David Crosby’s 12 String

David Crosby's 12-string
David Crosby’s 12-string

David Crosby’s 12 String

In 1970 my guitar workshop was in the basement of the Alembic headquarters on Judah Street in San Francisco. We had our PA and live 16 track recording gear upstairs along with Ron Wickersham’s electronics lab, and some space set aside for doing a little bit of in-house mixing and even some recording. The workshop was packed…we were even doing some speaker cabinet building down there, and Frank Fuller had moved over from an old-school guitar shop, Satterlee and Chapin, where I’d worked for about six months, to work with me. We were mostly modifying and repairing existing instruments…doing a lot of what would be now termed irreparable harm to vintage Gibsons, Fenders, and Guild basses, but we were “Alembicizing” them…making them better than new. We had an incredible clientele…the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Malo, and David Crosby among others. I was working on Phil Lesh’s “Godfather” bass making pickups for it, and I’d started on what became Alembic bass #001 for Jack Casady.
Crosby got wind of the alchemy we were brewing at the place, and he brought in an unfinished thin, hollow body 12 string. He’d somehow talked Gibson out of a “Crest” body…hollow, 335 shaped, outer ply of the arched top and back plus sides done in gorgeous Brazilian rosewood with a great solid Brazilian neck made by Bay Area lutherie legend Mario Martello. Ron and I were basically to put our overactive brains to work and turn this into the world’s best electric 12 string. David had the faith that we could do it; and we were riding the beginning of a long wave of inventiveness, willingness beyond eagerness, and I dare say ability to do exactly what David and the other musicians we were working with needed and wanted. In a funny way, it was like we were a part of all of their bands…we just didn’t appear on stage with them or play in the studio with them. But I knew that one of the things I had going was my several years as a professional musician, and a lot of that attitude went into designing tools for these new friends.
For the 12 string, I decided to wind a couple of Gibson humbucker sized true stereo humbuckers but make them wide range, low impedance types to match with a custom stereo on-board preamp done with all-discreet transistor circuitry. I put in a switching network that allowed for the true stereo output if David wanted that…it sends the three bass pairs of strings to one channel and the three top courses to the other. It can also switch to “normal” mono output with a volume control for each of the two pickups. I welded a kind of free-form sculpture bronze tailpiece, modified a TunaMatic bridge, inlaid the Alembic logo in the peghead in abalone shell, and then the most radical innovation was to install Monsanto MV-50 ultra miniature red LEDs in the binding in the side of the fingerboard. Bear in mind that this was in 1970; it was the earliest use of LED’s as position markers on any guitar, and fast forward to 2015…the LED’s still work after 45 years.
David loved the guitar, and after having it for a few weeks, he brought it back for some minor adjustments. It was in the shop for a couple of days, and then went back upstairs for David to pick up…and then the place was broken into with the only thing gone being David’s 12 string. Yes, we had an ADT silent alarm system. No, it didn’t go off. Why? Because another tenant had left the building and had ordered the alarm system turned off. ADT came to do that…and turned the wrong unit’s system off. We’d thought our place was fully armed every night, but it wasn’t. We were devastated, embarrassed, nervous, and pissed off, but the only thing we could do was to call David and give him the news. You may think of David Crosby as being “an excitable boy”, and that can be true, but he’s also a gentleman. He was righteously bummed out and let us know it, but he didn’t put it on us.
About two or three days later, I got a call from Bill Stapleton, then one of the owners of a small music store, Banana’s at Large, about five miles from our place. Bill said, “I have a really unusual 12 string here with your logo on the peghead. What’s the story?” Whew! That was the story! It turned out that a couple of guys had brought the guitar in to sell. Bill saw the logo and immediately put it behind the counter saying that he had to make a phone call. Bill’s description of the guys hastily leaving was something like “Oh, we have to go get ice cream for our mom…” No money changed hands, and we got back the guitar.
We knew that David was recording at Wally Heider’s (now Hyde St. Studios), and so we decided to return the guitar in person. Ron and maybe Bob Matthews and I went down to the studio well before the session, and with the help of the engineer, we staged the guitar in the studio room lit and staged like Tiffany window display. We sat back on the couch behind the console and waited for Cros to show which he did, kind of glum faced. The engineer (Stephen Barncard???) said, “Turn around, David, and look into the studio; the guys brought you something.” Crosby freaked out…joyously this time, and the guitar has remained one of his favorites now for 45 years. He generously brought it with him to the Fretboard Summit in the fall of 2015 and let me show it off and play it for a small audience of true guitar freaks.

15 thoughts on “David Crosby’s 12 String

  1. Great story …thanks for the details . I have held the guitar once .Special thanks to Jeff Pevar for making that possible. We’re you the person who changed the pickups over the years ? My view counts three different sets .Perhaps four . Do you remember what you did to the bridge ?


  2. Mark… What a wonderful story. They recently showed an advertisement of a guitar manufacturer finishing a build of a nice semi hollow body. A band is then shown smashing the same instrument. You repaired my Rick 360 6 string when I had been turned down by the Rickenbacker factory for a head stock repair. Those of us who love our instruments because it is a privilege to own them and the sound that comes from them and how they play love stories like this. Thanks for being the person and craftsman that you are.


  3. I remember that guitar being in the Cotati shop on Redwood Highway, around 1975 or so. It had the heaviest strings I’d ever seen on a 12 string, like bridge cables, but when I played it it also had the most incredible tone…


  4. Saw David playing what looked like that guitar about 2 years ago at this small theatre in like Montclair NJ. Mystery solved! Thanks.
    They were all great that night.


  5. Was there any reason that you did not install the Alembic Series 1 type P.U.s on the 12 string? Did they exist at the time? The original P.U.s, prior to the upgrade, looked like those on one of Lesh’s early Alembic basses. Why did he change them. Thanks


    1. Alembic Series 1 pickups did not exist in 1970, nor did they when I changed this one over from the single coil with passive dummy coils to the current pickups. The early 1970s was a time of great experimentation, and things changed very, very frequently as we came up with new ideas. We were extremely fortunate in having clients who willingly supported our R&D efforts. David has probably been my most consistent client in this regard.
      Note that these original pickups were the trapezoidal types like on the Pretzel guitar. I pretty quickly went over to the stereo, humbucker sized pickups on the 12 string. Why? A couple of reasons: they are self-humcanceling, and they allow the true stereo output.


  6. Good story Rick. Thanks. It brings back lots of good and several somewhat bizarre memories of my days as a hanger-outer there on Brady Street with you, Phil Quinn and the crew there . Thanks to you and George Mundy I got to test drive some very cool rides back then.


  7. Hey RIck, I’m curious where you ran the power to the fret-marker LEDs! Were you able to take the truss rod out, and fit it back in with a thin wire next to it, or did you route a slender channel in the back of the neck? Man, that would make me nervous! Great story about a great guitar, I’d sure love to read (and would happily buy) your book when you publish one.


      1. You guys did incredible work from the very beginning. I even heard about you guys in Nashville!www.neelyguitars.com


      2. No. The neck was not made by Gibson, it was made by Mario Martello, a great Northern California luthier who is now long gone. And by the time the body was made at Gibson they were no longer using hide glue. I peeled off the binding that Mario had put on, and routed the channel for the LEDs and wires.


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