Originally Posted August 31, 2015
Twelve-string guitars have the low strings doubled an octave higher. This concept had long been used by members of the mandolin family, but wasn’t apparently carried over into the guitar family until the late 19th century. The extra high strings help the guitar sound louder and brighter. They also help overcome the tendency of crowded rooms and bad PAs to absorb high frequencies. On the other hand, they make it a little more difficult to fingerpick or to “bend” notes, so folks who go back and forth between 6-string and 12-string tend to use the latter mostly when they are flatpicking or strumming.
The 12-string came to the attention of folk musicians through Hudy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Pete Seeger.
During the “Folk Revival” movement that was largely spawned by the Kingston Trio and their peers, many guitarists traded off on 12-string for specific songs. Larger groups like the New Christy Minstrels and Serendipity Singers might have one dedicated 6-string player and one dedicated 12-string player for most of their sets. As an example, Christie’s hit “Green, Green” has a distinctive 12-string part. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfxgbsXeTdE ). That’s Barry McGuire singing the lead in case you wondered.
I used to fingerpick my 12-string Mariachi guitar extensively, though nowadays, I tend to use my 6-strings for that. I tend to use my current twelve-string, a 40+-year old Ovation Balladeer with a flatpick, whether I’m picking out a bum-ditty part with alternating and walking base, a slow rock strum, or fast folk-style strum (think “Question of Balance.”) To give you an idea of the sound of a flatpicked 12-string, check out Barry McGuire’s live version of “If I were a Carpenter,” which includes a flatpicked 12-string solo by John Foley York ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO8CsaeBgSM ).
The “British Invasion” added a new, if, inadvertent chapter the history of the 12-string. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds was a huge fan of Pete Seeger. In fact the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6JhTSzZXzg ) is mostly a rockified version of Seeger’s original ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vK_eVaLeiQ0 ). But when the European musicians looked for 12-strings, they searched in vain. To capitalize on this potential market, the Rickenbacker company scrambled to make their own version, based on 6-string tooling. They didn’t even cut new heads; they just added tuners coming in from different angles. But the real difference was entirely accidental – Rickenbacker put the low string of each pair closer to the player’s chin, reversing the typical sequence. Most folks can’t hear the difference, but 12-string players can. In addition, Ricks used magnetic coil pickups, while most American 12-string players used acoustic guitars running through microphones. That’s a difference that many musicians can hear – the sound of a Rick 12-string is unique to this day (although I’ve heard semi-hollow-body Gibson 12-strings come close).
One of my favorite things to do when I’m strumming a folk-style song in the key of D is to lower the lowest two strings (11th and 12th) to a D note to create a “pedal tone.”
Recently, when I had my 12-string out, I tried one of the Country-style songs I usually flatpick. Using exactly the same technique I use on my 6-string, I produced an entirely different tonality, that, frankly, gives the song a more “roots” or “folk” feel than it has on my 6-string. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I guess I have to keep practicing both ways until I decide which way I prefer.
If you ever decide to try a twelve, be ready to experience a little more left-hand stress than you’re used to, but be prepared to experience a richer sound than you’re used to as well (as long as you’re trying a twelve in the same class as the six-string you usually play).
If twelve-strings have the advantages mentioned above, why doesn’t everyone play them all the time? Well, in an ensemble, that extra tonality can actually get in the way of other instruments. It’s also harder to play barre chords until you’ve really built up left-hand strength or sprung for a very nice instrument.
That said, if you’re a guitarist looking to add new but authentic tones to your present arsenal of acoustic sounds, a 12-string is a good place to start looking. Don’t start with a Rick unless you plan to respond to audience requests for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” though. 🙂
Best of luck – Paul Race