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12-String Extravaganza

Apologies for the lack of updates! I am teacher by profession and since we went back to school, there has not been much time for blogging. I will make up for that with this 12-string extravaganza. As a guitarist, my main instrument has been the 12-string for decades. I own five of them and over the course of the 45-plus years I have played, I have owned a bunch more than that. Here are my favorites and brief synopsis on each one. If you're a 12-string shopper or just a 12-string lover, I hope you find this enjoyable. These models are presented in no particular order of preference, price, or quality.

Guild F-512

The venerable Guild F-512 is probably the king of all the production 12-string guitars ever. If you can find a vintage one you'll enjoy the now-illegal-to-import Brazilian rosewood back and sides, a Sitka spruce top, and an ebony fingerboard with deluxe inlays. Gold hardware adorns the classic headstock shape. The jumbo body is huge, wide, and deep, providing jangling, melodious highs and deep bass. The neck, like most Guild 12s, sports two truss rods to help control neck tension and keep the action low and fast. Everything about this guitar is superb and the price reflects it. Two artists whose signature sounds came from this instrument were John Denver and ECM-jazz artist Ralph Towner. Fender bought the Guild brand a while back and I have not been particularly impressed with the quality control, although the premium prices remain.

Ovation Glen Campbell

In the 1970s, Ovation Pacemaker, Balladeer and Legend models were ubiquitous. This was because they were rugged, tour-durable, and their pickup system made them perfect for live use. Acoustically, they sounded quite unique also for studio recording. Glen Campblell used them and they produced a signature model for him, which I've already reviewed here on the site. Nevertheless, it warrants inclusion on the list.

The Ovation 12-strings had a bright, tight "harpsichord" like tone that recorded beautifully and cut through in a live mix. It was often treated with phase shifter effects that were popular in the day. A characteristic sound was Dave Mason's "We Just Disagree." 

Features include a premium Sitka spruce top, Lyrachord (synthetic) bowl-shaped back, a slim five-piece neck with alternating strips of walnut and maple, an ebony fingerboard with abalone diamond inlayss. The neck joined the body at the 12th fret and had a slotted headstock. It's hard to find one of these still intact nowadays. Ovation used a kind of fan bracing on them and they tend to crack along the lower bout below the bridge. If you can find one that's not cracked, it's a rare bird.

 
Gibson "Songwriter"
 
A modern Gibson 12-string version of the Songwriter model is a treat to play. These guitars run under $2000 usually, which is a steal for what you get. These instruments have great action, a slim mahongany neck (for a 12) and classic Gibson appointments like parallelogram inlays, a perfectly radiused fingerboard with medium frets, and rosewood back and sides. The Sitka spruce tops come in either natural or a beautiful sunburst. These guitars are easy to play and the balance between bass and treble is what sets them apart. Finding a 12-string with a balance between the two ranges, and lacking midrange "honk" can be challenging. The Songwriter 12-strings are about as perfectly balanced totally as you can get and they are quite comfortable to play. 
 
Guild D-412NT

Also from the Guild family is the D-412NT. This is a large-body dreadnought guitar, not a jumbo and it features some cost-saving appointments to keep the instrument affordable, while offering maximum tone. The D-412 has mahogany neck, back and sides, and a solid Sitka spruce top. These are finished in a soft satin finish that is understated and attractive. The neck, with the two truss rods,is fat, but extremely stable. If you are into down-tuning, like Leo Kottke, this guitar excels at that tone. Mahogany is a great tonewood for a 12-string. In this case, the back and sides are laminated and the back is pressed to arch outward some, adding depth. It absorbs some low end and makes a powerful midrange with sweet high frequencies. Not too much jangle, not too much boom. This makes it great for recording.You can really dig into this one and play it hard. (I had one for several years and it is a great solo instrument.) It is extremely stable and stays in tune like a rock. One odd thing about Guild 12-strings, which I forgot to mention in the F-512, is that the arrangement of the bridge pins is different than other 12-strings. On a typical 12-string, the octave string is closer to the bridge and the main string is farther back. On Guilds, they reverse this, which results in a more acute down-angle on the octave strings and a less acute angle on the mains. This makes a difference in the amount of downbearing on the bridge and it does make them sound different. It's hard to describe, but the octaves sound more lively, and the lower note of the pairs sounds more "grounded." 

Taylor 655CE
 
The Taylor 655CE pictured here is a model the company first marketed in the early 1980s. It was the first Taylor 12-string I ever played. Taylor 12-strings play exceptionally well. I once asked Bob Taylor at the NAMM show many years ago how he managed to produce 12-strings with such low action and he just answered, "If you get the geometry right, it's easy." Part of that geometry I learned was that the neck sits in some kind of metal frame that guides it perfectly into place. This model had Alpine spruce with a very prominent "silk" or cross-grain, rosewood back and sides (solid!), an ebony fingerboard, and a stylized ebony bridge that looks like it came off a Renaissance lute. One artist who favored this instrument, or at least a customized version of it, was Prince. This thing roars like a piano. The basses are deep and rich, the trebles balanced and powerful, and a midrange that is really sweet. The dynamic range of this guitar is amazing and best of all, it was one of the easiest 12-strings to play ever. Taylor was one of the only guitar manufacturers that guaranteed their 12-strings even if you tuned them to concert pitch.  

