One of the main challenges of playing with a typical rock or blues trio setup is filling the sonic space left when the guitarist takes a solo. Usually this calls upon the bassist and drummer to get a lot busier, and cram in more sound to fill the void. Another option is to do what Eric Krackow did in the mid-60s, when he added a second course of strings to his four-string bass guitar. On the same principle as a 12-string guitar, these extra strings were tuned an octave above the regular bass strings, allowing him to play octaves in unison with relative ease, and simultaneously filling the sonic spaces of the bassist and the rhythm guitarist. In 1967, he sold the idea to Swedish guitar manufacturers Hagström, who developed his prototype into the world’s first mass-produced eight-string bass, the H8 was briefly picked up by a handful of notable bassists, including Noel Redding, Mike Rutherford and even Lemmy. So sayeth Wikipedia, anyway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-string_bass_guitar)
The original run of H8s lasted for two years, and the original model received a lot of criticism, mainly for tuning issues, and for the neck struggling to cope with the extra tension of an additional string set. More recently, Hagström reissued the design as the HB-8, aiming to provide an updated and improved version of the world’s first eight-string bass. It was one of these modern reissues that stared back at me from a shop window, and compelled me to go in and try it.
Reviewing such a rare instrument is a little tricky, as I have nothing else to compare it to. The HB-8 that I now own was the very first eight-string bass I had ever seen in the flesh, and, to date, is still the only one. To state a few specifics: it’s a short-scale bass (30.75″) with a pair of fairly hefty humbuckers. Despite its size, the solid mahogany body and substantial hardware make it a surprisingly heavy instrument. Output is controlled by a master volume and tone, and the middle knob is actually a rotary pickup selector. Turning the selector switches between neck pickup, bridge pickup or both, and then the same three options but with the pickups coil-tapped. So you not only have a strange and unique sound from this instrument – you have six.
A versatile tone, then. And how is that tone? Well, if you play a note (well, play two), you can distinguish the sound of the bass from the octave string. In fact, due to the relative thicknesses of the strings, it’s quite easy to play the two courses separately. (Probably not what the designers had in mind, but a handy backup if it looks like your bandmates are taking exception to the unusually prominent sound coming from “that weird bass.”) The octave strings ring brightly, much as you might expect from the bottom end of a six-string guitar – certainly, these are the component of the sound that will cut through the mix. Beneath that, the bass strings give a sound which is quite typical of a short-scale: running the neck humbucker on its own gives a sound which is not a million miles from one of the Gibson SG-type basses, with that huge humbucker just under the neck. The sort of sound you might associate with Andry Fraser, or Cream-era Jack Bruce. Very thick, and very bass-heavy, and lacking the clarity and articulation one often associates with longer-scale basses. Bear in mind, of course, the octave string ringing over the top, which is going to be most audible part of the sound in a full-band setting.
Tap the coils, however, and the balance between the two strings is much improved. What the bass string loses in thick, heavy thump, it gains in clarity. The octave string also gains a certain amount of snarl – more clean Fender guitar than clean Gibson, if you like. In the coil-tapped positions, this peculiar bass takes on a very “surf-rock” quality – very much like the sound of the bassist and rhythm guitarist playing a riff in unison, as Krackow probably had in mind when he built his prototype.
As you might expect, it’s quite a bit harder to play two strings at once. Even compared to its guitar equivalent, the much greater string gauges make it much more obvious that you’re pushing down a couple of telegraph cables. It’s common practice among twelve-string guitarists to tune the guitar by a semitone (or even a whole tone) to relieve the tension, and there’s a strong argument in favour of doing the same on this bass. Only, I should add, for the sake of one’s fingertips – modern truss rods are more than capable of preventing the neck from bowing or warping on these new reissues.
On the other hand, the short scale does alleviate the string tension somewhat. Also, the one I bought came with a fairly high action. By lowering the nut slots for the bass strings, the playability was greatly improved, and I’ve now found it’s easy enough to play in standard tuning. Convention has often encouraged the use of a pick with one of these, but I’ve found it sounds absolutely fine played in my usual fingerstyle, especially in one of the single-coil modes.
In fact, the biggest bugbear is not playing these strings but changing them. Originally I found myself in the unfortunate predicament that I could only find eight-string sets designed for long scale basses. Only Hagström themselves seemed to manufacture strings specifically for this short-scale eight-string. After a bit of consideration, however, I decided there was a feature that might work in might favour, and that was the through-body stringing at the bridge. Other people had suggested that running the string through the body might take up an extra inch or two of slack, and the HB-8 does have quite a chunky body. Taking the “sod it, it’s worth a try” philosophy, I popped on a set of long-scale eights, and they worked just fine. The only slight hitch is that Hagström’s custom-built octave strings clearly have smaller ball-ends than regular bass strings, as the ones on my replacement set don’t fit into the ferrules on the back. Cosmetically it doesn’t look ideal, but since it’s on the back, it’s hardly the end of the world.
This instrument has the advantage of being a real rarity; the simple fact is that most of your bandmates will be sufficiently impressed/terrified if you just produce the thing from a case. The sound is very distinctive and will certainly turn heads in a crowd of musicians. That, and you won’t struggle to be heard: remember that you’re now, essentially occupying the sonic space of two instruments, and the output from playing two strings at once is quite a bit higher than a normal four-string bass. When switching between the two mid-set, I invariably have to back off the volume on the HB-8. And, ultimately, you may struggle to find a suitable setting for it. Fun as it is to be able to fight back against your lead guitarist, the sound can become a bit intrusive if you’re not careful with it. I wish I had enough experience to be able to compare this to other eight-string basses, but the Hagström HB-8 can be a delight to play, and the versatile tone palette gives you a full spectrum running from “cool and quirky” to “demolition level.”
Update, 04/07/15: demo video!