In Search Of New Lows

Why did seven-string guitars become a nu-metal staple in the late 1990s? It turns out they nearly went forgotten—but a guitar nut in Bakersfield decided he wanted to follow a specific sound.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I’m going to reveal two things about myself in today’s Tedium that may change your opinion of me. First off, in the year 2000, I stood in line on one of the hottest days of the year in the streets of downtown Detroit to get a free ticket to a Limp Bizkit show on a tour infamously sponsored by Napster. (And I mainly did it because I was a Napster fan, and we did a lot of things we regretted in the name of nu metal.) And second, many years later, I played a key role in maintaining Fred Durst’s Wikipedia page. I don’t know why I did it—my thinking was that, because this guy was a joke at the time, as a journalist, if I could be objective about the work of Mr. Durst, I could be objective about anything. Anyway, I thought about these things this week when I was presented a strangely compelling 45-minute video of Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland selling off his gear, and I wondered: “Where are all the seven-string guitars?” Now, I have to answer that question. Today’s Tedium ponders why seven-string guitars came to shape nu-metal. — Ernie @ Tedium

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Ko Rn Press Photo

Korn, in a 1994 press photo. (via numetalforever on Instagram)

Where did KoRn find all these seven-string guitars?

If we see the years between 1998 and 2002 as the peak years for the seven-string guitar, where they were most visible in popular culture due to the mainstream success of bands who favor the instrument, it makes one wonder—well, where did they go?

The answer is, honestly, if you ever wanted to start a Deftones cover band, it’s very easy to find a seven-string electric guitar in 2023—Guitar Center sells at least one model for under $200. And you can find modern players out there if you look hard enough. Per this Rolling Stone profile, Grimes reportedly owns one.

But certainly, they had a cultural moment at that point in time, one that came to life in the mid-1990s with the success of KoRn, the band credited with sparking off the nu-metal craze. As highlighted by their first major-label single “Blind,” their use of seven-string instruments was there almost from the beginning, with guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch each using the guitars to help shape the Central Valley band’s uniquely heavy sound at the time. (Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, the band’s bassist, notably plays a five-string bass.)

For the most part, KoRn plays in a tuning style called “standard A,” which is a standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), dropped down a full step musically, so it’s lower and bassier, with the seventh string added to offer a lower sound still. The resulting tuning, ADGCFAD, sounds like this:

Other bands with a similar sound to KoRn came to embrace these lower strings. Limp Bizkit, a band that KoRn became close with through touring, would embrace the seven-strings during the height of nu-metal’s success in the late ’90s—though Borland, the band’s off-and-on guitarist, would ultimately give up on the additional string after the nu metal fad had faded (which explains why Borland didn’t have any seven-string guitars he was planning on selling). Other bands in the genre, particularly fellow California bands Incubus and the Deftones, also came to embrace the seventh string. A few bands even went so far as eight strings, but none went full Chapman Stick territory, as far as I know.

But the question is, how did KoRn find these guitars, and how did they become so integral to both their sound and the sound of nu metal? After all, it’s not like you can take a regular guitar and just add a seventh string to it. It needs hardware and a thicker neck. And Jonathan Davis is not a luthier. There needed to be an existing market that a group of metalheads from California’s Central Valley could tap into.

The story of the seven-string, decades before it became a metal-band standby, starts with jazz—and passes through a famous guitarist that sounds nothing like KoRn.


The year the Russian guitar, which has seven strings, was reportedly invented. The reason it has seven strings? Simple—its reported inventor, Andrei Sychra, was a harpist, and wanted to apply a harp-like tuning to the instrument. Which is something you’d never think about when you think about nu metal.

George van eps

George Van Eps. (via Jazz Lives)

The seven-string guitar has a legacy in jazz

In 1938, George Van Eps, a studio guitarist who had played with numerous popular musicians of the era, had an idea—he wanted an electric guitar with an extra bass string.

So he reached out to the company that made his guitars, Epiphone, and asked for something custom. That guitar proved perfect for his needs.

“Somebody drove it (the first one) from New York to Atlantic City, where I was giving a concert,” Van Eps recalled in a 1990 interview. “I’ve used it ever since.”

He noted in that same interview that it was a guitar for “serious guitarists in the dedicated guitar department,” and tended not to be popular with major rock stars but fellow jazz musicians. (If you’re curious what serious non-KoRn guitarists do with this instrument, I’ve included one of Van Eps’ albums above.)

One of those jazz musicians, Bucky Pizzarelli, became even better known than Van Eps did. Pizzarelli started playing the seven-string guitar in 1969, directly inspired by Van Eps. He ultimately helped shape the instrument.

“It gives it a new dimension,” Pizzarelli, who once played in Miles Davis’ band, recalled in an interview with The Last Miles. “You can play in all the keys properly, which you can’t do with a six-string, because you have to depend on the open and closed strings.”

(Pizzarelli, sadly, was one of the first people we lost in the COVID-19 crisis, dying on the same day as another notable musician, Adam Schlesinger.)

In the era of nu-metal, the seven-string guitar was known as a way to produce extremely deep riffs. But before that point, it was seen as a soloist’s machine, with jazz players using it to access a full array of notes, not unlike what a piano.

As it turns out, the thing that would make the seven-string guitar famous was a group of young musicians who ignored the orthodoxy around this instrument and saw a way to make a sound that was uniquely theirs.

That group was, of course, KoRn.


