12 Good Strings and True
the electric revival examined
...OR HOW THE ELECTRIC 12-STRING JANGLED BACK TO LIFE, WITHOUT THE GUITAR MAKERS NOTICING. JON LEWIN SETS THE COURSE.
It's a fact, and there's no escaping it: the electric 12-string guitar is hip again.
After an exile of around 16 years, big fat jangly-sounding electric 12-string guitars are back at the front of the mix. OK, so occasional weirdos like Jimbobs Page and 'laughing' Mike Rutherford have used them in more recent years, but they've been the exception rather than the rule (thank God).
What makes this revival particularly interesting is not the gorgeous opulence of the noise these instruments make, but one of the stories behind it...
It's not unreasonable, given the resurgence of interest in six-stringed machines, to expect occasional aficionados to pick up on its elder brother. (The six-course guitar, or 12-string, as it has become known, has its roots in Spain in the 1780s; the six-string as we know it today is dated 20-30 years later.)
Now, the late Seventies and early Eighties have produced a new breed of guitar 'aficionado'/collector — a new aristocracy of young players, with both the time and the inclination to devote part of their new-found wealth to the pursuit of desirable instruments, particularly those of a more esoteric nature, such as have not been exploited (or deified) by their forebears. (Hence the current relative cheapness of Gibson Les Pauls.)
Enter a gentleman by the name of Roberto Brandoni. About a year ago, while holidaying in Italy, Mr Brandoni perchanced to visit the Eko guitar factory; he was duly shown around the premises, and their stocks were displayed to him as a potential buyer. However, his eyes lit upon a peculiarly shaped, yet strangely familiar object lurking in a dusty corner — was that not a Vox Phantom XII? Was it for sale? Did they have any others?
The appearance of Vox guitars in the Eko factory is not strange at all, as Vox were manufactured there, under licence, from the early Sixties until production ceased in the early Seventies. What is odd is that these old and rather rare guitars should appear some 15 years after their manufacture, still boxed as new. Mr Brandoni who, according to my source for this tale, has an eye for a bargain, duly set about purchasing Eko's remaining supply of new old Voxes, ready for import into Britain. There is a footnote to this tale: if Mr B had arrived a week earlier (says my source), he would have had the option on another 100 or so guitars, which had just been shipped out to Greece at ridiculously low prices, because Eko needed the storage space. Gulp.
I am led to believe that around 50 Vox/Eko XIIs' were imported. Three different variants of the Phantom turned up in Shaftesbury Avenue/Denmark Street shops, only for the New Cogniscenti to descend in their droves, cheque books akimbo and tongues flapping at the thought of whackily shaped old guitars, especially since they were new. Despite the fact that they were retailing for around £400-£500, they have all sold.
Will Sergeant from the Bunnymen bought one, Bruce Watson of Big Country bought one, the Waterboys took two, Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins has one, as have Lloyd Cole & The Commotions; for some reason, the Cult have also bought one. Earl Slick, once of David Bowie's group, did have one, but he took it back, complaining that it buzzed when he detuned it.
The habits of certain American Philistines aside, this outbreak of the Vox 12 is indicative of a general trend: a flick through back copies of One Two is enough to show how many of the established figures of post-punk music are using 12-string guitars. Andy Summers uses a specially-built Hamer, Nick Heyward has a Rickenbacker, as does Dave Gregory of XTC. Johnny Marr of the Smiths claims to have Roger McGuinn's original Ricky 12-string, while Edwyn Collins justifies his Fender XII by saying that the Byrds used them in the studio, in preference to Rickys. And Julian Cope has a rare Gibson 335-12, an elegant and beautiful beast, to be heard on his new LP.
There were only two of the imported models left by the time. I began researching this article, and one of those was only unsold because it had been under repair for some weeks. Thanks to the kindness of the staff of Roka's and Macari's, I was able to play both these guitars, and an own-brand Eko model, the less attractive Rocket 12-string, which had been part of the same batch.
There is something about the teardrop shape of the Vox that makes it a joy to behold. Sitting it on your knee is another matter entirely; played standing up, they balance well, considering the extra weight and size of the head, with its six machines on each side. The neck feels longer than its 21 frets because of the drastic angle at which the body is cut away.
It's wide enough to accommodate comfortably the 12 strings, and shallow enough not to overstretch the more sausage-like of fingers.
Both guitars were, to my surprise, semi-acoustic, with the noise being let out of a diminutive f-hole partly concealed by the scratch-plate. The electrics are Stratocaster-styled, down to the almost five-way selector switch, which seems quite happy to lodge in between settings, for out-of-phase noises. Volume and two tone controls are also supplied.
Given that each course, or pair of strings, passes over one bridge saddle on its way to the tailpiece, the intonation seemed perfectly adequate. Very few 12s come with individual saddles, the Fender XII and the Ovation Deacon being notable exceptions.
One other cosmetic point worth mentioning — the back of the guitar is padded. Presumably this harks back to the days before rock guitarists were old enough to have their own beer bellies as protection against scratching the guitar with belts, etc.
