From the primitive examples dating back to 1690, to the more modern Gibson offerings, we trace the important moments in the development and rise in prominence of multi-neck guitars.
[Originally published December 16, 2009]
As far as anyone knows, doubleneck guitars have been around as long as the guitar itself. Even still, guitars with more than one neck have always been a bit of a curiosity, never the norm. The far majority of players seem to have more than enough on their hands just working one set of strings. Some players, it seems, need more. So while we may take multi-neck guitars for granted as mere novelties, the roots of their existence, like many innovations, lie in necessity. The impetus for a guitar with more than one set of strings lies in two needs: tone and tuning. The player needs either an alternate sound or pitch from the main instrument.
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.
Doublenecks With a Purpose
A replica of Grady Martin’s doubleneck Bigsby made in the ‘80s by R.C. Allen for Gary Lambert, the rockabilly picker who played with Glen Glenn and Eddie Cochran. It diverges from Paul Bigsby’s original in a number of details, most noteably the lower bout ornament, vibrato assembly, pickup and control configuration and (rather obviously) the pickguard.
Photo courtesy of Rick Gould
One of the earliest examples of a doubleneck electric guitar made for onstage use was a doubleneck electric guitar and mandolin made in 1952 by Paul Bigsby for country singer Grady Martin. The guitar was a solid maple instrument featuring a standard six-string guitar neck paired with a mandolin neck. The six-string neck used a Bigsby vibrato and three P-90-style pickups. The mando neck had a single pickup. Martin used this guitar throughout the ‘50s. The Grady Martin model wasn’t the first, or last, doubleneck that Bigsby would make. All totaled, it’s believed Bigsby made about a half-dozen doublenecks.
Doubleneck guitars were still an extreme rarity when Jimmy Bryant stepped in. Bryant, the six-string virtuoso whose many recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s brought a Django Reinhardt-fluency to country swing soloing, was an early adopter of the solidbody guitar. Possibly the first Fender endorsee, Bryant used an early Broadcaster to great effect. In 1954 Bryant was looking for new levels of showmanship in his playing, and new ways to get the sounds in his head out to the world. In a nutshell, Bryant was looking for an instrument that would allow him to play melodic harmonies without having to team up with another guitarist. He paired with Stratosphere Guitar Manufacturing Co. of Springfield, MO. Whether it was Bryant who approached Stratosphere or the other way around, Stratosphere owner Russ Deaver had just the thing to solve Bryant’s dilemma: a doubleneck electric guitar that was different from any before or since. The Stratosphere had both a six- and twelve-string neck, maple fretboards and P-90-style pickups. The body on the Stratosphere was a bit of a blob. The Stratosphere Twin is acknowledged as the first doubleneck electric—as well as the first 12-string electric—offered to the public for sale (unlike the Bigsby, which was custom order-only). The tuning of the Stratosphere was a big departure: on the twelve-string neck the courses were tuned in either major or minor thirds. The complex tuning of the Stratosphere required the player to almost completely relearn the fretboard. Bryant used a prototype Stratosphere Twin at a session in September of 1954. Chet Atkins himself also used a Stratosphere on the tune “Somebody Stole My Gal.” Not much was seen of the guitar after.
Custom versions (in various stages of completion) of Terry McArthur’s Moseley-inspired recreation, “The Maphis” by TNM Guitars.
Photo courtesy of Rick Gould
Semie Mosely may have done more for establishing doubleneck electric guitars than any other individual. As an apprentice with Paul Bigsby when he was barely out of his teens, Moseley got the opportunity to work on the guitars of many famous players. Picking up the luthier’s trade rapidly, Moseley learned how to craft every single part of the guitar himself, including pickups, vibrato tailpieces, knobs and other plastic parts. They were also durable, with many examples still in existence. He also learned to be unafraid of invention, innovation and making guitars way, way out of the norm. Going into business for himself in about 1954, he began building solidbody guitars for players in and around Southern California. In 1954, Moseley made doublenecks for Joe Maphis and Larry Collins of the Collins Kids. He became known as the go-to guy for multi-necked instruments and eventually made more pieces for Maphis and Collins, as well as for stringburner Phil Baugh and others.
Sherwin Linton in 1967 with the doubleneck he built in 1965 using a Fender Jazzmaster neck and vibrato tailpiece. Four of the strings on the 12-string neck use banjo tuners through the back of the headstock, so they’re not seen in the photo. Sherwin says he “finished it in blue with the woodgrain showing through and it was and still is very pretty.”
