12-string Guitar: An Introduction

Posted on January 31, 2024

Playing just six strings can be hard enough, especially with all the complex chord shapes and fingerpicking patterns that make you wish you had an extra hand or two. So why would someone want to pick up a guitar with twice the number of strings?

12-stringed guitars are, in fact, much like their six-string counterparts, and playing them is fortunately not twice as difficult. However, they can add a unique flair to the usual sound of a six-stringed acoustic or electric guitar. Here’s what you need to know about 12-stringed guitars, how they work, and how to play them!

What Is a 12-String Guitar?

A six-stringed guitar has the E, A, D, G, B, and E strings that can be played independently or with other notes to form chords. A 12-string guitar, on the other hand, is stringed in a way where the strings are in pairs, also known as courses. The two strings of a pair are tuned to sound good together, resulting in a chorus-like effect that sounds fuller than the individual strings of a regular six-string guitar.

The gap between the two strings of a course is narrow enough to make it possible to play them together with the same finger. As a trade-off, it can be difficult to play just individual strings instead of both strings of a pair.

Looking at a 12-string guitar and comparing it to its six-string counterparts, you might notice some differences in addition to the six extra strings. First of all, the headstock of a 12-stringed instrument is longer to make way for the larger tuning mechanism. Because there is greater string tension in 12-string guitars, the instrument must be reinforced with a stronger structure and changes to the guitar’s fretboard.

Is Playing a 12-Stringed Guitar Harder than a Conventional Six-String Guitar?

Although the additional strings of 12-stringed instruments result in the chorus effect many guitarists love, the added strings also contribute to the challenge of playing, especially in comparison to six-string instruments.

Because of the dual string course and the added string tension, holding down the strings requires more strength from the fretting hand. This makes chord transitions and string bending challenging in comparison. Therefore, it’s good to remember that twelve-string guitars are primarily used for accompaniment, not soloing or playing melodies that require great precision and speed.

However, that hasn’t stopped some of the most skilled and ambitious players from developing the necessary skills. For most players, the 12–string guitar is for playing chords and providing a rhythm for the song.

Songs with 12-String Guitar

The 12-string guitar, whether acoustic of electric, fits nicely in most music genres where you would use a regular, six-stringed instrument. Listen to these classics for how a 12-string guitar sounds, and try learning them yourself. You can play these songs with a six-string guitar just as well. However, the 12-string variety creates a unique, richer chorus effect for the guitar sound.

  • The Eagles – Hotel California
  • Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
  • Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
  • David Bowie – Space Oddity
  • America – A Horse with No Name
  • The Byrds – Eight Miles High

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How to Tune a 12-String Guitar

The most common tuning for a twelve-string guitar from lowest pair to highest is eEaAdDgGBBEE, although alternate tunings, such as open tunings, are commonly used. It’s important to remember that the strings of the two highest pairs are tuned in unison (i.e., the two strings are tuned to the same pitch).

The tuning process of a twelve-string guitar can be tricky with the different layout, the number of strings, and the higher cumulative string tension. However, practice makes perfect. Here’s how to tune a 12-string guitar:

  1. Tune the low-E string first. The most reliable and accurate way to tune your guitar is with a guitar tuner. In addition to physical tuner devices, you can use a guitar tuner app, such as GuitarTuna, to tune your guitar for free on your smartphone.
  2. After tuning the low-E string of the first pair, tune the second, thinner string an octave higher. Repeat this for the next three pairs of strings: A, D, and G.
  3. Tune both strings in the highest courses (B and E) to the same pitch.
  4. After you have tuned all 12 strings, re-check the tune and listen if any of the strings have gone out of tune in the process. Correct the tuning if needed.

Make sure to also try some alternate open and dropped tunings on the 12-string guitar. The GuitarTuna app is equipped with many alternate tuning options in addition to the standard tuning for the 12-stringed guitar and other stringed instruments.

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