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Jimmy Page onstage with Led Zeppelin in 1975. Photo by Ron Akiyama courtesy of Frank White Photo Agency.
One of the earliest examples of a multi-neck guitar is dated to circa 1690, and built in the style of the famed Alexandre Voboam. It is a small-sized guitar with an even smaller, almost ukulele-sized, guitar grafted to its treble side. This instrument would have been made for a professional musician who performed with an ensemble or orchestra. The purpose of the second set of strings was to allow the player to transpose on the fly.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, multi-necked guitars appeared on a semi-regular basis, but never in any kind of large-scale production. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when modern manufacturing methods facilitated a sharp increase in instrument production, that multi-neck instruments could be made and distributed in the kind of scale that would allow for widespread usage. As multi-neck guitars began to be used more frequently, there became a greater and greater demand for the instrument—it built upon itself.
The double-neck guitars of the 1890s reflected the tastes of the times. What became popular were things like harp guitars, lute guitars and mandolin guitars. The playing method differed from instrument to instrument. On the harp guitar, the extra strings were intended to mostly drone along with the guitar. On a mandolin guitar, one neck was played at a time. While none of these instruments set the world on fire, they did achieve enough popularity to establish the concept of a multi-necked guitar as a viable instrument.
The Early Lap Steels
As we know, the popularity of Hawaiian music in the late 1910s and ‘20s led to the emergence of the guitar—particularly the lap steel guitar—as an accepted instrument in popular music. The portability and accessibility of the guitar lent itself to usage across the entire spectrum of society, from front-porch pickin’ to ballroom jazz. The need for more volume from the instrument lead to the amplification and electrification of both lap steel and Spanish-style guitars in the late 1920s.
The earliest multi-neck electric guitars were lap steels. The famed lap steel guitarist Alvino Rey, who seemed to have had a hand in a multitude of early electric guitar inventions, claimed to be one of the first electric lap steel players to use instruments with more than one neck. Rey, like many other lap steel players before and after, knew that the instrument required multiple tunings to keep up with a band or orchestra. He found that the ultimate solution was to have more than one set of strings on the same instrument. By the mid-1930s Rey had commissioned a dual-neck steel from Gibson. By the end of the decade there were a number of steel players utilizing two- and three-neck instruments.
Immediately after the end of World War II, a number of different builders—Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby to name two—made businesses of building multi-neck steel guitars. Indeed, multi-neck steels were a core part of the Fender business throughout the 1950s. But steels were not the wave of the future, and both Fender and Bigsby would focus the bulk of their efforts on the single-neck electric Spanish guitar. But that didn’t mean the end of multi-neck guitars. In fact, it was just the beginning.
Doubleneck Spanish-style electric guitars may have existed prior to World War II, but these would have been one-off pieces. In the years just after the war, most manufacturers—players as well—were just trying to get their footing with the new standard of electrification. Once this new standard was accepted, people began to expand their vision of what an electric guitar could be, and what it could do. It was the economic and cultural climate of the 1950s that brought the doubleneck electric guitar from the freak show onto the main stage of music.