Even if you’re not very familiar with guitars, you probably know the answer to the question: how many strings does a guitar have?
The answer is 6, right?
Yes, guitars typically have 6 strings, but just as a piano sometimes has more than 88 piano keys, sometimes a guitar has more than 6 strings.
To answer this question, we’ll first look at the history of the guitar, and then we’ll look at guitars that have different numbers of strings. You may be surprised to find out that variances in the number of guitar strings are fairly common and some people prefer to play with more or less than the 6 strings.
The History of the Guitar
Before we get into how many strings a modern guitar has, let’s first look at how the guitar was developed, including how many strings earlier renditions of the guitar had.
Early Stringed Instrument History
Stringed instruments are some of the earliest known instruments in history. There is evidence of stringed instruments being used 3,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian and Babaloyinian Empires, and they may have been used even earlier.
Some of the earliest types of stringed instruments were the lute and the oud.
The lute has an egg-shaped body with a long neck and frets. While the guitar has a flat back, the lute is rounded. Earlier renditions of the lute had four strings, but over time they began pairing strings together. Some lutes had as many as 14 courses or 28 strings.
The oud is similar to the lute, but the main difference is it has a shorter neck and no frets. The oud usually has 11 to 13 strings.
The Spanish Influence on the Guitar
During the 15th and 16th centuries, lutes became less trendy and were replaced by a Spanish version that was shaped more similarly to the modern guitar. As time went on, they created an hourglass-shaped instrument called a vihuela.
The vihuela was a stringed instrument featuring 10 or 12 paired strings and a flat back. It was tuned more similarly to a lute than a modern guitar.
In the 1790s, the vihuela gave way to the Spanish guitar. This became the standard instrument and it carried the six strings that most of us are familiar with today.
How Many Strings Does a Guitar Have?
Most guitars have six strings, but there are a great many variances. Read below for the different numbers of strings used for different guitars.
The “Regular” Guitar
Whether you’re looking at an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, the majority of modern guitars have six strings.
Six-string guitars start with a thick string and each successive string becoming thinner than the one before. The lowest and thickest string is an E string, followed by A, D, G, B, and a high E.
(Note that the lower strings that are physically at the top of the guitar are actually called the bottom strings, while the strings that are physically at the bottom of the guitar are called the top strings. This has to do with the low and high sounds they make, rather than their location on the guitar).
The Bass Guitar
Though the bass guitar is often categorized as a separate instrument from a guitar, especially in the context of a band, it is still in the guitar family. The bass guitar is thought to be the bridge between the regular guitar and the drum, harmonizing with the guitar and adding rhythm alongside the drums.
Bass guitars are an octave lower than the standard guitar and come equipped with thicker strings. Bass guitars often have four strings and standard tuning is E, A, D, and G.
Though the most common bass guitars have four strings, there are some that have 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 24, and even an unbelievable 36 string formation.
The 12-String Acoustic Guitar
You may notice that some acoustic guitars have a wider fretboard and additional tuning keys. A 12-string acoustic guitar can be played with only 6 strings, or an additional 6 strings can be added.
The additional 6 strings are paired with the standard guitar strings adding more tone and depth of sound. They are not played individually, but rather at the same time as the regular guitar strings.
The 12-string guitar is not ideal for beginners because it’s a bit harder to press down the strings than it is with the 6-string guitar. That being said, if you can play a 6-string guitar you can play a 12-string guitar because you’re not learning how to play additional strings or chords. The extra strings add flavor to the sound, but they don’t require extra learning to play.
The bigger reason why it’s not the best fit for beginners is that it’s more difficult to string and tune a 12-string guitar than it is to work with a 6-string one.
The standard tuning for a 12-string acoustic guitar is the common E, A, D, G, B, E. When you add the extra 6 strings, the additional bottom four guitar strings follow the same pattern, E, A, D, G, only they’re tuned an octave higher.
You’ll notice that the bottom four strings used in a 12-string guitar don’t match the thickness of their paired string. That’s how you know they’re supposed to be tuned in a different octave.
The top two strings are the same thickness as their partner, and are tuned in exactly the same way and in the same octave.
Here’s a video explaining how to tune a 12-string acoustic guitar:
Famous bands or musicians who liked the 12-string acoustic guitar are:
● Jimi Hendrix
● David Bowie
Electric Guitars With Additional Strings
Some electric guitars also have more than the standard 6 strings.
7-String Electric Guitar
The 7-string electric guitar adds a low B below the low E string. These guitars are most popular with heavier music, but can also be used for jazz.
Famous musicians or bands that use the 7-string guitar are:
● Howard Alden
● Stephen Carpenter
● Jeff Loomis
● Sarah Longfield
8-String Electric Guitar
The 8-string electric guitar adds an F# string below the low B.
Well-known 8-string electric guitarists include:
● Charlie Hunter
● Tosin Abasi
9-String Electric Guitar
The 9-string electric guitar adds a C# below the low F#.
● Lucas Mann
● Rob Scallon
Electric Guitars with Even More Strings
Though it isn’t common, you can purchase a guitar with 10 separate strings. Unlike the 12-string acoustic guitar, each string is individual (not paired). Guitars with this many strings start to become a hybrid between a guitar and a bass guitar.
You can also use 12-string electric guitars that have the same paired strings as the 12-string acoustic guitar.
As a novelty, people have made a guitar with as many as 20 strings such as in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKf-IaCQTyA
The Double Neck Electric Guitar
Finally, you can’t complete a guide answering the question “how many strings does a guitar have” without including the double-neck guitar.
What kind of guitarists needs two guitar necks to perform one song? Try Jimmy Page and his live performance of Stairway to Heaven. He wanted the beginning of the song to come in with a fragile acoustic-sounding guitar followed by heavier guitar at the end. His solution for live performance? A double-neck guitar.
Other famous musicians to use a double-neck guitar include:
● Don Felder
● Steve Vai
● Mike Rutherford
● Rush – Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee
How Many Guitar Strings Should You Use?
As a beginner, the standard 6-string guitar is probably the best option. It’s easier to learn than guitars with more strings, and also easier to string and tune.
When you cross over into the intermediate stage of learning, adding strings to your guitar can give you a richer fuller range of play and may give a more enjoyable experience.
Many musicians play their entire career on a 6-string guitar, but if you prefer music that’s a bit more experimental, maybe a 7, 12, or 20-string guitar is for you.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.