Showdown:  Electric 12-String Guitars
 by Greg Gagliano

Copyright 1997, 20th Century Guitar Magazine

The use of 12-string electrics in mainstream rock can pretty much be traced to George Harrison of the Beatles.  After seeing George Harrison play a Rickenbacker 12-string in the film "A Hard Day's Night," Jim (later Roger) McGuinn of the Byrds immediately ran out and bought one.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Most electric 12-string players owe a debt to Jim/Roger McGuinn, including the Beatles themselves, who went back and copied the Byrd's sound during their "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" period, most obviously on the song "Rain."

Besides the Byrds, the Beatles, and the Hollies, The Turtles copped McGuinn's sound for "It Ain't Me Babe" as did The Searchers on “Needles and Pins.”  Richie Furay of the Buffalo Springfield was seen holding a Gibson ES-335-12 around 1966 and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees played a Gretsch 6076.  Tim Buckley sometimes played a solid-body electric 12-string in addition to his acoustic 12-string, Jimmy Page played a Gibson 6/12 doubleneck and a Fender Electric XII, and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground played mostly 12-string on their third album.  Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones reportedly used a Rickenbacker 12-string on the “High Tide and Green Grass” album, and even Alex Volpe of the Silver Skunks used a semi-hollow, teardrop body, cherry sunburst Vox 12-string with built-in E-tuner.

More recent artists that use electric 12-strings include Tom Petty (McGuinn's musical godson), Robyn Hitchcock (eccentric English popster), Pete Kennedy (former Nashville sideman, now performing as a duo with wife Maura), and Arto Lindsay (difficult to describe).

In 1965, the folk rock boom was well underway and by 1966, nearly all the major guitar makers such as Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Vox, Hagstrom, Gretsch and Guild, offered an electric 12-string model.  However, electric 12-strings quickly faded from the marketplace as the folk rock boom waned.

This month’s “Showdown” will slice and dice a 1966 Fender Electric XII, a circa 1966 Danelectro Bellzouki, a 1966 Guild Starfire XII, a recent Charvel Surfcaster, and a 1966 Rickenbacker 360-12.  Of course, I played the requisite “Turn, Turn, Turn” on each one which provided a very useful benchmark when comparing them.

The Fender Electric XII was introduced in 1965 with the bulk of the production taking place in 1966 before it was discontinued around 1970.  Like all the 12-strings in this comparison, it was relatively short-lived.  The Electric XII sports an alder, offset contour body that is similar in appearance to the Bass VI, Jaguar and Jazzmaster.  The bolt-on 1-piece maple neck is topped by a rosewood board with dot markers.  The headstock was a departure from Fender’s usual Stratocaster-style shape and is sometimes referred to as the “hockey stick” headstock.

Leo Fender’s bridge design for this model is elegantly simple and works extremely well.  There is an individual saddle for each string making precise intonation possible.  The design is also string-through-body which helps to increase sustain.  The string guide on the headstock is clever, as well.  Instead of using a simple bracket, Leo took a solid block of metal and drilled 12 individual holes in it as a string guide.  The electronics consist of two split-coil pickups, similar to the ones found on the Mustang Bass, a 4-way rotary pickup selector switch, a master volume, and a master tone control.

Playing the Electric XII feels instantly familiar for anyone used to playing mid-1960s Jazzmasters.  The neck profile is quite oval in shape with a 7.5 inch radius fingerboard and 25 1/2 inch scale length.  The 1 5/8 inch nut width can make the player’s left hand feel a little cramped at times.  The guitar is well balanced sitting or standing.  Sonically, the Electric XII has typical Fender single coil tone (bright, bell-like) and is quite versatile, from treble thin, to biting jangle, to warm and smooth.

The Danelectro Bellzouki, Model 7010, was introduced in the early 1960s and the example here dates circa 1966.  It has a teardrop-shaped body composed of a poplar frame with 1/8 inch masonite covering.  The truss rod reinforced, bolt-on maple neck is capped by a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard with an aluminum nut.  The bridge is the typical Dano chrome steel plate with straight, non-adjustable rosewood saddle.  The electronics consist of one “lipstick tube” single coil pickup, a 3-way toggle for tone selection, a master volume and a master tone control.

The Dano is impossible to play sitting unless a shoulder strap is used.  The teardrop body simply slides off the player’s thigh.  Of course, smart Dano players use the 2-pickup Bellzouki Model 7020 which has a 4-point tear drop sculpted body.  The body shape on this model is more amenable to playing while sitting.  The neck profile on the Bellzouki is nicely oval and the fingerboard radius quite flat.  The nut width is also wider than any of the other guitars in this comparison which, when combined with the 24 1/2 inch scale length, makes playing a bit easier while not being a chore as on some acoustic 12-string guitars.

The lipstick tube pickup yields a wonderfully complex sound.  It’s bright, but it doesn’t jangle the eardrums and nerves quite as much as the other models.  The tone control toggle’s effect on the guitar’s sound is subtle and does not provide much tone shaping.  The master tone knob is more effective.  With only one pickup, the Dano is the least versatile of the bunch, but the rich sound more than makes up for any shortcoming in that area.  It’s amazing that a guitar so “cheap” can sound so very good.

Guild’s entry into the foray is the Starfire XII which was introduced in late 1965.  The bulk of the Starfire XIIs were made in 1966 and 1967 with very few being made in subsequent years until the model was discontinued in 1974.  Unlike the purpose-built 12-string guitars by Fender, and Danelectro, Guild took its cue from Rickenbacker and Gibson by simply used an existing 6-string model as the platform for a 12-string model.

