Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Baritone 12 String Guitar

             What a scary experience.  

     There I was, at the Trolley Stop Old Time Jam in Dayton, playing as best I could with my friends.  In the audience was  Dan Gellert, who is an absolutely terrific and highly respected professional musician, playing  fiddle, banjo and who-knows-how-many other instruments.  

This is Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert, who showed up spontaneously at the Trolley Stop in Dayton to give a concert before the normal jam, just to amuse themselves.  They are so talented that I'm terrified of both of these fellows. Photo credit:  http://twitter.com/katysteinmetz/status/213080359225655299/photo/1

     Well in the middle of a jam  song, up comes Dan on stage and places his ear right on my guitar!   OK Dan, you got me! I was ready to confess, that yeah, I really don't belong up here with the other people that are really good.  Don't call the cops, I'll go quietly...

    But instead Dan says, "Wow, that is really cool.  How do you have your guitar tuned?"

    I breathed a sigh of relief.  I wasn't going to be evicted after all.  "It's a baritone tuning, B E A D F# B .  Some of the Old Time guys used to use this tuning....Pete Seeger got it from Leadbelly..." and we wound up having a nice chat about weird guitar tunings.  Dan even sat in with us a little bit.  That is really something, after he had played with the legendary Ry Cooder, so I guess he doesn't mind playing with real people.   

 Now why would anyone want to tune their guitar so dadburn low? 

    I learned how to play in jams in Morgantown, mainly at the  Morgantown Brew Pub Wednesday Night Jam, and  Percival Pickers .  Often we would have around six or eight guitar players, so I wanted to be able to add something a little bit different than a boom-chuck boom chuck accompaniment. 

     The late Harry Lewman turned me on to the baritone 12 string in this great lecture on Leadbelly's guitar, which I previously linked in an article about Leadbelly elsewhere in this blog.  Others, notably Pete Seeger also picked up on the baritone 12 and adapted it for their own sound.
    Here is a clip of Pete Seeger playing a Martin baritone 12, accompanied by Arlo (Alice's Restaurant) Guthrie:

      You have to restring the instrument with heavier gauge strings, and there are some tricks to it.  Basically what I do is buy the D'Addario light gauge 12 strings,   Then I put the B strings where the E strings should have been at 1-2; the wound G string goes to 3, the .010 string goes to position 4; D strings go to 5-6, A strings go to 7-8, and E strings go to 9-10.  Then you have to buy heavier strings for 11-12, which are ordered online.  The net result is that the strings are B =.014/.014, F# = .023w/.010 D = .030w/.012, A = .039w/.018, E =  .047w/.027w B = .056w/.036w (next time I may bump up the bass B string a tad).  The tension will be about the same as with your "normal" guitar tuning, and your guitar will not implode as long as you buy a halfway decent guitar (Yamaha makes one of the best moderately priced 12 strings, but there are several really good ones out there).    Even though these strings are fatter than the normal strings, they are at lower tension, so the stress on the neck is no higher than the normal strings with the normal tuning.  The main issue is that the grooves in the nut may need to be widened to accommodate larger diameter strings.

     Tuning is a bit problematic because the low B string really wants to be longer.  As a result it plays sharp as you go up the neck. What I do is to press the string to the third fret (D), and use the Snark tuner to get that note right on, such that it plays a little flat in the open position and a little sharp further up the fretboard. You have to compromise, or else have a custom built guitar with a saddle that sits a bit farther back for the bass strings. 

   The chord positions are the same as the usual guitar, but of course you have to transpose 5 half steps in order to come to the  real world tuning.  

     But the real key is the playing style.  In my case, I am usually playing backup for some musicians that are at a much higher level than I am.  So I don't go crazy; i'm just trying to hit the right chord more often than not.  But every once in a while I substitute a Leadbelly progression in place of the standard Old Time or bluegrass  tag.  In the key of G, for example:

Standard:  GAB_BDEDG
Leadbelly:  GGBBDDEEG 

I try to be careful with it, and not overdo it.  In the baritone tuning it's easy to use this tag in the (real world) key of D, so our finger position is G.  For G as well as C,  a bass run can be a full octave lower than the other guitar players because they are starting on the 5th string, while we are on the 6th string. That can be kind of cool sometimes. 

The real sucky chord is F, which obliges us to use the finger position for b-flat.  However, one of the compensating advantages of the 12 string is that you can play two strings and it sounds okay because of the octave strings.  So I usually play 1st fret on the  5th string, and open on the 4th string.  So with this cheat, you can play the b-flat position (real-world F) with only one finger.  

Now that isn't so hard is it? 

To get an idea how the baritone 12 string can play off the "normal" 6 string, check out this clip from this movie about Leadbelly:   


      Be advised that the music is not authentic Leadbelly at all, and it's actually two white guys supplying the music.  In the movie, the young Leadbelly is played by Roger Mosely, but the guitar playing is from the very white Artie Traum.  As a young man, Leadbelly plays the 6 string guitar, but one day he meets an old master who teaches him a few things about the baritone 12 string.  The old guy, believe it or not, is Dick Rosmini, a white 12-string guitarist that they made up to look like an African American (sort of.  At least he's better than Al Jolson).   But if it's not the Leadbelly sound (other than the tuning)  it is very, very good music.  Dick Rosmini played an incredibly clean 12 string, as further evidenced by the following:


1 comment:

  1. You can get elderlys custom low tuning stringsets for 7 bucks on their website. They work great. Just sounds like an expensive hassle to string your guitar. Cool