Watch the jingle jangle start to shine

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.

Struggling to play barre chords on my bulky
Mayfair 12-string in 1969

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.

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A guitarra séptima

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.

Blues legend Lead Belly

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.

George Harrison

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.

The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn

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.

12-string virtuoso Leo Kottke

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.

Jimmy Page and his double-necked Gibson
John Paul Jones playing his triple-necked instrument

“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.

Don Felder trading licks with Joe Walsh

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.”

Taylor Swift performing on a 12-string

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!

With my Martin 12-string in the late ’70s
At home in 2022 with my trusty 1971 Martin

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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.

In the white room with black curtains

In early 1969, following the breakup of Cream, the first “supergroup” power trio, Eric Clapton pondered his next move.

He had been in the Yardbirds during their formative years; he had done a memorable stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he had been a key factor in the international success of Cream.  But a ferocious personality conflict between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, along with exhaustion from relentless touring, had taken their

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Blind Faith:  Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton

toll, bringing the group’s existence to an end after only two years, much to Clapton’s relief.

Through it all, there was another musician he had been admiring from afar:  Steve Winwood, first the wunderkind singer/keyboardist of The Spencer Davis Group and then the founder and key sparkplug of the folk-jazz-rock band Traffic.

When Clapton heard Traffic was either taking a break or breaking up, he reached out to Winwood.  What say we get together and jam a bit and see what happens?  Winwood was keen to the idea, so they met in an isolated cottage in the English countryside to try out some new songs.

They’d been there only a day when there was a knock at the door.  Standing there was Baker.  “Here I am,” he announced.  Winwood, knowing Baker’s abilities, welcomed him in with open arms, but Clapton appeared deflated.  Oh shit, he thought, how did he even find us out here?

This anecdote serves as an illustration of Baker’s intimidating presence and aggressive perseverance, even in places where he wasn’t necessarily wanted.  As Britain’s The Guardian put it, “Certainly Baker’s physical makeup doesn’t really help to contradict most people’s image that he’s a direct descendant of King Kong or the Wild Man of Borneo.  He has a huge shaggy head of red hair and a beard to match.  Mere mortals have been known to quail before his glowering, rolling eyes.  His teeth are chipped, his grin evil.”

None of that mattered much when he sat down behind his massive drum kit and started ginger-bakerto play.  He is regarded by many, including most drummers, to be perhaps the best drummer ever, melding a jazz background and inventive African rhythms to create a singular approach that has inspired rock drummers for decades.  In the late ’60s, he pioneered the archetypal rock concert drum solo, and he introduced the two-bass-drum configuration which became standard throughout the industry in the ’70s and beyond.

Now the rock music world mourns Baker’s passing last week at the age of 80, a victim of multiple diseases that he suffered with for his last 10-15 years — obstructive pulmonary problems, degenerative osteoarthritis and progressive cardiac issues.

He was, by all accounts, a difficult man, which is why Clapton had been so wary about including Baker into the fold of Blind Faith, the new group he’d been nurturing with Winwood.

“I’m a prickly bastard, no doubt about it,” he said in a 2004 interview.  Indeed, a 2012 documentary about the mercurial drummer, entitled “Beware of Mr. Baker,” includes a scene when Baker attacked filmmaker Jay Bulger because he didn’t like how the project was progressing.

Born Peter Edward Baker in South London in 1939, “Ginger” (named for his shock of flaming red hair) took to the drums by age 14, inspired by jazz drummers like Britain’s Phil Seaman and U.S. legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  He first gained notoriety with The Graham Bond Organisation, an R&B band with strong jazz leanings, where he met and began clashing with bassist/vocalist Bruce.

Despite the unpredictable relationship between Baker and Bruce, the two agreed to work together again a couple of years later, this time with Clapton on guitar, forming Cream (so named because they were considered the cream of British musicians on their respective instruments).  From mid-1966 until late 1968, the trio reigned supreme, playing more

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Cream:  Clapton, Baker, Bruce

than 400 concerts and releasing four hugely successful albums, becoming monumentally influential even as they were imploding from within.

Baker always felt he wasn’t given due songwriting credit for many of Cream’s songs.  While he is credited for writing obscure deep album tracks like “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Blue Condition” and “Passing the Time,” he missed out on any credit for the big-royalty songs from their catalog.  He thought it unfair that copyright laws don’t recognize drumbeats (however inventive or catchy or as integral to a song as they may be) for songwriting royalties.  “It’s crazy,” he fumed.  “One of the most important things in pop music, any music, is the beat.  But in the eyes of the law, it’s melody, harmony and lyrics that matter.  I added the 5/4 time introduction to Cream’s hit ‘White Room,’ and I suggested to Jack Bruce that the tempo for ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was way too fast and should be much slower.  These were both important contributions to those tracks, but I got no credit whatsoever.”

