Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: I am somewhat fascinated with the rich sound of a 12-string guitar, as heard on many great '60s recordings.

I have read about some famous 12-string guitarists, such as Leadbelly, Glen Campbell, Leo Kottke, and 12-string whiz Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.

After McGuinn and the Byrds hit it big (“Mr. Tambourine Man;” “Eight Miles High;” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” etc.) every band seemed to add a 12-string guitar.

What I have yet to find mentioned anywhere is the answer to one question: are there any pre-Byrds Rock hits that prominently feature the 12-string?
—Freddy Walford, Skokie, Ill.

DEAR FREDDY: You don't mention it but I have to believe your research also enlightened you as to the differences between acoustic and electric guitars, and we'll talk about both.

The first acoustic 12-strings worked their way into the American music scene about 100 years ago. They became popular with rural blues singers and buskers — most notably Blind Willie McTell, and to a lesser extent his similarly named friend, Blind Willie Johnson.

However, it is folk-blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, later known simply as Leadbelly, who became history's most influential acoustic 12-string guitarist.

Leadbelly bought his first 12-string Stella around 1912, and with classics like “Goodnight, Irene;” “Midnight Special;” “Stewball;” and “Rock Island Line” to his credit, he ranks as king of the acoustic 12-string.

Folk music widely embraced the 12-string in the early '60s, as best exemplified by the No. 1 hit, “Walk Right In,” by the Rooftop Singers.

Inspired by this January 1963 smash, numerous other Folk groups soon fronted a 12-string picker. Among them are the New Christy Minstrels, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Folkswingers (featuring Glen Campbell).

Several UK Rock bands took notice of this trend, and along with the 1964 British Invasion came a new big beat 12-string sound.

As of this date, the earliest 12-string Rock hit we have confirmed is “Needles and Pins,” by the Searchers. This lively remake of Jackie De Shannon's second hit was recorded in late 1963. It entered the UK charts January 18, 1964 and zoomed to No. 1 in just two weeks.

We suspect Jackie De Shannon's original — also recorded in '63, but months before the Searchers — features a 12-string, but we have been unable to reach her for confirmation. Stand by for more on this story.

The US issue of the Searchers' “Needles and Pins” started climbing our charts the first week of March, eventually landing in the Top 15.

Right on its heels came the Rolling Stones debut US single, “Not Fade Away,” with its stunning 12-string acoustic lead.

Recorded in January 1964, “Not Fade Away” hit the UK charts in February and by May was on all of the US surveys.

Yet it would be a fortuitous meeting in a New York hotel room that would dramatically revolutionize pop music.

The Rickenbacker company introduced two prototypes of the their first electric 12-string guitar (model 360/12) in July 1963. About seven months later (February 8, 1964), Rickenbacker president Francis C. Hall met George Harrison at his hotel, one day after he and the other Beatles landed in New York to begin their first American tour.

As innovative as the design and sound of the 360/12, putting one in the hands of the lead guitarist for the world's most popular band fueled a 12-string explosion.

Back in the UK at the Abbey Road studios on February 25 — one day after his 21st birthday — George unpacked his new Rickenbacker 360/12 and began what would be many years of using it on Beatles sessions as well as his solo works.

Among those first 12-string sessions are several single hits as well as tracks for their “Second Album,” and songs for the soundtrack for their first film, “A Hard Day's Night.”

Speaking of which, that unmistakable two-second downbeat that kicks off “A Hard Day's Night” is George strumming his new Rickenbacker 360/12.

For the record, the first Beatles recordings featuring the Rickenbacker are “You Can't Do That” and “I Should Have Known Better,” both from the February 25th session.

Unbeknownst to you, Freddy, we also received a letter from Sam Cortright, of Candor, N.Y., who asks if “The Last Time,” by the Rolling Stones, is the first appearance of a 12-string guitar on a Rock recording.

“The Last Time,” a March 1965 issue, obviously came out more than a year after those early '64 tracks.

This also answers the pre-Byrds question. Their first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is a May '65 release, even later then “The Last Time.”

Interestingly, many music lovers can be tricked into thinking they are hearing a 12-string, when it is really a standard six-string guitar. Some guitarists I spoke with say this may be the situation with “The Last Time.”

It is done using a simple technique known as Nashville Tuning.

By replacing the four lower strings (G-D-A-E) with smaller gauge ones and stringing them one octave higher than normal, the effect is similar to a 12-string.

With Nashville Tuning, the top two strings (E-B) remain unchanged from normal play.

IZ ZAT SO? Besides numerous tracks by the Beatles, Searchers, Byrds, and Rolling Stones, here are some other '60s classics made more memorable by a 12-string lead: “Do You Believe in Magic” (Lovin' Spoonful); “It Ain't Me Babe;” (Turtles); “Kicks” (Paul Revere and the Raiders); “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (Peter, Paul and Mary); and “Nights in White Satin” (Moody Blues).

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