Around the year 1988 is when I can clearly and definitively point to my first memories as a young boy. My dad played guitar for us as a family nearly every night before bed and there is one specific night I remember. My favorite song that he played was “Warm and Breezy” and on this particular night, it was different than all the other times. On this night, Dad pulled out his 12-string guitar.
My dad has a custom built Guild acoustic and a sibling 12-string model that he got sometime in the early 80s. The first time I remember hearing it, I was hooked. From this night on, I requested the 12-string on a nightly basis. Today, 30 years after that first encounter, I have a 70s Alvarez that is one of my prized possessions. I also have an Ovation 12-string in disrepair that I picked up to tinker with.
If you have put in the work to learn a few tunes on the ol’ six string and you are really enjoying it, I highly recommend acquiring a 12-string acoustic. They sound incredible and they provide a nice change of pace when you are feeling bored or in a rut. If you play live, or are looking to perform live one day, it would behoove you to own a 12-string to add versatility to your sets.
The 12-string has some slight construction differences that provide unique tonal qualities to the guitar. For one, the extra strings create a depth to the sound that is almost harp-like. A heartier neck, thicker top, and beefy interior bracing not only provides extra structural support, but will often add a richness to the sound as the twelve strings vibrate the wood.
To get an idea of what I’m talking about check out these pieces of music:
The first intro to “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd”
“Wanted Dead Or Alive” – Bon Jovi
“As Far As You Can See” – the live 12-string version by Tim Reynolds
There are few alternate tunings that sound great on a 12-string. The tuning known as “DADGAD” is one of the more popular tunings and is quite easy to play. It almost feels like cheating when you are playing chords with one or two fingers and playing melodies along just one string while the others remain open.
Cheating or not, it sure sounds cool and is incredibly fun to play. I will leave it to you to explore open tunings if it’s something that interests you. Open tunings such as DADGAD and Open C (CGCGCE) provide sounds and creative opportunities that are totally unique. Sure, you may need half a day to tune the damn thing, but it’s so worth it.
An interesting example of this practice is John Butler and his very popular song “Ocean”. He tunes to an “open C” and capos on the fourth fret. Something else he does that is popular with many 12-string wielders is to remove the octave string that is paired with the G string, effectively making the “11-string” guitar.
Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls is notorious for playing in alternate tunings. In the hit song “Name”, he tunes the guitar D-A-E-A-A-E. Weird, right? Go back and listen to “Name” again if you haven’t heard it in a while. If you ever wanted to learn how to play this song, but just couldn’t figure out what was going on, the secret is getting the right tuning — and using a 12-string!
Versatility On Stage
Adding a 12-string to your collection can add a nice flavor if you play live. As a solo artist, it can break up the monotony of a 3 hour show with the same guitar. It also adds a new dimension if playing in a duo or a full band. If you have ever seen a live show where a 12-string makes an appearance for a couple of songs, it certainly stands out. Even if it’s not the lead instrument, it demands your attention.
I do recommend using a 12-string responsibly. When used just a few times during a performance, it is far more effective than if it were used for the entirety of a show. At that point, it becomes too much of a good thing. You get the best out of your performance and a crowd gets the most bang for their buck when certain instruments are used in moderation. In most band settings, the 12-string fits that bill.
Don’t worry if you have no interest in playing live or you are a long way off from realizing that goal. The 12-string will add so much to your creativity as a budding musician and will provide you with some extra satisfaction and enjoyment.
If you are feeling like you are in a rut creatively, or maybe you are feeling a touch burned out, these guitars can help give you that shot in the arm you need to keep going.
What To Buy
If you want to know what 12 string to buy I run down the best 12 string guitars under $300, $500, $1000, the best 12 string guitar for the money and the best 12 string vintage guitar to buy in this article here Best 12 String Acoustic Guitars
Are you ready to take the plunge and go get a 12-string for yourself?
If you have already purchased a guitar prior to making this decision, you have some shopping experience under your belt. Heck, you may have even tried one out at the store. If your only guitar was gifted to you, then this will be a first-time buying experience and you should know your options.
Let me digress here for a moment and tell you that I do not recommend you buy a 12-string as your first guitar. Make sure you are ready to make the commitment to learning a standard six string before determining if the 12-string is right for you.
If you have a cheapo six string or student model acoustic, then I don’t recommend it being even your second guitar. An upgraded six-string guitar should be your priority. Luke plays a 6 string guitar that fits this description perfectly, you can read more about it here Best Beginners Through to Intermediate 6 String Acoustic Guitar
As a 12 String Guitar should be your second or third guitar purchase, you should save up a little bit of extra cash rather than cheaping out. A 12-string that is cheaply made that won’t stay in tune is worse than a kid’s “guitar” from Toys-Were-Us.
In my opinion, you will be better off to save up and get one in the $500-$700 range. It’s just enough to get a quality guitar without it being too expensive to re-sell later if you decide to give it up. If you end up absolutely loving the 12-string and money is not really an object, then by all means – spend a few thousand dollars and get a gem!
I have been playing for over 25 years and have played some great 12 String Guitars and some pieces of junk. If you want to To find out my recommendations then read the article I put together here Best 12 String Acoustic Guitars
There are also electric 12-strings. These are fun, but the acoustic versions tend to be better as your first choice so that you can play at home or with your friends without having to bother with an amplifier. And if you have ever wondered why in the world someone would play a double-neck guitar, it’s to have the best of both worlds without having to switch guitars!
Used is better than new, especially when it’s directly from a previous owner. Most people who are selling a 12-string are selling it because they bought it on impulse or just went through a phase and they need to offload it. For example, the Alvarez I have is from the 70s and was preserved in a closet for 20 years. I paid less than $500 on private sale whereas it would have been easily $800 at a music shop.
Here’s what you should look for:
- Check the inside for damaged bracing. You can do this by tapping on the top and back and listening for rattling. Loose or missing braces will negatively impact the ever-important tone of the 12-string as well as compromise its structural integrity.
- Check out the action. The action (distance of the strings from the fretboard) should be lower than a typical guitar. Too high, it’s a pain to play; too low and it will buzz like a deranged wasp.
- Tune it up. Make sure you can tune it and that it stays in tune as you play.
- Electronics? If it has a pickup, plug it in and make sure it at least works and is free of popping, hissing, or crackling. Check the butt of the guitar, the back seam, the bridge, and/or around the top of the soundhole for damage caused by a bad installation job. Most 12-strings have electronics put in them by a third party.
Other than those items, you are free to explore and just go by how it sounds and feels. Since I highly recommend buying second hand, using the above inspection guidelines will give you negotiation power.
If you are really interested in learning more about buying and fixing used guitars, I should direct you to the master, Dan Erlewine and his book – the Guitar Player Repair Guide. It includes a DVD of tips when buying guitars.
Go out and get yourself a 12-string! Recommendations are here Best 12 String Guitars Under $300, $500 and $1,000