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Online Akustik Travels

The 12-String Guitar - part 1

by Claude Samard Polikar

Page 1 of 3

What do George Harrison (Beatles), Leo Kottke (folk), Roger McGuinn (ex-Byrds), Roger Hodgson (ex-Supertramp), Jimmy Page (rock), Ralph Towner (jazz), and Leadbelly (country-blues) have in common? Need any clues? Well, it hurts your finger, it takes a long time to tune, it hogs the space on any track, and eventually warps the instrument's neck, but is totally vital to a guitarist's collection of instruments. You win: a 12-string guitar, and here below we have set up a question-answer check list, that will explain why 2x6 strings doesn't always mean 12.

What is a 12-string for?

If you thought you could do without a 12-string by simply overdubbing your 6-string, well you're in for a big surprise. The 12-string has unique qualities, whatever the type, electric or acoustic (or both!). Volume, cristal clearness and moody richness are the main characteristics of this instrument back in the spotlights with the recent 60s "folk-revival", period during which the major brands released their most famous models. The general volume takes up so much space that any "live" musician can play it anyplace, anytime providing he can sing loud enough to be heard, along with the inevitable harmonica strap around his neck. You will experience a true brilliance in sound (7 unwound strings out of 12), if you're trying to play those Eagle-style arpeggios or the Supertramp rhythmics that don't need synth layers to accomodate their tracks. The richness of texture will free you of all those tedious triple quavers you thought you needed to express your most inner feelings: a few well chosen notes, strings in good condition, a zest of reverb and voila(!): your flying higher than a kite! A wise investment, providing you're tuned correctly or the result could spell double-disaster!

So how do you tune the 6 other strings?

Tuning a 12-string is based on the standard guitar chord, from low to high: EADGBE. Each string will be doubled in unisson or an octave above. The low E will be doubled with a high E, just like the A, the D, and the G. B and E will then simply be doubled up in unisson which gives you: eEaAdDgGBBEE, the lower case letters stand for the high.

As a reminder the E doubled at an octave with a high e on a 12-string being close to the D (4th string) of a normal guitar will give you a great arpeggio effect thanks to the second intervals which totally enhances the harmonic effect that you may get from other instruments such as the harp or the piano.

This type of tuning was not originally recommended by Gibson or Martin when they first released their models in the 60s. Their build was based on the 6-string frame, using the same woods and frets, which is why the constant tug of the 12 strings were sure to warp the neck and sound board after a while no matter what. Even the tail-piece substitution to the regular bridge didn't help much, and you had to tune the guitar a tone down to aleviate the string tension on the guitar's frame. These recommendations are totally obsolete nowadays and it is not unusual to hear a 12 string tuned all the way down to G with thicker strings to avoid the fuzziness. The recent makes are sturdier even though many luthiers still recommend to tune it down at least one tone. In addition, string-makers have made lighter sets for this instrument, ranging from .047 to .010. However the high G string that is consequently higher than the first E string is still a delicate issue. Make sure to carry a few spare .009s in your case.

Which model should I choose?

2 options: new or vintage. You obviously realize what kind of problems you'll have with a vintage model. Stella made a 12 string model in the 20s that was cheap but sturdy, since they were familiar with their customers somewhat rough life-style (Leadbelly, Blind Blake). These models, available in most five and dime stores, have completely disappeared, and many US luthiers make copies now for over $2.000 or more! Now in the 60s, the production of 12-strings went wild. From Arlo Guthrie to Polnareff in France, it was the most "in" instrument you could possibly own at the time. Darwinistically speaking, the lesser makes disappeared, and the strong ones survived the long years of 12 string tension. Now these are the ones you've got to watch out for, because vintage doesn't always mean quality and you might need to use a selection of extra esoteric accessories to strap down a chord or two even with a Martin or a Gibson, even with a European Framus or Eko model. Buyer beware! With a vintage, look for a neck that has 12 frets less sensitive than the 14 fretters. However you might find an exceptional 60s model, like an acoustic Guild or Gibson, an electric Rickenbacker. Leo Kottke prefers mahogany to rosewood. Master of the 12-string, he owns quite a collection of them: a Gibson B-45, a Martin, a Bozo and a few more recent customized Taylors. If you're looking for a more recent model then you can rely on Ovation & Takamine, and if you prefer an electric, less vulnerable to tension, sound and ease should be your guidelines. Rickenbacker is the most prominent maker with it's 320/12 model that became famous thanks to Roger McGuinn, although Fender, Guild & Danelectro come close seconds. Let's not also forget to mention Gibson's double necked SG model that was first produced in 1958, played by Page and McLaughlin.

Now that you're ready to buy your very own 12 string, you'll need to source some inspiration from some of the 12-string greats. The set up, the tricks, the ins, the outs, how to record and mix it, so many things you can learn about from the experienced few, such as Leadbelly, Roger Mc Guinn, Leo Kottke and a special unexcpected "guest" artist such as Roger Hodgson, ex-Supertramp who has traded a few secrets about some of his biggest hits with the 12-string trademark stamp on them, during an interview he gave for the release of an album, that had a lot of 12-strings in it.