Many musicians can cop the notes played by blues and ragtime greats, but few contemporary guitarists are as successful at conveying the unscripted energy and driving feel of this music as Todd Albright. As he shows on his 2017 album, Detroit Twelve String Blues & Rags, his deft fingerpicked 12-string guitar parts and forceful vocals display a depth of experience that go far deeper than a mere rehash of prime pieces of blues repertoire.
True to the guitarist’s Midwestern roots, his album’s straightforward title leaves little mystery about what’s inside: a collection of rags and blues played on 12-string guitars. When asked if the title has any connection to Blind Willie McTell’s classic 1949 recording Atlanta Twelve String, Albright, who recently moved from Detroit to Chicago, breaks into laughter and answers, “It’s a complete and total rip-off, yes. It is a blatant attempt to align myself with the great Blind Willie McTell.”
Albright relies on long-scale 12-string guitars like the Regals and Stellas used by many of his main inspirations in the 1920s and ’30s. These ladder-braced guitars were meant to be tuned low and played with heavy gauge strings. Playing in a variety of baritone tunings is not only a nearly lost art, it’s a direct way for Albright to keep the music of Lead Belly, McTell, Lydia Mendoza, and Barbecue Bob, not just alive, but vital.
With no one around to tell the Toledo, Ohio, native that Lead Belly tuned down (usually to B), Albright discovered it all on his own, quite by accident, in the days before widespread internet. “I was listening to a Paul Geremia record while changing the strings on my guitar and learned that he was playing ‘Skin Game Blues’ tuned to Ab. It was a eureka moment.” Since then, Albright has always owned and played a 12-string, favoring it to the point where, he says, “I sold the only 6-string I had in 2013.”
What do your baritone 12-strings bring to the music that you can’t get with a more conventional 12-string?
To go back into the history a little bit, these things came from Mexico, and the Acosta family in Texas built 12-strings for Lydia Mendoza and Lonnie Johnson. They were baritone instruments with a long scale and were meant to be tuned down—they weren’t intended to be tuned to concert pitch with light-gauge strings.
Those old 12-strings were also ladder-braced, which makes a huge difference. There are folks that say that X-bracing is structurally better, but it doesn’t need a stress test; it’s a guitar, it’ll be fine. My guitars also use a bridge and a tailpiece, not a glued-on bridge, and with the low-tuned strings, there’s not as much stress on the top.
Later, people began playing 12-strings with light-gauge strings tuned up to concert pitch and the idea of a baritone 12-string guitar faded. Many of those guitars tuned to concert pitch had pin bridges and they would fail—the bridges would pull up.
What is it about ladder-bracing that works for the sound you want?
It’s a less-refined sound. It’s not as clean. You get a rowdy and raucous sound out of a ladder-braced guitar. An X-braced guitar has a lot of midrange, but a ladder-braced guitar has more ass on it. The tone is nastier; it’s not a polite-sounding instrument.
That nasty sound is critical to me. As a fingerstyle player, I can get so much out of them. The Reverend Gary Davis played a Gibson J-200, which is X-braced, and it worked great for him, but the earlier guys were using ladder-braced Oscar Schmidt Stellas, Lyon & Healys, Regals, Tonk Brothers—it was the style of building them.
Tell me about your two guitars.
The older of my two guitars has a double-scroll headstock, which is an appointment that was common on Italian mandolins. It’s a little bit smaller in the upper bout than the auditorium-style Stella that Lead Belly played, but otherwise it’s about the same size. It has a spruce top and a walnut back. When Todd Cambio of Fraulini Guitars sent it to me, he said that the Acosta family told him that while they used mahogany for most of their instruments, they used walnut for the really nice guitars. I keep that one in open tuning.
There’s a picture of Blind Willie McTell from the 1920s where he’s holding a Tonk Brothers 12-string. My newer Fraulini is a copy of that guitar. Paul Geremia got a hold of one, probably in the ’80s, and that’s the only one that has ever shown up. He played it for years and eventually sold it to Cambio, who is now making copies. The original is likely a Regal from the early-’20s. It’s birch with a spruce top, a poplar neck, and pearwood bridge. Mine has a maple bridge and fingerboard that was dyed black with India ink. The top on mine is paper-thin and the braces are super thin and as a result, it’s really trashy-sounding and unrefined—and that is exactly what I’m looking for. The other one has a thicker top and heavier bracing; it’s a heavier-built guitar. It’s more refined, which makes it really good for playing slide.
What are your tunings?
