Skip to main content
Online Akustik Travels

The 12-String Guitar - part 3

by Claude Samard Polikar

Page 3 of 3

Here's the last chapter of our journey to the land of 12-strings dedicated this time to the great Roger McGuinn who created the Byrds' sound and the spiritual father of many 12-string guitarists.

McGuinn established the electric 12-string reference guidelines. Most manufacturers released an electric 12-string alternative to their 6-string range in the 60s such as Rickenbaker who released the 360-12 in '64. Even though George Harrison was the very first to strike gold with the hit track "A Hard Day's Night", McGuinn and his "Rick" is the first name that comes to mind when you think 12 electric. Generations of musicians are still trying to re-create the magic of "Mr Tambourine Man" or of "Eight Miles High" that opened the doors to the rock group's Hall of Fame for the Byrds. The secret in that sound was of course due to the Rickenbaker, but also to the Fender amps (Showman or Twin), to a chain of compressors, (his "signature" model had a built-in one) and sometimes, as in the solo part of "Eight Miles High", to the direct console plug in. I may also add that in those days, consoles had built in "soul! The only problem, that Roger Hodgson confirmed to me during his interview, was that you had to get used to playing on such a narrow neck. For your information, here are the "standards" that were used at the time, for example on the Rickenbacker 12-string : 26-42/20-34/13-26/10-20/13-13/10-10. If it's the McGuinn sound you're looking for, you'll need to buy a 360-12. But the guitar part is only half of it. Your right-hand/left-hand technique will have to deal with the rest. Unlike the 12 acoustic regular rhythmic play, the electric McGuinn style's main characteristic is in the precision of it's clear arpeggios, played with a pick or finger picks that leaves enough space for string and chord resonance and privileges the harmonic blend that the 12-string is so famous for (i.e. the use of a compressor). This genuine harpish effect just like in the "Tambourine Man" intro is the result. So let it shine!

The 60/70 era was the revelation period for the 12-string guitar. It was everywhere: Woodstock, campuses, with the Byrds or the Beatles, and it became really big because it brought a new sound to all the major pop groups, pre-synth era. So it isn't really surprising that the 70 revival would bring this particular instrument back in the spotlights, however charismatic and nostalgic it may seem, it has long been considered "old-fashioned" and "quaint", a true 70 symbol. Unlike the cold synthetic 80 sound, it never really fit in with that period of music and soon became obsolete. However the diversity of music and cultures that began in the 90s has given the 12-string a new opportunity for a revival in this decade, on neo-folk tracks as well as in hip-hop releases with Beck or the Fugees. Now that the sound of the 12-string can blend again with the musical ambiance, we're left with the issue of playing it, as comfortably as possible. Although it used to be a difficult instrument, that took a lot of muscle to play, manufacturers have since learned to adjust their new electric or acoustic models to ease the effort and strain. They knew that their present customers didn't have a Leadbelly tough guy profile, but were accustomed to play a lighter guitar, with more of a range, close to what they are used to with a 6-string electric, a very beginners-type instrument. Also, the cultural world-music tendency has given the instrument a great new opportunity to be re-introduced in the general sound spectrum, somewhat related to it's close cousins such as the irish or greek bouzouki, the turkish saz, the italian mandolin or the North African mandola. So there's another good reason to own a 12-string in this day and age. You'll feel like you've just learned to play a "new" instrument, without the inconveniency of having to master a new technique. But above all, you'll definitely find a new source of pleasure and inspiration.