J12SO! Pete Seeger

One man’s words on…

Martin J12SO! Sing Out 60th Anniversary Model – Pete Seeger

Used Market Price: $2,700

The new Martin J12SO! is a 12-string baritone guitar that honors two major milestones, the 60th Anniversary of Sing Out! Magazine, along with one of its most-storied subjects, the living milestone that is folk music legend Pete Seeger. It comes with the triangular soundhole and abbreviated double pickguard seen on Seeger’s guitars since he had one built that way in England in 1959.

The headstock features a Martin logo across the top of a jet black, ebony faceplate, with a cartoon that Seeger drew of his iconic banjo inlaid between the tuner pegheads and below that is a facsimile of Pete’s autograph. The solid-mahogany neck has a black ebony fingerboard without any inlays and the corresponding ebony bridge has pyramids on the sides and a decorative point at the bottom. The Sitka spruce top is trimmed with herringbone and the Indian rosewood body has the grained ivoroid binding and the gold, “zigzag” back strip of Vintage Style 28.

A baritone guitar is designed to use the same chord shapes as a normal guitar, but has its strings tuned to a lower register. Tune it so the outside strings are A and what looks like a G chord is actually C, an A shape is D and so on. To accomplish this they usually have a longer neck and a larger body to resonate those deep notes. Baritones have grown in popularity over recent years and now Martin offers some baritone guitars of their own, including this magnificent beast of a guitar.

Martin has created a 12-string baritone with a giant voice befitting a giant of American music. Writer of such iconic lines as “Where have all the flowers gone?” and “If I had a hammer”, Seeger was the spiritual leader of the Weavers in the 1950s, the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s and a borderless ambassador of peace and goodwill ever after. As much as I appreciate Sing Out! and admire Mr. Seeger for his many contributions to music, this could be the Mad Magazine – Pee Wee Herman model and I would love it just as much. It is a beautifully sonorous Howitzer of a 12-string.

Many baritones are made from brighter tonewoods like mahogany to accentuate the harmonic chimes and help brighten up the voice. This new Martin is made of Indian rosewood, with its deep, rich complexity and fat fundamental notes. A room filler and banjo killer, this is a thundering, rumbling guitar with murky depths in its bottom, strong, steely highs and the solid midrange punch of a heavyweight prizefighter. It is genuinely dark and somber in tone, but the octave strings keep it from getting too woofy. The designers of this new Martin must pay homage to some classic Guild 12-strings. But even when tuned down, the Guilds will never wallow in the hallow like this true baritone.

Sitka is the ideal spruce to accentuate the warm, rich Indian rosewood tone coming from the cavernous, Grand Jumbo body, which measures 17” across the lower bout and has the same depth as Martin dreadnoughts. They employ 5/16” braces and “progressively scalloped tone bars” carved to withstand the 12-string tension but keep the top as freely moving as possible. And, boy, does that top move. It is a guitar neither for the timid nor the small of hand.

The string scale measures 27.5” and the neck has 15 frets clear from the body – good for tuning down to C, like Seeger does, or even lower. Many baritone guitars can be tuned anywhere from A to C#, with a B low note being most common these days. Martin says you can put normal, mediums on it if you want to tune it to Standard tuning. I am not alone in feeling that would be a wasted opportunity. As Leo Kottke once told me, 12-strings should be tuned down below concert pitch for a reason. “If you are going to play a 12-string in standard [tuning] you should really be playing a mandolin. You miss out on the most interesting harmonies if you don’t tune it down.”

I have never owned a 12-string, but this one could change that. It takes a capo well enough when going for higher keys and is so powerful you gotta wonder where the gas tank is. However, even when tuned to C with a Bb bass string, I found considerable tension in the strings and the wide stretches required by the extra-long-scale neck quickly became fatiguing. I assume I would build up stamina for that over time and tuning down to B should also help.

One nice feature is the narrower width at nut, compared to traditional Martin 12-strings. I forgot to measure it, but my guess is 1-13/16”. Even then, my fretting hand was worn out after spending a day playing these baritones. They made normal, long-scale Martins feel like short-scale 00s.

In any case, this guitar would add an extra dimension to ensemble playing and exploring alternate tunings should be a blast for the soloist. The average player will discover whole new vistas of tonal opportunity, while baritone veterans will find it gutsy and much bassier than the competition.

It also comes in a six-string version, for about $150 less. It is basically the same guitar as their recent Grand J-28LSE model, only with the special Sing Out – Pete Seeger inlay, sound hole and pickguard.

Pros: Mammoth sound – dark, muscled and lush, the baritone for those who want to delve into the darker side of 12-strings.

Cons: 27.5” scale brings a degree of difficulty to playing all but the most basic chords, may prove too dark and murky for some.

Bottom Line: Martins first true baritone 12-string goes all out for the lovers of smoky Indian/Sitka tone and should satisfy their needs very well.

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