During a tumultuous era when America was grappling with the Vietnam War and domestic social upheaval, the Berkeley-based instrumentalist and singer, Robbie Basho, was crafting a world of his own through mystical and spiritual music. At the heart of his artistic journey was a century-old 12-string guitar of enigmatic origin, a cherished companion that provided the backdrop for his transcendent compositions.
In the early 1960s, Robbie Basho acquired this venerable 12-string guitar, albeit in a rather distressed state – its top had been shattered. In his quest to breathe new life into the instrument, he enlisted the expertise of a skilled violinmaker to replace the top. The refurbished guitar, now adorned with a four-piece German spruce top, featuring a distinctive striped center panel and intricate curly figuring on the lower right bout, made its appearance on the covers of two iconic albums, “The Falconer’s Arm ll” (1967) and “Art of the Acoustic String Guitar 6 & 12” (1979). The replacement top, rosette, and purfling bore the marks of a master luthier, elevating the guitar’s status from its original, mysterious Mexican roots.
By the early 1980s, Basho’s 12-string had undergone further transformations, including the installation of a new fretboard adorned with pearl dot inlays and a contemporary bridge. Yet, it retained its most distinguishing features, a four-point abalone star intricately inlaid at the top of its slotted headstock, accompanied by a smaller pearl figure closer to the nut. The guitar’s back and sides remained a testament to its origins, crafted from parota, a lightweight yet resilient tropical hardwood often used in the construction of the Mexican bajo sexto.
Following Robbie Basho’s untimely passing in 1986, his beloved 12-string guitar found its way into a storage space managed by Sufism Reoriented, a religious order based in the San Francisco Bay Area to which Basho belonged. There it remained, its musical legacy preserved, until 2014 when it was unearthed by filmmaker Liam Barker during the production of a documentary about the revered guitarist. The instrument then found a new custodian in the form of Steffen Basho-Junghans, a German guitarist and devoted follower of Basho’s work, before ultimately coming into the hands of the writer. Sadly, Steffen Basho-Junghans passed away in December of 2022.
Today, holding this remarkable instrument evokes an overwhelming sense of mysticism and history. Despite its dire need for a neck reset and other repairs, the guitar remains incredibly lightweight and responsive. Its resonant tones, with deep, cathedral-like bass notes and delicate, ethereal trebles, transport the player into the very heart of Robbie Basho’s signature instrumental piece, “Cathedrals et Fleur de Lis.” In this intimate connection with the guitar, one gets a step closer to understanding why Basho held this soulful instrument so dear.