Finding My 12-String Voice

| November, 2005

The 12-string electric bass guitar—or the 12’ver, as the fanatics on www.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, Dug 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 ’70s 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 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 ’90s, 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 voice? The same way you find out you’re in love: You just know.

About the Author
Tony Senatore is a busy New York City-area bassist, and a member of the Genya Ravan Band. His debut solo album, Holyland (reviewed March ’05), is available via his website: www.senny.com