The melding of 12 string and 6 string electric SGs into one instrument resulted in something that's been described as the coolest guitar in rock, the Gibson EDS 1275. Now techs at PRS have taken a virtual buzz saw to that design to create a custom 9-string hybrid that gives ex-Henry Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett all the key tonal flavors of a double-neck heavyweight in a single instrument.
The idea behind the one-off custom guitar wasn't just to try and make a custom version of the kind of wide-necked, nine single string shredders currently available from such makers as Ibanez and Schecter, but to create a very specific kind of hybrid instrument. Haskett wanted to take the coursed E, A and D strings from the 12-string top part of a double-neck like the EDS 1275 and the G, B and E of the 6-string from the bottom, remove the middle section and create one best of both worlds guitar.
"It's an idea that I've had kicking around in my head for a few decades," he told Gizmag. "I love the sound of 12 strings but I wanted the freedom to bend and solo freely on the higher strings, but I never liked the idea of a double neck. Love the sounds they make, but I balked at the idea of having one. I only wanted half of what each neck offered anyway so the notion of lugging this enormous beast around to gigs and then strapping 20+ pounds of mahogany onto my back for 90 minutes just didn't appeal."
Haskett had done some research to see if the inventive minds of luthiers and guitarists had already created such an instrument and couldn't find anything that matched his exacting requirements. He did find 9-strings of course (like those of Mississippi blues shouter Big Joe Williams and the gorgeous Vox Mark IX), but the predominant configuration was single strings on top and double strings below.
"For a while I used to play my Strat XII as a 9-string but the fingerboard is too narrow and the string spacing just felt wrong (because it was)," said Haskett. "So thank goodness they came out with the Whammy pedal. There was Whammy pedal octave-up effect on tons of Rollins Band music and I only ever used it when I was playing on the wound strings. I love the Beatles and the Byrds, but I'm not a big fan of the doubled high strings for myself so there was a lot switching the damn thing on and off depending on where I was on the fingerboard. With my current trio I found that I was writing music that went back into that tonal area again but I was getting bored of using a stomp box so the 9-string idea resurfaced."
Being a member of the Paul Reed Smith Guitars family for over 20 years, Haskett pitched his idea to the company's Rich Hannon. Hannon told us that his exact reaction was "Whoa, ok, man ... how do you want it tuned? I ran the request by Paul, which immediately led to sketching ideas on the dry erase board in his office. After a few minutes it made total sense, and I couldn't wait to play it. Once the specs were nailed down, Chris let us run with the execution."
The actual build was undertaken by James "Skitchy" Zimmers, who is described as "a man who never says no, and thrives off of bizarre artist requests." A PRS Custom 22/12 guitar from the company's artist stock was selected for sacrifice and he got to work.
Existing hardware, electronics and pickups were retained but the headstock was reworked to cater for five tuning heads up above and four below, and the excess wood was trimmed from the end. The existing nut was swapped out for a custom cut, created to ensure that the string spacing felt right when playing the single strings.
"The headstock and the tuners are aesthetic/cosmetic, but aesthetics matter at a very primordial level, especially with something as intimately tactile as a guitar," admitted Haskett. "The nut, with its altered string spacing for the three high strings is really what makes the guitar what it is. The fact that the 22/12 has a wider neck than most other 12 strings means that there's enough space to actually play the guitar (even as a 12) without feeling cramped, but it's the custom nut that allows the freedom I wanted to bend and solo on the G-B-E strings."
The adjustable bridge also had to be modified. Not only to cater for the unusual string setup, but also to look good. The original Custom 22/12 features two humbucking pickups and a single coil between them. The middle pickup can be brought into play, together with a coil tap that splits the bridge humbucker into single coil operation, by pulling up the tone knob. But Haskett had requested that the Lindy Frain single coil pickup be disconnected.
"I find middle pickups interfere with my picking so I never have them, so I had PRS disconnect it and screw it all the way down into the body before they shipped it," revealed Haskett. "Once I got it I decided to take it out and put in a block, again just for aesthetic reasons. But then I had the wiring redone again so that the two pickups were out of phase and the front pickup was made split-able to also be single coil (neckside coil). So now the 'up' position of the push/pull switch makes both pickups single coil. All my PRS's are wired for single coil/humbucking but on all the others the bridge side coil on the bridge pickup is live, on the 9-string I left it with the original PRS tap on the inside coil."
"We discussed putting in different pickups but I opted not make any changes there until I actually had played the guitar a while and heard what it sounded like," he continued. "I generally like pretty hot/high output on my day-to-day guitars, but I didn't want to risk swamping out the rich tonalities of the doubled strings and I figured (correctly) that PRS had already found a good balance between output and tone. Also, on this guitar more than my others I was hearing an 'older' tonal range (specifically Jimmy Page and Mahavishnu-era John McLaughlin) so I anticipated that the gain structure would have a different balance than I usually have.
"The notion of putting them out of phase stemmed from a guess that that would really allow the sound of the doubled strings to be in the spotlight (and it does). I usually roll off the tone control a bit and there are about three sweet spots that really bring out the '12-string-ness' of the E-A-D strings and help them cut through better when there's a lot of distortion."
PRS Guitars currently has no plans to offer the Custom 22/9 for sale. It was created to satisfy one player's need. But with Chris Haskett having already used it for final overdubs on his latest album, The Courage Born of Conflicting Terrors, and it being the center of attention when the guitarist is on stage, who knows what the future will hold?
You can see and hear the hybrid guitar in the video below, where Haskett walks through its development and rattles off some riffs.