Photo courtesy of Sherwin Linton
Throughout the ’50s, one-off and homemade doublenecks made appearances across the scene. Herbie Treece and Sherwin Linton are two that come readily to mind. Both pickers in the country circles, each played homemade doublenecks. Treece’s guitar was a stylish axe with dual six-string necks of differing scale, and Linton’s homemade doubleneck had a revolving cast of six-, eight-, and twelve-string necks with features such as B-benders and headstock-mounted vibratos. Linton used his doubleneck on the aptly named album, “Hello, I’m Not Johnny Cash.”
The Big Boys Step In
In 1958, Gibson introduced two doubleneck electric instruments, the EDS-1275 Double 12 and the EMS-1235 Double Mandolin. The first Gibson electric doubleneck, however, was built a year or two earlier as a custom order. Seeing the possibilities in the model, Gibson built a number of samples, some of which they exhibited at the 1957 NAMM show. Enough positive reaction was garnered that the company put the models in the next catalog, but very few of the instruments were actually produced. Initially, both of these instruments were thinline hollowbodies, 1-7/8" deep. The EDS (Electric Double Spanish) had two 24.75" scale necks, the upper a twelve-string, the lower six-string. The EMS (Electric Mandolin Spanish) had a 13-7/8" scale six-string neck in the upper position and a 24.75" scale six-string neck in the lower position. Both models had a two-piece solid spruce top with maple sides and a one-piece maple back. Colors available were white, black and sunburst. The dual-cutaway shape of the thin-lines was a precursor to the SG-style solidbody which both instruments transitioned to in 1962.
Carvin #1-MS Professional Double-Neck.
Photo courtesy of Dave Isaac/Hollywood Vintage Room
In their 1959 catalog, the Carvin Guitar company introduced two doubleneck models. The #4-BS Professional Doubleneck featured dual 25-1/8" necks; one a six-string guitar, the other what would amount to be a (very) short-scale bass. The #1-MS was a guitar and mandolin combination with one 25-1/8" scale guitar neck. The body was maple and similar in shape to their other guitars. The electronics on the Carvins were a bit unique. Each unit had two P-90-style pickups on the guitar and a single pickup for the bass and mandolin, respectively. Whereas many other doubleneck models would have had a switch to select which neck you were playing, the Carvin used the pickup selector to do this job. Position 1 of the pickup selector would be the bridge pickup of the guitar. Position 2 would be the guitar’s neck pickup and position 3 would be the single pickup of either the bass or mandolin. Carvin continued to offer the #4-BS and #1-MS throughout 1964 when they redesigned the pair. Carvin offered the doubleneck option throughout the ‘60s, and continued to help players satisfy their doubleneck cravings consistently throughout the years, making them one of the longest-lasting and most prolific producers of doubleneck guitars and basses.
For the 1961 model year, Gretsch introduced one of the more unique multi-neck offerings ever to come from a major manufacturer. The Bikini was actually three units, a guitar (6023), a bass (6024), and a doubleneck bass and guitar (6025). The concept was that you could use one body and slide in either a bass or a guitar neck. To make things slightly more complex, the body also folded down the middle on a piano hinge, becoming known as a “butterfly.” A player also had the option of combining separate butterfly back components to make a doubleneck. The guitar was 25-1/2" scale and the bass was 29-1/4" scale. Electronics, pickups, tone and volume controls were self-contained in each respective neck shaft. The guitar was a good idea in theory but not in practice, and was difficult both to produce and to operate.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, Gibson was the only major manufacturer to consistently offer an electric doubleneck. Mosrite kept the Joe Maphis doubleneck in its catalog up until the latter part of the decade, and Rickenbacker occasionally produced guitar and bass doubleneck combos. Other manufacturers produced doublenecks only as a custom order. By and large, the doubleneck moved into novelty status with only Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin using one to any effect. Rick Nielsen famously paired with Hamer on a number of extreme multi-neckers, and in the 1980s some metal bands made use of the shock factor of the instrument to add to their visual appeal. In the late 1990s and early parts of the 2000s, retro appeal brought back some doublenecks into the realm of “guitar geek” status.
