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My Bass is a 12-String
Originally published in the UK in Bassist magazine, June 1999 issue
Submitted by Ian E.
"Oddball gimmickry or sublime innovation? Ian's bass has the power to turn heads and rearrange internal organs..."
Most novice players buy copies of their favorite players' instruments. I started off buying a cheapish Avon copy of Jim Lea's souped-up Gibson basses, and later on an excellent Aria ZZB, an Explorer-shaped imitation of John Entwistle's mighty Alembic. Both of these still give loyal service after around twenty years, by the way.
As a Cheap Trick fan of many years, I was naturally greatly impressed by Tom Petersson's sound (and also his excellent but rarely mentioned replacement Jon Brant). I searched high and low for an 8-string of any make (including an abortive trip to Edinburgh to try a slightly derelict Washburn) all to no avail. Much later I talked to a guy in a local band who owned a Hamer guitar and regarded himself as a bit of a rocket scientist when it came to guitars. He mentioned an 8 or 12-string on sale in Manchester. I finished work early the next day to go bass hunting.
There it was, hanging innocently on the wall, its headstock covered in glittering machine heads. It was new, red, beautiful, and scarily expensive. The shop staff regarded it as an oddball gimmick. No one could get their head round it, as it takes time and effort to adjust your playing style to the different fingering and playing styles it imposes. I tried the Hamer through a rig similar to the one I use on stage - two Trace Elliot 715s wired parallel. Once I'd decided they could handle its output, I went home to think seriously about parting with such a lot of money. I agonized over the cost with a couple of friends who advised me to grit my teeth and buy it as I would probably spend several years kicking myself. So I went back the next morning and returned significantly poorer but happier.
That night my old band was working (in Rochdale, rock 'n' roll capital of the universe) and I took the bass with me. When I got it out from behind my rig and plugged it in, the reaction was unbelievable - dropped jaws and stares, and its been the same ever since. Once I had worked out how to compensate for the extra boom and clang and overtones that it gives off, it became a regular fixture in the menagerie of basses I take on stage (at least four), and I found a couple of songs to feature it on.
The sound of the Hamer is quite unbelievable. The strings are grouped in threes. The thickest being the lower of each three when hitting a down stroke. The thinner strings are tuned an octave higher to it 'that' sound. The active circuitry makes it louder too. Every harmonic I hit comes loud and very clear and in triplicate. With such an odd string arrangement, the player has to work harder to hold down all three strings at once. This is not the easiest thing to use for ultra-fast riffs, but it gets easier with practice. I have to use a pick, and slaps and pulls are out of the question!
The Hamer is slightly neck heavy. It's obvious why when you look at the headstock! The machine heads are in stepped order to avoid confusion, and fortunately, they are extremely stable. There are two truss rods to stop those dreaded banana impressions and, despite the tension on the neck, the action is lower than on most quality 4-strings I've bought. The general weight is a bit on the heavy side, but I don't use it all the way through the set, so I can cope!
If the guitarist's signal packs up, I am putting out a good enough wall of sound to fill the gap. My old drummer used to whine endlessly about the boom and volume. He asked me not to use the Hamer because the deep bass was on the verge of giving him mental problems. He decided I should put Tippex on the custom knurled knobs so I could see when I stepped the volume down! The very last time I played with him, I used the Hamer for two solid hours - on every song!
My one and only gripe is that the Gs don't come out as loud and clear as the others. A guitar tech has suggested to me that it may have guitar pick-ups rather than bass pick-ups. If this were the case, I would be appalled at such a mistake on a bass of this quality and cost. A suggested solution is to replace the EMG's with a pair of Bartolini's, but this would be butchery in my humble opinion.
To sum up, this is a dream of a bass to play. The sound I get from it is like nothing else. Other players just gawp at it. It's brightened up several deadly dull jam nights too! I would love to find the matching 4-string version to accompany this. It is a seriously sexy bass and, sorry, it is definitely not for sale!
