12 string life

I started as a 4-stringer, playing bass guitar in The Lost Soul Band. About 10 years ago I became a 6-stringer when I picked up my child’s acoustic guitar to put it in tune. But I’ve always wanted to be a 12-stringer. Among the albums I obsessed over in my late teens was Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds. The sound of that electric 12-string Ricky is seared into my brain. I saw a documentary about XTC from round about their Mummer and Dukes of Stratosphere era where Dave Gregory was enthusing about his Ricky 12 string and The Byrds. Of course The Beatles were soon going to incorporate that sound into their armoury too. I thrilled to see Edwyn Collins wielding all manner of weird electric 12-strings throughout his career and again when Nels Cline produced one when I saw Wilco in Glasgow. I went through a phase of obsessing over 70s cheesecloth singer songwriters for a while – Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Gerry Rafferty and (ahem) John Denver. They were all using 12 string acoustic guitars to give a real wide open and bright sound to their recordings. I’ve always loved Bowie – kept him stowed away in my mind since… childhood really. Since his death I’ve seen loads of documentaries and footage of him performing and, of course, his signature 12-string that provided the sonic backdrop for the likes of Quicksand and Starman among many others. I’d started to feel like I could no longer function without a 12-string guitar. Not in a petulant, spoiled child way, more of an intense, primal longing (maybe it’s the same thing?).

So, I got a 12-string guitar for Christmas. An Eko Ranger 5. It is a thing of great beauty. A joy to behold.

I don’t use a plectrum to play guitar – never have done. I use a sloppy combination of finger picking and strumming with my fingernail. I knew this wouldn’t work on a 12 string and that I’d need to get used to using a plectrum. I knew that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the strain on the left hand – from stretching a bit further and from holding down twice as many strings. I soon found out that you can’t/shouldn’t bend the strings on a 12 string. It wasn’t good for a lot of the things you do on a 6 string and that, to get the best out of a 12 stringer, you had to adopt a slightly different approach. It quickly became clear to me that I had work to do and a whole new technique to learn before I could properly wear my fringe like Roger Mcguinn*.

But does it sound any good? Oh yeah. That chiming clarity that rings out when you get it right… It’s the greatest thing. There’s no immediate danger of it usurping my beloved Epiphone archtop for live performances (when we can once again do these things) but listen out for it on future recordings. I can guarantee it will be making itself known.

A photo of my Eko Ranger 5 12 string guitar.

*obscure Orange Juice reference – see Consolation Prize. Also, my days of having a viable fringe are behind me.