Some of the most enlightening moments in guitar learning have come for me at the Museum of Making Music. Located at NAMM headquarters in Carlsbad, CA, the Museum not only preserves the history of the music instrument industry but teaches the history of music instruments to the public. I was lucky enough to work at the museum doing a number of things, none more gratifying than giving tours to youngsters. Once while giving a tour to a group of Brownies—girls between the ages of seven and nine—I walked up to a case holding an incredibly rare Bigsby doubleneck built for J.B. Thomas. It’s a beautiful piece with a maple top and one regular-scale guitar neck and one mandolin neck. I asked the Brownies the question, “Now why would a guitar have two necks?” The girls were silent until one of them, in a whisper quiet voice, said, “So you can rock and roll?”
A great answer, and probably not too far from the truth.
Interested in plugging a flattop into your favorite silver- or black-panel beauty? Here’s what you need to know.
Have you ever tried to plug your acoustic guitar into a classic-style Fender amp? There are some hurdles to overcome, and this month I’ll provide some advice on how to get past them. But first, some background.
Amps made for electric guitars are carefully designed and matched to the voltages and frequency profiles of signals delivered by electromagnetic pickups. An amp sounds best when it does a good job at amplifying or filtering out certain frequencies. So many of us have stumbled upon challenges when the input signal—say from an acoustic guitar or other instrument—is way different than what the amp expects.
A guitar signal is initially created by moving the strings. The more vibrating metal mass closer to the pickup’s magnet, the more magnetic pull and more current is induced inside the coil wire in the pickups. More windings and stronger magnets induce more current, but also reduce brightness and clarity. The coil-wire thickness, wire material, and coating material and thickness also play a role in signal strength and frequency response. The signal voltage produced by a pickup is low—typically between 0.1 and 1V—and contains frequencies between 80 and 1200 Hz.
On the amp side, there are even more factors that amplify or weaken certain frequencies—so-called frequency filtering. Take a vintage Fender Deluxe Reverb. It is designed with specific tubes, resistors, and caps in the preamp stage to amplify a weak input signal and shape it through EQ, mix in some reverb, and transport the result to the power amp circuit, which does three things. First, it splits and duplicates that result into an inverted signal, then it amplifies the two signals as much as possible, and then feeds them into each side of a power transformer that alters the resulting voltage to a suitable level for a loudspeaker. That’s typically 30 to 50V. The speaker cabinet and loudspeaker itself are the final stage in delivering a filtered and amplified guitar tone.
For acoustic guitars I prefer modern American-style speakers that can handle high power and both a firm bass response and a crisp top end.
If you hook up other instruments, like an acoustic guitar or a harmonica with a microphone, and feed an electric guitar amp their signals, you will get totally different results throughout the circuit. You may not get the tone you expect, or, in the worst case, you might damage the amp. But generally, all passive sources with electromagnetic coil pickups are safe to use. This includes piezo pickups mounted to the bridge of an acoustic guitar and vocal microphones. Since they are not powered by an external source like a 9V battery, they are passive and create a weak signal.
You should be careful using electrically powered sources like an acoustic guitar with a battery-powered preamp and EQ. Also, electric pianos, synthesizers, or Bluetooth speakers with mini-jack outputs are dangerous, too, since they can easily blow the loudspeakers due to a wrong volume or EQ setting. Electric pianos can sound very good through a vintage Fender amp. I’ve seen Fender Rhodes keyboards played through Twin Reverbs, and we’ve all heard organs through Leslie/Vibratone speakers, which can be run by Fender guitar amps.
Acoustic guitars with active pickups can be difficult. With typical default amp settings for electric guitar, the tone is narrow and focused around certain mid frequencies. It lacks fullness, top-end clarity, and overall balance. So, I have some tricks you should try if you’re experimenting with this option. First, set all the EQ knobs to 10. This allows the guitar signal to travel through the preamp section with minimum change of tone. Be very careful with volume and start low—at around 1.5—and increase from there. I find big, powerful Fender amps are best for this, since they have plenty of clean headroom and wide EQ possibilities with a full set of bass, mid, treble, and bright-switch controls. And that makes them less prone to howling feedback.
A big speaker cabinet will enhance the low end, allowing the preamp and power amp to relax more without maxing out clean headroom. Remember that the power and energy lie in the bass. I suggest the silver-panel 40-watt Bandmaster Reverb and 85-watt Showman Reverb as practical amp heads for acoustic purposes. I use my Bandmaster Reverb with a 1x12 extension cabinet loaded with an Eminence Maverick. For acoustic guitars, I prefer modern American-style speakers that can handle high power and both a firm bass response and a crisp top end. Speakers are very important for your tone. The guitar’s pickups are also important, together with a correct setup, so the action permits the optimum proximity of the pickups.