Gibson B-45

Perhaps the most iconic 12-string guitar of all time is the Gibson B-45 of the 60s folk boom. You've seen variations of this one in the hands of Gordon Lightfoot, Leo Kottke, Tom Petty, and many more. The model in the photo has mahogany back and sides, a laminated spruce top, which as I have said before, is not necessarily a downside on a 12-string, and a mahogany neck and trapeze-style bridge. The tailpiece attached to the endpin on the lower bout reduces some of the torque exerted on the bridge, making the guitar somewhat more stable and easier to warranty. Some of the variants had a more conventional pin bridge without the tailpiece. Another oddball feature is that the bridge saddle on many of the variants sat in a metal "tray" of sorts with screws to raise or lower the action. This is a feature you saw in cheap guitars of the time, but it actually sounded pretty good. Leo Kottke said he actually preferred that in his original 12-string that was stolen from a studio in Minneapolis. The tuners were cheap 6-on-a-plate variety to save weight, presumably. The guitar was heavy! Perhaps Gibson weighted the endblock of the guitar to prevent neck dive. The guitar came in several finishes: natural, cherry sunburst, tobacco sunburst. etc. Soundwise, these were all over the place. The quality control on these models varied widely and some are as dull as can be and others just roar when you pick them. A lot of them didn't survive, with bridges that pulled up, necks that warped, soundboards that "bellied" up, or necks joints that need resetting. Because they are a mixed bag, you don't want to buy one of these online without playing it first. 

Yamaha F512

The Yamaha F512, which is not to be confused with the Guild by the same model number, is an example of a nice, musically-interesting 12-string in an affordable price range for hobbyists and working musicians. This is a 1970s guitar, not a recent one. It had a solid spruce top, what is probably Indian rosewood back and sides (not Brazilian), a one-piece mahoghany neck with a slotted headstock that joins the body at the 14th fret, and a rosewood bridge and fingerboard. Bone nut and saddle was a premium feature on this model and it featured the distinctive Yamaha modified-dreadnought shape, which is kind of "bell-shaped"--not quite so narrow in the waist and wide across the "hips" of the guitar. This was a large guitar because the body depth was also larger than usual. This gave the guitar a deep bass response and the rosewood added a "shine" onto the high end. The Yamaha had a kind of V-shaped neck that was plenty wide across the fingerboard. It lacks the feel of the more expensive guitars, but it had a unique sound that projected well. It felt a big more neck-heavy than the others so far. These guitars had a nitrocellulose finish, like a more expensive instrument, though which is a plus. Over time, these have weathered and most of the ones you find have a nice patina to them. You can still find these in the under $500 range, which is quite good for a vintage guitar of this quality.

Charvel

Another budget contender in the under $500 range was this Charvel "mini-jumbo" 12-string. In the Nineties, Charvel was a popular line among poofy-haired, spandex-wearing metal guys. They made a small-body 12-string with a really slim neck so as to appeal to those hairspray dudes. The bodies were all laminated woods for durability. Unique features included a body smaller than a dreadnought, with a tight waist (hence the mini-jumbo), an abalone rosette around the soundhole, and no pickguard. The extended Charvel headstock looked cool and the guitar had a built-in piezo pickup and EQ/pre-amp installed. Sometimes you'll find these guitars in the used marked with the battery compartment missing because the "Bozo" who owned it back then lost it at the gig. These guitars were all about jangle because the bodies were too small to produce any serious low end acoustically. The polyurethane finish, laminated rosewood back and spruce top were durable, but didn't produce much volume on their own. Nevertheless, they sounded great plugged in and the necks on these things were FAST! Later on, Fender went on to make a mini-jumbo like this, but it wasn't nearly as cool.

Guild D-412

Returning to the Guild line again, I would be remiss if I didn't include the F-512's kid sister, the curvy blonde F-412. This is essentially the same guitar as the F-512, but with maple back and sides. The maple creates a distinctively different tone than rosewood: more incisive trebles and a more focused bass end. It's just drop-dead gorgeous. It looks like a 12-string version of their Artist Award archtop. Roger Hodgson of Supertramp is identified with this model with songs like "Sister Moonshine," "The Meaning" and "Give a Little Bit" as outstanding examples. 
Tacoma DM-912

One unsung, unheralded 12-string that has become rather scarce is the Tacoma DM-912. The Tacoma guitar brand didn't last long and I believe it was also bought up by Fender. The DM had a solid Sitka spruce top, mahogany back, sides, and neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The ones I ran into had the odd combination of a gloss top with a satin finish on the body. The necks on these were mounted into the body with some kind of bolt-on configuration inside the guitar, which was very stable. The headstock and bridge had a signature kind of shape, which made the guitars distinctive. You saw Tacomas in the hands of a lot of touring Nashvill musicians for a while. The DM-912 had a large, modified dreadnought shape and it produced a deep, piano-like tone. When you picked up one of these, it was one of those rare instruments that seemed to give back more tone than you'd expect for the amount of energy you imparted to it. It was very lively. They are hard to find now, but if you can locate one, they are well worth considering adding to your collection. They have held their value well and will probably increase in price over time. Most of them run used in the $1200 price point.
 
