Seven Wonders: Five Affordable 7-Strings(2)

The idea of adding an extra string for expanded range is as old as the guitar itself -- older, in fact. Renaissance and baroque lutenists added extra bass courses to facilitate ambitious counterpoint. More recently, George Van Eps conceived a 7-string Gretsch in hopes of rivaling the piano's harmonic richness, Steve Vai created a 7-string Ibanez so he could shred unimpeded across five-and-a-half octaves, and Charlie Hunter employed 7- and 8-string Novax guitars to play simultaneous bass and guitar lines.

But the current 7-string mania springs from a more visceral desire -- to play metal riffs so low and lethal they make your fillings rattle. Thanks to the popularity of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Orgy, and other 7-string troublemakers, guitar companies are issuing an unprecedented number of guitars with low-B strings. In the past, a 7-string was usually an expensive custom item, but these five newcomers all list for under a grand.

I tested each guitar through an old Fender Deluxe, a 50-watt Marshall half-stack, and a Yamaha DG100. I also recorded them direct through a SansAmp and Line 6's Amp Farm plug-in for Pro Tools. I listened to clean tones, overdriven amp sounds, and distortion tones through Z.Vex Fuzz Factory and Prescription Electronics Experience pedals.

Carvin DC-747

There's no doubt that the DC-747 ($629; $989 as tested with gold hardware and koa wood) is a solid piece of work. It's not unduly heavy, but it conveys the sense of resonant mass you expect from a custom bass guitar. The curvy body contours and the wide, flat fretboard also suggest a boutique bass.

There's something bass-like about the tones, too, and not just because the instrument descends to low B. Thanks to its formidable woods, top-grade parts, and impeccable construction, the 747 delivers bright, powerful tones with exceptional sustain. The pickups are loud and articulate, and there's remarkable evenness throughout the instrument's range. The high output and tonal clarity add up to massive wallop in crunch mode. In fact, this ax suggests the winning formula for maximum low-end beef: solid, bright-sounding woods, a fixed, string-through-body bridge, and straight string pull behind an immaculately worked nut.

The feel is pretty immaculate, too. The tall, fat frets are almost friction-free, and the lightly oiled neck feels wonderful. The neck-position humbucker unleashes one of the best meltdown metal tones of this roundup. The 747's bright, hi-fi tones have little vintage color -- some will love the guitar's articulate, even attack, while others may find the tones lacking in midrange character. Some modern 7-stringers may not be able to hang with the Carvin's early-'90s look, but you can't argue with the handsome wood grain of our review model.

Pros: Excellent materials and workmanship. Super-smooth feel. Loud, well-defined tones. Massive seventh-string muscle.

Cons: Some players may find the tones overly bright.

Danelectro Mod 7

Think of the Korean-made Mod 7 ($599) as a hybrid of a standard 6-string and a Dano baritone. It's more likely to appeal to roots players than metal heads, and not just because of its retro styling. Although the Mod's tones are still quite attractive, the funky, low-output lipstick-tube pickups and semi-hollow body simply don't deliver metal-grade mass and sustain.

As with other latter-day Danelectros, strong workmanship belies the Mod 7's modest price. The frets, while not especially smooth, are carefully installed, and the lightly finished maple neck rivals many pricier instruments. The neck joint and wiring are also above average. The opalescent blue finish looks fantastic -- especially alongside the swimming-pool-shaped pearloid pickguard. The Mod 7 offers some improvements over original Danelectro features, such as an intonatable and height-adjustable bridge and no-nonsense Gotoh tuners. But the plastic volume and tone pots feel as flimsy as ever, and the lipstick-tube pickups don't quite match the pleasantly hollow midrange contours of the '60s originals.

Still, the Mod 7 has plenty of cool tones among its seven pickup combinations. In particular, the entire low register has a delicious retro twang -- especially on the low-B string. If you've enjoyed other new-school Danos, you'll probably love the way the Mod 7 takes those tones into the baritone zone. (The Mod is also available as a 6-string.)

Pros: Great value. Sharp looks. Best choice for American primitive music.

Cons: Insufficient girth for metal.

DeArmond S-67

The Indonesian-made S-67 ($449) -- a budget-friendly, 7-string derivative of the Gibson SG -- has such a cool retro look that casual observers might not even notice it's a 7-string. Our review model boasts a gorgeous deep blue finish, but other workmanship aspects aren't so lovely: The pickguard is sloppily cut, the nut is inexpertly worked, and the wiring looks amateurish. It's also easy to slide two business cards into the gap between the neck and body.

Despite these flaws, the S-67 plays smoothly and delivers a warm, almost gushing tone. This guitar has lots of acoustic-like snap and openness, and a resonance that seems to have something to do with the way the strings extend beyond the bridge to the tailpiece. At times, it sounds as if you're playing with a touch of reverb, even when you're not. Of this quintet of guitars, the S-67 sounds the most like a '60s ax. It gladly goes from surf to sludge at the flick of a fuzzbox, and there's enough volume and mass for major metal crunch.

Pros: Cool looks. Low price. Convincing vintage tones and ample modern muscle -- great for those who like a touch of retro with their rumble.

Cons: Some sloppy workmanship.

ESP F-207

The Korean-made, gothed-out F-207 ($799) boasts some of the best workmanship in this roundup. The black cherry finish is ravishing. The arrowhead position markers are expertly set. The neck joint couldn't be tighter. The wiring is tops. The radical body shape is actually quite ergonomic, with an efficient, comfortable cutaway.

The feel is equally slick. The fretwork is solid, and it's easy to cut loose on the flat-radiused board and lightly oiled neck. It's also devilishly fun to lower that low B to hell and back. But the heavy locking trem cuts down on the guitar's resonance -- clean tones don't sparkle.

Meanwhile, although the EMG humbuckers deliver a very full-frequency sound, the mids can sound excessively dense -- especially when using the neck pickup. There's no tone-control remedy -- as the F-207 has only a single volume knob -- but these tendencies may not be a problem if your chief focus is high-gain chunk.

Pros: Solid workmanship. Comfortable to wear and play. Bold goth looks.

Cons: Some resonance lost to locking trem. Tones are a bit dense. No tone control.

Schecter C-7+

The Korean-made C-7+ ($849) aims for an upscale vibe with a carved, flamed-maple top on a bound mahogany body, a set neck, and ornate inlays. The overall workmanship is very good, particularly the lovely finish. But the star attraction is a gorgeous neck with a feel that could hardly be more buttery. The subtle volute feels great beneath your thumb. The big, beautifully rounded frets glisten like mercury. The action is low, yet the frets let you feel like you're really getting underneath the notes. The only bummer was the somewhat clunky neck joint, which made it difficult to reach the uppermost frets.

The "Duncan designed" humbuckers strike a satisfying compromise between modern chunk and vintage complexity. Like the DeArmond S-67, the C-7+ evokes the tone of a '60s Gibson solidbody, though the Schecter's sounds are a bit tighter and more focused. The fixed, string-through-body bridge and straight string pull encourage low-register overdrive tones that are massive without being muddy. As you ascend, the notes take on a warm, singing quality. The Schecter is definitely the best choice here for emotive, blues-inflected soloing.

Pros: Super-smooth feel. Excellent chunk and warm solo tones. Excellent workmanship and setup.

Cons: Clunky neck joint.