There are many controversies regarding the history of the twelve-string guitar. The first theory says that it has been developed by Italian luthiers who work in the guitar workshops of companies such as Oscar Schmidt, Harmony and Regal in New York and Chicago. It is corroborated by the fact that one of the famous twelve-string guitars has a strong Italian connection. According to the other theory, it is stated that it came to the US from Mexico, as Latin America has a long history of double-row variants of the standard six-string guitars.
Regardless of who invented the twelve-string guitar, it is considered as one of the novel instruments ever invented. Aside from the occasional custom-made 12-string guitars, top manufacturers such as Martin and Gibson are considering making these 12-string guitars for low-end builders. This is clearly an indication that their buyers were from the poorer end of the social class.
The popularity of the twelve-string guitar dates back to the earliest recordings, where it was used by blues musicians in Georgia and by Mexican Texan musicians in Texas. It seems that the first musicians to take up 12-string guitars were street performers. The extra volume added by the double strings increased the popularity of these guitars. The volume is said to be so intense that a busker could work without other musicians and still ensure a rich and full sound.
The twelve-string guitar gained immense popularity when it was first exploited by one of the best players, Atlanta guitarist Blind Willie McTell. McTell was a recognized and accomplished guitarist of his day. Atlanta is the hub of Piedmont blues, a ragtime-based style of guitar that requires a complex finger touch and bass to invest in this type of music. And that’s how the use of the 12-string guitar gained momentum.
The 12-string guitar also became popular after “Leadbelly”. Hudy William Ledbetter was an American blues and folk musician. He was known as the king of the twelve-string guitar, famous for his clear and forceful singing and his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. It is better known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. Leadbelly’s theme covers a wide range of topics, including gospel songs, blues songs about women, liquor, and racism. It also includes songs about cowboys, prison, workers, sailors, and many more. This is how the 12-string guitar became popular in a big way.
After Leadbelly, even the use of the twelve-string guitar dropped dramatically. It was as if the musicians expressed their mourning by refraining from playing the instrument. Some guitarists like Dick Rosmini, Fred Gerlach, and Pete Seeger kept the twelve-string tradition alive.
And soon the use of the banjo outnumbered the use of the 12-string guitar, but in 1963 a record came out that knocked the banjo out of its place. It was a Pete Seeger record called “Let’s Win” and the musician used the power of the 12 strings and novelty to get people’s attention while selling songs of justice and freedom. The extra volume and full sound of the twelve-string guitar made it perfect for leading and were an important part of the civil rights movement.