Buying and Living with a 9-String Guitar: Review of the Ibanez RG9

I had long wondered whether guitarists might one day be able to play a guitar that gave them the range of a guitar and bass guitar in one reasonably conventional kind of instrument (i.e. not a Chapman Stick or Warr Guitar, despite my love of the use of these things in King Crimson). The twin-neck 6/4 Gibson that some players used in the early 1970s (e.g. Greg Lake in Emerson, Lake and Palmer) or the Shergold 12/4 that Mike Rutherford played in Genesis (a version of which was my own first bass) never seemed quite right, given the overlap between the range of a guitar and a bass. Last year, while still unaware of the rise of the 8-string guitar and especially the role played in this by Tosin Abasi, my thoughts returned to this idea after I saw the first 6/4 twin-neck I’d seen in years (by Danelectro, in Music City in Cairns http://musiccitycairns.com/current-stock/#jp-carousel-357 whilst on vacation there) and bought a secondhand Cort Artisan A6 bass whose range encroached further on a regular guitar.

When I became aware of Abasi and the 8-string, things still didn’t seem quite right. Abasis tunes his guitar to reach the bottom E of a bass by dropping the normal 8-string tuning from F# on the 8th string. Whilst it certainly permits spectacular bar chords because the 1st and 2nd strings are then paired with the 8th and 7th strings, it didn’t appeal to me as it compromised the use one might otherwise make of the 8th string. I was thus naturally excited to discover that 9-strong guitars had started to appear. The first one I came across, by chance, whilst browsing a retailer’s website, was the Schekter C9 Hellraiser, but at almost AU$2000 this would involved risking quite a bit for an instrument that might be hard to sell if I didn’t enjoy playing it. But I then discovered the Ibanez RG9 for quite a bit less, and eventually found a Gumtree ad listing a ‘used’ on at a Gold Coast store for AU$1195.

The process of buying the RG9 was unnerving. It was late on a Saturday afternoon, after I’d been attending a nearby function and I only got to the store five minutes before the 3pm close, without having had time to check, before leaving Brisbane, that the guitar was indeed in stock. On entering the store, the manager and his assistant were pleased to tell me that, yes, the guitar was there and that this was my lucky day, since they had knocked a further $200 off the list price, even though it was clearly brand new and the tag hangin from one of the tuners said $1695. I presume they must have discovered how thin the market for a 9-string still is and had had it in stock for six months or more. But given that I had come purposely to inquire about this particular guitar, they were hardly wise to try to encourage me by telling me about the further discount before seeing whether I was seriously interested!

Checking out the guitar was strange, too, for it was almost like the day in 1970 that I bough my first guitar and had to get my hands to work together to produce a note. The Cort 6-string bass had given me enough initial confusion because of the extra two strings but the RG9 had not merely three extra strings but also strings that seemed slightly closer together than on a regular guitar, and a 28-inch scale. Everything was disconcerting. Lesson 1: if you expect to get a good sense of a 9-sting in a music shop you may be dreaming, especially if your brain has been wired to playing a regular guitar for as many years as mine has. (One of my guitar-playing PhD students, in his mid 20s found it much easier than I did to get started when he tried the RG9.) All I was really able to discern was that the action was good, the tuning seemed very stable, and the clean sounds were very pleasing, with a great range possible from the five-way switch because the humbuckers operate both in regular and split mode. Position 2 gives the classic out-of-phase Strat kind of sound. It had potential for doing tasteful clean sounds, which was what I wanted, whereas most of the video review material I had seen only showed the RG9’s bottom end in very muddy heavy chugging mode. Using distortion really doesn’t do the guitar justice. But I couldn’t really play it much in the store in the short time I had, as my fingers kept not arriving on the same string. I decided to give it a go, even so.

It was several days before I started to get comfortable playing the RG9, with the odd experience of my coordination getting fluent first on the outer strings, both at top and bottom, and finally coming together in the middle. I had feared that there could be problems with unwanted droning from the lower strings if I didn’t take care to mute the base strings but there is nothing of the kind as my palm tends to rest on the bass part of the bridge if I am not playing the bass string. I also discovered that if you do slightly mute the bottom strings whilst playing them (especially on pickup position 2), the resulting sound is very close to that of a Fender bass played with a pick in the manner of many 1960s pop songs.

After two weeks I was ready to start trying to write something around the RG9’s extended range. There I encountered a new complication as I set about scoring what emerged: Guitar Pro 6 offers an 8-string guitar, but not a 9-sting, so fingering what I was writing was inconvenienced and I had to stay away from the very bottom of the range. Let’s hope they help the 9-string enthusiasts with the next version of Guitar Pro, though I was certainly very happy with the sound sample for the clean 8-string at the bottom end. You can hear the result, called ‘Marching in Circles’ at my Myspace page.

As my body adjusted to the RG9’s dimensions, I realized I had to keep alternating between it and my regular guitars to ensure I did not lose my fluency with the latter. I also started to wonder whether the factory turning (EBGDAEBF#C#) was the best one to use and I worked out a different tuning that opened up some different possibilities, with no compromises, aside from losing the bottom C#. I  raised the 7th string a half tone to G and the 8th strong a half tone to D. This gives better tone quality for these two strings via the higher tension but also means that the bottom four strings, from 5th to 8th are likes the top four, except two octaves lower. In other words, you get the benefits of a regular guitar’s tuning approach twice over. It is then possible to play a three-and-a-bit-octave scale using only four frets, right across the width of the guitar. In this tuning, it is possible to play a minor bar chord right across the guitar, but still not possible to play the equivalent major chord, and that is where an 8-string in Abasi’s tuning has an edge.

Some months later, I bought an Ibanez RFIF 8-string fan-fret guitar, put it into Abasi’s tuning and reverted the RG9 to the factory tuning. It has been interesting having these two extended range guitars to compare: the RGIF feels and sounds much more like a regular metal player’s guitar, much smaller than the RG9 and without as big a range of tones (it only has a 3-way selector switch) and the clean tones at the bottom end are much thinner. The RG9 definitely feels like a 6-sting and bass rolled into one and sounds best played through my Fender Rumble 100w bass amp, which still gives it a good treble sound but brings out the best, in clean sounds, of its bass strings (especially with the Rumble’s mid-range selector engaged).

There is a long way to go yet for working out the full range of the RG9 but I’m greatly enjoying the challenge and I’m sure it is doing wonders for my neural system. I am very pleased with the guitar (which came with a hard case), and I think its future lies in clean sounds, not in taking heavy bass lines even lower. And I very much enjoy the wider fret spacing in the higher registers. Note bends are fine despite the longer scale, as the strings combine higher tension with lower gauges. It is definitely worth considering, though if you area mainly hoping to do heavy chugging at the bottom end then an 8-string is probably as low as you should go.

Interestingly enough, Tosin Abasi seems to be experimenting with the RG9’s potential and using his wonder clean-sound technique to great effect, as evident in the short clips at http://www.metalinjection.net/av/tosin-abasi-has-a-9-string-guitar-now-and-he-knows-how-to-use-it.

Postscript, March 2017: Having recently bought a Zoom Q4 camcorder that does excellent audio recordings (unlike a traditional camcorder with an automatic recording level), I hope to post a YouTube video of me using the RG9 in the near future, but for the moment the only YouTube post is of me playing a Les Paul, at https://youtu.be/_MJ4_wbXs9o.

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