At age 12, I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar and be a rock musician someday. My parents bought me a shiny new electric guitar for Christmas that year, but I realized in less than year that I was not destined to be a lead guitarist. I was a strummer of chords rather than a picker of notes. I would set my sights on being Paul Simon instead of Eric Clapton.
When I visited my local music shop to trade in my electric for an acoustic, a funny thing happened. I perused the guitars hanging on the wall and noticed one that had twice as many strings as the others. Hmmm, I wondered, what have we here? I pulled down this 12-stringed instrument from its hook, tucked it under my arm and strummed it. What came out was the most wonderful sound, a full, melodious tone that stunned me. It was like two guitars being played at once. I knew instantly that this was for me.
Frankly, I should’ve reconsidered. Even though a 12-string guitar is played the same way as a 6-string, using the same chords and tuning, it requires more dexterity, a tighter grip, deeper callouses, and it has twice as many strings that break or go out of tune. As folk legend Pete Seeger put it, “When you play the 12-string guitar, you spend half your life tuning the instrument and the other half playing it out of tune.” It made the learning process more challenging than if I’d just stuck with a regular 6-string acoustic. But I persevered, and by the time I turned 16, my parents saw how dedicated I’d become to my craft, and gave the green light to turning in my $65 Mayfair starter guitar for a truly magnificent Martin 12-string that I still cherish today in 2022.
Where did the idea of 12-string guitars come from? Various Mexican instruments in the late 1800s like the bandolón, guitar séptima and mandolin used doubled strings, as did the bouzouki in Greece, some of which had as many as 18 strings. The modern 12-string guitar didn’t find its way into the United States until the 1920s and 1930s, when blues artists like Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell were attracted to the larger-than-life sound they provided, making them ideal for solo accompaniment. Folk musicians in the 1950s like Seeger occasionally used them to embellish more spirited songs in their repertoires.
As electric guitars were developed and became crucial instruments in the rock and roll sound, manufacturers began experimenting with 12-string electrics. You could hear the distinctive chiming tone they make on such early ’60s tracks as Jackie DeShannon’s 1963 hit “When You Walk in the Room,” with Glen Campbell, then an L.A. session musician with The Wrecking Crew, playing the 12-string licks. The 1964 Peter and Gordon hit “A Would Without Love” features 12-string solos by Vic Flick as well.
But it was George Harrison’s electric 12-string on The Beatles’ LP “A Hard Day’s Night” that broadened the appeal. Listen to “I Should’ve Known Better,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Anytime At All” and the title track, and you can hear the shimmering tone that would mesmerize aspiring musicians like Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. He would soon get his own Rickenbacker 12-string and make it the signature element of the group’s records, from hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to “My Back Pages” and the frenetic picking on “Eight Miles High.” That unmistakable metallic tone was often described as “jingle-jangle.” Seeger had equated it to “the ringing of bells.” Similarly, Tony Hicks of The Hollies and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees loved the sound of the electric 12-strings made by Gretsch, Gibson, Fender and Guild, and employed them often on record and in live shows.
Harrison continued using a 12-string on subsequent Beatles albums, most notably on “Ticket to Ride” from “Help!” and on his own song, “If I Needed Someone,” from “Rubber Soul.” Keith Richards used one, although noticeably out of tune, on the Rolling Stones ballad “As Tears Go By.” David Bowie used a 12-string on the intro of his earliest hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity,” and in the studio, premier electric axeman Jimi Hendrix was not immune to picking up a 12-string acoustic now and then, such as on the very deep track “Hear My Train A-Comin’.”
The preponderance of 12 strings, both acoustic and electric, really flourished in the 1970s. Acoustic singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Dave Mason and the three-man outfit America used acoustic 12-strings all the time to great effect. Check out Lightfoot’s 1975 top seller “Sundown” (with a 12-string pictured on the album cover), or the shimmering sound of the guitars on Mason’s 1977 hit “We Just Disagree.” Nearly every track on America’s debut album (especially “Three Roses” and “Rainy Day”) rings with 12-string guitars. David Crosby’s solo debut “If I Could Only Remember My Name” has 12-strings sprinkled throughout.
