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How to Play 12-String Guitar – A Complete Guide for Beginners

You are probably reading this because you want to know how to play 12-string guitar? However, there are some things to look at before we get into how to play it. But before that, let’s clear up a myth or two that surrounds it.

Where Did It Come From?

Where Did It Come From

No, George Harrison or Roger McGuinn of the Byrds didn’t introduce the world to the 12-string guitar. It was around long before they were even born. There are pictures of a 12-string guitar being used in Mexico in the early 1900s. At about the same time, there was an archtop mandolin created that had “doubled-up” strings.

Seen as a Novelty

By the 1920s and 30s, they were being used in a Blues/Folk style by people like Willie McTell and Leadbelly. But they were still seen as somewhat of a novelty instrument. It was seen and heard but only as a support instrument.

The 60s

This was where things began to change. Danelectro introduced a version of a 12-string instrument, half guitar and half something else. And Vox produced the Tempest in 1963. It was that year, though, that it began to be heard on records.

There were some famous songs with a 12-string guitar. Carol Kaye used a converted Gretsch on “Then I Kissed Her” by the Crystals. Vic Flick used the Vox Tempest on “World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon. Hank Marvin on the soundtrack to the movie “Wonderful Life.”

Beatles Again

Things really heated up when the President of Rickenbacker gave George a 12-string during their first American tour. He thought it would give them a boost. As if they needed one? George used it on the “Hard Days Night” album in 1964. This inspired Roger McGuinn to base the Byrds Folk-Rock sound around it from 1965. The 12-string had arrived.

They went out of favor a little towards the end of the decade. But bounced back in the 70s courtesy of Led Zeps’ Jimmy Page and Don Felder of the Eagles.

Part of Rock n Roll History

The shimmering, jangly, sweet sound of the 12-string has established itself. There is something about it. Of that, there is no doubt. And what has made it so successful is the range of genres it can be used in.

They have a certain appeal. That comes from the sound and the resonance created by the extra six strings. While we are on the subject of the sound, let’s take a look at that.

The Sound of a 12-String

The Sound of a 12-String

It is always difficult to describe a sound in words. You can use the same terminology that others have used, like “bright and shimmering.” But it doesn’t do it justice. The nearest thing I can place the sound to is if you are using an electric guitar with a chorus pedal. There is that “doubling-up” you get from a chorus pedal created by the doubled-up strings.

The sound is rich and full of harmonies. Something a six-string can never achieve. As a rhythm guitar, it gives you a fuller sound. As a solo instrument, it creates an alternative melody full of harmony.

The sound and the resonance can be changed by using different strings. The original 12-string guitar had flatwound strings. That is the sound you get with George Harrison. Others use sharper strings with more bite. But if you want that early 12-string jangle, then Flatwounds are probably the way to go.

Tuning it is “Interesting”

If you are going to get one of these great instruments, then I don’t need to tell you it will have to be tuned. That can be fun. Despite its name, the twelve-string guitar is not like other popular extended range guitars.

They have seven or eight different strings. On the 12-string, you have the six strings you will get on a standard guitar. The other six are either tuned an octave up, as is the case with the E, A, D, and G strings. Or they are in unison as on the B and high E.

There are no extra notes, extended fretboard, or other surprises. Furthermore, for most things, a 12-string guitar is the same as a 6-string, except it has 12-strings.

Same Rules for Tuning

The “standard six” are tuned the same way as a 6-string. The lower four, as we said, are then paired an octave up, and the top two are tuned to the same pitch. Each “paired” string will resonate with the standard string. Accuracy in the tuning procedure is very important and crucial to learning how to play 12-string guitar.

What Goes Where?

The usual standard tuning for the 12-string will be to put the paired string on top of the standard string. So if you strum down, the first string you will strike will be the paired string.

Some Variations

As is the case in most things to do with music, there is an alternative way of doing things. Rickenbacker 12-strings are noted for a different way of tuning.

With Rickenbacker guitars, most people tune them with the standard, not the paired string, on top. Therefore, the string you will strike first is the standard string. This is against the paired string first with standard tuning.

Does it Matter?

Well, it does change the sound slightly. The Rickenbacker tuning sounds much more like a six-string guitar with something added.

The Standard tuning is more likely to emphasize the paired string. This will give you more of the “12-string jangle” you may be looking for.

The Tuning Pegs

The Tuning Pegs

Most companies have their machine heads or tuners in two lines of six. Similar in design to many standard headstocks that have two lines of three. Here again, Rickenbacker bucks the trend with a different design. I personally don’t prefer their string arrangement, or its “standard string first” sound. But their tuner arrangement is better for two reasons.

Firstly it is easiest to keep track of what string you are tuning. There are effectively four lines of three tuners. That design makes it easier to keep track of what string you are on rather than two cramped lines of six.

