The shimmering, treble-heavy chords rang out as the man sat with the beautiful rosewood and spruce guitar. He was a skilled guitar player, executing difficult barre chords and arpeggios in between the melodic passages of the popular song he was playing. He was enthralled, not with his own playing, but with the incredible sound of the 12-string guitar. Because of the unique tuning method the twelve-string guitar employs, it has a chorus-like effect when strummed. The octave-tuned bass strings add an upper harmonic tone to the lows, while the unison treble strings seem to add a hint of vibrato to the highs, with the overall effect being almost like hearing a choir which is heavy on the female voices. “I love it!” he exclaimed. “It has an amazing tone and the action is really close and comfortable, but I don’t hear any fret buzz.”
It didn’t hurt that the guitar maker had selected an amazing, figured Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides of the body. Never mind that no one else would see the beauty of that view, since all that showed to any onlookers was the natural, almost white top, beautiful in its own way. The straight grained Adirondack spruce had none of the showiness that the rosewood boasted, but this solid piece of wood was selected for its resonance, not for looks. If you tapped on the top without plucking the strings, there was almost a “boom” of sound, the tone enhanced by the hand carved braces on the underside, each one serving a dual purpose; that of distributing the sound generated by the bronze and silvered-steel strings all the way to the edges and also the very important task of providing stability to the instrument. The pull created by the twelve strings stretched up to tension is something over 250 pounds of pressure, so a weak top and inadequate bracing are just not acceptable.
The guitar wasn’t inexpensive, but this fellow had a plan. As we haggled over the price, he excused himself and went out to his car, returning presently with a nice six-string guitar. “I’d like to trade this in,” he suggested hopefully, knowing that my answer would determine whether he would be leaving the store with the coveted 12-string or merely with what he had carried in. I examined the guitar, checking all the potential trouble spots before offering a fair trade-in value. He asked me to give him a moment and I left him alone. Mere seconds later, mental calculations made, he called me back over to announce, “I’ll take it!”
In the course of the transaction, I discovered that this gentleman only owned the one guitar he was trading in. He certainly didn’t follow the pattern of most of my customers, who have the mantra “You can’t have too many guitars” tattooed in indelible ink on their brains. Nevertheless, I took his only 6-string guitar and hung it on the rack, while he excitedly placed the beautiful 12-string in the case and carried it proudly out to his car.
Another satisfied customer…and I had a few dollars going into the bank, with a nice guitar on the rack to boot! Life was good! But, if memory serves, it wasn’t more than three weeks later that the fellow walked back into the store. “I want to buy my guitar back,” he said sheepishly. I was just too curious. “Did something happen to the 12-string?” He hesitated a moment. “Well…no. It’s just that I’m pretty tired of the sound of that guitar. No, not pretty tired…Very tired!” We worked out an equitable price for his old guitar and he headed out the door. I waited until he was in his car and leaving the parking lot to break out laughing. Of all the ridiculous situations! How do you fall in love with a guitar, only to fall out of love with it inside of three weeks?
As it happens, the very same thing that attracted him to the guitar in the first place was what drove him back to his first love. The shimmery, bright sound of the 12-string is amazingly enticing in small doses, but a steady diet quickly turns to annoyance, as the edgy, treble-y tones begin to grate on the nerves. I also wouldn’t discount the labor intensive task of tuning, either. Unison strings are notoriously difficult to match to each other, the octaves only slightly less demanding. I couldn’t count the number of times that 12-string guitars have been carried into the store, strung with only half of the strings.
The best 6-string acoustic guitars are wonderfully designed and executed works of art, whose beauty is not primarily in the aesthetic elements, but in the balanced, evenly projected tone quality. The bass strings provide the foundation necessary for full chords; the treble section doing its part to fulfill the melodic demands of the instrument. When played together, the blend is heavenly. Neither is overbearing, but both are essential partners in creating a pleasing musical experience. The 12-string guitar is an accent instrument, fulfilling a purpose, but not well-suited for continuous use. Too much of it and the listener is annoyed, rather than soothed.
What a picture of life! We hold in our hands the necessities, the essentials for satisfaction. But in the distance, the siren call of the exotic beckons. And, believing that we’ve found the answer to all of our seeking, we abandon the necessary, only to be sated all too soon by the rich taste of the desirable. Balance is a tricky thing. But it is absolutely essential to harmony and sanity. Just as in a good meal, where the quantity of the indispensable meat and vegetables far surpasses the small portion of dessert, life requires careful choices.
Just a reminder…I do have a couple of 12-string guitars to sell in my store, which I’d love to show to you any time. Just don’t bring your only 6-string in as a trade-in. I don’t want it.
“In everything, the middle course is best; all things in excess bring trouble to men.”
(Titus Maccius Plautus~Roman playwright~circa 254 BC-184 BC)
“Nothing, in excess.”
(Ancient Greek proverb)