The Creation of the 12-String Bass

The viola da mano, also known as the Spanish vihuela
Detail from a Madonna Enthroned altarpiece by Girolamo dai Libri, Italian painter, ca. 1520

The first 12-string bass, the Hamer Quad, was built by Hamer Guitars in 1978. Tom Petersson was the first bassist to play the 12. For the past 30 years Petersson has also been regarded as the inventor of the instrument. For a number of years Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen has introduced Petersson as, “The inventor of the 12-string bass”. In the video interview included as part of Cheap Trick’s “Music For Hangovers” DVD in 2000 Petersson stated, “I came up with the idea for the 12-string bass because I just wanted a huge sound...” In 2006 Bass Player magazine featured Petersson holding a 12-string bass on its cover with the caption, “Why He Invented It”.

With the Cheap Trick organization and others giving credit for the invention of the 12-string bass to Petersson, to what extent is this actually true? Has the entire story been told? And after 30 years, should we even be posing questions such as these?

We think Tom Petersson's claim that he is the inventor of the 12-string bass is incorrect, for several reasons.

“Inventor” can be a troublesome word. What qualifies as an invention? Exactly how does one invent something? When is an invention created? Who should be considered to be the inventor of a product? And why is it so important to correctly identify someone as the inventor?

The last question is perhaps the easiest to answer. The reason it is important to properly identify the true creator of a product is so they receive the credit that is due them. This credit can potentially take the forms of public and peer recognition, financial compensation, patent protection, career advancement, a sense of personal achievement or simple bragging rights. Also, the word inventor carries with it more status and 'weight' than terms such as designer, builder or many others.

Throughout history there have been countless disputes about who invented various things. These conflicts are inevitable for a variety of reasons: People working independently on the same problem have been known to arrive at similar resolutions at almost exactly the same time; Similar items have been invented years apart by inventors who had no knowledge of what their competition was doing, and each thought the original idea was theirs; People working as part of a team have differing opinions as to the level of their personal contributions; And continuous improvements or changes to existing products lead to derivative products that may or may not be significantly different than the original items.

For the past 30 years it has primarily been Cheap Trick and Tom Petersson himself who have plugged Tom as the inventor of the 12-string bass. Almost every other source that has made this claim on Tom’s behalf has received their information either directly or indirectly from Cheap Trick in the form of interviews, press releases or from music promotion web sites.

What part did Petersson actually play in the invention process?

The Oxford American Dictionary defines the verb “invent” as; “1. To create by thought, to make or design (something that did not exist before). 2. To construct (a false or fictional story), invented an excuse.” “Inventor” is the form of this word when used as a noun.

The first part of the definition of the word “invent” is, “To create by thought something that did not exist before.” Was Tom Petersson the first person to conceive of the 12-string bass? And if so, how is it possible to know this with any certainty? On a planet inhabited by several billion people, for most things it is impossible to know if any one person is the first to have any particular idea. It is prudent to be cautious of people who state, “This is my original concept” or “My style is unique” because they are trying to convince you that not only do they know what everyone else on the planet is thinking, but also that they have ultimate knowledge of what everyone else is doing.

Within the relatively narrow context of electric bass guitars, Petersson’s claim is still impossible to prove. When Hagstrom started building 8-string basses in 1967, it is likely that there was someone at Hagstrom Guitars who wondered, “If we can double the strings, why not triple them?” Or perhaps a bassist who played the Hagstrom 8 was first to ask the triple-string question. Ten years elapsed between the appearance of the Hagstrom 8-string bass and Petersson’s meeting with Jol Dantzig of Hamer Guitars; this is certainly enough time for someone to have asked the right question. Is it likely that the three-course arrangement went unrecognized over these ten years? There is just no way to prove who first thought of incorporating tripled strings on a bass guitar.

The next part of the definition of “invent” is, “To make something that did not exist before.” Jol Dantzig built the first 12-string bass. Using only this part of the definition, it was Dantzig who invented the 12. This is in direct conflict with those who claim that since Tom was the first to have a 12-string bass built, then Tom must have invented it.

