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Jörg Hilbert

Eight Strings and More
From the Guitar to the Liuto forte – A Personal Account

To begin with the end, anticipating the outcome: eight strings and more are in principle no problem for the guitarist, and the difficulties do not increase proportionately with the number of strings. The main thing is that you don’t let yourself be persuaded by the mere appearance of a many-stringed instrument that you could never manage to play such a thing. The first impression is admittedly a minor culture shock. Once you’ve got past this, though, you are more than rewarded with totally new experiences in sound and, on top of these, a distinct reduction of many left-hand difficulties. The single condition is that you are open and curious enough to really play the new instrument regularly. At the start it is inevitably true that it can get pretty frustrating, since the reliable basis of the freely accessible E string is suddenly no longer there. Instead, your thumb finds itself confronted with a confusing multitude of alternatives in whose meshes it can easily get lost. This feeling changes given a little time. Unnoticeably but inexorably the ratio of hits to misses rises until you can no longer quite understand how the extra strings ever caused so much trouble.

I myself made the first step going from a six string to an eight string guitar. I didn’t dare any more than that, since I then believed that at my ripe old age of forty I wouldn’t be able to manage more – which has subsequently proved a completely false prediction! After a while I heard about the Liuto forte and fell in love with this instrument immediately and effortlessly, because it simply offered me a lot that the guitar plainy lacks – in terms of sound, but also in the range of literature and widened perspectives generally. I nevertheless opted at the time only for an eight string Liuto forte. In many respects it was very similar to my guitar and therefore felt straightaway familiar, so that there were hardly any difficulties in getting used to it. I didn’t even need to alter my playing position very much at all, due to a rest on my thigh to prevent slippage. Already this first instrument was fascinating, though. Not only in its appearance and new physical qualities, but in the availability of sounds and its unbelievably easy approach and accessibility. Also the ability of the instrument to “carry” was impressive. It sounded, a girlfriend told me once, as though you were sitting right next to a loudspeaker.

After a while this instrument was joined by a 14-stringed archiliuto and a d minor Liuto forte, both of which are much more “lutes” than the eight string Liuto forte is. I began to play the d minor instrument with practically no prior knowledge or preparation. After a month or so I was already able to play quite passably several of S. L. Weiss’s more demanding pieces. The results were even more amazing with the archiliuto. Here I could more easily apply my guitaristic experience and pretty soon I could command a reasonable repertoire of original literature and arrangements of more familiar pieces. Particularly my own versions of several works by Bach gained a completely new dimension with the extended possibilities in the bass. The extra strings proved themselves to be in fact more of a solution and salvation than any additional problem. My initial fear of tablature also proved to be utterly groundless. Basically, it is easier to read from than “normal” notation, particularly if you are wandering in strange tunings. Another revelation which amply rewards your efforts was the realisation, for example, that the original lute literature is practically always consummately fitted to the instrument it was intended for. A lot that is in every sense a finger ache and a headache on the guitar is magically dissipated by the d minor lute, where the music is written, as it were, right on the curvaceous body. Moreover, I now have one and a half fat document folders in front of me full of only a part of the better known compositions of Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Then there are the countless works of others I have discovered for myself in the meantime. These composers have left us a grandiose music that can without shame be measured against the best of their more famous contemporaries, although one doesn’t know them well outside the lute world, for the simple reason that their music is not really transposable to other instruments. For me, personally, this literature supplies a great perspective and a splendid task for the next forty years or so. I don’t have any plans beyond that.

In the interests of completeness, I would like to mention my experience with lutes of historical construction. Playing instruments with double courses of strings presupposes, depending on the period, a whole range of utterly distinct techniques and even cultures of plucking. I also risked this leap with profit. In the meantime I feel at home on most lutes, whatever their specifications. What might be “correct” or “inadmissible” I am unfortunately not in a position to judge. In my opinion, though, art by its very nature, including music, does not accept such mutually exclusive categories. All possibilities which might be of service to art should be tried out before they are rejected. And for more than five minutes. That goes for historically constructed lutes as well as for liuti forti. The latter are, in any case, a practical and uncomplicated option – not necessarily for lutenists, maybe not for guitarists, but most definitely for musicians.

As I say, being a guitarist you can begin very well with eight strings without fundamentally altering your technique. You will need to allow, though, for a period of getting accustomed to them. Once you have the hang of the extra strings you will quickly value the advantages of having an open E and D string and having the choice of stopping a G optionally on the third or the fifth fret. At some stage you might realise that eight strings are actually not that many and begin to desire more. My advice would be, therefore, to start off trying straightaway with nine strings, no matter what your initial caution might advise! As I have said, additional strings do not make the job more difficult the more of them there are. The crunch is to take the plunge for extended many-stringing in itself. Nine strings are a good transition, but even ten or eleven are simple enough to master. The surprising realisation is purely this: proficiency with multi-basses can be learnt. You just have to do it.