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josie's avatar

Why do you suppose a guitar has six strings?

Asked by josie (29104points) June 29th, 2010

I wonder why a guitar has six strings. It seems to me, given that chording is a common way of using the instrument, that there might be four, maybe five strings. Of course, I know that a ukelele has four. And I know that a piano has 88 keys. But there is something sort of intimate about the guitar players left hand(or right if you are Paul McCartney) and the number of strings. Four fingers to play with, maybe the thumb if you wrap around, why not four or five strings? Disclosure, I play guitar and am pretty good, so I am not really asking for a guitar lesson. What is the history of six strings?

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11 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Humans used to have six fingers? The earliest stringed instruments had only one string. Why 12 strings?

Randy's avatar

Range maybe? I’m not going to pretend to know but I’ll guess. I know there are a few songs that I play where I basically play scales that start on the E string and end on the e string hitting several notes on several strings in between. One song I have my guitar tuned to a drop C so its the C to the D but… same principle. Without all six strings, the riff wouldn’t quite be right.

Also, maybe to make chords sound fuller? Again just a guess though.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

The guitar descends from the Lute. Guitar makers are still called Luthiers.
One would need to study the history of the lute to find your answer/

Jeruba's avatar

I’d be willing to guess that it has something to do with the width of the human fingertip. How close can you make the strings while still being able to press them separately on the neck? How many can you fit in the width of the neck while still being able to reach them all, given average finger length? How many notes does it take to make a full and pleasing chord? Six may or may not be the optimal number, but the range of possible choices is fairly small.

Steve_A's avatar

I think is just experimenting more than anything….I mean if it can play music well enough I believe it becomes instrument yea?

But I’m curious too now…Maybe tracking down the Family of stringed instruments would answer it for you, since it must be a descendant or I assume.

marinelife's avatar

There are four string guitars (tenor or alto guitars). There are also seven string guitars. There are also 12-string guitars that duplicate the tones.

wundayatta's avatar

In this history of the guitar, it seems that there have been any number of strings for guitars throughout history. The number of strings seems to have standardized at six in the mid 1800s, when the Spanish maker Antonio Torres increased the size of the body, altered its proportions, and introduced the revolutionary “fan” top bracing pattern, in around 1850. His design radically improved the volume, tone and projection of the instrument, and very soon became the accepted construction standard. It has remained essentially unchanged, and unchallenged, to this day.

I gather that it was the sound of this guitar that essentially standardized its shape and stringing. So it appears to have been an evolutionary process driven by experimentation and musician preference.

Axemusica's avatar

@marinelife they now make 8 strings too. You know, just to add that to your list. ;)

I’m amazed that anyone could ask a question about guitars that I wouldn’t have an answer for. Lurve for you! Although, if you would’ve said, “Why is the standard tuning for guitars EADGBE?” I would’ve had a elongated answer for you. :)

josie's avatar

@Axemusica OK so what is the origin of the EADGBE tuning scheme on a guitar?

Jeruba's avatar

Other considerations notwithstanding, I still say the width of the finger has to be a factor. If our fingertips were the size of pencil erasers, don’t you think we’d have more strings? All musical instruments are designed to be played by human beings.

gailcalled's avatar

@Jeruba: Except for the instrumental Gods, like Yo Yo Ma, Winton Marsalis, Earl Scruggs, Louis Armstrong, Bennie Goodman, Artie Rich, Vladimir Horowitz, Sacha Guitry,etc.

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