In an era when America was deeply entrenched in a war in Southeast Asia, with much social unrest back home, Berkeley, California–based instrumentalist and singer Robbie Basho romanticized historical and mythical things, faraway places, cultures, and religions. Within those tumultuous times, it’s not surprising he created an alternate universe of mystical, spiritual music using a century-old 12-string of mysterious origin.
When Basho acquired the guitar in the early 1960s, the top had been smashed, so he got a violinmaker to replace it. The refurbished instrument, its four-piece German spruce top distinguished by a striped center panel and curly figuring on the lower right bout, can be seen on the covers of The Falconer’s Arm ll (1967) and Art of the Acoustic String Guitar 6 & 12 (1979). Its new top, rosette, and purfling reveal the craftsmanship of an adept luthier, improving on this unique guitar thought to have originally been made in Mexico.
By the early 1980s, Basho’s 12-string had seen further modifications, including a new fretboard with pearl dot inlays, along with a contemporary bridge. But the instrument retained its most distinctive details—a four-point abalone star inlaid at the top of the slotted headstock, paired with a smaller pearl figure closer to the nut. And its back and sides made with parota (a light but strong tropical hardwood commonly used to make the Mexican bajo sexto) remained intact.
After Basho’s sudden passing, in 1986, the 12-string went to his friend Mischa Rutenberg, a modern Sufi troubadour, who kept the instrument safe for nearly 30 years. In 2014, Rutenberg sold the instrument to my dear friend Steffen Basho-Junghans, a German guitarist and Basho acolyte, who in turn gifted it to me before his sad passing in December of 2022.
Holding the guitar today imparts an extraordinary feeling of mysticism and history. It is extremely lightweight and responsive, with deep, cathedral-like basses and delicate, ethereal trebles—despite being in desperate need of a neck reset and other repairs. Strumming the natural harmonics puts me in the heart of Basho’s signature instrumental “Cathedrals et Fleur de Lis,” getting me closer to understanding why he cherished this soulful instrument.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.