A twelve string guitar with tremolo arm is a nightmare scenario for some players – “nearly impossible to keep in tune” or “one touch of the whammy and you’re hopelessly out of tune” are common complaints. Any twelve string guitar is more difficult to keep in tune than a regular six string, and a tremolo arm (whammy bar or vibrato system) can just add to the tuning issue, particularly if the guitar hasn’t been set up properly. Some owners of these beasts solve the tuning problem by locking down the tremolo system, rendering it unusable. Others who employ the old style tremolo arm for only light vibrato (no “dive bombs”) have no issue with the combination.
50 years ago a 12 string guitar with a tremolo system was unusual, but not unique. The Vox Phantom XII was available at this time, and was fitted with a spring action vibrato similar to the Bigsby system on the Maton Fyrbyrd. Vox Phantom XIIs were used by Hilton Valentine of The Animals and Tony Hicks of The Hollies in 1965, and featured on hit records by both of these groups.
The Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn helped popularise the jangly sound of the electric 12 string in the mid-sixties. He was attracted to the sound that he’d heard on recordings by The Searchers and The Beatles, and after viewing The Beatles movie “A Hard Day’s Night”, he went in search of a Rickenbacker 12 string similar to the guitar used by George Harrison in the film. McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12 string became the trademark sound of The Byrds after their versions of “Mister Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became international hits. All of a sudden the jangly electric 12 string sound was the latest craze.
The Australian Maton Fyrbyrd 12-20 was probably developed in response to this sudden but short-lived craze, and there were just 120 units produced over an 18 month period in 1965 and 1966. Serial numbers began with 101, and this example is serial no. 162. I bought this totally original unit in Perth in the mid-1980s, and still drag it out occasionally for recording or live work. With three “magnametle” high flux pickups controlled by separate slide switches, and “Bass Expander” and “Treble Extender” controls there’s a range of sounds available. The neck pickup produces a full rich sound.
Maton Fyrbyrd 12-20s have been seen in the hands of several high profile musicians, including New Zealand’s Neil Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) and Jim Moginie of Midnight Oil (as seen in the music video for the song “Read About It”).
Vintage Maton guitars have a reputation for fine craftsmanship and build quality, and this old beast is no exception. Everything still works, the neck has no signs of warping and the instrument is very playable (just go easy on that tremolo arm!).