Those who have recently delved into the world of guitar may not have seen or even heard of the 12-string. Metalheads may know of the 7-string while the more avant garde fans may be fans of the 8-string. So it would stand to reason the jump to the 12-string is that much more complicated. Not one or two, but SIX extra strings!
Actually, it’s not like that at all. I love these guitars and students and novice players often ask me about the difference between the 12-string and the “regular” guitar. They ask, “Can I play a 12-string guitar like a six-string?” The answer is yes. There are minor differences in the feel and the tone of the guitar, but it is tuned the same and played in the same manner. Chords and notes are 100% transferable.
First, let’s explore what the two have in common, tuning.
A standard six-string guitar is tuned (low to high) E-A-D-G-B-e. A 12-string is tuned the exact same way, only the notes are doubled. The high “e” and “B” strings are doubled in unison, each having an identical twin string right next to it. From the “G” down to the low “E”, the strings are doubled with an octave above.
Using capital letters for low notes and lowercase for high notes, the 12-string is tuned:
12-strings are played just like six-strings, using the same strumming ideas, the same chords, and are held the same. You can play all the same songs you learned on a standard guitar without much adjustment if any.
Other than the much larger headstock with double the tuners, the changes made to a 12-string guitar are minor. We can first look at the anatomical contrasts of a 12-string compared to a six-string. These main differences with the body have a lot to do with the additional tension provided by the extra strings.
First off, the neck is slightly wider and beefier to accommodate the extra space required and the extra tension that is put on the neck by adding more strings. So right away, this will be the most apparent difference when you sit down to play one for the first time, even though it may only be a tenth of an inch wider than a typical six string.
Many 12-string necks will be a shorter scale length which also helps with the added tension. For example, a Guild six string might be a 25.625” scale length where the 12-string model is 25.5. Like the neck width, it’s only a fraction of an inch difference, but it’s amazing how perceptible these small differences are even to a novice player.”
Tension is also mitigated slightly by using lighter gauge strings than the standard six-string. The typical six-string guitar will use “regular lights” which come in at .012 at the high “e” string and .053 at the low “E” string. Normally, the gauge used for the 12-string are .010 at the high “e” and .047 at the low. This is usually the characteristic of the 12-string that will make you say, “This isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be!”
Another difference in feel is the action of the strings, or the distance between the strings and the neck. Most 12-string guitars are set to have a lower action with the strings closer to the neck than a standard guitar. This low action paired with the lighter gauge strings really helps make fretting quite manageable.
One more anatomical difference that is not obvious (at least on the outside) is extra reinforcement in the construction. The top of a 12-string is usually thicker and the bracing used on the inside may be thicker as well. Some builders may even use an extra brace under the bridge.
These structural differences not only add stability, but help to shape the unique tone associated with these guitars. Although these characteristics may not be visible at first glance, what will be obvious with a lot of these guitars is the extra weight and, in many cases, the louder volume.
So all of that being said, how is the playability of a 12-string compared to the six-string? Although the tuning is the same and chords are made the same, you can’t ignore the added difficulty of pressing down on the strings. Even with lighter strings and lower action, you are still dealing with twice the number of strings.
When fretting a 12-string, the paired strings take up more space on your finger. They almost feel like little flat surfaces as opposed to the rounded, bump-like feel of a single string. The upside to this is that a string may feel more evenly distributed on your finger tip and not quite as sharp. The difficulty, however, is the extra grip strength needed to press the string down without it buzzing.
There is always going to be a slight buzzing to the strings, even for the seasoned players. If you don’t believe me, check out songs like “Wanted Dead or Alive”, the very beginning of “Wish You Were Here”, or my personal favorite — Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Hear My Train a Comin’”.
With action this low and strings that require a bit more squeezing power, a buzzing note here and there is just about unavoidable. In Hendrix’s case, tuning down a half step just adds to the buzz factor. Some would say that’s what gives the 12-string sound its charm.
Remember the wider neck I mentioned? This can certainly add another degree of difficulty when playing. With the neck taking up more space in your mitt, it restricts your fingers a bit more. If you are blessed like the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix with E.T.-like fingers, you may not have much of a problem overcoming this obstacle. For mere mortals, it may very well completely eliminate certain chords from your repertoire.
For example, I really enjoy playing an Fmaj9 instead of the standard (and often despised) F major:
I like using the thumb on the bass notes as indicated in the diagram. However, on a 12-string, I really struggle with this one even though I have relatively large hands and long fingers. I usually have to either alter it by playing only the low strings, or change it to a different voicing like a standard Fmaj7 and omitting the thumb.
For a very beginner, introductory chords like the C major are much more challenging on the 12-string. It is more difficult to spread your fingers out to the desired frets when you have a thicker neck to hold.
With the body being larger on a 12-string guitar, it can also present issues to the journeyman player in terms of comfort, especially if you have a smaller frame. One of my all-time favorite guitar players, Tim Reynolds, has to be one of the smallest dudes in music. Whenever I feel discouraged by the 12-string after being away from it for a time, I just watch him play for a little encouragement!
Although an advanced subject in guitar playing, alternate tuning is often used with a 12-string. The use of open tunings help the player play much simpler chords while utilizing all of the strings. The advantage to this is playing one- and two-finger chords. The disadvantage is you are limited to one or two keys.
If you can play a six-string guitar, you can play a 12-string. Although it may take longer to tune, the tuning for the 12-string is the same. Your library of chords, scales, and songs are transferable. The only difference between the two guitars is the physical demands of the 12-string that many six strings do not have.
If you are not sure if you should buy a 12 string then read my article here Should You Buy a 12 String Guitar? where I go in to detail about what makes the 12 string so unique and the reasons why you should buy one.
More grip strength and dexterity are required along with more developed calluses to be able to play a 12-string with equal proficiency as a standard six string acoustic, but it can be done. It can also be a great way to improve your six-string abilities. Much like warming up with a weighted bat in baseball, when you go to use the more “regulation size”, it feels almost weightless!
Or think of it this way: If you use the nickname “axe” for the guitar, think of the 12-string as a maul. It is used the same way, it’s just harder to swing.
This subject may open you up to other variants of the guitar such as the 7-string, 8-string, baritone, and harp guitar (yes, “harp” guitar). And while they are similar in that many of the concepts learned on a conventional guitar are transferable, those other species are quite different in terms of style and technique. Out of all the alternately strung guitars, the 12-string actually requires less adaptation. In fact, after sitting down and playing one for a little while, you’ll forget that you are playing with double the strings.
If you are considering buying a 12 string guitar for the first time or you just want to upgrade an existing 12 string you own then read my article Best 12 String Acoustic Guitars (Under $300, $500, $1000) where I talk about the best 12 string guitars based on my 25 years experience.