Twelve-string guitars have long stood for big, broad sounds: its double courses of strings make it a much more complicated instrument than its standard-stringed counterpart, but its beautiful resonance is well worth the hassle for those who pick it up.
Few players coax an enchantment out of the instrument like Sarah Louise Henson, who’s based near Asheville, North Carolina. Her intricate, elegant picking bridges traditional Appalachian folk with forward-looking contemporary music, and is powered by her own ingenious playing style.
Henson gravitated toward the acoustic guitar as a high schooler, in large part because she didn’t feel comfortable getting involved in the sort of gear talk that frequently accompanies electric guitars devotion. As she began composing her own music, Henson looked toward twelve-string guitars as a way to develop her own distinct sound.
“[The guitar] started to suggest new picking patterns. A twelve-string has a higher octave string above a lower octave string. If you’re picking with your thumb, striking it from the top, you’re going to get the high octave. If you’re picking it with [other] fingers from the bottom, you’re going to get the low octave,” she says. “That had enormous implications for my playing and the development of my own style.”
That style hews closely to Appalachian folk traditions, and Henson often gets lumped in with the American primitive guitar movement—self-taught guitarists whose work is largely influenced by folk and pre-war blues music and often add experimental elements. As a woman, she stands out in a genre that seems even more homogenous than other guitar-based music genres—on the Wikipedia entry for “American primitive guitar,” all twenty-one notable “proponents” listed are white men.
However anyone might label her music, Henson is even more extraordinary for her technical skills; her playing is complementary to her peers’ work, and it’s also nothing like it. Henson invents her own chords and picking patterns, and few others in her field opt for twelve-string guitars over six. While many twelve-string players aim for generating big sounds, the magic of Henson’s playing lies in the minutiae she’s able to draw out of her instrument, and on her forthcoming album for Thrill Jockey, Deeper Woods, which will be released in early May, her haunting singing is also front and center.
When she hits the road, Henson most frequently uses the Taylor guitar she bought new just a few years ago. Though she prefers micing her guitars to plugging them in to a PA, this guitar’s direct input capability help reduce headaches at sound checks—the nuances of a twelve-string can be difficult to manage for those who don’t entirely know what they’re doing.
“Twelve-strings have so many overtones that they’re hard to mic without the mics feeding back. A good sound person will know that and will be able to cut out those frequencies on the board, but there’s a lot of them out there who just don’t know what to do with a twelve-string,” she says.
Generally speaking, Henson prefers vintage guitars for a multitude of reasons, and er two current favorite models are a 1986 Alvarez Yairi and a Guild F-212 guitar from the 1970s. Henson enjoys the tone of vintage guitars, and says that another benefit is that you can still often purchase them for far less than newer instruments. Henson’s affinity for vintage guitars also stems from her strongly held ethics and her passion for social justice.
“A lot of the tone woods that are used to make guitars, like mahogany, rosewood, ebony—these are all rainforest woods. There are so many issues in these tropical regions where some of this land, or all of the land, is indigenous land, but the government has been bought and sold by timber companies,” she says. “There are some guitar companies that’ll say ‘sustainably sourced,’ and maybe that’s true. You like to believe it. But all of these tone woods are precious rainforest woods.” Buying vintage, she notes, doesn’t contribute to a continued demand for these scarce resources.
Henson has started adding more electric guitar to her repertoire, too, employing a sparkly pink, Korean-made Danelectro from the nineties. She likes the Danelectro’s signature “lipstick tube” pickup and its jangly tone, and she uses it most frequently for free-improvised experimental sets. Henson sees the electric guitar’s ability to deliver sustained notes as another way of putting space into her music.
Her amp of choice is a Fender Super Six reverb amp from the seventies. The six-speaker amps were enormous, and it became a somewhat common practice to cut them down to two speakers, making it a more manageable size. What Henson really loves about this particular amp is that it has two volume controls: one “regular” volume knob and a “master volume” knob. She can crank the regular knob up to get a crunchy, overdriven tone, but by turning the master volume down, she can get the sounds she wants without rattling her windows.
Henson has one more secret weapon that only the most astute observers are likely to notice: her fingernails. Rather than using fingerpicks, Henson keeps her nails long to unwind her knotty picking patterns. While some guitarists turn to acrylic nails to achieve the same ends, Henson prefers to rely on her own naturally strong nails.
“It’s nice that I can actually use a part of my body to play instead of this intermediary in between,” she says, adding that acrylics work just as well for other players. But as with the rest of her approach to her craft, Henson prefers to charge ahead with what works best for her.
“From the very beginning, I’ve wanted to differentiate myself,” Henson says. “I’ve always had the thought of, ‘Well, why would I want to sound like them? They already sound like them. I want to do my own thing.’”