Way back in the early 1960s the first 12 String Guitar music I remember hearing was on the recordings by Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter, 1888 – 1949). He was an American Negro folk musician, notable for his clear and forceful singing and his powerful use of the 12-string guitar. His popular performances predated the folk revival of the 1960 and his recordings were staples of the era. In 1988 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The first live performance of 12 String Guitar I witnessed was by Pete Seeger on his 1963-64 Australian tour. Pete walked onto the Stage at Sydney University with a a banjo in one hand and a 12 String Guitar in the other. He then proceeded to give a spell binding concert that is still imprinted on my brain. Included in the performance was his classic tune Living in the Country.
During the classic rock and folk era of the 1970s the acoustic and electric 12 String Guitars were pretty well staples on the music scene.There were plenty of 12 String players in that era but perhaps the most notable was the singer / song writer Leo Kottke. He had a great voice and powerful driving finger picking style that was reminiscent of the classic country blues style. With the use of a slide he added a new twist to the classic techniques.
Over the years the unique sound of the instrument has somewhat faded from the scene to be replaced by 12 String Guitars that sounds just like a a regular 6 String Guitar with just 6 extras strings. Musicians seem to have decided to abandon traditional low tunings to stick with the standard guitar tuning.To my ear the thundering rhythms and bass runs seem to be missing.
Of course there is always one in every pack. Some one who is just so different that he or she completely defies tradition and standard practice and ends up in a category all by themselves. 12 string guitar players are no different and the man completely outside the box is the jazz guitarist Ralph Towner.
Ralph confesses “I am a piano player who plays guitar”. He started on piano as a young child and was a serious trumpet player growing up. He didn’t tackle the fretboard until his final year at the University of Oregon, when he began playing classical guitar as part of his composition studies. “I somehow managed to buy one for almost nothing,” he told All About Jazz’s Mario Calvitti in 2017. “I started to teach myself and I realized I was not gonna go very far.”
After college, Towner scraped together the money to study with Karl Scheidt in Vienna. He set aside horn, keyboard, and jazz and spent a year focusing on his new instrument. “The classical technique got the most sound, the most colors and articulation,” he said later. “When I studied the classical guitar, all I played was classical music and I tried to stay away from improvising.”
A return to the U.S. did bring a return to jazz and improvisation—only it was on the piano, where he found a foothold in the NYC jazz scene. But the division between classical guitar and jazz keys crumbled in the 1970s as Towner co-founded the band Oregon and began collaborating with the likes of Weather Report, Gary Burton, Paul Winter, and his frequent artistic partner John Abercrombie. Besides the classical guitar, he would eventually bring 12-string and baritone guitars into his unconventional arsenal—additions that make a certain sense, as both instrument types have wide necks and fingerboards, closer to classical models than a standard steel-string acoustic.
“Towner didn’t have guitar players as role models for his unique style of guitar improvisation,” biographer B. Kimberly Taylor says. “The influence of Bill Evans was channeled through the medium of guitar instead of piano, and Towner [plays] the guitar in a ‘pianistic’ manner, almost transcending the instrument in a way that makes it sound like a small orchestra.” ………
Ralph has a completely unique sound and approach to the 12 String Guitar. While some of that is due to his background in Jazz and Classical music it is possibly his tuning system for the 12 String Guitar that give him his unique sound. His guitar is tuned CG / EbG / BbC / FD / AG / DD. Here is a clip on the tuning he uses.
For many years I never had any real urge to take up 12 String Guitar. As an instrument it just appeared to be too difficult to play. In 1999 Jamie Wiens, a local luthier built me a wonderful small body Auditorium 6 String Guitar. He followed that up with a custom Cittern that, through no real fault of Jamie, was not quite so successful. It was a first for both of us.He had to figure out how to build it and I had to figure out how to tune it and play it. The instrument has a wonderful sound and unbelievable sustain sound but over the years the long scale neck made it difficult for me to continue using it as my main instrument. I switched to a smaller scale instrument built by Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island. Jamie had some nice Koa and spruce tone woods available and he persuaded me to commission him to build a 12 String Guitar. The result was a one-of-a-kind instrument that is magnificent. The instrument is a masterpiece but as a life experience the building process was horrendously bad. Jamie took eight years to complete the project and by the end we were no longer friends.
