A Sleeping Giant Awakens: The 12-String Bass Story

Originally published in Hamer Tone magazine, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1992

Reprinted with permission of Jol Dantzig

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-up-man-ship. '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.

12-String Possibilities

"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.

hamer tone magazine

Hamer published Hamer Tone from 1992 to 1996. There were four volumes printed with three issues per volume. Content includes interviews with endorsing artists, new product reviews and concert photos of Hamer guitars in action.

Hamer Tone was resurrected in an online version named ‘The Hamer Tone’ between 2003 and 2007. Most editions included a single web page with only short paragraphs of special events or new guitar models.