Dantzig was concerned that there would be too much tension on the neck so a 10-string bass was built first to test the concept. When that proved successful Dantzig proceeded to build the first Hamer Quad 12-string bass. It is important to note that since the 12-string bass design was as yet untested, Dantzig had to determine how to fabricate the required parts and make them work together. Jol Dantzig: “We figured out how to do it and then built it. Hamer then went on to market and build them in limited numbers over the years as Tom continued to promote and play them.”

Petersson and Dantzig were not the only people involved in the making of the first 12-string bass. Many new parts were required from other people in order for Petersson’s idea to come to fruition. Rex Bogue supplied the quadraphonic electronics. Bogue was building a preamp that he called “Balz Deluxe”. This preamp was modified for bass, set up with four channels with switches to adjust the bass and treble frequencies, and each channel had a separate output so that four different amps could be used. The Seymour Duncan Company supplied the pickups. Hamer often uses Seymour Duncan pickups for special projects since SD will do custom work. Neither the electronics nor the pickups existed in these forms prior to being incorporated into the first 12-string bass.

During the period when Petersson was playing Hamer 12-string basses he would give some credit to Dantzig in discussions about the origins of the 12. After more than a decade of playing Hamer 12’s Petersson changed brands. Once this change was made not only was Dantzig no longer mentioned, but also the quality of Hamer 12-string basses was vilified by Petersson.

No patent was ever issued to Petersson or anyone else regarding the creation of the 12-string bass.

The only piece of the definition of “invent” that is left to consider is, “To design something that did not exist before.” Petersson was the first to approach Jol Dantzig with the design for an instrument based upon the Hagstrom 8-string bass. Jol Dantzig states, “It was certainly Tom's idea to build it. Like most things in life, how to categorize everyone's contributions is open to interpretation but ultimately impossible to quantify. The three-course concept is as old as the Colombian tiple which was strung the same way, so it's not a matter of ‘inventing’ anything in my opinion. I assumed at the time that Tom was aware of the tiple too. Tom came to us with a Hagstrom 8-string and wished us to make one similar but using the three-course arrangement.”

Does adding an additional four octave strings to a Hagstrom 8-string bass qualify as invention? By definition, to qualify as an invention an item must not have previously existed. Does the 12-string bass qualify as an invention in its own right? There are hundreds of different stringed instruments currently extant and many others that are known to have existed but that have disappeared over the course of time. The instrument most similar to the 12-string bass is the one to which Dantzig refers, the Colombian tiple.

The Colombian Tiple

First appearing in the mountainous Andean region of Colombia, the Colombian tiple is regarded as Colombia’s national instrument. It is slightly smaller than the standard acoustic guitar. While the Colombian tiple is relatively unknown in the United States, it is much more commonly encountered in Latin America.

Francisco “Pacho” Benavides Caro – Master of the Colombian tiple

The Colombian tiple evolved from the Spanish vihuela which was transported to Latin America during the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. The vihuela is also known as the viola da mano; it is shown in the image at the beginning of this article. The Spanish vihuela incorporated 12 strings set up as six double-pairs (paired courses), similar to the baja sexto baritone guitar. The vihuela is considered by some music historians to be a primitive ancestor of the modern classical guitar.

The Colombian tiple has existed in its current form since the late 19th century. It has four groups of three strings each which are tuned the same as the highest four strings on a standard guitar, D-G-B-E. The E strings are all tuned in unison, while the center string in each of the other three courses is tuned one octave down. Typically steel strings are used except for the three strings in the lower octave; these have been reported to be copper strings but very possibly are bronze.

Close-up of the Colombian tiple

 A chart comparing the tiple to the 12-string bass shows the similarities between these two instruments. For our purposes “Bass String” is used to denote tiple strings lowered one octave as well as the fundamental strings on the 12. As far as the string voicings are concerned, the D and G groups are identical for each instrument, meaning that half of the strings on a 12-string bass are exactly the same as half of those found on the tiple.

