Russian guitar

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A seven-string Russian guitar

The Russian guitar (sometimes referred to as a "Gypsy guitar") is an acoustic seven-string guitar that was invented in Russia toward the end of the 18th century as a hybrid instrument: it shares important organological features with the Spanish guitar as well as with the 18th-century cittern ("English guitar"). It is known in Russian as the semistrunnaya gitara (семиструнная гитара), or affectionately as the semistrunka (семиструнка), which translates to "seven-stringer." These guitars are tuned to an Open G chord as follows: D G B d g b d'. In classical literature, the lowest string (D) occasionally is tuned down to the C.


Although in a number of source the invention of the Russian guitar is attributed to Andrei Sychra (1773–1850), there are strong reasons to believe that the instrument was already in use when Sychra began his career. It is true that Sychra was very influential in creating the school of Russian guitar playing. He left over a thousand compositions, seventy-five of which were republished in the 1840s by Stellovsky, and then again in the 1880s by Gutheil. Some of these were published yet again in the Soviet Union in 1926.

This type of guitar has been called a 'Russian guitar,' as it has been primarily played in Russia, and later in the Soviet Union.

The Russian version of the seven-string guitar has been used by professionals because of its great flexibility, but has also been popular with amateurs for accompaniment (especially Russian bards) due to the relative simplicity of some basic chords and the ease of playing alternating bass lines.

The Russian guitar is traditionally played without a pick, using fingers for either strumming or picking.

A two-necked version of the Russian guitar was also popular; these guitars usually had 11 or 12 strings—one neck with seven fretted strings, and another with four or five unfretted strings. There are also some rare specimens that were built with an oval body.



For many years, the seven string Russian guitar was far more popular than the regular six-string Spanish guitar; the latter was a rarity in Russia before the revolution of 1917. The Russian guitar gained significant popularity in the latter half of the 19th century with the increasing popularity of guitar oriented "city romance" songs.

During the early Soviet eras of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, all guitar music fell in disfavor of the Soviet government, which branded the instrument (together with the violin) as "bourgeois," favoring mass orchestration instead. However, the old Russian school of classical guitar continued to exist, continuing the seven string tradition.

The six string first came to serious prominence in the Russian classical guitar world when Andrés Segovia toured Soviet Russia in 1926. Possibly looking for something new and exciting to give life to their repressed craft, many Russian classical guitarists began making a switch to the six string and the EADGBE tuning. Classical guitarist Piotr Agafoshin made the switch, and wrote a Russian book on six string technique that remains a standard to this day.

The Russian guitar remained the standard for popular musicians until the 1960s, when a strong interest in underground music such as jazz and Western rock groups such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley developed.

However, the parallel emergence of Russian bard music, which relied heavily on popular Russian guitar technique used in "urban romances," kept the seven-string guitar relevant. Actor Vladimir Vysotsky, arguably Russia's most prominent bard, retained his monogamous relationship with the seven string up to his death in 1980. Pioneering bard Bulat Okudjava switched to the six string in the early 90's, but continued tuning it in open G (skipping the middle D).

Thanks to the "bard boom" and cheap factory production, a Russian guitar could be bought new for as little as 12 rubles in the 1970s. Soviet factories continued to manufacture the seven string exclusively for quite a long time before making a gradual switchover to accommodate the demand for six string guitars in the mid to late 1970s. Prior to that, western pop and rock oriented guitarists had a tradition of modifying cheap factory made Soviet seven string guitars to six strings (or sometimes to bass guitars) and retuning them to the EADGBE tuning.

Conversely, Russian emigre guitarists living in western countries, where only six string guitars were available, have been known to modify six string (and sometimes twelve string) acoustic guitars to seven string instruments, in order to better play their favorite Russian songs.

Recently, the repertoire for the Russian guitar has been the subject of a new scholarly examination and has seen increased performance due to the work of Dr. Oleg Timofeyev, who has unearthed and recorded works by the composer Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev (1888−1963).


For the 7-string Russian guitar, the open strings form a G-major chord.

Traditionally, Russian and Spanish guitars are tuned differently. On the Spanish guitar the open-string chord is an Em11, while on the Russian guitar it is a G-major. While the Spanish guitar is tuned in fourths with one (major) third (g-b), the Russian guitar is tuned in thirds ( G'-B, B-D, g-b, and b-d') with two fourths (D'-G', and D-g):

D', G', B, D, g, b, d'.

