12-String Redux

12-String Redux- Road Dog- Winter ’02

Here’s an article about a guitar underdog. It’s an instrument with a unique and musically striking voice; it has a fiercely-devoted albeit too-small band of followers; it bridges a wide range of technical demands and offers a stunning range of sounds and timbres; it cries out for adventurous experimentation and innovation; but it is largely ignored by the guitar community, under-represented in even good guitar shops, and treated as if it might carry a communicable disease by way too many good fingerstyle and pick players.

I’m talking about the 12-string, of course. That red-headed stepchild of the acoustic guitar world. That lonely cul-de-sac which lies so far from the 6-string guitar interstate. That undusted corner of your guitar dwelling. Consider these items:

1) Taylor sells more high-quality 12-strings than any other builder, yet 12-strings amount to less than 15% of Taylor’s total full-sized guitar production.

2) A decidedly non-scientific survey of 25 recent instrumental fingerstyle guitar releases reveals that less than one song in 25 is played on a 12-string guitar.

3) That same survey illuminated an awesome array of technical innovations on the 6-string- tapping, slide playing, composing, exploring of alternate tunings- a level of expertise that is a generation ahead of the recordings one listens to from the mid 1980’s for instance, but the 12-string pieces, when I could find them, were generally little changed from the style of the breakthrough pieces which graced Leo Kottke’s seminal “Armadillo” album, a release which blew us away even as it revealed that startling new 12-string style and voice. Others of that era who are less well known but no less innovative like Sandy Bull (who passed away earlier this year) and Richard Rosmini released wonderful new music for the 12-string, but they never managed to break into the public guitar consciousness in the way that Leo did. Since then no one else has managed to do so either.

4) When I bring out my LKSM at a Taylor clinic and fire it up, the response is always a visceral and emotional “Wow!,” yet when I talk to folks after the workshops on a more informal basis about playing the 12-string , I hear about the difficulties of understanding, tuning and playing it more than about its joys or rewarding technical and sonic opportunities.

Forget your 1960’s or 1970’s experiences with bad guitars, with necks which resembled ski jumps, poor intonation and gaps where the neck met the body where you could store a spare pair of socks. We’re talking about Taylor here, which grew and gained players’ favor from its infancy partly because of its remarkably player-friendly 12-strings, and which has led the known universe in 12-string playability ever since. We’re also talking particularly about the Taylor neck technology, both the classic and the new NT necks, which have shown that, contrary to the old wisdom, you can make a 12-string with a slim, playable neck, a guitar that can last for many years, one that will stay in tune, and sound great, without any of the traditional 12-string drawbacks. While there’s no doubt that things like barre chords will always be more difficult with 12-strings than with 6, you can forget about the heavy. clubby neck, the octave string that doesn’t intonate identically to its bass partner, the difficulty of fingering and all of the old excuses. This isn’t a sales pitch, it’s the truth. Do yourself a favor and try one at your dealer, and you will see what I mean. Enough said about eliminating the physical limitations of the instrument, and on to the musical, technical, and psychological issues.

Flatpickers, with the notable exception of Dan Crary, seem to have largely ignored the 12-string’s possibilities. Check out Dan’s 12-string prowess and see what a mistake that the rest of the crowd has been making. Powerful strumming, fast single-note runs, and strong rhythms ring out, and all with sounds that set the instrument clearly apart from that of any 6-string flatpicking you have hear. (Dan plays a beautiful maple jumbo with some custom touches, by the way.)

Fingerstylists have so much new ground to consider that it boggles the mind. Here’s what I love about the 12-string, and here’s why I encourage all you intrepid fingerstyle players to consider adding its sounds to your arsenal. First, slide 12-string is a whole different beast, more powerful and less plaintive than slide 6-string, and capable of strong dynamics, whispery smooth moderate volumes and quietly expressive playing. Retuning to one of the obvious open tunings is nearly essential, like open G, (DGDGBD) or open D, (DADF#AD), and I bet you’ll find that it wasn’t much different from retuning your 6-string. Slide techniques don’t have to vary much from those you might use on the 6-string, so any instructional source dealing with slide can get you started, even if it is not based upon using a 12-string. Perhaps you will want a slightly longer slide, since you’ll be spanning a slightly wider string spacing, but other than that, any 6-string gear or technique will transfer pretty easily.

Another way to make the guitar come alive is to string it with heavier strings and tune it lower. The LKSM’s are voiced differently for that specific use, but any Taylor 12-string can be strung with fatter strings and tuned lower if the user seeks that strong, baritone range. I use strings ranging from .058 in the bass to .013 on the 1st string, a set similar but not identical to the set which comes with the Kottke model, and tune my guitar one whole step low before entering alternate tunings, so that my G tuning is actually in F, and so on, and that throaty baritone roar that results is the reason for the response I get at concerts and clinics. I have this string set on my 16 year old 555C, my 13 year old 955C German Maple custom, and my 5 year old road guitar, a LKSM, and they all sound great and perform just fine. Please note- You must keep in mind that your string gauges and your tuning are inter-related in a significant way, and your string tension must make global sense. Don’t expect to be able to take my heavy set of strings up to standard tuning without endangering your instrument, and if you take a light set way down into the tunings that I use you will likely produce a buzzy, unimpressive sound rather than the deep sonorous voice I describe above. Lower tunings can use heavier strings, and higher tunings must use lighter sets. It’s just common sense.

12-string offers another tremendous technical opportunity for the adventurous player- the notion of using your normally bass-string-playing right thumb to play just the octave strings of the pair as melody. The octave string sits closest to the bass side of the guitar, your thumb hits it first, and if you learn this skill you can generate melody notes from these high-pitched strings which blend with melody generated in the normal fashion by your fingers to produce startlingly beautiful sustained lines, and amazingly fast combinations of lead lines from the alchemy of the thumb and finger melody blend. The harp-like or banjo-like (depending upon the tempo of the piece) results of using this technique can be heard on two hard-to-find recordings by Tracey Moore, and on several of my 12-string pieces, like “Over the Pass from Runoff/The Delicate Dance, “Halfway” from Steel String Stories, and “War Games” from Travelogue.

The following suggestion may be the most unnerving proposal of all- do you really have to tune the octave strings to the same note (or to the octave above)? There have been a few players, (jazz experimentalist Phillip Catherine and free form re-tuning maestro Richard Leo Johnson come to mind), who tune the pairs to odd intervals like fourths, fifths or even tritones, and live with the maymen that results. Way cool, and way wild. You might try three cups of coffee before sitting down with this paragraph in mind.

Here’s the best reason of all- To jar yourself out of that occasional guitar complacency that we all encounter. A big question at all of my workshops is how to remove ourselves from the ruts we find ourselves inhabiting from time to time. I have proposed practice suggestions in past Road Dog articles, and I sometimes suggest experimenting in new tunings as a strategy for bringing on that pleasant disorientation which can lead the player into new territory, and I have no doubt that picking up the 12-string will give you that same buzz, that same challenge, and provide the same rewards for the intrepid explorer.

I can’t promise instant enlightenment, and I’m sure that you and the fingers of both hands will have some learning to do, but wasn’t that what this lifetime (6 and) 12-string journey was supposed to be all about- finding new techniques and sounds, and new ways for your to express yourself musically? Don’t you think it’s highly probable that the world’s next 12-string hero is sitting in his practice room right this instant with a Taylor 12-string, feverishly working out a bunch of new music and a boatload of new techniques that will blow us all away in just a few short years?