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Online Akustik Travels

The 12-String Guitar - part 2

by Claude Samard Polikar

Page 2 of 3

In the land of 12 strings, Georges Harrison (Beatles), Leadbelly, Leo Kottke, Roger McGuinn (ex-Byrds) or Roger Hodgson (ex-Supertramp) are kings. We will use them as examples to learn more abou this instrument. Tunings, studio tricks and testimonials from these performers should give you the incentive to add this very special guitar to your act. Unless you haven't already fell for the 60/70 current revival, the 12-string guitar is a must have.

The acoustic 12-string guitar is probably one of the most popular instruments ever. If you've ever waited on a line for the next movie theatre show, whether it be in London, New Mexico or Paris, you're bound to have been at least once in your life, the innocent victim of the ruthless street musician howling to the top of his lungs, bending his wrist all out of shape, begging for a few coins. And so the 80 year old tradition lives on, it's fate mainly in the hands of a Leadbelly, one of the greatest folk artists of all times, a 12-string legend.

Leadbelly would say of himself that he was the world's heavy weight champ of 12-string guitarists. Born in 1885, Huddie Ledbetter has a life story that's almost as good as a book. It would take a Django to rival with such a charismatic tale. Composer of over 500 songs, he wove an unusual blend of violence and poetry into his 12-string guitar during years of street-fighting, jail-birding, booze and murder. The true "father" of folk music, a black country-blues guitarist, the original composer of "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", "Goodnight Irene", "Midnight Special", "Rock Island Line" and "Cotton Fields". Yes siree! Even though he only reached worldwide recognition in 1949 after his death, his life was blessed with the "best" aquaintances. First, as a singer in Texas, he teamed up with Blind Lemon Jefferson, larger than life, and along his long road from jail to posh New York or Hollywood studios, he played with some of the greatest : Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, even the Golden Gate Quartet. Musicologist John Lomax discovered him and gave him the opportunity to record the records that would later become the references of 12-string guitarist generations to come. He played a model known as the Stella, a very robust instrument. Sold in five and dime stores in the 20s, this guitar was very popular amongst bluesmen in the Deep South. The very rare copies that remain are here to demonstrate the very "authentic" sound it produced. Many US luthiers are currently producing copies to this day. But in order to really give it it's original sound, you have to play it hard! and slightly off-tone. Tone was not a priority in the good ol' days. The height of the the chord strictly depended on the range you felt like singing in and maybe also, as in Leadbelly's case, on the condition of your strings. If they got a little out a shape, well he'd just lower the whole thing. One of Leadbelly's "secrets" was in his tuning that could be a fourth under your standard tuning, sometimes more! - just like the grunge bands ! For a B chord (instead of an E), you'd get, from low to high BEADF#B. The other secret was to tune the lowest string 2 octaves higher instead of one. His low E (if it was standard), would therefore double the high e, like the first string. To avoid the string from zinging because of the detuning, he would simply use a thicker string. An American Leadbelly fan gave me the size of the strings he used on the last guitar he owned, tuned in B : .014 and .070, .019 and .048, .019 and .038, .022 doubled, .019 doubled and .014 doubled on top.

Leo Kottke sees in Leadbelly the personification of the 12-string guitar in the XXth century. Thanks to him, Leo Kottke chose this instrument in 1962, to become the leader of a new generation of 12-string guitar artists. He is considered a New-Age forefather, because of the unique way he could blend different styles, from folk to blues, jazz to classical. A technical wizz who maintained the 12-string in a storm of punk and disco, post-folk era in the 60s. As other folk revivalists (of which John Fahey) he has done a fair share of open-tuning territory exploration. Open D in "Little Martha" and "Watermelon", open G in "Jak Fig" and "Machine 3" and lots of drop Ds. A victim of his own dynamic style, he had to turn in his 12-string in the late 70s, but developed a new technique, which, coupled with a model that bears his name (made to be tuned in C#) manufactured by Taylor, made it possible for him to perform once again with this modernized version of a Stella. He's given up playing his 12-string collection of Gibson B-45s, Martins, Bozos, Guilds… The first three tracks on his album "One Guitar, No Vocals" will give you an idea of what his style sounds like. All of his earlier recordings have since become "classics".

Born in the slums of the Deep South in the 20s, the 12-string guitar has become a little more respectable nowadays. Thanks to modern technology, you can enjoy playing one without having to tone up the muscles in your left wrist for 6 months. Manufacturers know that guitarists are now more accustomed to a lighter style of playing unlike Leadbelly who did it the hard way, and that they enjoy the kind of ease you get from an electric guitar in a 6 or 12 string, now currently used by beginners. The 12-string should no longer frighten the layman, it has since been tamed, domesticated and gives you the greatest arpeggios ever, although it's "authentic" effect can still be revived by using three simple chords. However, under one condition : serve'm strong, give'm muscle, wake the Leadbelly that's sleeping in us all. Let your fingers take those strings where they want to go!