Sydney Recording Studios: It’s difficult to imagine what popular music would sound like without the 12-string guitar. Some of the most pervasive music of the last 60 years owes its power to the distinctive sound that Pete Seeger described as “the clanging of the bells.” Songs like “Goodnight, Irene,” Rock Island Line,” “Walk Right In,” Stairway to Heaven,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Hotel California” show what an important color the 12-string is in the sonic palette of 20th-century guitarists. Musicians as varied in style as Melissa Etheridge, Pete Seeger Leo Kottke, Leadbelly, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, and Willie McTell have all made the 12-string an integral part of their music. In this article I’ll trace the development of the modern 12-string up through the players and makers who are guiding the instrument through the ‘90s.
Sydney Recording Studios: Origin of the Species
The modern 12-string guitar made its first appearance in America just before the turn of the century. The name of the first luthier to double the strings of a standard six-string guitar is unknown. There are two theories about his background.
The first is that the 12-string guitar was developed by Italian luthiers laboring in the guitar workshops of companies like Oscar Schmidt, Harmony, and Regal in New York and Chicago. Italian music has a long history of wire-string, double course instruments like the mandolin and because many of the builders were of Italian descent, it would be a natural experiment to double the strings of a standard six-string guitar. One of the most famous 12-strings in the world has a strong Italian connection. According to family legend, Leadbelly custom-ordered his famous Stella 12-string from Fulvio Pardini, Who worked for the Oscar Schmidt company in New Jersey.
The other theory is that the 12-string arrived in the U. S. from Mexico. Latin America has a long history of double-course variants of the standard six-string guitar. These include instruments like the tiple, the charango, and the cuatro. Mexico has a particularly large number of guitar variations ranging from the diminutive guitarra de golpe to the massive guitarron.
Sydney Recording Studios: Mexican Mariachi Band
IN the U. S., the Idea that the 12-string is a Mexican instrument is an old one. A Lyon and Healy catalog published circa 1905 lists three models of “11- and 12-string guitars (Mexican style).” The Mexican designation was used to distinguish the double-course guitar from the “12-string bass guitar,” which was a form of harp guitar. It is curious that the catalog mentions two models of 11-string guitar but only one Sydney Recording Studios 12-string. From the description, it appears that the 11-string guitar was based on a seven string guitar with four doubled basses and three single trebles.
To further muddy the already murky waters of early 12-string history, there was a company in New Orleans called Grunewald that made a double-course guitar in 1904. Its catalog pictures a 12-string guitar described as “The Grunewald Harp-Guitar: A New Invention!” which has “Twice the Tone of any Guitar.”