I remember the first time I heard acoustic 12-string virtuoso Leo Kottke on some of his incredible instrumental tracks, and marveled at his deft picking skills and his uncanny ability to play leads and chords simultaneously.
Meanwhile, the electric 12-string continued making its presence known in increasingly dramatic fashion. Perhaps the most famous use of the instrument came when Jimmy Page played one on Led Zeppelin’s anthemic tour-de-force, “Stairway to Heaven.” Because the piece required him to play both 6-string and 12-string guitar in different sections, he had a custom double-necked guitar built that made it much easier in concert to switch back and forth between the two in mid-song. Not to be outdone, Zeppelin bandmate John Paul Jones commissioned a special triple-necked acoustic guitar that included 6-string, 12-string and mandolin, which was perfect for the group’s acoustic sets on tour.
“The double neck was not just a novelty,” noted Page in a 2014 interview. “It was there as a necessity. I thought the only way to replicate ‘Stairway’ properly, to do it any justice, was getting a guitar that will give you 12 strings on one neck, six strings on the other. It would have been very awkward without it.”
Indeed, while the 12-string was at first viewed by many as a novelty, it turned out to have plenty of staying power as more and more musicians gave it a whirl. Progressive rock bands like Rush and Yes were quick to join the party as guitarists Alex Lifeson and Steve Howe incorporated either electric or acoustic 12-strings into many of their arrangements. The introduction to Yes’s amazing “And You and I” from their “Close to the Edge” album clearly shows Howe’s innovative mastery of the 12-string. Genesis guitarists Anthony Phillips, Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford were all quite fond of the resonant sound the 12-string produces. Guitarist Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues employed one for their minor hit “Question,” and Roger Hodgson of Supertramp featured an acoustic 12-string on their first Top 20 single “Give a Little Bit.” Classic rock tracks like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Queen’s “’39” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” seem to almost compete as to which used a 12-string more effectively.
Vying for the most well-known song dominated by 12-string guitar is The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” on which guitarist Don Felder gently picks the intro on acoustic, and then he’d pull out his own double-necked electric in concert for his famous solo tradeoffs with Joe Walsh at the song’s conclusion.
In the jazz fusion arena, John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was a huge fan of the 12-string, brandishing one on a regular basis in the studio and on stage. Jazz guitar wizards Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell were often seen with 12-strings in hand as they navigated their song catalogs.
In the 1980s, Peter Buck of R.E.M. became a proponent when he used a 12-string on jangly tracks like “Pretty Persuasion” and “So. Central Rain.” The late great Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell both wielded 12-strings liberally on many great ’80s songs like “Somewhere Under Heaven” and particularly the mega-hit “Free Fallin’.” England’s The Smiths often brought 12-strings to bear on some of their tunes, notably “This Charming Man” and “Hand in Glove.”
You may not hear them used as much in recent years, but they haven’t disappeared. Taylor Swift, one of the premier songwriters/entertainers of her generation, says she loves playing some songs on a 12-string in concert to give them extra energy.
As for me, well, my Martin D-12-28 was the only guitar I had for more than 40 years, and it has served me well (even for a spell in 1976-77 when it became an 11-string guitar because I lost a couple pieces of one of the tuning pegs!). It wasn’t until 2018 that I finally broke down and bought myself a 6-string (another Martin, of course) just so I would have a choice when I was in the mood to play.
When I put new strings on the 12-string, though, nothing beats it. I could play for hours. In fact, I think I will!
This playlist takes the listener on a journey chronicling the use of the acoustic and electric 12-string in rock music, from early Lead Belly tracks through Beatles and Byrds tunes, from anthems of the ’70s through the jangly ’80s tracks of R.E.M. and Tom Petty.