The year the Ibanez guitar brand, produced by the Japanese instrument manufacturer Hoshino Gakki, first came to life under the name Ibanyesu—named in honor of the Spanish luthier Salvador Ibáñez, whose guitars were heavily imported into Japan before World War II, including by Hoshino Gakki. The brand, renamed Ibanez in 1986, gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s thanks to an affiliation with Steve Vai, considered one of the world’s best guitar players at the time the collaboration began.

The guitar legend who embraced the seven-string for himself … only for KoRn to make it famous

Steve Vai was so preordained to be a guitar god that he was first taught the instrument by another guitar god, Joe Satriani. He shaped the way people thought of this instrument, and is probably your favorite guitarist’s favorite guitarist.

But based on his sound, he certainly doesn’t seem like an obvious inspiration for KoRn, a band built around aggressive low riffing and dark storytelling, rather than the string-tapping theatrics and technical complexity that Vai, a former guitarist for Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth, was known for.

Vai, however, did something that set the stage for KoRn’s successful career: He convinced the guitar company Ibanez to create a specialized seven-string guitar for him in the late 1980s, which he then used on two hit records: Whitesnake’s platinum 1989 record Slip of the Tongue, and his own instrumental solo record, Passion and Warfare. (Above is the “hit” from the latter record, “The Audience Is Listening.”)

The guitar actually was less versatile than Vai had hoped for. Vai wanted to create a guitar that could be used either with an extra high string or an extra low string. The problem was, it was hard to find high strings thick enough for this task.

“Every time I tried to tune a string up to high A, the string would break,” he told Guitar Player magazine in 1998. “Ultimately, I settled on using a low seventh string.”

Despite Vai’s seven-string solos finding a wide audience, the guitar, known as the Ibanez Steve Vai UV777 Universe, was not a hit, far from it, and faded from view soon after its release.

But unbeknownst to Vai, it struck the fancy of the guitarist for an up-and-coming band from Bakersfield. While KoRn was said to be deeply influenced by bands like Faith No More and Helmet, Vai’s influence proved especially strong on James “Munky” Shaffer, who loved the sound of Passion and Warfare and considered Vai a personal hero. He picked apart the guitar sound and realized that his favorite parts were the brief moments where the guitar sound was significantly lower than what you could get from a traditional six-string guitar.

As Munky told Reverb back in 2020:

I loved how he took the instrument to the extreme and made the guitar talk. That, to me, was so unique and different, that everything has a tone. Every word and every noise, you can apply a music note to it, whether it’s a rhythm, the way people talk, or a sound outside. That blew my mind, how he was emulating everyday sounds. That was really inspirational.

Essentially, Munky heard those extra-low guitar tones in parts of Passion and Warfare, and after slowly paying off the guitar on layaway, he finally got his hands on an Ibanez Steve Vai UV777 Universe. It took a bit of tweaking to get his desired sound.

“Once I got it, it was cool, but it still wasn’t tuned quite low enough for me to resonate with what I heard in my head, so I adjusted the springs and lowered the tuning,” Munky added.

He then convinced his friend Brian “Head” Welch to also play one of these guitars, and formed an entire band around the idea of an extra-deep guitar sound based on seven-string guitars. And that band proved the starting point of an entire movement of similar bands.

What’s more, Vai realized what had happened on his own. Per an interview with Ultimate Guitar, also from 2020:

Then, I’m driving down the street and this song comes on the radio, and I’m like, ‘What the heck is that?‘, and I pull the car over. It sounded so heavy, I instinctually knew it was a seven-string, and somebody was doing something with it that was much different than what I was doing.

And that band was KoRn. That was sort of the rebirth of the seven-string. So it was a co-creative effort. I was a part of it, but it took many, many people to bring it to the level where it’s at.

(When this moment was relayed to Brian “Head” Welch a few months later, he reacted as any guitar nerd would: “That is the coolest story ever! 12-year-old Brian Welch is just blown away by that—it’s a dream come true to have Steve Vai pull over because he heard KoRn and recognized the seven-string.”)

By the time the first KoRn album came out, Ibanez had all but dropped the Steve Vai signature guitar, only to bring it back and release a bunch of other seven-string guitars when it realized this weird anomaly of an instrument, built at the behest of a literal guitar hero, was about to become very popular.

And that’s the story of how the Steve Vai signature guitar became the official guitar of nu metal, a style of music Vai isn’t known for playing.

In some ways, much like Steve Vai’s success as a guitarist, the success of nu metal felt preordained, like it was just going to happen.

And there was no better sign of this than the music video for KoRn’s “Got The Life,” the first touch of truly mainstream success the band had, thanks to heavy airplay on MTV’s Total Request Live.

It is a video extremely reflective of its era, with bright colors, transitions through random scenes, expensive set pieces, and the lead singer singing in the backseat of the vehicle.

To emphasize this idea that it was destined to be a hit: At the end of the video, the members of KoRn are shown in an outdoor party. At this party, members of the bands Limp Bizkit, Incubus, and Orgy, along with Eminem, are shown hanging out with our returning heroes, who just destroyed a Ferrari.

It’s as if they knew something we didn’t, because in a span of a year, each of these musicians, who may as well have been extras at the time of the video’s release, had major hits that would become Total Request Live mainstays. It was as if this music video was a coming out party for all of them, not just KoRn. The only one missing was Kid Rock, and honestly, he probably wasn’t even invited.

Sure, each of these musicians had things going for them—Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. was an underground hit at this time, just like KoRn’s earlier records were. But this was different.

MTV had preordained a new movement, and KoRn was at the front of it. And the sound of that movement had seven strings.


Didn’t think I had it in me, but yeah, I just wrote a totally objective piece about nu metal where I compared it to jazz. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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