Maybe you’ve outgrown your favorite beginner guitar, or perhaps you’re just looking for an excuse to buy a new instrument… don’t worry, we’ve all been there!
Six-string guitars are the most common style of guitar, whether electric or acoustic.
However, twelve-string guitars are a fascinating variation that any guitar player should consider trying.
Sounding sweet in an ensemble, or bold and rich as a solo instrument, these beautiful, sonorous instruments are a welcome addition to any musician’s artillery.
This guide is a deep exploration of the key differences and similarities between 12 string vs 6 string guitars.
Check out our other guide, how to play a 12 string guitar, for more details about playing techniques for 12 stringers.
Table of Contents
- What is a Twelve String Guitar?
- Difference between 6-string and 12-String Guitars
- 6-string or 12-string guitar for beginners?
- What’s better: 6-String or 12-string guitar?
- How to tune a 12 string guitar?
- Which songs use a 12 string guitar?
What is a Twelve String Guitar?
They are guitars that use 12 strings, funnily enough… if you can already play a six-string guitar, you will equally be at home on a twelve.
The main difference is each string is given a duplicate string, so they come in pairs called “courses”. A 12 string guitar has 6 courses of 2.
The extra strings are also tuned a little higher. This makes the guitar sound larger than life, with a wide, expansive tone.
Having 2 strings oscillating at the same pitch creates richer harmonics. The pairs of strings aren’t vibrating at an identical pitch, with each being a few cents apart.
This makes the sound even wider, as the fundamentals and overtones are slightly skewed which creates modulation.
Usually, the supplementary strings are thinner than the main ones, so the guitar is still comfortable to play.
The fretting system of 12s is unchanged; chords and scales work identically to 6 string versions.
Both electric and acoustic guitars come in 12 stringed versions. Many of the biggest names in guitar manufacturing have created twelve-string guitars, including Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, Paul Reed Smith, and Epiphone.
Generally, the 12-string format is favored by acoustic guitars, but not exclusively. Rickenbacker is known to produce some great 12 string electric guitar models.
12 String vs 6 String Guitar | Difference
Besides the obvious biggest difference of string count, 12 stringed guitars have a few modifications to make them more suitable for supporting more strings.
- Headstock: 12 stringed headstocks are usually longer than 6 string models, to make room for the 6 additional tuning pegs. Sometimes the extra pegs are slotted in like normal, other times they are angled to minimize the amount of headstock extension. (Like the Rickenbacker above)
- Tension: Because there are double the strings, the tension is much higher, so the guitar needs more reinforcement and support to prevent break and warping. This generally involves a reinforced neck with a stronger truss rod. The neck joint also needs to be strengthened.
- Body Reinforcement: The body of a 12 string guitar will also have extra layers of reinforcement. It’s common for 12 string acoustics to use more supportive internal bracing designs, sometimes with additional beams for support. Acoustic 12 string models are known to often use a solid spruce top for strength.
- Neck Design: 12 stringed necks are often slightly different than six strings to accommodate the extra room. A wider neck is often favored, sometimes using a different neck shape. More details here about guitar neck shape types.
- Scale Shortening: The fret scaling and scale length are often shortened in a 12 string to reduce the string tension created from using doubled strings. Longer strings result in heavier tension.
- Tuning: The second string of each run tends to be tuned an octave higher than their main one. See below for more details on tuning 12 string guitars
- Strings: Other than the different quantities, the quality of 12 string guitars is often different. They generally use a slightly thinner gauge of string. The double string is usually thinner than its original partner string, as seen below. Although the high B and E string are often identical.
6-string or 12-string guitar for beginners?
A six-string guitar would be more suitable for beginners to start playing and learning guitar.
The combination of the additional strings, and increased string tension create playing conditions that beginners may find more difficult.
A Twelve-string acoustic guitar has a very different sound to a 6 string acoustic guitar, which may take a while for new players to get used to.
Beginners run the risk of getting confused if they use 12 string guitars. It can take some experience to get a feel for the best way to hold down chords and frets.
The fretting hand will require more finger strength to hold down frets. Certain techniques like string bending on a higher string can become a little harder.
That being said, they aren’t miles apart. Once you have the basics of guitar playing, it’s more about muscle and mind training. 12 string guitars can be a great way to train muscles as they require more force to fret the tenser strings.
The sooner you start playing a 12 model, the sooner it will become more natural for you to play. If you have a passion for their sound, the above reasons shouldn’t stop you from learning on a 12 string.
Recommended Read: How often Should Guitar Strings be Changed?
What’s better: 6-String or 12-string guitar?
It depends on the situation. Objectively, neither is better than the other.
The advantages of the 12 string are that they have a louder, brighter, more complex sound than a 6 string. However, they are also more difficult to play, and more inaccurate for playing solos. 12 string models are more inconvenient in several ways, but this is made up for by their expanded, richer sound.
6 string guitars are simpler making them easier to play, but with a simpler sound. Many guitar players say 6 strings are better for soloing, where 12 strings are better for chords.
6 string guitars are more accurate where individual string picking is concerned.
6 string models are also easier for touring and gigging, as it’s easier to find replacement strings at a short notice. If you snap your 12 string, it might be harder to find replacements in a pinch.
How to tune a 12 string guitar?
Tuning a 12 string guitar is a little more complicated than a 6 string.
Like many things in music, this can be changed to suit your personal preferences, there isn’t necessarily a “right and wrong” way of doing it.
The standard tuning method for a 12 string guitar is as follows:
Tune the first, main set of open strings, to the normal E-A-D-G-B-e tuning. With the low E being an E2.
Now, the first 4 double strings (E-A-D-G) are tuned an octave higher than their paired strings. So the lowest E would be an E3. The 4 lower strings usually tune their extra strings an octave higher.
The final two strings (B and e) are tuned to a unison pitch with the high B and e strings, essentially doubling them up.
This is a standard method. Where the first 4 strings have a sympathetic octave, and the highest-pitched 2 strings are in unison. The unison strings create an interesting chorus effect as the subtle tuning discrepancies create “beating” oscillations.
At the same time, some 12 string players like to use experimental tunings. For example, tuning the extra strings a perfect 5th above the original can yield some super cool sounds.
Some other fun experimental tunings involve escaping the conventional E-A-D-G-B-e tuning, perhaps tuning the strings to a major or minor chord, or drop tunings like D-A-D-G-A-D, or wacky ones like G-G-C-C-A#-A#.
Sonic Youth were the masters of experimental tuning. I use this fan website all the time to find new combinations. Although these may work better for electric guitars, as opposed to acoustic guitar.
Which songs use a 12 string guitar?
Tonnes of classic hit songs used a twelve-string guitar at some point. Here are some of my favorites.
“Hotel California” by The Eagles. (link) The iconic guitar intro was played on a 12 string guitar.
“Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi. (link) Also features a fantastic 12 string classical guitar section.
Lots of early blues guitar players like Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell favored 12 string guitars for their twangy, lush sound.