So with this magnificent guitar in hand how was I going to tune it to get a classic 12 String Sound? Shawn Robertson was a 12 String Guitarist in Kimberley who suggested that I try Leo Kottke’s C9 tuning. That is C G C G C D (low to high) with octave strings on the lower courses and unison strings on the top two courses. It turned out to be a great tuning and thanks to Jamie’s workmanship this guitar was easier to play than most 6 string instruments I had experienced. It didn’t get the big 12 string sound I was hoping for but there were other musical attributes of the C9 tuning that more than made up for some lost expectations. When exploring new tunes Jamie’s 12 String Guitar in a C9 tuning is my go to instrument. It is very easy to play finger style in the keys of C, G, F, Dmin, Bb, C# minor Dorian.
Back to the Future: Despite the overwhelming success of the C9 experiment the thunderous old time sounds still haunt me. Is it the instrument? Is it the tuning? Is it my poor technique? A little research turned up some answers. Pete Seeger plays his Living in the Country in a dropped D tuning. Keith Potgers probably uses the dropped D tuning to great effect in in the Folk band The Seekers. It is probably part of the solution but not the complete answer. Further research revealed that Blind Willie McTell tuned his 12 String Guitar down to Dropped C or even even down to Dropped B. Going to these lower tuning posed some problems with heavier strings and some guitars that become unplayable when tuned that low.
The dropped C tuning is C G C F A E. It is very close the the C9 tuning but with the added advantage of the availability of familiar chord shapes. Just use the dropped D shapes to end up playing in the key of C, etc. If the guitar can stand it and the string gauges are suitable it is possible to drop all the strings down another semitone or whole tone to get more bass.
Luthiers chase three adjectives when sculpting acoustic guitar tops: dry, stiff and lightweight.
Stiffness without lightness means a heavy, thick top that doesn’t reverberate. A light top that isn’t stiff means loose, flabby tone with blurred note definition.
To get the perfect mix, luthiers often use very thin tops for reverberation and a series of braces to provide stiffness for definition. These braces also provide structural integrity to hold fast against the stress that string tension puts on a guitar body.
The layout and precision of these braces influence a guitar’s character in a big way. Here’s a look at two historical approaches.
The Ladder Brace
The X-brace is what we now consider to be the standard top-bracing pattern on flat top guitars. But were you to dig back far enough into the history of acoustic guitar manufacturing, you would come across a period in which the ladder-braced guitar was king.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson was struggling to compete with the more modestly-priced department store brands, such as Silvertone. In an effort to keep pace with their competitors, Gibson began producing budget guitars sold under the Kalamazoo and Recording King brands (among others). All of these models featured simpler appointments and ladder bracing.
In fact, a majority of the flattop acoustic guitars being produced during this period featured ladder bracing. Companies such as Oscar Schmidt, Kay, Regal and others opted for this style of top brace as a means of keeping production costs at a minimum. Many of these “budget” instruments would go on to become the defining sound of countless blues, folk, and country musicians of the era.
Though some of the earliest guitars built by C.F. Martin in the late 19th century feature primitive versions of the X-brace, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that this design truly came into its own.
The advent of steel strings around the turn of the century demanded more surface strength from flat top guitars. Until then, they were built only to withstand the modest tension of gut strings. This also came about at a time when guitarists were in need of an instrument that was loud enough to compete with the banjos, mandolins, and fiddles that were popular in the barrooms and parlors.
In 1930, Martin introduced the OM. It was their first 6-string guitar to feature 14-frets to the body – a design that represented a monumental shift in the trajectory of guitar building.
With a larger surface area than that of a parlor guitar and featuring the perfected X-braced pattern with steel strings, the OM was unparalleled in volume and bass response. It could contend acoustically in ensembles without being drowned out by the other instruments. It was, in many ways, the first modern acoustic guitar.
Apples & Oranges
Though endless variables can make it difficult to put into words the sonic differences between a guitar with ladder bracing and one with X-bracing, perhaps the best way to dissect the two designs is to consider what might make them appealing to certain players.