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A Short 12-String Listening Guide
One of a 12-string’s most magical properties is how it can add texture and motion to pop and rock arrangements. It has an almost orchestral personality in these settings, filling in a high-mid frequency that goes missing in most bass/guitar/drums arrangements while providing an airier low-mid presence that can be really propulsive when you strum a part.
Jimmy Page is one of the acknowledged masters of this record-making art, and his work on Led Zeppelin II, III, and Houses of the Holy in particular showcase this talent. But it’s a safe bet that Pagey was paying close attention to the work of Tim Buckley. Buckley’s 12-string work on his underrated psychedelic masterwork Goodbye and Hellois a virtual clinic on how the 12-string can lend a song thrust (“I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain”) and abstraction (“Hallucinations”).
Another, more celebrated production team that knows how the 12 can add shimmer and propulsion to a simple pop-rock production is Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, and Petty’s Full Moon Fever is brimming with examples of this production philosophy, including “Face in the Crowd” and the ubiquitous “Free Fallin’.”
The 12-string’s appeal to soloists is obvious—one player can make a whole lot of racket and fill a lot of space with those twelve vibrating wires. Leo Kottke and Ralph Towner are among the most legendary 12-string acoustic soloists. But more recent solo adventurers have put the 12 to work in interesting ways. James Blackshaw’s O True Believers showcases how an open-tuned 12-string acoustic can become a cathedral of sound in the hands of a visionary player.
And all modern explorers of the open-tuned 12-string acoustic owe a debt of gratitude to the great Robbie Basho, who’s fascination with Indian classical music and 12-strings (often tuned to variations of open C) combined to create some of the most expansive and transportive solo guitar ever committed to record. Any of Basho’s LPs on Takoma are essential listening, but the compilation CD Bashovia, which includes Indian-influenced pieces like “The Hajj” and “Khatum,” as well as the ferocious, nine-minute-plus “The Falconer’s Arm” is a great place to start.
For evidence of how a 12-string acoustic can transform the work of a singer-songwriter, look no further than Neil Young. His Taylor 855 12 becomes a river of sound for his high-plains ramble “Thrasher” on Rust Never Sleeps—simultaneously sparkling and rolling mightily like late-afternoon sun on a wind-rippled Mississippi. —Charles Saufley