Back during my days as Technology Editor for the prestigious Performing Songwriter magazine, I attended a lot of music gear trade shows. I remember one year in particular, when I attended the Summer NAMM show in Nashville. Tacoma Guitars, based out of Washington State, had introduced two very interesting new acoustic guitar models: a baritone, and a 12-string version of their popular Papoose. I was intrigued because these two guitars sounded totally unique.
The baritone model was tuned down a fourth, so the lowest string’s pitch was the B below the low E of a normal guitar. As a result, a single strum of a chord on the guitar completely filled the Tacoma booth on the show floor with an amazingly rich, full, thunderous tone unlike anything I had ever heard. The guitar had a longer neck and was much larger than a normal acoustic guitar, and it vibrated against my body as I played it. At that moment, I just knew I had to have one!
The 12-string Papoose model was just as intriguing.
It had a small (but proportionately deep) body – less than half the size of a standard acoustic guitar – and, opposite of the baritone, was tuned up a fourth, so that its lowest string’s pitch was the A above a standard guitar’s low E string. As a result, the guitar had a beautiful, ringing tone in the high end that was reminiscent of a mandolin, but much a much fuller overall sound – partly because of its 12 strings (instead of 8 on a standard mandolin), but also because of its larger body. It had a little bit of mandolin, a little bit of banjo, and a little bit of ukulele all wrapped into a single guitar. Like the baritone, I just knew I had to have one!
For various reasons, I didn’t actually buy either guitar back then – something that I would come to regret for many years afterwards. One of the main reasons was that, within a couple of years of that NAMM show, Tacoma Guitars was bought by Fender, all manufacturing of Tacoma guitars ceased, and was never restarted. As a result, all Tacoma guitars – but in particular, their less common models like the baritone and both the 6- and 12-string versions of the Papoose – have become collector’s items and have become harder and harder to find, as prices for used models continue to climb.
Fortunately for me, my wife Nancy is a diligent shopper, and over the years has managed to find me not only a Tacoma baritone and a Tacoma 12-string Papoose to add to my guitar collection, but also a Tacoma 5-string acoustic bass (another totally unique guitar) and most recently, a Tacoma electric 6-string Papoose. I guess now that I have a total of four unique Tacoma models, I’m technically a collector. And yes, I’m still looking for more Tacomas (believe it or not, I haven’t acquired the original, 6-string Papoose or the original, 4-string bass – at least not yet!).
You might be wondering why I’m so hot on these Tacoma guitars (besides the fact that they’re just so unique). Well, it all comes down to sound. What all of these guitars have in common is that they just don’t sound like regular guitars (even regular guitars with funky tunings, special strings, capos and the like). As a result, they’re often exactly what is needed to give a recording what I call a “unique sonic stamp” – the “special sauce” that makes that recording sound unlike any other. That unique sound can make the difference between a simply excellent recording, and one that grabs listeners’ attention and has them asking, “what is that sound?” over and over again.
I first learned of the “special sauce” potential of Tacoma guitars from ace Nashville guitarist Tim Thompson, who, among many other things, is an outstanding session player. Whenever we would track a song in the studio that was acoustic-guitar-based, Tim would always lay down a first track with a regular acoustic guitar, and then invariably ask to overdub a second acoustic guitar part with his Tacoma 6-string Papoose. The part that he played on the Papoose was almost identical to the part he had played on the standard acoustic, but the blend of the two guitars made a completely new sound that could not be achieved any other way. It turns out that this Papoose-doubling technique is a common practice among the really good session players in Nashville – one of their “secret weapons” that gives their acoustic guitar recordings a full, unique tone.
Since learning that trick from Tim Thompson, I’ve tried all sorts of guitar-doubling combinations (and outright guitar part substitutions) with different types of unique and oddball guitars, to much success. Many of the recordings I produce now feature this “special sauce” in both acoustic and electric guitar parts, and many of those parts feature my various Tacomas. I encourage you to experiment with this doubling/replacement technique yourself, with whatever guitars (or other stringed instruments) you may have at your disposal. I promise it will open up a whole new world of sonic possibilities for you!