The guitars felt old. They had none of that bright shiny polyester quality that afflicts so many of today's instruments, but rather a dry and understated dullness to their finish. One was a deep cherry-red, while the other was (I think) a muted tobacco sunburst, though both were dominated by the black laminated semi-circular scratch-plate.
The ebony fingerboard on both also felt old and unvarnished, but also physically dry from lack of use — no years of sweat engrained into the wood to warm up the feel of the guitar.
The sound of these two Voxes was excellent (both through old, Fender amplifiers): they had that bright hardness that typifies the traditional Sixties 12-string, the "jingle-jangle", as Dylan described it. There is a set of adjectives associated with the electric 12-string, and in particular the Byrds, and most of them have to do with the bell-like qualities of the sound, noticeable even in the names of songs such as "Chimes Of Freedom", and "Bells Of Rhymney".
The Vox chimes, rings, clangs and clanks as it should. It has the taughtness you would expect from single-coil pickups, combined with a rounder, hollower semi-acoustic sound. It has the tonal variety of a Strat, which is obviously useful for the picky chord-work you exploit 12-strings for, though it lacks the bite of a solid-body guitar.
There are those who say that £400 is too much to pay for an oldish Vox guitar, particularly when it is rumoured that another stash of 'undiscovered' instruments has turned up in the States. On a brief encounter with two of the kind, I was impressed with their sound, even if the necks proved slightly uncomfortable. That deficiency should improve with wear, and they are very beautiful to behold. Perhaps if I told my bank manager it was an artistic investment?
There is a frustrating post-script to the Vox story: Rose-Morris, who are Vox's distributors in the UK, had an offer from Eko in Italy of new Phantom 12-strings. Apparently Eko still have the relevant jigs and tools to start production, if asked. Rose Morris didn't ask.
That there is a demand for 12s should be fairly obvious. In the Sixties, that demand was easily satisfied, as most manufacturers produced versions of their six-string models. By the end of the decade, however, trade had slackened (the Fender XII was discontinued in 1969) as tastes changed. Now that they seem to have changed again, very few firms are in a position to capitalise on this.
In the Seventies, Shergold produced several excellent electric 12-strings, including the Masquerader and the Cavalier. Their sales proved no more successful than their choice of names. Ibanez have discontinued the 12-string version of their popular Artist series, though it's possible that there are models still available in Japan.
Kawai's Aquarius has been available in this country for over a year, but the blaze of publicity that surrounded its introduction was sufficient to keep all but the most observant in the dark. Rickenbacker, the inventors of the solid bodied guitar (six and 12-string), have been without distribution in this country for some years, but are at this very moment in the process of setting up an import deal. That leaves me holding the Aria baby — the Rev-Sound RS800-12.
I am vaguely suspicious about Aria's attitude to this guitar, as it has been conspicuously absent from any of their distributors' adverts over the last year.
As part of the under-rated Rev-Sound series, it comes (my model at least) in the distinctive stained-ash finish with through-neck and a rosewood fingerboard; it shares the same body as its cousin, the excellent S-casteresque RS850, though the headstock is necessarily double-sided. Unfortunately, it does not share the RS850's three single-coil pickups, but bears two humbuckers, each with coil-taps, plus an out-of-phase toggle for the back p/u.
There is a body of opinion which decrees that electric 12-string guitars only function properly with single-coil pickups. Certainly, the double-coils of the Aria lack that clarity that is associated with the standard Rickenbacker/Fender sounds. Even when on single coil setting their response is soft and a little muddy. But the humbucking sound can be used to advantage. Through both a Fender Twin and a Mesa Boogie, the Aria's extra warmth of sound stands out. It may not be clean, but it is rich and full.
The neck is very comfortable to play, having that same combination of width and shallowness as the Vox, but linked with the slicker feel of a responsive rosewood fingerboard. The Aria is less well-balanced than the Vox, possibly because of the insubstantial slimness of the body, rather than any excess of metalwork at the pointed end. A brief word in favour of the machine heads — there are two different sizes of machine on the RS800-12, intelligently arranged so that the smaller keys correspond with the octave strings, and the larger with the standard. Although this of course has no relevance for the top E/B strings, it proved a great boon for the lower strings, particularly under dim stage lighting.
The Aria was an easy guitar to play, though it was occasionally difficult to reconcile its lack of physical substance with the affluence of the noises it produced. It was better suited to the "Eight Miles High" style of 12-string than the Vox, though the older guitar provided the traditional chiming rhythm sound with more assurance than the Aria. Loudmouthed, fast-talking youth vs. stolid but wily old age?
The Aria RS800-12 is a fine guitar (even if mine had a dodgy fifth fret), but it does not conform to the purist notion of electric 12-stringery. The Vox does, though there is unlikely to be a surfeit of these exotic creatures over the next few months/years/decades.
There is a gap in the guitar-market for a good quality low-price 12-string electric. It's possible that the Aria, the Kawai, or even the newly re-emerged Rickenbacker selection could supply the goods, but at the moment I think their prices are a little too high to allow wide sales. Twelve-strings are too often thought of as second guitars, and are treated as secondary financial priority. With bands like REM beginning to make an impact, it's possible that this might change... any chance of the industry helping along? After all, there might be some money in it...
Review by Jon Lewin
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