of a bass note while chords change freely above it is called a "pedal point" because when organists wrote it into their works it typically was a note that was held down with their foot on the pedal keyboard. So long as the chords at the beginning and end of a pedal section are chords that include the note that is being "pedaled", the chords in between do not have to "recognize" that note, and in fact can be chords which if played out of the blue with that note in the bass might sound horribly wrong. Yet in a pedal section the listeners ear accepts and understands what is going on. The compositional effect is that of an extremely intricate and elaborated version extended in time of the chord with which one enters and leaves the pedal section.

In this "little" prelude the "pedaled" note is the dominant of the key in which the piece ends, which in the transposed guitar transcription is E. It is the length and insistence of this long sustained dominant E with its expected but deferred resolution to A which makes A sound convincing as a final tonic, and pretty much obliterates any aural or "sound-sense" expectation that the piece will work its way back to d minor and end there. The chord succession above the pedal point here is not a very complex one as pedal point sections go, it begins with a simple alternation back and forth between E dominant seventh and A minor chords. This simple back-and-forth does not mean it is boring or monotonous though, because the voicing, or order in which the chord tones are vertically organized, is arranged so that with each succesive chord there is a dramatic rise in pitch to a climax on one of the dominant chord voicings, at which point it turns around and begins a descent back to the chord and voicing with which the pedal section started- and then continues its descent beyond that point. This continuation past the return to this chord seems to evoke a hushed quietude which serves to intensify the overt drama of the rise and fall which has preceded it, which further supports the point being made that E is the true dominant of the piece, and the structure can end nowhere else but on A.

A centerpiece to Bach's compositional argument as to the true tonality is encapsulated in one particular measure in the midst of this process, the measure in which is effected the change in direction after having attained to the climactic dominant and the descent begins. If Bach had adhered to the pattern of harmonic alternation that he had established up to that point then the chord in this measure would have been another A minor chord, such as the one immediately preceding the climactic dominant. An interesting experiment is to try substituting a repetition of that preceding measure in place of the one that Bach wrote to follow that climax. This results in a continuation of the A minor-E dom 7 alternation which has characterized the section up that point with the same melodic rise and fall- only now it seems shallower in effect, even insignificant, and arbitrarily constructed.

The chord that Bach used instead at this juncture is an augmented sixth chord, a special type of chord which seems as insistent upon resolving to a chord understood to be a dominant as is a dominant to resolve to a tonic- perhaps even more so because often dominant chords resolve to chords which turn out themselves to be dominants, or other areas of the tonality, whereas augmented sixths are usually pretty specific about where they are going. The use of this dominant presaging chord uniquely at this dramatic moment intensifies the "dominantization" of E in a more profound and eloquent fashion than simply repeating the E chord in its dominant form over and over again would have done. It is notable that it is only after having used this clarifying chord in which the status of E as a dominant of larger than local significence is confirmed that Bach then varied from his harmonic alternation, and instead of A minor chords in some places he used forms of the dominants own dominant. To have done so before this point would have been slightly disorienting as E would not yet have been sufficiently confirmed as the dominant of greater structural significance than one used for local effect.

A salient feature of Bach's writing of this augmented sixth chord is that as originally written he breaks the pedal point for this measure only and, in the key of the guitar transposition, the bass note is F, not another E. F is one of the components of the augmented sixth chord most intensivly directed towards E (the other is D#). This breaking of a pedal point only to resume it immediately is another unusual feature, but it does show that Bach really did intend this chord to be heard as especially significant. In fact, the emphasis as a dominant that the F in the augmented sixth chord places on its note of resolution, the E which it has replaced, serves not to break the pedal point so much as to reinforce its meaning.

To return to the point about guitar stringing from which I entered into this lengthy tangential discussion- this bass note cannot be played on six string guitar! (at least not in a wholly satisfactory fashion, though there are various solutions-more on this below). This is because the notes of the chord being sounded above this bass note are located on the eighth and tenth frets, and the tenor motion entails a note usually played on the twelfth fret. There is no way to do this while at the same time accessing the low F on the first fret, and provide for sustain of all components to achieve a continuity of texture with surrounding measures, or indeed to all measures of this piece. Therefore guitarists usually content themselves with simply re-iterating the low E. This doesn't mean that the transcription is a failure; what happens is that the pedal is maintained literally throughout, rather than recieving the re-inforcement of upper neighbor F in the bass in this measure, and the augmented 6th quality of the chord does finally become realized when the tenor motion descends to the F on the second to last note of the measure to form the augmented 6th interval with the D#, the repeated note in the upper chord tones. It is, however, a loss that the effect is considerably less overt, and deferred to the very end of the measure, than if this bass F were possible.

This is what I referred to earlier as an analogous problem- in this piece a six string guitarist is unable to access a note which lies in between his two lowest strings while holding a chord in the upper positions. On my guitar the two lowest strings in the array of those tuned in adjacent fourths are the low E and B strings. Access to notes within that interval while availing myself of higher positions is a problem for which my low D and C strings provide some solution; I have access at least to those notes, or their chromatic variants if I've re-tuned for them, even if my hand has moved up the neck away from their locations on the low B string.

For not the analogous, but the parallel problem, i.e. access to the same notes which are unavailable on a six string when moving to higher positions (those notes between the low E and the adjacent A), the high A string I have on the other side of the fingerboard serves not only to increase the absolute range of the instrument upward by a fourth, it also allows me to locate chord formations that otherwise would have to be up the neck down in lower positions, from which I am able to include those notes in my arrangements.

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