The Starfire XII shown here hails from 1966 and has a double cutaway, laminated mahogany, semi-hollow body.  It has a 3-piece mahogany/maple neck topped by a bound rosewood fingerboard.  The bridge is a typical archtop-style rosewood unit with a compensated saddle.  The guitar pictured here has an aftermarket adjustamatic type bridge which is superior for intonation.

The strings are secured by Guild’s trademark harp trapeze tailpiece.  The Starfire XII uses a pair of Guild humbucking pickups run through the traditional arrangement of separate volume and tone controls for each pickup.  A 3-way toggle switch selects pickup configuration.
The neck profile is very similar to the Fender’s, though the Guild has a shorter scale length of 24 3/4 inches.  Like the Fender it has a 1 5/8 inch nut width and is easy to play, but can feel even more cramped at times due to the shorter scale.

The guitar is well balanced and equally comfortable to play while sitting or standing.  The Guild humbuckers provide the player with excellent “Turn, Turn, Turn” jangle and killer jazz tone.  The two pickups in combination produce a more diffuse, “out-of-phase” sound.  And if you’re wondering about the jazz tone... I played a little riff on this guitar for a friend who remarked that it sounded very much like chorus effects that a lot of modern jazz guitarists are using, but that sound is “built in” to this guitar.

The Charvel Surfcaster 12-string is the only modern guitar in this comparison.  Having been made in Japan, it is also the only non-American guitar, as well.  The design is a hybrid influenced by Rickenbacker (headstock, semi-hollow f-hole body, triangle inlays), Fender (Jaguar/Jazzmaster body shape) and Danelectro (pickups).  It has a mahogany, semi-hollow body with a 2-piece flame maple top.  The neck is constructed of  2 pieces maple topped by a bound ebony fingerboard.  The bridge is really neat.  It’s a cast metal unit with a single, compensated saddle for each string, meaning perfect intonation is not possible.  However, the octave strings of each pair are strung through the body, but the fundamental strings are bridge strung.

The Surfcaster uses a pair of single coil “lipstick tube” pickups.  The controls consist of master volume and master tone with phase switch.  A 3-way toggle switch selects pickup configuration.
The neck profile is flattened oval with a fairly flat fingerboard fitted with jumbo frets.  The scale length 25 1/2 inches with a 1 5/8 inch nut width.  It is easy to play, but can still feel cramped at times due to the standard 6-string nut width.

The guitar is well balanced and comfortable to play.  The Charvel provides the player with the most versatile tonal selection of any of the guitars compared here.  It can produce bright bell tones, it can be warm and smooth, and it can even sound “six stringy” if you want.

Enter the Rickenbacker which is acknowledged by most players as the Mother of All Electric 12-Strings.  The 330-12 has a semi-hollow maple body with set-in neck construction.  The neck is maple/walnut laminate topped by a bound rosewood fingerboard.  The neck is narrow and has an oval profile.  The headstock has a unique design which allows for a more compact shape.  The tuners are placed in an alternating sequence of standard and slot configuration.  The slot head tuners are a pain in the neck to string up.

The strings ride over an adjustamatic type bridge and are held by a stylized “R” trapeze tailpiece that competes with the Guild for the Tailpiece Elegance Award.  The Ric uses a pair of single coil “toaster” pickups.  These pickups, along with the reversal of the traditional 12-string stringing, produce the classic Rickenbacker 12-string sound.

Controls consist of a volume and tone control for each pickup, a 3-way pickup selector switch and a pan control for the stereo output.  Yes that’s right, this ‘66 has the venerable Ric-O-Sound stereo output system, though I tested it in mono mode.

At first, the guitar seems easy to play, but like the other 12-strings in this comparison, the Rickenbacker’s neck is too narrow.  But the difficult playability is more than compensated by the classic sound.  Andy Sandler, the Ric’s owner, played a Beatles/Byrds/Tom Petty medley using the 360-12 and a ‘64 Vox AC-30.  It was a religious experience.  No other 12-string sounds like this combination of Rickenbacker and Vox.

All of these guitars sound great and are formidable instruments in a solo or group setting.  No one of these guitars is better than the other, they are just different.  They are all well made, with quality materials and workmanship, though the Dano is on the outer fringe of this statement.  Be aware, however, that electric twelves with their light gauge strings can be a tuning nightmare... especially during a gig.

Which guitar I liked the best shouldn’t affect your decision to play or own one of these guitars.  But, for what it’s worth, I liked the Danelectro the best for the playability of its slightly wider neck and excellent, smooth tone.  However, the teardrop body made me insane.  If I wanted the quintessential electric 12-string sound, then it’s the Ric all the way despite its skinny neck.

Electric 12-string guitars have their place in rock and roll history as well as in modern rock.  Their sound is distinctive and their Jangle Power can clear the sinuses of even chronic allergy sufferers during the peak of ragweed season.  As Silver Skunk guitarist Alex Volpe noted:  “The closest I ever came to going deaf was at a concert with The Byrds when Clarence White was in the band.  Both he and McGuinn had their respective Tele and Ric set to ‘Full Ultra Treble Stun with Malicious Intent to Inflict Auditory Canal Damage.’  I had to have the doctor check my ears a week later, but it was worth it.  They killed!”

Thanks to Jim Strahm and Matt Kesler at Midwestern Musical Co., Mission, Kansas for providing the Fender and Danelectro, to Andy Sandler for loaning his Rickenbacker, and to Dan Miller at Guitar Source, Overland Park, Kansas for providing the Charvel for this comparison.  Special thanks to Dan Segal M.L.S., the human encyclopedia of musical knowledge, for his assistance.

About the author:  Greg Gagliano’s cochlear nerve, tympanic membrane, stapes, malleus, and incus have not been the same since playing the Guild Starfire XII through an Ampeg V-4 half stack with the volume control set to 7 “just to see how it would sound.” 

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