Colombian tiple

      D G B E
Guitar Strings     2 2 2 3
Bass String     1 1 1  
Guitar Strings 2 2 2 2    
Bass String 1 1 1 1    
  E A D G    

12-string bass

While the courses are a bit different, practically speaking the 12-string bass is simply a Colombian tiple that utilizes a lower tuning and slightly different string arrangement. Does dropping the tuning of an existing configuration qualify as invention?

The Martin Tiple

The tiple also exists in a 10-string version. It is referred to as either the American tiple or more commonly the Martin tiple after its builder, the C.F. Martin Company of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. First built in 1922, the Martin tiple is about the size of a ukulele. Martin made a variety of different models of 10-string tiples until at least well into the 1970’s. It was still available as a special order item for years after it was retired from the standard product line.


The Martin tiple is tuned a fifth above the corresponding guitar strings, just like a ukulele. The two outer string courses are doubled with the two inner courses being tripled. Similarly to the Colombian tiple, the B strings are tuned in unison while the other courses have one string that is lowered one octave. In the three-string courses it is the center string that is tuned an octave lower. High strings are unwound while the three lowered octave strings are bronze wound.

Martin tiple

  A D F# B
High Strings 1 2 2 2
Low Octave String 1 1 1  

On the “Silver” live concert DVD released by Cheap Trick in 2001, Robin Zander’s son Ian plays a Martin 10-string tiple. During the show Rick Nielsen referred to this instrument as, “the world’s smallest 12-string bass”. Robin Zander is also credited as playing a tiple on the eponymous "Cheap Trick" album that was released in 1997. It is unknown which type of tiple he used.

Several other varieties of tiples exist although these other forms do not include doubled or tripled strings.

Where did Petersson get the idea to add four more strings to the Hagstrom 8-string bass? Tom has on many occasions publicly discussed why he designed the 12-string bass (i.e., to get a bigger sound), but to our knowledge he has never once fully discussed how he came up with the three-course arrangement. When asked how he came up with the idea for the 12-string bass in his 2006 interview in Bass Player magazine, Petersson answered that before Cheap Trick was formed he attempted to get a bigger sound by running a Fender 12-string guitar through an octave divider, but the attempt was unsuccessful because the octave divider wouldn't properly track the notes being played. Since Fender 12-string guitars are strung with double courses, this attempt would certainly explain why he began playing 8-string basses but does not address the three-course issue at all.

While it is still a matter of conjecture as to where Petersson first learned about the three-course arrangement, the most likely source for this information had to have been Rick Nielsen. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Rick Nielsen’s father Ralph owned a music store in Rockford, Illinois called Music City (which was later renamed The Music Box). Ralph was a traveling musician and had performed all over the world. His store carried a wide variety of new and used acoustic and electric instruments and amplifiers, including instruments and brands not commonly found in most stores. Connected to the store was a small section in which Ralph’s wife Marilyn sold mostly gifts and music boxes, plus there was another section that Jim Angell ran in which he sold pianos. In their younger days before the store, Ralph Nielsen and Jim Angell had played together in a group called “The Serenaders”. Rick frequently worked at the store and had a small recording studio there.

While researching this article we were able to confirm that tiples were sold at Music City. This information comes from Jim Nolting, a Rockford guitarist who frequented the store and occasionally worked there. Nolting writes, “I used to move Angell's pianos. Angell opened his own store about a block away and Nielsen took over his space. I remember seeing an early Cheap Trick PA in there that they only used for a short time because it wasn't loud enough, it was for sale. I saw the first Cheap Trick rehearsal with Zander in the basement of Nielsen's store. I remember Zander making a joke about how his (ahem) was bigger than Xeno's. I also remember them playing 'All Right Now' by Free, and when they finished Carlos was scolding Rick for not singing backup, saying something like, ‘If you're going to sing backup live, do it at practice’."

Nolting owned a tiple; he had bought it second-hand and it was broken. He took it to Nielsen’s store to see if Ralph knew what kind of instrument it was. Jim Nolting: “Ralph responded with a joke: ‘That is a tiple and the Salvation Army plays those, and then when they are done for the night they will tiple one back.’ Then Ralph smiled at me.” Nolting reports that Nielsen’s store had “several” tiples in stock from time to time.