My standard tuning is down to A (A D G C E A). One guitar stays in Vestapol (open-D, but down a fifth to G D G B D G), while the Tonk Brothers guitar goes through a bunch of songs in standard, then dropped-D, then D6, then all the way to Spanish (open G, down a fifth, G C G C E G), so I’m just detuning strings as I go through the set. I used to have only one 12-string and it was murder getting through a 90-minute set. Because I use five tunings in a night, you can wear out an audience with all of the retuning.
Fingerstyle on a 12-string guitar must be rough on your fingernails.
I spend a lot of time at the nail salon! I ask for acrylic nails on my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I tried natural nails, but I play vigorously and I’m lucky if I can make it through one set. The acrylic nails don’t wear out at all. It affects the tone a little bit, but it’s like the difference between using a thin or thick pick.
I used to use fingerpicks, but it felt like a dexterity issue. I don’t know where my fingers are if they’re covered in plastic or metal; I feel more integrated into playing if the skin of my right hand is touching the strings. The whole thing comes down to your right hand. Anyone can hold down chords, but whatever you’re saying musically is coming out of your right hand. It is your personality.
Your playing has a strong drive and rhythm, even on slower pieces. How do you do it?
You can build rhythm and feel by learning to balance aggressive picking with dampening. Really play that guitar, but don’t play it to where it sounds bad. Play it and keep the fat part of the back of your hand laying on the strings to mute it. Play with vigor. The trick with the 12-string is not to make noise; it’s about having the control to selectively play notes without making noise—it’s completely different from the 6-string guitar.
You prefer glass slides.
I’ve used all of the different kinds of slides—brass, old sockets, pocketknives—over the years, but the thickness of the glass plays a huge part of it. A thin glass gives you a thinner tone, which some people like, but a thicker glass slide give you a thicker tone and I think it works well with the 12-string. When I played 6-string, I preferred brass slides on my Oscar Schmidt Stella.
My slides are made by a guy in Oxnard, California named Roger Gohl. He doesn’t have a website or anything, he’s just a guy who makes these out of old wine bottles and sells them under the name Sly Devil Slides.
I also do a lot of dampening with my left hand when I play slide. It’ll be really noisy if you don’t drag your fingers behind the slide, unless that’s what you’re going for. If you’re doing Kokomo Arnold type songs, you don’t want to dampen the strings, but if you want a sound with a little more finesse in it, like Blind Willie McTell, you need to selectively dampen the strings as you go.
Your setup sounds like you’re making it more difficult for yourself.
You have to play the guitar or the guitar will play you. I hate dainty playing.
I play with a high action because the higher the action, the louder the guitar. It’s a comfort thing for me, too, because the action doesn’t need to be that sweet. My string tension is pretty low because I tune so low and if you don’t have a lot of tension and a low action, it’s just going to buzz.
You have a fairly small stature and play large instruments. Do you have any advice for smaller players?
I find it harder to play smaller guitars, it hurts my back to hunch over a parlor guitar. With a bigger guitar, I can sit up straighter.
Here’s a misconception: Lead Belly was not huge, he was a smaller man—about 5′ 6″ or 5′ 7″. The reason I play the larger guitars is the sound. Todd Cambio builds two sizes of 12-strings—a smaller concert size like what Barbecue Bob played and the larger auditorium size. There is not a huge size difference, but there is a huge sound difference. The larger bodied 12-string has a 27″-scale vs. a 26-1/2″ on the smaller guitar, which means you can tune even lower, which means you can use bigger strings, which means you get more sound. It’s more rumble for your buck.
As far as not crippling myself, I don’t find it harder to play large guitars. I hear about people having injuries from playing the same thing, my advice is to keep your pinky off of the guitar’s body and let your hand be free. Your hand doesn’t have freedom when you’re doing that and you’re losing rhythmic freedom. If you’re playing Bach or James Taylor, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary if you’re playing something with more rhythm.
Todd Albright’s Essential Albums
Lead Belly’s Last Session “I want to start one of those Change.org petitions and have Lou Gehrig’s Disease changed to Huddie Ledbetter’s Disease.”
To get down to the low tunings that Albright uses, he relies on a custom set John Pearse strings. Gauges for the pairs, or courses, are as follows:
First course .013, .013
Second course .017, .017
Third course .013, .026
Fourth course .017, .038
Fifth course .022, .048
Sixth course .026, .066
First course .015, .015
Second course .019, .019
Third course .017, .030
Fourth course .019, .040
Fifth course .021, .050
Sixth course .032, .068
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.