Baker also bristled when he talked about his drumming style during his days with Cream.  “I hear they consider me a pioneer of heavy metal drumming.  I loathe heavy metal.  I think it is an abortion.  A lot of younger rock drummers would come up and say, ‘Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums,’” he noted.  “They didn’t seem to understand I was thrashing just so I could hear what I was playing above the over-amplified volumes from the guitar and bass.  It was anger, not enjoyment.  And it was painful.  I suffered onstage because of all those Marshall amps turned way up.  I didn’t like it then, and like it even less now.”      

He found it amusing when he would be labeled “best rock drummer” in reader polls.

Ginger Baker death

Baker in 2007

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music.  We never played the same thing two nights running … It was jazz.”

Baker’s playing made use of syncopation and “ride cymbal” patterns characteristic of bebop and other advanced forms of jazz, as well as the frequent application of African rhythms.  He often utilized differing timbres and tempos in his percussive work, using a variety of percussion instruments in addition to the standard drum kit.

Said Baker in 2012, “Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers.  They’re the time of the band.  It’s the drummer’s job to make the others sound good.  I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as, say, a brilliant guitar player.  I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing – and so few have that these days.  They think playing loud is playing best.”

If you listen to songs like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it shows Baker’s mastery of the high hat and the restrained approach he referred to in the 2012 comment.  Still, the incendiary drumming you hear in most live Cream recordings — most notably “Spoonful” from “Wheels of Fire” — is jaw-dropping in its complexity and performance.

Said Neal Peart of Rush last week, “His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive.  He set the bar for what rock drumming could be.  Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”

Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, said he was in awe of Baker’s legacy.  “There was so much freedom in his playing.  What a wild man.  Those rhythms we’ve heard all our lives, he just plucked them out of the sky.”

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Baker, Clapton and Winwood as Blind Faith, Hyde Park, London, July 1969

Following the short-lived Blind Faith experience, Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1970, a somewhat bloated group of jazz-rock fusion musicians that included, at various times, Winwood, Traffic flautist Chris Wood, Afrocentric drummer Rebi Kebaka and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, among many others.  They relied on lengthy jams and unrehearsed noodlings that found their way onto two LPs in 1970 but never sold well.

“I can only echo the words and thoughts that have been shared by various mutual friends,” said Laine following Baker’s death.  “I think we gelled musically in a way that is rare and that is really all that matters.  I will always defend his reputation as a hard nut to crack because his honesty was second to none, and his heart was an open book for all to see.”

Baker dabbled in heroin and other drugs during that period, and it took watching his good friend Jimi Hendrix die after a debauched night on the town together for Baker to finally begin the difficult journey of recovering from substance abuse.  Feeling he couldn’t pull that off in Europe, he packed up and traveled to Africa, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He opened a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where Paul McCartney was one of the first to visit.  “We worked together on the ‘Band On the Run’ album in his ARC Studio there,’ said McCartney last week.  “Ginger was a wild and lovely guy.”

While living in South Africa, Baker withdrew from the public for years at a time, pursuing a passion for and investing much of his wealth in polo ponies, which left him in financial straits.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baker traveled the world, working with nearly anyone who would hire him, constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay sober.  He played with such bands as Hawkwind, Public Image Ltd, and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality before teaming up with Bruce once again in BBM, a short-lived power trio that included guitarist Gary Moore.

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Cream’s reunion gig in 2005

In 1993, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Cream, and in 2005, Cream finally reunited for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, which was then made into a successful CD and concert DVD.  Both are well worth your time.

I was pleased to see that, despite the years of acrimony, the family of the late Jack Bruce offered this statement upon Baker’s death: “We would like to extend our sincere condolences to Ginger Baker’s family, friends and fans.  Ginger was like an older brother to Jack, and they fought like brothers often do, but they survived their love-hate relationship long enough to work together in The Graham Bond Organisation, make history with Cream and, much later, collaborate in BBM.  Each time, their musical chemistry was truly spectacular.  Rest in peace, Ginger, one of the greatest drummers of all time.”

Mark Holan, my former editor at Scene Magazine in Cleveland, is a huge fan of Baker’s work, and has posted several items this past week on Facebook about him.  Yesterday he displayed the cover of Cream’s debut LP “Fresh Cream” and reminisced, “I remember 72799625_10157922448373313_8637118432698957824_olistening to this album over and over, trying to figure out how Ginger could make that drum kit sound like a bulldozer gone berserk.”

I spent the other day listening to the 16-minute live drum solo “Toad” from Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” for the first time in decades.  When I was 14, I found that track compelling, listening to it dozens of times because of its mesmerizing rhythms and seemingly impossible techniques.  Even though it gave birth to the unfortunate practice of including momentum-killing drum solos at so many rock concerts in that 1970s era, I still have a soft spot for Baker’s virtuosity on display on “Toad” as well as on his solo in Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.”

R.I.P., Mr. Baker.  Your work here is done and has not gone unappreciated.