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In the early 1960s, there was a clamor to capture the jangly, bright and unique sound produced by a relatively new invention; the electric twelve string guitar. Acoustic twelve string guitars were heard accompanying folk and blues music in the 1920s and 1930s, but were seen as little more than novelties until the early 1960s, when George Harrison put his brand new twelve string Rickenbacker 360/12 to good use. George was given one of the first two prototypes made by Rickenbacker, and was immediately taken with the new tones he was able to achieve. He was given the guitar in February of 1964 in New York City, a day before their legendary performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Harrison’s new guitar was immediately put to use in the studio, laying out the legendary opening of “A Hard Day’s Night,” and often following this smash hit.
This meteoric popularity caught Fender by surprise, and they quickly began planning their own design to compete with the likes of Rickenbacker and others. Using the offset designs of the Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Mustang as a baseline, a new headstock design was needed to accommodate six extra strings. The resulting headstock came to be referred to as the “hockey stick” headstock; a clunky departure from the sleek lines and curves the company was known for.
The Electric XII featured two split single coil pickups, a single volume and tone control, and a four-way rotary switch. This switch allowed the player to use either each pickup by itself, both pickups together, or both pickups together but out of phase. Where the Electric XII really stands out lies with it’s unique bridge design. While many other twelve string electric guitars had just six saddles for twelve strings, Fender had a slightly different approach. As one of Leo Fender’s last designs with the company he started, the bridge features twelve individual saddles to perfect the instrument’s intonation. The string through body design also helped enhance the overall sound and sustain, since many others were stringed through a top mounted tailpiece.
By the summer of 1965, The Byrds were dominating the charts with their hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and were scheduled to appear on several television variety shows to promote it, thanks to their record label CBS. Coincidentally, CBS had also just purchased Fender, and had Gene Clark play a Firemist Gold Electric XII opposite to Jim McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 360/12 on The Byrd’s second television appearance on Hullabaloo in May of 1965. When the Fender Electric XII was released in June of 1965, the standard sunburst finish with white pearloid pickguard was offered for $349.50. Soon after it’s initial release, a faux tortoise shell pickguard replaced the white pearloid guard, and later in the same year white binding was added to the fretboard. Many Electric XIIs featured pearl dot inlays, besides a small amount of them featuring block position markers. In an effort to boost sales, a fair percentage of guitars were finished in an array of custom colors in the first few years to have a guitar for anyone’s taste.
The Electric XII quickly became a studio favorite, with the likes of the Beach Boys, Pete Townshend, and Bob Dylan relying on the Electric XII, and even Elvis Presley was seen sporting a 1966 Electric XII in Lake Placid Blue. Arguably the most famous recording of an Electric XII is featured on Led Zeppelin’s legendary epic, “Stairway to Heaven,” recorded in late 1970, and released in 1971. Jimmy Page opted to use his sunburst 1965 Fender Electric XII to capture the mystical, shimmering tone featured on the track.
Despite the popularity in the studio, musicians were not seen playing Electric XIIs on stage, which starved the model of the star power needed to sell them. By the end of the decade, popularity of the twelve string and its unique sound was waning, and in 1969 into 1970 the Electric XII was scrapped from the Fender line up entirely. After the Electric XII, the Coronado XII was the only twelve string Fender offered until the end of 1970. Twelve strings would be unavailable from Fender until nearly 20 years later; when the Japanese-made Strat XII was introduced.
The Fender Electric XII was certainly one of the last remaining bastion of the Golden Age of Fender guitars, and endures as one of the most comfortable, ergonomic and well-pitched twelve strings ever available on the market.
Babiuk, Andy, et al. Beatles Gear : All the Fab Four’s Instruments from Stage to Studio. Montclair, Nj, Backbeat Books, 2015.
Kelly, Martin, et al. Fender : The Golden Age. London, Cassell Illustrated, 2011.
Owens, Jeff. “Ring True: A History of Fender 12-String Electric Guitars.” www.fender.com, www.fender.com/articles/gear/ring-true-a-history-of-fender-12-string-electric-guitars.