There are a lot of controversies as regards to the history of the Twelve-string guitar. The first theory says that it has been developed by Italian luthiers laboring in the guitar workshops in companies like Oscar Schmidt, Harmony and Regal in New York and Chicago. It is substantiated by the fact that one of the famous twelve-string guitars has a strong Italian connection. As per the other theory states that it arrived in the U.S from Mexico as Latin America has a long history of double-course variants of the standard six-string guitars.
Regardless of who invented the twelve-string guitar, it is considered as one of the novelty instrument invented. Other than the occasional custom ordered 12-string guitars, the more prestigious makers like Martin and Gibson consider making of these 12-string guitar to the low-end builders. This is clearly an indication that their buyers were from the poorer end of the social level.
The popularity of the twelve-string guitar can be traced out from the early recordings, where the blues musicians in Georgia and Mexican tejano musicians in Texas used them. It appears that the first musicians to take up the 12-srting guitars were street performers. The extra volume that the double strings added increased the popularity of these guitars. It is said that the volume is so intense that a busker could work without any other musicians and still assure full and rich sound.
The twelve-string guitar gained immense popularity when it was first exploited by one of the best early players, the Atlanta guitarist Blind Willie McTell. McTell was a well-known and accomplished guitarist of his time. Atlanta being the center for the Piedmont blues, a ragtime-based guitar style where complex finger picking and driving bass is needed to invest in its kind of music. And this is how the use of the 12-string guitar gained its momentum.
The 12-string guitar also became popular after the “Leadbelly”. Hudy William Ledbetter was an American folk and blues musician. He was known as the king of the twelve-string guitar, famous for his clear and forceful singing and his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. He is best known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. The topic of Leadbelly covers a wide range of subjects, including gospel songs, blues songs about women, liquor and racism. It also includes songs about cowboys, prison, workers, sailors, and many more. This is how the 12-string guitar came into popularity in a big way.
After Leadbelly, even the use of the twelve-string guitar was reduced drastically. It was like musicians express the mourning by refraining from playing the instrument. A few guitarists like Dick Rosmini, Fred Gerlach, and Pete Seeger, kept the twelve-string tradition alive.
And soon the use of the banjo has outnumbered the use of the 12-string guitar, but in 1963 a record came out that knocked the banjo off its place. It was a record by Pete Seeger called “We shall overcome” and the musician used the power of 12-string and novelty to draw the attention of the people as he was selling songs of justice and freedom. The extra volume and full sound of the twelve-string guitar made it perfect for leading and they were the important part of the civil rights movement.