1930s Regal R 615-C

 

The 12-string guitar has a long history in popular music, featuring prominently on recordings on everyone from Leadbelly to the Rooftop Singers, the Byrds to Tom Petty. However, while the modern 12-string is a development of the 20th century, its roots go back much further. Various members of the lute family had long doubled courses for extra volume, and a popular Romantic-era guitar design featured 10 strings in five courses. Their descendants likely influenced American guitars via Mexican and Italian designs. The main innovation of the 20th century, apart from steel strings and larger bodies, was to double the lower four courses an octave higher. This not only gave the instrument extra volume, it also enriched the sound and created a unique tambre that sounded like several guitars playing at once.

The first American 12-strings, dating from around the turn of the 20th century, were inspired by the drive to create louder guitars. At the time, guitars were rapidly growing from parlor-sized bodies up toward the modern Dreadnought, which arrived in 1916 (but didn’t really take off until the 1930s). Manufacturers were starting to offer guitars with absurd dimensions, such as Lyon & Healy’s 22¼”-wide “Monster Bass” guitar; most, including that one, were regarded as novelty instruments that were only available on special order. By doubling the strings, guitar designers were able to coax more volume out of much smaller instruments.

Still, 12-strings never made up a large segment of the guitar market. They required a somewhat different playing technique, they cost more than the equivalent 6-strings, and the average 6-string was a fairly loud instrument in its own right by this time. With the advent of resonator guitars in 1927, followed by the proliferation of electric instruments in the 1930s, the 12-string was nearly killed off until the folk revival of the early 1960s. Pre-War 12-strings remain considerably rarer than their 6-string counterparts in any condition, and those that survive have often undergone considerable repair. The extra tension of 12 strings requires robust construction to keep it from causing damage.

The superb condition of this Regal R615-C, which dates from the mid 1930s, is therefore quite remarkable. At $16.50, it was far from the bottom of the Regal line during the depths of the depression, but it was still far cheaper than the cheapest Gibson or Martin 6-strings. The combination of a spruce top with birch sides and back is somewhat unusual; most often, spruce was paired with mahogany while birch was paired with more birch. The unplated brass tuners have seven screw holes on each strip, but Regal saved a few cents by only using four screws. The center stripe on the back is a decal, but the top and back are bound with celluloid. Quality control was kept to a minimum: of the dings around the edges, several were made before the finish was applied. The splotchy appearance of the top is not the result of wear or checking, but rather to inconsistent grain in the spruce itself.

Yet, despite its humble construction, this guitar shows only light pickwear on the top and some handling bumps around the headstock. There are no cracks, no replacement hardware, and even the neck has remained quite straight and at the correct angle. The dyed fretboard and brass frets show barely any wear, and the instrument plays surprisingly well in standard tuning. It’s a loud, brash cannon of a guitar, with no subtlety at all but with the power to be heard from across the dance floor.

 

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