The 12-string guitar has won the hearts of music enthusiasts worldwide with its rich, vibrant sound and unique construction. It has been used by numerous legendary musicians to create some of the most iconic and memorable music of all time.
Whether you’re an experienced guitarist looking to broaden your skills or a beginner eager to explore the world of music, the 12-string guitar is sure to impress.
In this article, we’ll examine everything you need to know about the 12-string guitar, from its history and construction to its tuning and playing techniques. So, let’s dive in and uncover the magic of the 12-string guitar!
A brief history of 12-string guitar
The origin of the modern 12-string guitar remains uncertain, with two likely scenarios involving either Italian or Mexican immigrants. Italy boasts a rich tradition of double-stringed instruments, such as the mandolin and lute. It is thought that Italian luthiers working in American guitar factories experimented with adding extra strings to a standard 6-string guitar. This theory is supported by the fact that many companies producing 12-string guitars today have strong Italian ties.
Another possible theory is the influence of Mexico, where the practice of adding extra strings to a 6-string guitar, as seen in the guitarra séptima and the bajo sexto, has a long history.
Regardless of its origins, 12-string guitars arrived in the U.S. from abroad, and the first double-stringed instrument designed in the U.S. was the Gibson archtop mandolin.
Initially considered novelty instruments and cheaply made, 12-string guitars were commonly used by the poorer population of Appalachia and the American Southwest.
Consequently, this type of guitar found its way into blues, folk, and Tejano music genres typically associated with these demographics. In the 1930s and 40s, musicians such as Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, and Fred Gerlach popularized the 12-string guitar in blues and folk music circles, while Lydia Mendoza and other Mexican-Americans did the same in the American Southwest.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that guitarists like Pete Seeger, George Harrison, and James/Roger McGuinn introduced the 12-string guitar to pop and rock music. Following the 60s revival, folk-rock bands in the 1970s, such as America, Kansas, and The Eagles, extensively used the 12-string guitar.
Although primarily used as an accompaniment due to the difficulty in bending strings and playing solos, the guitar later saw more innovative solo work. Eventually, even rock artists such as Jimmy Page, Tom Petty, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan incorporated the 12-string guitar into their music.
What are the pros of the 12-string guitar?
Here are the benefits of playing a 12-string guitar:
Twice as many strings as a standard 6-string guitar
This offers a much fuller and richer sound, with a natural chorus-like effect created by the pairing of the strings.
Unique and complex tonal texture
The doubling of the strings also generates a unique and complex tonal texture, with harmonics and overtones that are not present in a standard guitar. This can make the 12-string guitar sound more like a full band or orchestra than a single instrument.
Distinctive musical style association
The 12-string guitar is often associated with specific music styles, such as folk, country, or rock. Many iconic songs and artists have used the sound of the 12-string guitar to great effect, creating a distinctive sound and feel that is instantly recognizable.
Overall, the unique sound, tonal texture, playing technique, and cultural associations of the 12-string guitar make it beloved by many musicians.
What are the cons of the 12-string guitar?
There are some potential drawbacks to consider.
Here are a few cons of the 12-string guitar:
Playing technique challenges
The wider neck and fingerboard of the 12-string guitar require a different playing technique than a standard guitar. This can be challenging for beginners or guitarists who are used to playing only six-string guitars.
Tuning and maintenance difficulties
With twice as many strings as a standard guitar, the 12-string guitar can be more difficult to tune and maintain. The additional strings can put extra strain on the neck and bridge, and tuning can be more time-consuming and challenging.
Volume and projection limitations
While the 12-string guitar can produce a full and rich sound, it may not have the same volume and projection as a larger guitar, such as a jumbo or dreadnought. This can make it less suitable for certain types of music or performance settings.
Due to their unique design and the extra materials needed to create the additional strings, 12-string guitars can be more expensive than standard 6-string guitars.
This factor can make them less accessible to some musicians who are just starting out or have limited budgets.
What is the difference between a 6-string and 12-string guitar?
The primary difference between a 6-string and 12-string guitar lies in the number of strings they have. A 6-string guitar has six strings, while a 12-string guitar has 12 strings. However, there are other differences worth mentioning:
Difference in sound
The additional strings on a 12-string guitar create a fuller, more complex sound than a six-string guitar. The doubled strings produce a natural chorus-like effect, resulting in a rich, resonant tone with greater sustain.
The sound of a 6-string guitar is generally cleaner and more defined, with a brighter tonality than the 12-string. This is because fewer strings allow each note to be more clearly defined without the additional harmonics that come from the doubled strings on a 12-string guitar.
