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Introducing the 12-string guitar

Welcome to this week's instalment of guitar knowledge, which we’ll begin with an important health warning.

The condition known as “UGAS” – or “Uncontrollable Guitar Acquisition Syndrome” – is a problem affecting more and more guitarists every day. These poor souls are helplessly controlled by an unstoppable urge to expand their instrument collection whenever they walk past a music shop or log into eBay. Fortunately, this is not a life-threatening medical condition, although it definitely poses a risk to the wallet.

One common problem UGAS sufferers face is simple; what kind of guitar do I want to buy next? Well we’re here to help with sound advice as always! And one interesting instrument you may want to explore is the sonic magnificence of the 12-string guitar.

Here are the answers to the questions we just know you’re going to ask…

What is a 12-string guitar?

 It’s a guitar with 12 strings. Obviously.

 How does that work?!?

Very simply by doubling up each string of a normal 6-string guitar. This results in 12 strings arranges in six ‘courses’ of two closely-spaced adjacent strings, which are designed to be played as a single string.

The four lowest-pitched strings (E, A, D and G, or strings 6-3) are paired with a thinner string tuned an octave higher.

The two highest pitched strings (B and high E, or strings 2 and 1) are simply doubled up.

The result? A completely different sound, which could variously be described as “richer”, “warmer”, “shimmering’, “ringing” – the list of adjectives is endless. (Note; This is partly due to a sonic effect known as ‘beat’, which comes from interference patterns caused by the out-of-phase vibrations emitting from the coursed pairs of strings. We don’t understand that either, so ask a science teacher if you’re confused…)

But you want to know the best part? It’s played basically the same way as your normal 6-string guitar! Same chords, same strumming, same everything.

Wow! Is this a new idea?

Absolutely not. Tuning pairs of strings in courses on musical instruments has been happening for centuries – the Lute and Mandolin both use this convention. And don’t forget that the piano has been using 3 strings per course since it was invented.

Acoustic 12-string guitars certainly existed in the 19th century, albeit as a sort of novelty, but it was artists like Leadbelly back in the 1920s that brought them more into the mainstream. Blues and folk were generally the first main genres that made use of the characteristic ‘larger-than-life’ sound which especially suited solo vocalists.

And things got even busier following the invention of the electric guitar. Electric 12-strings were used extensively throughout the 1960s by the ‘wrecking crew’ of session musicians on Americas west coast for a number of artists, along with groups like The Byrds (that wonderful intro to “Mr Tambourine Man” for example), The Beatles (George Harrison used a Rickenbacker 360/12 extensively on the “Hard Days Night” album) and countless others. The 1970s saw guitarists such as Alex Lifeson of Rush and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin performing live with double-necked instruments that featured both a 6-string and 12-string neck to jump between (can you imagine how much those things weigh?!?).

Since then, the 12-string guitar has been used by an amazing variety of artists and bands – R.E.M, The Smiths, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and John Butler have all made use of this unique sound in some very different ways.

So it feels the same as my 6-string?

Well not exactly, but close enough that you shouldn’t be scared to try it.

Adding an extra 6 strings to a guitar does cause a few minor changes in the way the instrument is constructed, which become pretty obvious the moment you pick one up… 

  • Bigger headstock. This is clearly necessary in order to fit another 6 tuning gears into place. Although Rickenbacker got round this with their legendary 360/12 electric by mounting the tuners both as slotted-style peghead (like a Spanish guitar, with machines on the rear of the headstock) AND solid peghead (with machines on the side like a regular steel-strung guitar) – the whole lot fits onto a standard size headstock very elegantly.
  • Slightly wider neck. Also essential, the extra space allows for those extra strings to sit over the fingerboard properly. This makes a 12-string guitar neck feel closer in width to a nylon-string Spanish guitar neck.
  • Extra reinforcement in the neck and body. This is to cope with the stress of the extra tension resulting from having 6 extra strings, and is particularly important on acoustic instruments. Slightly noticeable in the overall weight compared with a 6-string guitar.

 But in terms of how the 12-string guitar plays, the only real differences you’ll notice are… 

  • A little more pressure is needed by your fingers to fret notes and chords than on a standard 6-string instrument. This is understandable since you’re pressing down on twice as many strings.
  • More advanced techniques such as tapping and string bends are definitely more of a challenge.
  • Tuning up will take twice as long. Obviously. Do the math!

None of this should put you off though. Remember that crazy shredding is not what the 12-string guitar is all about - the absolutely colossal sound is far more suited to chords, whether picked or strummed.

My UGAS is kicking in! Are 12-string guitars more expensive than 6-string guitars?

Building a 12-string guitar means constructing a stronger body and neck than you’d usually find on a 6-string (especially with acoustics), and that’s even before you’ve doubled the number of tuners that need to be fitted. So the cost is usually unavoidably greater for a new instrument.

But prices aren’t as high as you might imagine. An excellent entry-level Epiphone DR-212 acoustic 12-string can be picked up for a very reasonable $269 (approx.) online, along with a budget Luna Gypsy Mahogany Dreadnought acoustic 12-string for $199 (approx.). I also encountered a 12-string Danelectro electric for $469, compared with $429 for an equivalent 6-string model, which sounds like a pretty good deal.

And this is just for new 12-string guitars purchased online. Check eBay or any good second-hand guitar dealer for some excellent bargains!

Wrapping it up

And that’s it – hopefully a useful article to help you spend your money wisely!

I’d better step away from my computer before I start accidentally ordering yet another guitar (and I must say that Danelectro DOES look good), so keep your eyes peeled on your inbox for next week's article. Until then…

Peace out!

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  • Daniel L Moore
    Love your blog and love 12 strings. I owned, and played, and acoustic 12 string for 15 years. I found it easier on my fingers than a standard 6 string. I had a car accident and was given a check for “pain and suffering” and used it to buy two acoustic guitars -both were made by Cort. I believe I paid about $500 for it. It had a solid spruce top. Wonderful sound. Easy to set up, tune, and play. The electronic tuners make tuning it easy. I play mostly chords and for me 12 string guitars are great for that.

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