10-string bass built for Petersson and the first Hamer mandocello,
built at the same time for Nielsen - 1977

Rick Nielsen is credited along with Petersson in the development of the Hamer B12A 12-string bass in 1979. Did Nielsen’s involvement with the 12 actually begin much earlier? In addition to creating guitars of unconventional designs, Nielsen has a history of introducing unusual instruments into rock music, most notably the mandocello. The mandocello had a long history of being used in Salvation Army string bands, a fact which Nielsen has discussed on many occasions. Brad Carlson, known to Cheap Trick fans as drummer Bun E. Carlos, had strong ties to the Salvation Army; he and his parents were huge supporters of the Salvation Army for many years. Both the Nielsen and Carlson families had extensive knowledge of and experience with vintage stringed instruments such as the mandocello and tiple.

It seems logical that Nielsen could move from a two-course instrument like the mandocello to a three-course bass guitar. Petersson was most likely introduced to the three-course arrangement either during time he spent at Music City or directly from Rick Nielsen himself.

Questions surrounding the invention of the 12-string bass have been circulating for a considerable period of time. It has been our intention through this article to present the facts of this issue as accurately as possible in order to settle the outstanding questions before more information is lost. Over a period of 30 years memories can fade, details can be forgotten and stories can change. This is due to the natural flow of time and not to any underhanded intent. When we asked for his recollections Jol Dantzig told us, “I rarely think about this sort of stuff, but as time goes on, people get curious in direct proportion to the deterioration of our memories.”

An article published in Hamer Tone in 1992 gives a different perspective on the chain of events leading up to the first 12-string bass: “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.” (Read the entire Hamer Tone article.)

The Hamer Tone article suggests that the initial purpose of the meeting was not to build a 12-string bass at all but actually to design a better quality 8-string bass, and that the idea for the 12 was not fully formed until after a period of brainstorming between the two men. Further evidence of this emerged in 2001 as Dantzig recalled, "We went ahead with the 12-string bass and we wanted to make it stereo; Tom asked if we could make it quadraphonic and we said sure. We asked Seymour Duncan to build a pickup with four outputs and we built a control box on the top portion of the body like a little mixing console / board. When we were designing it Tom would say 'Can I have a volume control for each pickup?' and we would say 'Sure, how about a tone control for each one too?' Then Tom would say 'OK, but can you make it so I can pan them?' and 'How about we put a little mixing board on it?' The crazier we could make it, the more outrageous the better!"

Over three years ago when we published our original interview with Tom Petersson we referred to Tom as the “Architect” of the 12-string bass. An architect draws up plans for a building but doesn’t actually build it. We still consider this term to be accurate, as do others. Dantzig writes, “’Architect’ is about as close a term as I'd feel comfortable with. It takes a team of people to do most anything; none of us did this on our own. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and so was Tom.”

While Petersson was the first to approach Hamer Guitars about building what became the 12-string bass, the creation of the instrument was not the inspiration or work of any one person. The design of the instrument is very similar to the Colombian tiple which has been in existence for over a century, as well as to the Hagstrom 8-string bass. At least four people were intimately involved in the creation of the 12; Tom Petersson got the ball rolling, Jol Dantzig figured out the mechanics and actually built it, Rex Bogue supplied the quadraphonic electronics and the Seymour Duncan Company fabricated the new pickups. It is also possible that Rick Nielsen directly contributed to the initial inspiration.

The creation of the 12-string bass was an evolutionary process that does not qualify the instrument as an invention. This process combined design elements from several different instruments plus it required the talents and skills of several different people to become a reality. Without all of these different factors and people, the 12 certainly would not have evolved as it did. Consequently we do not believe it is appropriate to designate any one person as the inventor of the 12-string bass.

Tom Petersson was unquestionably the first bassist to play a 12-string bass. And that’s good enough for us.

Editor's Note: Prior to publication, the link to this article was forwarded to Tom Petersson via Cheap Trick's road manager, Carla Dragotti, as at that time the band was preparing to perform in Japan. We gave Tom the opportunity to comment and offered to include his remarks. No response has thus far been received.