Difference in design
Besides the obvious difference in the number of strings, the two types of guitars have a few other essential differences in design.
Size and Weight
The additional strings on a 12-string guitar require a larger headstock, wider neck, and broader bridge, making it larger and heavier than a 6-string guitar.
The wider neck on a 12-string guitar can make it more challenging to fret notes and chords and requires a different playing technique.
Nut and Saddle
The nut and saddle on a 12-string guitar are wider than those on a 6-string guitar to accommodate the doubled strings.
The tuning machines on a 12-string guitar are usually larger and more robust than those on a 6-string guitar to handle the extra tension of the additional strings.
Difference in price
When it comes to the price of guitars, there is a noticeable difference between 6-string and 12-string guitars.
Generally speaking, 12-string guitars are more expensive than their 6-string counterparts.
The average price for a 12-string guitar may vary from $200 to $2000, while a six-string guitar is between $100 to $500 – depending on the class, of course.
There are a few reasons for this price difference.
Firstly, the structure of a 12-string guitar is more complex than a regular 6-string guitar. The additional strings require a larger body, a wider neck, and a more intricate bracing system. This means that the materials and work required to build a 12-string guitar are more expensive than for a 6-string guitar.
Secondly, the market demand for 12-string guitars is generally lower than for 6-string guitars. This means that manufacturers produce fewer 12-string guitars, and the cost of production is spread over a smaller number of units, resulting in a higher cost per guitar.
Lastly, the sound quality and complexity of a 12-string guitar are generally considered superior to a 6-string guitar, contributing to its higher price point.
|12-string guitar||16-string guitar|
|Sound||fuller, more complex sound, a rich,|
resonant tone with greater sustain.
|cleaner and more defined,|
with a brighter tonality
|Skill level||Suitable for advanced players||Suitable for all skill levels|
|Average price||$200 – $2000||$100 to $500|
How to choose 12 string guitar
When it comes to choosing the perfect 12-string guitar, various factors come into play. To simplify the selection process, consider these key aspects:
Determine the primary use for your 12-string guitar, such as live performances, studio recording, or personal enjoyment. This will help you identify the features best suited to your needs.
Set a budget for your guitar purchase. Determine how much you are willing to spend before you start shopping. The cost of a 12-string guitar can vary widely, from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars.
Different body shapes, like dreadnought, jumbo, and concert, affect the sound produced. Consider the size, shape, and materials used in constructing the guitar.
Neck width can impact playability, with wider necks better for larger hands and narrower ones for smaller hands.
Action and intonation
Check the guitar’s action and intonation to ensure ease of play and proper tuning.
For amplified performances, consider built-in electronics, such as pickups, preamps, and equalizers.
Investigate the brand’s reputation, seeking reviews and recommendations from fellow musicians to gauge the guitar’s quality.
The feel and sound of the guitar are crucial. Take time to test various 12-string guitars and select the one that resonates with you.
For frequent use or travel, a durable guitar made with sturdy materials is essential. This ensures it can withstand regular wear and tear over time.
How to play a 12-string guitar
Playing a 12-string guitar is similar to a standard guitar, with the same basic techniques and parts. However, it is not simply a replacement for a traditional guitar, as it has unique characteristics and a distinct sound that allows players to develop their own style.
In addition to its unique sound, the 12-string guitar has several factors that contribute to its distinctive playing style, including traditional techniques and associated styles.
Although most guitarists who play a 12-string guitar have experience with six-string guitats, it is unnecessary to re-learn everything to play it well. While many of the methods and knowledge can be carried over, there are some specific techniques that can help players improve their skills when playing a 12-string guitar.
Popular techniques for playing 12-string guitar
Here are some popular techniques for playing a 12-string guitar:
One of the most important techniques for playing a 12-string guitar is fretting. This involves pressing down on the strings to create different notes and chords. Due to the additional strings, it can be challenging to fret accurately, so practicing finger placement and hand positioning is important.
When picking the strings, use a light touch to prevent excessive pressure and create a clear, even tone.
Playing two notes simultaneously on adjacent strings allows you to create harmonies and a fuller sound. This technique is especially effective on a 12-string guitar.
Playing the notes of a chord individually in a sequence, rather than strumming them all at once, can create a more intricate and detailed sound. This is particularly useful when playing a 12-string guitar, as it emphasizes the instrument’s unique tonal qualities.
By sliding your finger up or down the fretboard, you can create smooth transitions between notes or add a bluesy feel to your playing. This technique can be especially expressive on a 12-string guitar, given its rich tonal palette.
