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.