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How to Tune a 12-String Guitar – Detailed Guide

You might have waited for what seems like an age. Possibly saved up the money, searched for the guitar you want. And now you have been down to the shop, laid your pennies on the table, and you’ve brought it home.

You get it out of the box, and panic sets in. You are going to have to learn How to Tune a 12-String Guitar. But don’t worry, it might seem daunting at first, but once you’ve done it a few times, it will be easy.

Different Ways To Tune

Different Ways To Tune

There are several ways to tune a 12-string guitar. And these are used for a variety of reasons. But let’s make a start with a standard E-tuning. You will at least be partly familiar with that.

6-string to 12-string…

I am assuming you’ve served your time on a 6-string guitar using standard tuning. Therefore, you’re familiar with the E-A-D-G-B-E format. But suddenly, there are twice as many. It will help if you don’t think of them as 12 strings but as six pairs of strings. And half of them are the same strings you have on your 6-string. But each one now paired with a friend.

When you play it, you won’t be thinking in terms of playing 12 strings. You will construct the chords and play the notes as if they were a six-string. Think in a similar way when you are tuning it. There are six pairs of strings.

Strings

When you look at your 12-string, you will see the standard strings that you have on your six-string. Before we start to think about stringing, let’s have a closer look at the strings. Lay the instrument down on its back in a safe place where you can get visual access to the headstock.

Through thick and thin…

As you look down at the headstock’s upper side, there are six tuners to the left. These hold the standard E, A, and D strings from your six-string. You will see them clearly because they are thicker than those they are paired with.

They each have a thinner partner string. The partner strings are also tuned E-A and D. But an octave higher. That means that you have two E’s, two A’s, and two D’s paired with each other. But each string pair is an octave apart on a 12 string guitar. Those are the six strings to the left of the headstock.

All right now…

To the right, things change a little. It is here you will find your G string. This string has the same format as the strings to the left. That is a standard G tuning paired with a G, but an octave higher.

What is left are the B and E strings. However, the B and E strings are not an octave apart on a 12 string guitar. So, on a 12-string guitar, both B strings are tuned the same. Likewise, both E strings have the same tuning.

The complete pattern…

The complete pattern

This is how it should look. We have put the standard string tunings from the six-string in capitals. This should make it easier to learn how to tune a 12-string guitar.

  • e: tuned an octave higher than its thicker paired E string.
  • E: This has a normal 6-string guitar tuning.
  • A: tuned an octave higher than its thicker paired A string.
  • A: This has a normal 6-string guitar tuning.
  • d: tuned an octave higher than its thicker paired D string.
  • D: This has a normal 6-string guitar tuning.
  • g: tuned an octave higher than its thicker paired G string.
  • G: normal 6-string guitar tuning.
  • B: This has the normal 6-string guitar B tuning.
  • B: as above.
  • E: This has the normal 6-string guitar top E tuning.
  • E: as above.

In a shortened version, you could express it like this:

eE aA dD gG BB EE

Again with the tunings from your six-string in capital letters.

Doing It Yourself

Some will prefer this way. Take your source root note, preferably from a keyboard. You can use another guitar, providing you are certain it is in tune. I recommend a keyboard because all the notes you need will be there. Especially the octave notes. Then it is just a case of playing them note by note. A six-string might forgive you for being a fraction out. A 12-string won’t.

The problem with it is you might play a chord and hear something is not right. It could take you a while to find out which string is the culprit. That is why we say to use a keyboard for tuning by ear.

But even then, you are using personal judgment. In many ways, it is far easier to just use a tuner. Here’s why tuners are better than ears for 12 string guitars.

Using a tuner…

This will tell you immediately whether you have the right note. It is likely to be more accurate and certainly a lot quicker. They are efficient, often come with a few extras like a metronome. And they will work with plenty of different instruments.

When using an electronic tuner, the best 12 string guitar tuner is a chromatic tuner. It will work with any note you feed it, so it is especially good for the 12-string guitars.

