Five string guitar (non-bass): How can one be altered, purchased, or constructed by a non-expert.
September 25, 2009 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Five string guitar (non-bass), with a standard-width fretboard: Why am I not finding m/any, and how can one be altered, purchased, or constructed cheaply by a non-expert.

So two years ago I bought a ukulele, and to my great surprise meteorically shot to proficiency. In a very few months of constant practice I became a solid player... not spectacular or virtuosic, but quite solid. More than just making me fairly dexterous and competent with fingering, the act of learning the ukulele made me feel like I finally "got" some crucial element of music--on a rudimentary but fundamental level--that had eluded me all my life.

I picked up a guitar 6 months ago and approached it with this new understanding, and with my previous diligence in practice, and there are too many goddamn strings on that thing. Well, put fairly, my issue is that the strings seem too close together for my feeble skills.

I know in my rational mind that many, many people with many different physiological shapes have become proficient--doubtless many less dexterous, and with much fatter fingertips than I--but I've driven myself to the point of psychological impediment. I can not play clean anything on the thing. No doubt that exercises or instruction would help me, and I may ask for help in that direction someday; but today my purpose is to ask for help with my dream: a Five-String Guitar.

In my searches, I found references to guitarists playing with only five strings, but just by omitting a string on a 6-string guitar. I also found a patent, and one single production model that looked to have a smaller-width fretboard. I found a family of instrument called a "tenor guitar" which looks to be a 4 string guitar, but I'm still curious about 5 strings. To further complicate, I've found 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and obviously 12 string guitars. I presume that the illuminati is suppressing five-string guitar production for some reason... this is the only explanation I have for guitars being available in every positive integer string configuration up to 500 except five.

How could this be bought or altered from an existing 6-string cheaply by a non-expert? I'm a handy guy, but have zero luthier experience. Also, what are some ways that it would likely be tuned? Anything else I'm not considering? Thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wouldn't you just need to modify or replace the string notches in the nut and bridge/saddle? The saddle redesign would be the toughest part for a non-luthier.
As for tuning, either standard tuning minus the low-E or banjo (G) tuning, I would guess.
posted by rocket88 at 9:20 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

For sheer fucked-up-itude, you could try to find a bugarija - Croatian guitarish thing. Most of them (and they come in different ranges) have five strings - bottom two (lowest tones - where the low E woudl be on a guitar) are octave drones, plus three more strings spaced out into a major chord. Of course, the bottom two strings are very close together. However, you could fashion a new nut and bridge relatively easily.

Or you could have a luthier make you a new nut and bridge for a regular six-string, with only five notches.

As for tuning, you could just omit the low E from guitar tuning (fourths, mostly), extend mando/violin tuning to an additional fifth, use banjo tuning, or bugarija tuning (dD A D f#)
posted by notsnot at 9:23 AM on September 25, 2009

Response by poster: Is it really that simple (regarding nut/bridge)? If so, my prayers have been answered. I had psyched myself into thinking that the answer was more complex.

The question becomes: How likely am I to fuck that up while doing it vs. how much is a luthier likely to charge (ballpark) for a service of this type?

Also, any suggestions about where I could find a chord diagram generator for this chimerical instrument? Any other pitfalls I'm ignorant of, or tips I should follow? Thanks.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 9:51 AM on September 25, 2009

I think that rocket88 is right. It seems pretty simple--I bet a reasonable luthier/guitar repair guy wouldn't charge too much.
posted by umbú at 9:58 AM on September 25, 2009

Hey, another option would be a Brazilian viola caipira or viola sertaneja. It has five sets of double-coursed strings--10 strings in total. You could just take five off, and leave the bottom-pitched five, and you'd be in business with no alterations.
posted by umbú at 10:01 AM on September 25, 2009

It has been done.

Alex Gregory is probably the biggest champion of 5-stringed instruments tuned in fifths. The idea didn't take off.

Schecter produced a couple of short-lived commercial 5-strings that you may find designated Celloblaster, A-5X, C-5X, and CB-2000. I'm not really clear on the distinctions, I think Celloblaster was a general name, I don't know if there were 2 or 3 versions or what. It doesn't sound like there are a lot of them. You'll find some but not a ton of info searching around that. It sounds like they are to be had used but not easy to find.

Hopefully that's a good enough answer to justify my saying you will be a lot better off learning to play a 6 string properly. My guess is you developed a screwed up grip on the ukulele and if you correct it you will start to get the hang of it. But whatever the issue is you will not improve it by playing to your weaknesses. All the millions of guitar books in the world, all the standard non-standard tunings, standard electric tuners, all the guitar tabs that are out there... It's all made for the 6-string. It has been the standard form of the guitar since the mid-18th century. You're trying to solve the more difficult problem.
posted by nanojath at 10:01 AM on September 25, 2009

I apologize for not answering your question BUT I really think you should consider just sucking it up and learning how to play the 6 string guitar. There's good reasons why ukes have 4 strings and guitars have 6 strings. A 5 string guitar may ultimately be really frustrating to play. Do you know how you are going to tune it?

I only say this because I used to get into these kind of ideas myself, and it wasted a lot of time for me. I think it's cool to say, hey, I think I'm getting this 6 string guitar, but I could do X if it only had 5 strings. Or 7, or 12. My roommate plays beautiful music on a 12 string guitar that has 6 random, rusty strings on it. But if you are just wanting to play the guitar, learning to move your hands around the small strings is totally doable.

BUT I would say, you could try a classical guitar, which are often times available really cheaply, and have a much wider string spread than does a steel string guitar. I think it might be about the same as the uke. The strings are nylon too, and they are very easy and comfortable to play.

Again my apologies for not answering your question directly.
posted by sully75 at 10:32 AM on September 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

If the issue is really the distance between strings rather than the number of strings, I'd recommend a classical guitar with gut strings, similar to those on a uke. Student models can be had relatively cheaply. Classical guitar necks are noticeably wider than steel string guitars.

My first guitar was a classical, and it was several years until I graduated to a narrow-neck steel string model. Gut strings are a lot easier on the fingers as well.
posted by DandyRandy at 12:07 PM on September 25, 2009

There exist several banjos with full-length, non-routed fifth strings - though none cheap. Now, they'll sound like a banjo, and need some nut work to come out of a non-rëntrant tuning, but you've got five strings right there, and a tailpiece that's designed for five strings.

Alternatively, there are older (and quite cheap) English zither banjos which were designed to take six strings, but only have a neck the full width of five. These can be cheap, but will need TLC.

It might not be the string spacing that's the real problem with the guitar, but the steel strings. If it's an acoustic, you might be able to get a luthier to modify the nut and the bridge to take hard nylon strings.
posted by scruss at 3:22 PM on September 25, 2009

Have you considered a four or five sting banjo instead? That would offer you the requested number of strings without the reconstruction. (Besides, banjos are pretty awesome.) Just throwing out that option...
posted by Kimothy at 4:41 PM on September 25, 2009

"I can not play clean anything on the thing."

You can play cleanly, if you play very slowly and deliberately. Approach the guitar as a new instrument and don't expect to play anything as easily as you do on the uke, right away. Work your way up to normal tempo.
posted by kenliu at 4:48 PM on September 25, 2009

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