Copyright (c) 2010 Robert Hinchliffe
The 12 string guitar can be played in exactly the same way as a normal 6 string guitar. The strings are arranged in pairs and also tuned in pairs to exactly the same pattern as the 6 string, the usual E-A-D-G-B-E. However, the lower four pairs of strings (E-A-D-G) are tuned in octaves whereas the top two pairs are in unison.
So, if the strings are tuned the same, what is the point of having a 12 string guitar at all? The answer of course is the wonderful ringing tone which the instrument produces. The pairs of strings vibrating together give the instrument an almost organ-like sound and much greater carrying power than the traditional 6 string guitar.
There are ‘solid’ electric 12 string guitars around but they lack the true character of the acoustic or electro-acoustic 12 string. It is the resonating body of the 12 string guitar which gives the instrument its power and characteristic sound. If you are looking to play 12 string guitar, I would recommend that you avoid the solid version.
When you play 12 string guitar it is more usual to use a plectrum, either to strum or to pick individual strings; – very often we use a combination of both techniques of playing in the same song. Finger picking is possible but not particularly satisfactory unless you use plastic or metal finger picks on the ends of your fingers. It is quite tricky to connect with a pair of strings more-or-less simultaneously when using the finger nails or finger tips.
It is the bottom four pairs of strings, tuned in octaves, which give the instrument its special tone and we tend to use these most. Picking out a bass line or melodic phrase on these strings whilst filling in the accompaniment on the upper strings gives a most satisfying sound.
Two of my favourite bits of 12 string guitar playing are to be found in the Beach Boys recording of “California Dreaming” and the iconic “Walk Right In” by The Rooftop Singers.
Both these tracks can be found on You Tube, so have a listen to get a good idea of just what the 12 string guitar is capable of.
The stress caused by the 12 strings on the instrument can, over time, have an effect on the neck of the guitar even causing it to warp slightly. Many 12-string players tune down the guitar by a tone (sometimes more) to reduce this problem. This also has the advantage of making the instrument ring even more, enhancing that wonderful 12 string guitar sound. If you do this, however, you must remember to transpose the pieces you play or use a capo to correct the tuning.
If you have an ambition to play 12 string guitar, it is important to learn to play the 6 string guitar first. You can then transfer your skill on to the 12 string only when you have become proficient on the 6 string instrument.
Robert Hinchliffe is a musician of wide experience. His work has involved him in the playing of the guitar in many different styles and situations. As both player and teacher he has many years of experience in the world of professional music. If you would like to know more about guitar playing, please click here