A good example of what is available if you decide to buy one is the KLIQ MetroPitch – Metronome Tuner for All Instruments. Or, if you want to incorporate your tuner on a pedalboard, Boss makes a very good chromatic tuner, the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner Bundle with Power Supply.

Some Tuning Suggestions

Some Tuning Suggestions

If you are tuning a new guitar for the first time, it will likely be quite close to where it should be. A good place to start is with the six standard tuning strings of E-A-D-G-B and E.

Once they are in tune, you can go to the paired strings one by one. Remembering, of course, that four of the strings should be tuned an octave higher.

New strings…

It is advisable not to put on each new string and adjust it to its full tension. Just apply a little tension to each string as you put it on. Go for the full tensions once they are all in place. In some cases, it is a good idea to complete the tuning from the center strings working out. This then spreads the effect of tensioning on the neck.

Other tunings…

I am sure you are aware that there are other tunings you can apply. “Tuning down” was sometimes a symptom of a weak neck that might not stand the tensions. But by using that technique, there are some interesting sounds you can get.

You can apply any tuning you want. Provided that you remember that you must tune the strings in pairs. And that the bottom four need to be an octave apart.

It can be positive…

“Dropping down” the tuning has some positive effects. With less tension on the strings, they are easier to hold down, and they also offer you a little more bending ability. Although don’t go too far, or you will get some “fingerboard rattle.”

If you do, tune down, you can go back to standard tuning just by using a capo. The plus points could be significant. Lower tensions mean easier to play and fewer string breakages. Less wear and tear on the guitar neck, and it usually offers a nice “chimey” sound.

Buying Your First

Let’s digress a little. If you are reading this, and considering buying your first 12-string, then pick a good one. The benefits are enormous, principally with sound.

Don’t let tuning issues worry you. It is more time-consuming than a six-string. But once you have changed the strings a few times, it will all seem easy. The only thing that won’t is the amount of time it takes. But there’s not much that can be done about that.

As a starter guitar?

Probably not. It would be easier to learn to play with six strings rather than 12. That is only because 12-strings can be harder to play, especially with standard tuning. Another consideration is the width of the fingerboard. They are quite wide and not suited to young hands.

Some great guitars around…

If you’re thinking about entering the magical world of the 12-string, most manufacturers have their options. These days Yamaha makes some of the best acoustic guitars around. Their 12-strings are no exception.

Here is a great option that is acoustic-electric, the Yamaha APX700II-12 12-String Thinline Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Guitar. Having a pickup makes it good for the home or playing live.

And one last suggestion. What songs to play? There are too many to list here, plus some of the great songs are made better played by a 12-string.

What about the “California Dreaming” cover by the Beach Boys in 1986? The 12-string intro is played by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. They were a band that knew the values of a 12-string.

First 50 Songs You Should Play on 12-String Guitar is a great book with 50 songs to learn, including the lead song from the album that may well have started it all off. A “Hard Day’s Night” from the Beatles, as well as “California Dreaming.”

Need a Great Guitar Tuner?

We have some that should satisfy all your needs. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Clip-On Guitar Tuners and the Best Guitar Tuners you can buy in 2021.

Or, how about a great acoustic guitar?

We have plenty of those as well. Take a look at our comprehensive Epiphone EJ-200CE Review, our Yamaha APXT2 Acoustic Electric Review, our Rogue RA-090 Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar review, our Washburn WCG25CE Acoustic Guitar Review, and our Taylor 110e Review for awesome items currently on the market.

And don’t miss our detailed review of the Best 12-string Guitars, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, and the Best Classical Guitars you can purchase today.

How to Tune a 12-String Guitar – Final Thoughts

Playing the 12-string is a different experience. And for the guitar player, a great alternative. Don’t let tuning the instrument put you off. When you get round to tuning it up, there are several easy ways you can do it.

If you have a good ear, then you can do it yourself audibly from a source root note. Failing that, there are some very good electronic tuners on the market to help.

Until next time, may the music make you move.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what is what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear hear and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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