How to tune 12 string guitar
Tuning a 12-string guitar can be intimidating, but it’s an essential skill for guitarists. While it requires a bit more effort than tuning a standard 6 string guitar, the process is similar.
The Standard tuning and frequencies for 12-string guitar
The standard tuning for a 12-string guitar is the same as a 6-string guitar, except that each string is paired with another string tuned to the same pitch, one octave apart. From low to high, the standard 12-string guitar tuning is:
- E3(e) – 164.81 Hz
- E2(E) – 82.41 Hz
- A3(a) – 220.00 Hz
- A2(A) – 110.00 Hz
- D4 (d) – 293.66 Hz
- D3 (D) – 146.83 Hz
- G4 (g) – 392.00 Hz
- G3 (G) – 196.00 Hz
- B3 (B) – 246.94 Hz
- B3 (B) – 246.94 Hz
- E4 (E) – 329.63 Hz
- E4 (E) – 329.63 Hz
Alternate tunings for 12-string guitar
Many alternate tunings can be used to create different textures and harmonies. Each of these tunings has its own distinct character and offers a range of possibilities for creative expression.
The most common alternate tuning for 12-string guitars are:
- Half-step down (Eb-Ab-Db-Gb-Bb-Eb)
- Drop D (D-A-D-G-B-E)
- Variants for open tunings
How to restring a 12-string guitar
Restringing a 12-string guitar may seem daunting, but with a little bit of patience and some basic tools, it can be done easily and efficiently. Knowing how to restring your 12-string guitar is an essential skill to keep your instrument sounding and playing its best.
You will need a new set of strings, wire cutters or pliers, and a string winder (optional but helpful).
Read our detailed guide on how to restring a 12-string guitar.
Signs that it is time to change your guitar strings
Here are some signs that it may be time to restring your 12-string guitar:
Loss of tone or volume
If your guitar sounds dull or muted, it could be a sign that your strings have lost their brightness and need to be replaced.
Difficulty tuning or staying in tune
If your guitar is difficult to tune or doesn’t stay in tune for long, probably your strings have stretched or worn out.
Visible signs of wear
If you notice any visible signs of wear on your strings, such as rust, discoloration, or fraying, it is definitely time to restring your guitar.
Famous 12-string guitar players
The 12-string guitar has been an important instrument in many genres of music for decades and has been used by some of the most famous musicians in history.
Here are just a few examples of some of the most well-known musicians who have played the 12-string guitar:
Jimi Hendrix – Hendrix is recognized for raising the level of artistry in rock guitar playing to new heights. Surprisingly, despite his rock reputation, he also displayed his blues roots while playing the 12-string guitar.
David Bowie – During the early part of his career, Bowie used the 12-string guitar, although his playing style was relatively conservative and focused mainly on chord comping. However, his strength as a guitarist lay in his ability to create harmonies that perfectly complemented his well-crafted melodies and lyrics.
Tom Petty – Tom Petty, the renowned guitarist, and songwriter, has an impressive collection of 12-string guitar songs in his repertoire. Known for prioritizing groove and the lyrics, Petty’s 12-string guitar songs often revolve around simple chords that exude a great vibe. His notable works include “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Refugee,” “Learning to Fly,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and many others.
Don Felder – Recognized for his contributions to The Eagles, Don Felder is an American guitarist who specializes in rock music and concentrates on chord progressions and lead sections. His guitar style is characterized by ornamented lines and lead playing, with some comparing his 12-string guitar lines to the sound of a mandolin.
Don favors the 12-string electric guitar, as demonstrated in the iconic introduction and accompaniment of Hotel California.
Favorite 12-string guitar songs
From the classic rock anthems of the 60s and 70s to the contemporary folk ballads of today, the 12-string guitar has been an essential piece of many popular songs. In this list, we’ve compiled some of the most iconic and beloved songs that feature this beautiful instrument.
- “Hurricane” – Bob Dylan
- “Ticket to Ride” – The Beatles
- “Free Fallin” – Tom Petty
- “Hotel California” – The Eagles
- “Over The Hills and Far Away” – Led Zeppelin
- “Breaking the girl” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
- “Stairway to Heaven “– Led Zeppelin
- “Suicide Note Part 1” – Pantera
- “Wanted Dead” – Alive By Bon Jovi
- “Wish You Were Here” – Pink Floyd
The 12-string guitar is a fascinating and distinctive instrument that has left its mark on many genres of music. The rich, full sound is a joy to listen to and a pleasure to play.
Whether you’re a seasoned musician or just starting on your musical journey, the 12-string guitar is an instrument worth exploring and discovering.