Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Twelve-String Guitar

Somewhere between graduating from High School and joining the Navy, I got the hankerin’ for a 12-string. It could have been from listening to the Byrds or maybe some of those Rollin’ Stone songs with 12-string. So I went looking and found a nice semi-acoustic 12-string at a shop in Great Falls. Up until then I had not owned anything but solid body electrics, and I thought the semi-acoustic would be nice with an amp or just played like an acoustic for practice.

It was a beautiful Guild Starfire XII, red (of course) with a Bigsby tailpiece and ‘f’ holes. (Now what sane person puts a whammy bar on a 12-string?) I paid something like $150 for it slightly used. I think it was a 1965 model. Like all 12-strings, it was a bugger to keep tuned. All that extra stress on the neck and twice as many strings to be out of tune, I definitely spent more time tuning than playing.

I have a friend, Frank, that has two 12-strings, and brings both to his performances. He explains to the audience that he needs two to get through a 6 song set. Even then he has to tune between songs. And these are both fine Taylor 12-strings like Leo Kottke plays. He has some great rap while tuning: “It’s like tuning a symphony.” “First you have to find the string that is out of tune. Then you tune the other 11 to match.”

Nowadays we have fancy digital tuners, some built right into the guitar. But back in the sixties you had nothing but your ear, and mine is made of tin (except the part that is lead).

Shortly after that purchase, the wanderlust hit me, and I piled all my earthly belongings into my ’59 Chevy and hit the road. I put one of those metal bars across the hooks in the back seat, and hung all my shirts and pants from that bar. I loaded up the trunk with a suitcase of stuff and my Gibson Firebird, my Guild, and my Fender Deluxe Reverb. (That Chevy had a big trunk.) I ended up in Compton, California for a few months. It was a hardscrabble place, but I was looking for adventure, and this was as close to the beach as I could afford. I lived in one of those motels that rented by the week.

Now this was before credit cards, and before I had any credit. What I did back in those days was buy $25 US Savings Bonds. They only cost $18.75 (if I recall correctly) and they would be worth $25 if you held them for 7 years. After two months you could cash them at most banks and there was a chart on the back of the bond giving its value for different maturities.

I had worked and saved up money, and I bought a bunch of these savings bonds and put them in the glove box. When I needed money, I’d cash one. Now this was a lot more money in 1967 than it is today. Back then I would buy a Whopper, fries, and a large coke, give them $1.00, and get 15 cents change. I would fill the gas tank in my car, give them $5.00, and get a buck and a half change. Yes, it was cheaper!

However, I did run out of money and ended up pawning the guitar for something like $75, and then never reclaimed it. Today it would be worth one to two thousand dollars, depending on how good of condition I’d kept it.

I tried to play it finger picking style and even got picks on all my fingers — what a disaster that was. Yet, still today, when I try to play Paul Stookey’s “The Wedding Song,” I wish I had that 12-string. Never mind that I still can’t finger pick, you just can’t get that sound without the extra strings. And never mind those songs from the Stone's “High Tide and Green Grass.” Oh well, I never could keep it in tune anyway. So here’s to Compton and the Pacific Ocean. Here’s to being twenty years old and no responsibility or visible means of support. And here’s to the good folks at Guild. It was high tide and green grass!

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