If you ever see one of these basses, whether it's a 4, 8 or even 12-string, try it out and persevere with it a while. There's nothing like them. Thank you Tom Petersson for starting the ball rolling.
A Sleeping Giant Awakens:
Like many good ideas it seemed a little crazy at first, but the creation of the 12-string bass turned out to be one of Hamer's largest contributions to music. The evolution of the 12-string bass is, like the history of Hamer Guitars, an interesting one. And it has only just begun. Recently, interest in this Hamer innovation has reached new proportions, with bassists lending the sound of the "pocket piano" to all types of music.
The 12-string bass was conceived in 1977 through one of those conversations where possibilities are stretched to ridiculous degrees. Blame it on Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick and Jol Dantzig of Hamer. Petersson had somehow acquired a Hagstrom 8-string bass, which was kind of a bass version of the 12-string guitar. It had four bass strings and four octave strings. "Tom and I were talking about what a great concept this bass was, if only it could stay in tune!" says Dantzig. "The thing never worked," adds Petersson, "You couldn't get past the fifth fret.... it was horrible."
Petersson wanted Hamer to build a professional quality instrument to replace the Hagstrom. As the conversation went on it turned into a kind of one-upmanship. 'Well why not make a 10-string bass?', 'Why not a 20-string bass while we're at it?' "You would have to understand Tom's sense of humor and the way we were at that time," says Dantzig. "Everything was a joke; we didn't take anything seriously."
Eventually they settled on the idea of tripling each string. Unsure of whether or not the neck would be able to bear the additional tension, they decided to experiment first with a 10-string version, doubling the E and A strings while tripling the D and G strings. The neck handled the tension without a problem so work proceeded immediately with the 12-string. The basic design was the same as the 10-string, except for the tripling of the E and the A. This design, conceived over a decade ago, remains the trademark look of the 12-string bass: 30½" scale, double cut-away body shape, and the "split V" peg head.
The 12-string is set up like a normal bass but instead of having four strings, it has four groups of strings. It's played exactly like a conventional 4-string bass, and bassists are amazed at how easily it is to play. For every note you finger you play three notes at once, one bass note and two notes an octave above. Three and four note chords quickly turn into nine and twelve notes.
Putting It to Use
Originally, Petersson used the 12-string bass to supplement Cheap Trick's live sound. When singer Robin Zander put his guitar away for a song they were essentially brought down to a three piece band. Petersson would play the 12-string bass in such a way that he could double as a second guitarist. Playing bass and rhythm guitar simultaneously, Petersson was able to fill any gaps in the sound.
When Zander did play guitar in the set the band's sound would take on an orchestral dimension, as if they had three guitarists and a bass player. "It gives another guitar sound to the whole thing," says Petersson, "another guitar playing the riff along with you."
The distinctive tone makes the 12-string ideal for recording, and it can be used to play the melodic hook of a song. Doug Pinnick of King's X uses it in both the melodic sense and for rhythmic purposes similar to Tom Petersson. Pinnick uses the 12-string bass to achieve a roaring, distorted sound as well as for the melodic, lyrical bass line.
Another example is Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue who used the 12-string bass on Dr. Feelgood for overdubs on certain parts. When a very distinct sound is needed, this bass is ideal because its timbre is like no other instrument.
"I think most people who have gotten into the 12-string," says Dantzig, "heard Cheap Trick, liked the sound, and wanted to get that sound for themselves. Then they bring their own sensibilities to the instrument, creating new sounds." Because it started with Cheap Trick, they remain the reference point. Usually the first thing someone does when they get their hands on one is imitate Petersson. From there they go on to find their own potential.
Although many years have elapsed since its creation, the potential of the 12-string has barely been explored. It's an untapped sonic possibility. One can play all the strings, accent the bass strings or just play the octave strings, depending on how it's picked. "With the emergence of all these great bass players," muses Dantzig, "I think some really cool things could come out of this instrument. It is just a matter of more players getting their hands on one in order to ear the possibilities that are available," he continues. "I'm interested to see what comes back in terms of new sounds."