Acoustic pickups don’t have to be expensive. They just need to be balanced and clear. A good guitar amp and some careful adjustments of the controls will do the rest.
The emotional wallop of the acoustic guitar sometimes flies under the radar. Even if you mostly play electric, here are some things to consider about unplugging.
I have a love-hate relationship with acoustic guitars. My infatuation with the 6-string really blasted off with the Ventures. That’s the sound I wanted, and the way to get it was powered by electricity. Before I’d even held a guitar, I knew I wanted a Mosrite, which I was sure was made of fiberglass like the surfboards the Beach Boys, Surfaris, and the Challengers rode in their off time. Bristling with space-age switchgear and chrome-plated hardware, those solidbody hotrod guitars were the fighter jets of my musical dreams. I didn’t even know what those old-timey round-hole guitars were called. As the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey strummed off into the sunset, the pace of technology pushed the look and sound of the electric guitar (and bass) into the limelight and into my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I had to begin my guitar tutelage on a rented Gibson “student” acoustic. At least it sort of looked like the ones the Beatles occasionally played. Even so, I couldn’t wait to trade it in.
By the late 1960s, everybody had to have an acoustic guitar. America's youth had gone through the Greenwich Village folk boom and entered the West Coast Laurel Canyon scene. Young women who wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Neil Young-inspired men floated on down to local musical instrument emporiums to pick out their badge of artistry. In Europe, folkies blended traditional troubadour tunes with blues and rock, creating a genre that survives to this day. The most fuzzed-out psychedelic combos proudly displayed their introspective acoustic side. Everybody had an acoustic guitar. Of course, country music never forgot. Except for a short interlude of microphone-hugging country crooners, Nashville kept the strum going.
So, what makes the acoustic guitar so indefatigable? First and foremost is the beauty of its sound. Like the violin or the piano, the unadorned guitar has a purity of sound and purpose that is moving in a way electronic instruments are not. In concert, the connection between the musician and the sound the audience hears is undeniable. It’s a tightrope walk, where technology cannot fool the listener. The fewer links in the chain, the closer the bond between performer and patron—and that’s the experience people crave.d
Before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied cowpoke guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again.
Another more practical aspect is portability. Although buskers have more recently turned to elaborate amplifier and looper setups for street concerts, not much beats a great singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Certainly, I can’t imagine dragging an amp and a synthesizer down to the beach to jam some Bill Evans while friends roast s’mores. Okay, maybe. But the simplicity of a naked guitar in a dorm hallway or in a coffee shop can be a refreshing break from the relentless attack of electronic pop culture. In a world of autotune, backing tracks, and the layered-to-death ambush of modern music, a fingerpicked guitar is like a walk in the woods on a spring day. The fact that it can be easily taken anywhere makes it the instrument of choice for so many.
Another strong argument for the acoustic axe is its supremacy as an accompanist. Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t leave a lot of viable options. Although Chet Baker managed a career as a crooning trumpeter, playing a horn while vocalizing requires additional backup. Singing while playing the violin isn’t much easier. The piano is probably the most versatile sounding accompanist, but as much as I like Diana Krall, Ray Charles, and Elton John, their instrument of choice forces them to bring the party to the piano, not the other way around. You can argue that the electric guitar is a contender. Unfortunately, the slight portability downside of needing an amp and its tendency to drown out vocals makes it the second choice, whereas the acoustic guitar checks all the right boxes.
This all isn’t to say that an acoustic guitar lacks the ability to deliver impressive soloing performance. Some of the most inspiring and emotionally vibrant instrumental music is delivered on acoustics. The roster of players currently burning up the fretboard in every genre is immense—possibly the most in history. The acoustic guitar’s forte is to bring passionate and thoughtful melody to any song. This secret weapon has been applied to recordings from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Kiss, and Dream Theater. In the rhythm department, the acoustic steel string has been responsible for the foundational power of the Who, Alice in Chains, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, and countless other “heavy” bands.
So before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied, cowpoke acoustic guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again. They might not be as loud, or as flashy, but they pack an emotional wallop that often flies under the radar. Many decades down the line, I wish I’d paid more attention to what that first student guitar had to offer me. Maybe I’d have kept it, too