Secondly, because it shortens the length of the headstock. Thus reducing the tension placed on the headstock and the neck, which has to be a good thing, as well as the overall weight making it less ‘neck heavy.’

Neck Tensions

While we are mentioning neck tensions, it is worth considering that before we move on to playing the thing.

Higher Tensions

Having 12-strings is inevitably going to apply extra pressure and tensions on the neck and even the body of the guitar. They are, of course, built to withstand certain increases. But it can be far more of a problem with an acoustic 12-string.

They tend to be a little more vulnerable to extra stresses and strains. The soundboard is thinner on the top, and the bracing internally can be quite delicately balanced. Changing strings and tuning can be a problem. Care needs to be taken for all 12-string guitars but especially for acoustic instruments. Here are a couple of tips for tuning a 12-string guitar.

  • Don’t remove all the strings at the same time. Perhaps do the standard strings first and then the paired.
  • Change one string at a time.
  • Don’t tighten to its full tension at first.
  • When you have changed all the strings, let them settle for a short time.
  • Once they have settled in a little, then try tuning to pitch.
  • On a six-by-six headstock arrangement, don’t change the strings on one side first. Alternate the changes.

Removing all the strings can play havoc with the neck of a guitar. Especially one that spends most of its time under extreme tensions. The result can be cracks or a warped body or neck parts.

You’ve guessed it

If there is a downside to 12-string guitars, it is the tuning. It can be a right pain in the you know what. But you get better and quicker at it the more you do it. And the result is more than worth the aggravation tuning can sometimes bring.

Playing a 12-String Guitar

Playing a 12-String Guitar

Finally, we get round to talking about what it may have been you came for. What we have looked at, though, is important. And you need to be aware of the issues raised before rushing to the store. But now we are going to play it. If you haven’t played one before, you are in for a treat.

You may be disappointed to know that after all, I have discussed, there isn’t much of a difference. Furthermore, learning to play a 12-string guitar is very much like learning a 6-string. And I am assuming that you can already do that to a certain level because not many people (if anyone?) start off on a 12-string.

Not a Substitute

It is important to make a point about the 12-string. I have known people who have played them and then complained it didn’t do much. I am not sure what they were expecting. The 12-string is its own instrument; it is not a substitute for or another version of a 6-string.

It has its own style. You wouldn’t expect to get great results from substituting an organ for a piano or a cello for a violin. Yes, you can play similar music, even the same songs as you might on a 6-string. You just play them differently. You need to appreciate the benefits of a 12-string guitar and use them.

Some Playing Differences

As mentioned, it is almost the same as a 6-string. However, there are some things to be aware of when you want to know how to play 12-string guitar, especially in the early stages.

  • The neck is wider and can feel a little awkward.
  • You might need to adjust your hand position to ensure you make good contact with the strings. There are two under each fingertip now, not one.
  • It may feel a little stiffer in the playing position.
  • Be sure that you practice striking all the strings. It is easy to miss some of them if your strumming isn’t good, which will lose the sound.
  • Your strumming action needs to be smooth and not just from the elbow; use your wrist as well.
  • You may need to purchase some extra equipment. As an example, if you use a capo, a 6-string version may not fit a 12-string guitar.

The 12-string guitar is a whole new world. If you are thinking about it, treat it as a separate instrument. Here are some options. Ibanez makes some exceptional guitars. This Ibanez AEG5012 AEG Series Single-Cutaway 12-String Acoustic-Electric is a great example.

Then there is this Rickenbacker 360/12C63 FG Fireglo 12-String. Not exactly the Rickie that George used but close. Note the different headstock. However, the price will mean you will need to be serious about your 12-string.

An acoustic-only version is this Guild Guitars D-2612CE Deluxe ATB 12-string Acoustic Guitar. And if you do need to change your capo, a reasonable option is the Shubb 12-String Guitar Capo – Nickel Finish.

Looking for a Great Guitar?

We can help you find what you want. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best 12-String Guitars, the Top 3 Takamine 12 String Acoustic Guitars, the Best Jasmine Guitars, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $300, the Best Jazz Guitars, and the Best Resonator Guitar you can buy in 2023.

You may also like our comprehensive reviews of the Best Alvarez Guitar, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, the Best Blues Guitars, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, the Best Left-Handed Acoustic Guitars, and the Best Classical Guitars currently available.

How to Play 12-String Guitar – Final Thoughts

Are you serious about the 12-string? If so, take a listen to what others have done and how they use its sound. You play it like a 6-string but in a slightly different way, if you know what I mean, because it can do so many things a 6-string can not do.

To get the best out of it, there is a small learning curve to appreciate just what it can do. And then how you can best use it. The 12-string is a variant of a 6-string. Not just a “6 with 12”. It has become a part of music history and deserves the respect for being what it is. By the way, if you haven’t guessed, I love them and think every guitarist should have at least one in their collection.

Until next time, let your music play.

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