The distinctive tone of the 12-string bass adds a new dimension to bass playing. The sound is not merely a subtle change detected only by virtuoso bass players - this is a hit-you-over-the-head unique sound. When you hear it, you know it's a 12-string bass. Because the tonal possibilities are so dramatically different, bass players are given a wider array of colors to paint with. It's another possibility - a way to make a statement.
Looking Into the Future
The future of the 12-string bass is wide open. From the development standpoint, it is still evolving. Hamer is continually prototyping new variations, tailoring the electronics and working with different woods and different composite materials, like graphite, to enhance the tonal possibilities.
Hamer is also collaborating with Tom Petersson and Doug Pinnick to update the design and keep it moving ahead. It seems that Dantzig and Petersson's crazy idea is here to stay.
Finding My 12-String Voice
By Tony Senatore
Copyright 2005 CMP Information, Inc.
Reprinted from the December 2005 issue of Bass Player - Reprinted with permission of Bass Player
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The 12-string electric bass guitar - or the 12'ver, as the fanatics onwww.12stringbass.net call it - has been around since about 1978. Conceived by Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson and first built by Hamer Guitars, the 12 was a radical and revolutionary instrument. Picture a standard 4-string bass with two guitar strings next to each bass string, the lighter strings tuned one octave above the bass strings. What does it sound like? Kind of like a Steinway grand piano being played with a sledgehammer, through a Marshall stack. Some really cool guys play them, like Petersson, Doug Pinnick, and Jeff Ament - the type of players who'd feel that recording a bass by plugging direct into a console, without an amplifier, is sacrilegious.
In the late 70's I was your typical, directionless high school student and an entry-level bassist. I had planned to study music in college, but my decision to study on my own was perhaps the No. 1 factor in helping me find my voice. The streets and bars of New York City became my campus, and my professors were my heroes - players like Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Mars Cowling and James Jamerson. I ended up logging far too much time in a generic hair band from New Jersey. Our show included a ten-minute display of slapping, tapping, and Paganini licks by yours truly, through a bass rig that was far too big. Deep down, I knew in my heart that it was all a bunch of bullshit. I had no voice of my own. Everything that emerged from my fingers had all been done before; I was just doing it with half a can of Aqua Net in my hair, and some really bad Spandex. The lesson was clear: Always resist the temptation to steal a voice. It will leave you cold and unfulfilled.
With the advent of grunge music in the early '90's, I was born again. I was inspired by the freshness and originality of the amazing bands that caught my ear and made me rethink my entire approach to music and life in general. I shaved off that mane that was clouding my musical vision, and concentrated on just being me for a change.
I purchased my first 12-string bass in 1994. From the moment I took it out of the case, something took hold of me that was incredibly powerful. I was mesmerized by the otherworldly 12-string tone, and it became clear that this new tool would allow me to express myself the way I'd always wanted to. I began coming up with techniques and concepts that, for me, were unique and different. Most 12-string players use a pick; my decision to play it with my fingers opened up even more possibilities. I immediately detuned my three E strings to D, and I worked hard at playing entire melodies on one string - all while keeping the open D strings resonating. Being a groove player all my life, the 12-string forced my bass playing to be considerably more melodic and lyrical. Best of all, the instrument's very nature prohibits playing fast. For the first time in 25 years, I felt like I was creating something original; the inspiration just kept flowing. My playing was like the ocean: Every wave a new idea. Finally, after six years of work, I embarked on my first solo project as a leader, hoping to create a shining example of the sonic possibilities of the 12'ver.
Can the 12-string bass help you find your own voice? Give it a fair trial and see for yourself. It's really not as difficult to play as it may seem, and words can't describe the magical quality it possesses. Whatever bass instrument you choose, strive to transform the experience of living your life - both the joy and the pain - into your music, and you'll be well on your way to self-expression. How will you know when you have finally found your own voice? The same way you find out you're in love: You just know.
Originally published in Bass Guitar Magazine in the UK, July / August issue in 2008