Over the weekend I was reading the Gear Gods article "In Defense Of 9-String Guitars." It got me thinking about both the points brought up in the article as well as the complaints I've seen about extended range guitars in general.
What this article boils down to, and my whole argument for the continued research and production of the instrument, is the simple question "are you creative enough to do something amazing with these instruments?" That's it.
As musicians and fans of music we can't call an instrument "stupid" because it's different. There's a use for it. But the over-saturation of bands using them as a gimmick mixed with players' inability to utilize the instruments properly has left a bad taste in our mouths. We're hungry for something new and innovative but it comes out as frustration.
To quote a portion of the Gear Gods article:
"I’ve owned plenty of 7-strings but they’ve never really stepped firm-footed into the full bass register like an 8-string, which really can negate the need for a bassist. In fact, it should negate the bass. It goes down to F#. You have those frequency ranges covered. So don’t feel the need for a dedicated bass just because the Beatles and Sabbath had one. You are the bass. You just also have some high strings.
So why not a 9? We’ve already set the course, so why not commit? If I’m going to be covering that sonic territory then I want to cover all of it and not just most. It’s already a bass. Animals as Leaders and Meshuggah (in the studio) already eliminated their bassists."
One of the complaints floating around about the instrument is why players feel the need to go so low if there's a bass and what purpose does the range serve in the long run. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much of an open door to creativity this leaves. Let's say you're the hypothetical owner of a 9-string with a low C# (hey, congrats man!) and you've written a song that goes down to the lowest note you can achieve on the instrument. What's stopping the bass from going an octave above that particular guitar and playing the same thing in a role-reversal-type situation? Better yet, what about the bass acting as the guitar momentarily? Or what's stopping it just being a heavy riff in context of the song for that section? Be it harmonies, riffs, or just the roles being reversed there's plenty of creativity to be had.
Of course not every single song that utilizes this extended range needs to be hyper technical and utilize every aspect of the instrument. When that djentstick video came out it bugged me a little because it seems like everyone's immediately ready to jump on the bandwagon of hating anything even remotely simplistic using these instruments. I get that the video itself was a joke but the reaction from viewers seems a little more negative toward a riff that can only be played on one string.
Have we forgotten bands like The Ramones who launched an entire movement with three-chord songs? Have we forgotten Black Sabbath's debut record and the song "Black Sabbath" that literally uses three notes for the majority of it? Simplicity isn't a bad thing, but because it's on a low-tuned guitar we treat it like some stupid novelty that can't be taken seriously. The idea of rhythmically concentrated music isn't a new concept considering Meshuggah has been at it since the late 1980s, but the game has changed so much since then.
The use of extended range guitars does stretch a little into the realm of "easier" music at times, acting as a punk-ish aesthetic, and used in the right context it still has an effect just like a tasty riff that spans three octaves does. I'm not encouraging musicians to base their whole career off the most simple riffs possible. That would get boring. What I'm saying is that a nice, chunky riff on the lowest string for a song amid an album of creative output (or a chunky riff on the low string amid a song of well-written material) has its' place just like any riff does.
You can absolutely chug away on the lowest string on an extended range guitar and waste the creative potential of the instrument, but you can do that with a six-string too. Give an uncreative person any kind of guitar and they'll figure out a way to play terrible, derivative bullshit devoid of anything that can even be deemed a riff. The extended range guitar isn't the problem, it's the players who pick the instrument up. If you want to buy a 16-string guitar that's tuned two octaves below middle C and somehow make that sub-frequency into something amazing, then go for it. Invent away and blur the lines between what we conceive as heavy right now and what you're hearing in your head.
For every Tosin Abasi you'll have a thousand kids who just want to rip shitty rhythms with two notes for a whole album… and that's the way it's always going to be.