Bob Benedetto: Pioneer of the Modern 7-String Jazz Guitar
For the past 45 years Bob Benedetto has honed his craft to high art, and today he’s often regarded as the world’s foremost arch-top guitar maker. Since 1977, Benedetto has made 7-string guitars for Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Howard Alden, Ron Eschete, Chris Buzzelli, and many others. Working out of Savannah, Georgia, Bob has personally handcrafted over 800 instruments, including 500 arch-tops. The Benedetto Guitars website provides a huge gallery of guitars, as well as history and more: http://www.benedettoguitars.com. Bob was kind enough to take some time to give us some perspectives on 7-string guitar and its construction, as well as his history with the instrument.
How long have you been building 7-strings?
Since 1977 – per my wife Cindy, “the walking encyclopedia.” That’s the first one I made. Shortly after that I made Bucky Pizzarelli’s in mid 1978, and that’s when I started really digging into that 7-string. I worked very closely with Bucky for a number of years on the fine points of the instrument.
What made you build that first 7-string?
It was for an order. Out of the blue I got an order to make a 7-string, and it intrigued me and I was very anxious to do it. I had seen a few. During those years, I did a lot of repair work and I had worked on the old Gretsch 7-string, which was about the only commercially made 7-string back then.
Did you have any reservations or did you say “I wonder what I’m going to have to do different?”
Truthfully, I found it very exciting. The first order I got was for an 18″ acoustic. I don’t know if it had a floating pickup or not; it may have been a built-in pickup. Anyway, it was a full-bodied archtop, so I’m thinking acoustically: How’s that low bass string going to sound, or how am I going to make it sound? The only references I had were the plywood Gretsch, so I couldn’t really use that as an acoustical reference. A lot of things just kind of fell into place as I made that first instrument. I knew early on that it’s the vibrating back that produces the bass notes, so I had to be very attentive as I was carving and graduating the back, so that it should be sensitive to a low A. That’s what that 7-string was tuned to, an octave lower than the fifth string. That’s typically how the jazz players tune it.
It seems illogical, on the surface, to tune to a low A instead of a B.
Yeah, I understand the rock players will tune it to a B, but the jazz players all tune it to an A.
Some even tune to low C.
My main thing, acoustically, was the back and the bracing. I didn’t do very much to the bracing on the top. X-bracing has been the popular bracing pattern, but the back was crucial. It had to respond to the low bass notes. The other thing from a playability standpoint was the neck specs, of course. Now, the Gretsches I had seen all varied in neck widths and depths and shapes, and all that, so I didn’t have a definite reference. So I kind of winged my way through that and just added on enough additional width to accommodate one more string. And, as it turns out, that really wasn’t wide enough. The end result, after a few guitars, was I established that 2-1/16″ was the right measurement.
That’s not huge, but it could feel like it’s more than a handful for some players.
You know, it’s really pretty comfortable for most. Most players can play a 7-string without any real difficulty. Some really get into it, and others just put it aside. A lot of advanced players are reluctant to switch over to 7-string because it requires going back in time and relearning the instrument a bit and that sort of thing. But I like it. I think it’s pretty cool. I always did like that 7-string. I felt that if kids were handed a 7-string guitar instead of a 6-string guitar, that’s all they’d want. I think it’s a very natural part of the evolution of the guitar. It’s nice. It’s like adding a few keys – well, it’s like the low keys on a piano.
Because you had to basically start from nothing, were there any issues that made you say, “Boy, this is a real head scratcher. How am I going to get out of this jam?”
[Laughs.] None that I can recall, or admit to. I’ll tell you one thing that I did, though, early on, with the first few that I made: I used two truss rods because it seemed to me that with that additional width – and having seen 12-string guitars, the Guild, especially, had two truss rods – I thought that it made sense to put two truss rods in there. I got away from that after making a couple 7-strings because it really wasn’t necessary. It really didn’t make a difference. The neck was either going to be good and stable, or not.
What did you do for strings, considering that 7-string sets weren’t widely available?
Interestingly, Bucky Pizzarelli had LaBella make a set for him. And, at the time, LaBella was supplying me with strings also – and still does – so I just used Bucky’s set out of the gate, and then I made some variations over the years. There was a low .080, the seventh string on the Pizzarelli set. Now I use a .077. That’s my standard seventh string.
Many 6-string guitarists have gone to using an .011 for their high E. Years ago, everyone was using very light gauges, such as an .008. You could cut cheese with it.
That’s true. In fact, a lot of jazz players have gone from a heavier set to a lighter set. Most players nowadays are using a .012 to .052. That’s the popular jazz set. it’s a great set. Nice, middle of the road. Years ago, the popular set was .013 to .056. In either case, I still use a .077 on the seventh string.
What did you do for pickups?
The very first 7-string pickups that I used were made by Dan Torres, out in [Saratoga] California. At the time, Tim Shaw was working for him, and Tim actually made my pickups. And then after that, I found a drawer full of single-coil wide pickups at Gibson. I used to do warranty work for them, so once a year a handful of other warranty centers and I were invited up to Kalamazoo, and Gibson would host us for a couple of days, doing seminars and all that. On the last day, they’d give us the run of the place and we’d pick up supplies and so on, and I stumbled into what they called an S1 pickup. They designed it for a model that never left the drawing board, as I recall, but it was a great little pickup. It was, well, I forget the exact length of that pickup, but it easily accommodated the 7-string, so I used that for years. Eventually, Kent Armstrong made them, and then after Kent, Seymour Duncan. That’s who does them for me know.
How many 7-strings do you have under your belt?
