Sometime around 1912, a young Huddie (“Leadbelly”) Ledbetter, who was traveling with an even younger Blind Lemon Jefferson, purchased a used Stella 12-string in a Dallas pawnshop after hearing one played by a musician in a medicine show.
The young guitarist took his new instrument to a party that very night. His description of his entrance at that party was also his challenge to the world: “ I put my foot on the doorstep and my finger on the strings and said, ‘Here’s Leadbelly.’”
Like many of the first 12-string players, Leadbelly played a Stella 12-string, which he tuned down to C. The lower pitch gave the guitar a rich, booming tone. Stellas were larger than the other 12-strings being made at the time, measuring 16 inches across the lower bout. The larger body also produced the louder volume that was so important in the pre-electric guitar world.
Lead Belly styled himself “King of the 12-string guitar,” and despite his use of other instruments like the concertina,
Leadbelly with Accordeon
the most enduring image of Lead Belly as a performer is wielding his unusually large Stella twelve-string.
This guitar had a slightly longer scale length than a standard guitar, slotted tuners, ladder bracing, and a trapeze-style tailpiece to resist bridge lifting.
Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum. This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly’s tuning is debatable, but appears to be a downtuned variant of standard tuning; more than likely he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the actual notes shifted as the strings wore.
For tuning the twelve string guitar -you can start here:
The twelve-string guitar is an acoustic or electric guitar with 12 strings in 6 courses, which produces a richer, more ringing tone than a standard six-string guitar. Essentially, it is a type of guitar with a natural chorus effect due to the subtle differences in the frequencies produced by each of the two strings on each course.
The strings are placed in courses of two strings each that are usually played together. The two strings in each bass course are normally tuned an octave apart, while each pair of strings in the treble courses, tuned in unison. The tuning of the second string in the third course (G) varies: some players use a unison string while others prefer the distinctive high-pitched, bell-like quality an octave string makes in this position. Some players, either in search of distinctive tone or for ease of playing, will remove some of the doubled strings. For example, removing the higher octave from the three bass courses simplifies playing running bass lines, but keeps the extra treble strings for the full strums.
Until recently, twelve-string guitars were nearly universally tuned lower than the traditional EADGBE, to reduce the stresses on the instrument. Lead Belly may have used a low C-tuning (See Julius Lester/Pete Seeger The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, Oak Publications, New York, 1965, 6).
For step by step instructions on tuning a 12 string guitar you should read How do I tune a 12 string guitar? You might also want to check out What are some good alternate tunings for a 12 string guitar?
LEAD BELLY: NO STRANGER TO THE BLUES
32 songs by Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) presented in note/tab with the complete lyrics, instructions on tuning and other background information. Songs include “Alabama Bound,” “Black Girl,”
Try this lesson on learning to play the twelve string guitar (one of a series by John Armstrong)