Alvarez AJ-60S

Now, here comes my soft spot. The Alvarez AJ-60S. I have a story to tell about this model. I have owned many guitars over the years and many 12-strings. I have owned several of the guitars on this list and even a custom John Greven 12-string that I still kick myself for trading away. There was a period where I had to sell most of my collection to make a family move and I went a few years without a 12-string. I saved up and decided to go shopping for one with the wife's permission. With five kids, guitar shopping always had to fit in to the budget. I had around $1500 to spend and I went out looking. I played several very nice ones in my price range. Then I happened to stop by the Mars store, which was a big chain music store that bit the dust and went bankrupt back in the Nineties. I saw a blond jumbo 12-string hanging up in the used section in the back and I went over to see it. It was only strung up with six strings, even though it was a 12-string. I reached up and plucked the low E string, which is kind of my litmus test. If that low E doesn't sound solid, I won't even take the guitar down to try it out.

This thing just resonated! "Wow!" I thought. I took it down and strummed a few chords and you could just feel the back vibrating in harmony with the top. It was amazingly lively and resonant. I saw that it was an Alvarez, but I had never owned one of those before. I always thought of them as a student guitar line. I asked a passing salesman how much it was because it didn't even have a price tag on it. While he went to look, I got acquainted with the guitar and was just amazed. The salesman came back and told me it was $300 and came with a hardshell case. Sold! When I came home from 12-string shopping with $1200 still in my pocket, my wife was very pleased!

Over the years, I have played two of these 1990s Alvarez instruments. At festivals, soundmen have raved over them. In the studio, they do great. In one unamplified gig I played for a folk society, a guy there asked me "What kind of guitar is that?" When I told him it was an Alvarez, he was dumbfounded. He said it sounded better than his $4000 guitar. Of course, I take credit for part of that because of my own sound and technique, but this model sounds way better than it should for the price. Here are the specs: solid Alpine spruce top, laminted maple neck, back and sides. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge with a bone nut and bridge saddle. I think it's the Alpine spruce that really makes the tone of this instrument. The fingerboard has very understated inlays at the 12th fret and in the headstock. The maple in the back will often have some figuring in it. The neck is superbly playable. If you get one with the pickup system, it sounds great. Acoustically, it is solid, balanced, and articulate. It sounds great loud or soft, strummed or fingerstyle. You can also get them with a cutaway, but I prefer the non-cutaway model. Some of the later ones had the weird bi-level bridge Alvarez is famous for. I prefer the more traditional one. I liked it so much I bought the 6-string version of it and I call them "the twins." The 6-string, incidentally, is also amazing. They stopped making these years ago, but you can find them occasionally on the used market. They're getting harder to find, but they generally go for under $400, which is incredibly undervalued for what you get. 

Martin D-12-20

Martin is, of course, the big name in American guitars, but their 12-strings are surprisingly "iffy." I have played some that are nice and others that are real dogs. The range of quality control and tone is all over the place. Of their various models, my favorite is still the D-12-20. This is a slope-shouldered, slot-head, 12-fret model that most people don't care for too much. Many people prefer the 12-string versions of the D-28 or D-35. The D-12-20 is a mahogany-backed/sided instrument with a solid spruce top on it. If you get a model from the Seventies, you need to be careful. The early ones didn't have truss rods, just a non-adjustable steel rod in the neck. They will often require neck resets to fix the neck angle. Bellying or upturned bridges are also common problems with them. If you are into slide 12-string, these have a great tone for that. The mahoghany soaks up some of the string and slide noise and sounds fairly musical. They are hard to play, though. It's hard to get the action just right on them. The sound is sometimes great and sometimes unacceptable. It's kind of hit-and-miss.

Now you may wonder why I have omitted certain brands. I didn't include top-end instruments like Breedlove or mid-to-low end brands like Epiphone. The reasons for this is that, in my many years of playing 12-string, I find those brands to be indistinct. Their 12-strings are not memorable or unique sounding to me. If I have played them in a music store, and they don't stick in my mind days later, there's nothing for me to say about them. They may sound nice, but not distinctive. I also didn't include boutique or custom instruments. They are in a category all of their own and it's hard to compare them because each instrument is a one-off job. I might have included the Bozo 12-strings, but they are rare as heck, except for a Chinese-made brand now, which I have never had the pleasure to play. All of the instruments I have written about here all stand out as a line of instruments. These are all guitars that, once you own one, if you get rid of it, you'll kick yourself. All of them have that much personality.

Thanks for reading. If you have a favorite, please write in the comments and tell be about yours.

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