I don’t know for sure. I’d have to start counting in my log book. We make quite a few. Here in the Savannah shop, we make quite a few also. It’s popular, but I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the 6-string. I think theoretically it could, but in reality, it’ll never happen. I used to make a lot. There was a time, when I had my one-man shop years ago, I bet you 25% of the guitars I made were 7-string. I wouldn’t be surprised. That went on for a number of years.
That’s a considerable number.
Oh, yeah. I made more 7-strings than everybody else put together. Of course, back then there weren’t many independent makers, so there was no real numbers game going on.
What is the hardest part of making a successful 7-string?
I don’t really have any difficulty making them. The bugs were always the tuning of the body and the neck specs. Those were the things that really required attention. Otherwise, the work is very much the same as a 6-string. The bracing is played with a little bit – kind of adjustable a little here and there. The f-hole openings are sometimes increased, depending on what the player is looking for. It’s mostly been the neck and the back. That’s where the attention had to be focused. It was an enjoyable trip. I never felt obstacles. There were challenges, but it was always fun. I really enjoyed it.
Did anyone ever come to you and ask to have you do a high A, like on Lenny Breau’s guitars?
Oh, yeah. I’ve done a few of those. You know what? That never made sense to me. I’ve done it, and I liked Lenny. They can play them, there’s no question about it, and they sound great in the right hands, but on a 7-string I personally prefer the low bass as the seventh string and not an additional high string.
You can get most of the high notes on a 6-string already.
Yeah, maybe that’s why. The range is adequate, I think, with regular 6-string tuning. Adding another higher note brings you into another range, I suppose. I can’t knock it, because there are some great players out there. I also made a few 8-strings, and one of them had a high A and a low A. Comes with everything [laughs].
Now that would have you rethinking that neck width.
Yeah. Just add a little more wood. [Laughs.] Another 8-string I made had two additional bass strings. You wouldn’t believe it. The guy I made if for was a great player, in fact. He used to change the tunings on those two low strings. He’d go from an A and a B to who knows what. I don’t even remember what it was, but the guy really played it. You know, it sounds like a ridiculous novelty, but he really played the thing and it wasn’t bottom-heavy. It didn’t sound overpowering in that bass range. He knew what to do with it. That was very unusual.
When you’re adding more strings like that, wouldn’t it add a lot of extra stress to the top and neck?
You would think so, but it really doesn’t. It really is amazing. I was surprised. With the very first 7-string guitar I made, I was surprised. I was expecting more tension. That was one of the reasons that led me to using two truss rods. I thought, “Oh, man, this is going to be murder on a neck.” Of course, there’s more tension, but not enough to affect the downward pressure on the bridge pressing down on the top – not so much that it makes much difference really.
Have you had a chance to check out 7-strings from other builders?
Oh, I have over the years. I can’t recall exactly where, when, or who, but it’s been 45 years, so I do run into other makers and their guitars from time to time and it’s always fun.
Have you had any come back and someone says, “You know, I want to have this done or I want to have that done.” And does that drive a process of changing or improving?
The only one that ever came back was Bucky’s first guitar that I made. The neck was too narrow. Working with Bucky was, for me, like going to school because there was nowhere else to get this type of information. Here I am working with, at the time, the number-one 7-string player in the country. George Van Eps was still around, but I hadn’t been able to work with him. He was so far away in California and I, at the time, was in New Jersey. But working with Bucky, the first guitar had a neck width that was too narrow, so I immediately made a wider neck, replaced the neck, and then we played that. As I was working on his guitar, I was getting orders, so I was learning more by doing. But to answer your question, I really haven’t had guitars come back where people needed a change, other than Bucky, and that was very, very early on.
Are there any other considerations that a player should keep in mind when thinking of trying a 7-string?
If you’re talking about jazz players, tell them they need to play a Benedetto. [Laughs.] I’ve seen 7-string classicals, 7-string flat-top acoustics, and, of course, electrics, and they’re very different than the archtop in every other aspect – the playability, the sound, the tunings. So different. The mainstream jazz player has always been my focus, really, whether 6- or 7-string. I’d like to think that I’ve got it nailed and I’ve fine-tuned it. With every one I make, I hope that it’s that much better than the one that came before it. So we continue to refine things and try to improve.
Is there anything else about seventh string that you should tell people? Scare them with? Encourage them with?
Well, I think every 6-string player that really wants to grow, especially the young ones, should sit down with a 7-string guitar and really think about it seriously and listen to guys like Bucky and Ron Eschete. One of my great inspirations, of course, was making guitars for Jimmy Bruno. At the time, he was playing 7-string. These guys are just fantastic. Howard Alden plays my 7-string guitar, as well. He’s a great ambassador and has also been extremely helpful with necks, backs, and so on. It’s always good when you can work with the players. I’ve been really fortunate. The players that I’ve worked with have…well, I could’ve never become a respected guitar maker unless I worked with good players. Ron Eschete is another great 7-string player, in California. I haven’t seen him in a number of years, but I made quite a few guitars for him. Every one of these guys is such a great player, and they were so helpful in refinement. One may want this and the other one wants that, and as you make more and more guitars, as you can imagine, you begin to understand the instrument a little better – what it can do and what it can’t do. If I were a serious player, I’d play 7-string. There’s no question about it.
Do you still play guitar?
I do play. Actually, I play at home, and since Cindy and I are now semi-retired, in that semi-retirement role I’m looking for a couple of local guys to get together with and play. So, yeah, I expect to do a little playing once again. Maybe I will switch to 7-string. I have one. I keep a 7-string out of the case right here in front of me.