Chord playing

This open G tuning allows the G-major chord and barre chords to be played with only one finger of the fretting hand (the left hand for right-handed guitars). The A-major chord can be played most easily as a barré on the second fret, the B major as a barré on the fourth, C major on the fifth, D major on the seventh, and so on (although other, more involved major shapes are employed as well for a variation in voicing). A fair amount of open-G chord shapes use six or five strings, and so these shapes require the player to mute or not play particular strings, as suggested by the chord diagrams displayed below.

Perhaps the most audible difference between the Spanish and Russian tunings is in the ability to play chords with a tighter, more piano-like voicing on the latter. For example, an E-minor chord on a Spanish guitar (as 022000) is usually played in the order, from low to high, of E (root), B (fifth), E (root), G (minor third), B (fifth) and again E (root). On a Russian guitar it is possible to play the E minor (2002002) as E (root), G (minor third), B (fifth), E (root), G (minor third), B (fifth), and E (root) - or to play it with the same voicing as the six string E minor (using 99X9989).

This tighter voicing is particularly audible with seventh chords, including the root-less seventh chord (seventh chords without a root note, often used as a diminished chord).

It is fairly common for Russian guitar players (particularly those accompanying themselves singing, such as bards) to bring the tuning up or down several steps as desired, either to accommodate the voice or for varying string tension. Vladimir Vysotsky often tuned down a whole step, sometimes even a step and a half to an open E. Also, variations in the open G tuning were fairly common, e.g., Bulat Okudzhava would use the tuning of D'-G'-C-D-g-b-d' to play songs written in C, while bard Sergey Nikitin tuned his guitar to a minor open G: D'-G'-C-D-g-b flat-d'.

There are more than 1,000 different chords possible for the standard open G tuning. and plenty of different schools for left hand (vibrato) and right hand (fingerstyle playing) and enormous classical music musical transposition archives and music composed for Russian 7-string guitar for 200 years in Russia.


This tuning is thought to have been derived either from the baroque cittern (of the English guitar type), or from that of the torban, a Ukrainian variety of theorbo, as one of its tunings was also based on major triads. Another school of thought has it that the tuning was invented by Sychra to adapt a folk harp tuning for guitar, and facilitate the playing of harp-like arpeggios.

The first known written instruction for 7-string guitar was published in St. Petersburg, Russia in the year 1798, December, 15th. (15.12.1798), written by Ignaz Held (1766, Czechia - 1816, Russia).

Six string adaptations

A common practice for six string guitar players of Russian romances and bard music is to retune their guitars using variations of the seven string tuning, such as: G'-B-D-g-b-d' (no bass string, also known as "Dobro open G"), D'-B-D-g-b-d' (no low G), D'-G'-D-g-b-d' (no low B, the standard six string 'open G tuning' used by bard Alexander Rozenbaum), D'-G'-B-g-b-d' (no middle D, used by Bulat Okudzhava in his latter years when he adopted a six string), and so on.

See also

Further reading

  • Bellow, Alexander (1970). The illustrated history of the guitar. Colombo Publications. 
  • Casey, Fred (2003). "From Russia, with strings attached". American Lutherie: The Quarterly Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers (8222 South Park Avenue, Tacoma WA 98408: USA.: The Guild of American Luthiers). Number 75 (Fall). ISSN 1041-7176. Plan number 48, Russian 7-string Guitar. Drawn by Fred Casey and Guild staff. One sheet 24 x 42 inches. Retrieved 9 October 2012. 
  • Ophee, Matanya (ed.). 19th Century etudes for the Russian 7-string guitar in G Op. The Russian Collection 9. Editions Orphee. PR.494028230. 
  • Ophee, Matanya (ed.). Selected Concert Works for the Russian 7-String Guitar in G open tuning. The Russian Collection. 10 ("X"). Editions Orphee. PR.494028240. 
  • Smith, Gerald Stanton (1984). Songs to seven strings: Russian guitar poetry and Soviet "mass song". Soviet history, politics, society, and thought. Indiana University Press. pp. 1–271. ISBN 0253353912. ISBN 9780253353917. 
  • Timofeyev, Oleg V. (1999). The golden age of the Russian guitar: Repertoire, performance practice, and social function of the Russian seven-string guitar music, 1800-1850. Duke University, Department of Music. pp. 1–584. University Microfilms (UMI), Ann Arbor, Michigan, number 9928880. 

External links

  • Oleg Timofeyev
  • An article about Russian guitars

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