The beautiful tone of a 12 string guitar is a rich and harmonious sound that everybody should experience first hand at least once in their life. Sadly, many new guitar players are daunted by the increased string count. wondering how to play a 12 string guitar?
If you’ve outgrown the best guitar for beginners it might be time for an upgrade! Treat yourself to a 12 string acoustic or electric guitar!
Beginners, do not worry, learning a 12 string guitar is largely the same as a six-string guitar. Any guitarist should consider adding 12 strings to their guitar playing skills.
Not only do they make a fantastic solo instrument for guitar performance, but they sound excellent in ensembles.
If you are new to 12 string guitars, fear no more!
I’ve written this guide to get beginners on the path of playing a 12 string guitar. Let’s dive in.
Table of Content
- What is a 12-String Guitar?
- Should beginners choose twelve-string guitars or six-string guitars?
- Playing a 12-String Guitar
- What is the benefit of a 12-string guitar?
What is a 12-String Guitar?
In case you didn’t know… a guitar is a stringed musical instrument, falling into the Chordophone category of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system. It’s an instrument made of a wooden body, either solid or hollow, with a fretted neck, that uses strings as its source of sonic energy.
Guitars originate from Spain in the 16th century, with their most recent ancestor being traced to the Guitarra Latina, a 4-stringed acoustic instrument.
(Ancient Rock Stars…. From Wikipedia)
Typical modern guitars use 6 strings.
A twelve-string guitar is an expanded version of the 6 string guitar.
The exact origins of the 12 strings remain unknown, although the most accepted theories point towards Mexican instruments, including the Guitarra Séptima, the Huapanguera, the Bajo Sexto, and the Bandolón.
(A funky Bajo Sexto)
The 12 string is played the same way, either strummed or picked, with a plectrum or fingers.
The main difference is that 12 stringed guitars have 6 runs of paired strings.
The strings are doubled to create a more interesting, harmonically enlarged final sound. Each string on a six-string is essentially doubled. Although the double strings are slightly thinner and tuned higher than their original pair.
The acoustic and sound energy power of a 12 string guitar is much larger than that of six strings. Their chords retain a longer decay, the picking is brighter and more lively than a single string model.
Generally, 12 string models are more common in an acoustic guitar format, although electric guitar and classical guitar models are widely available.
12 string guitars are mostly very similar to six strings, but often have some differences in construction to accommodate for the extra strings and extra tension.
It’s common for a 12 string guitar to have a slightly wider neck than a regular guitar The larger neck width makes it easier to hold the two fretted pairs.
12 string guitars are used in a variety of styles, including both historical and modern music genres. They have an instantly recognizable tone, made popular by songs including Hard Day’s Night, Hotel California, and More Than A Feeling.
Should beginners choose twelve-string guitars or six-string guitars?
Ultimately it depends on what instrument they want to learn, but for new guitarists, a six-string standard guitar will be easier to learn. I’d recommend avoiding using a 12 string as your first guitar.
The learning curve of a 12 string is a little steeper than a 6 string, as it’s slightly fiddlier to play. The paired notes and strings will provide more resistance to the very tip of the finger, which can quickly blister for new players.
New players may struggle to play certain chords on a 12 string acoustic, or electric, as the tension requires more muscular strength. They may struggle when holding the lower, bass notes of a guitar, as this is where the guitar produces the most tension.
Further issues may be presented by the thicker neck, which could be too large for the hands of a beginner.
Additionally, the tuning process of 12 string guitars is more complicated and harder to make them sound right, compared to six-string models. If you don’t understand tuning on a six-string, you certainly won’t for a 12.
If a beginner guitarist already knows a few chords and understands the notes of a guitar, they are probably ready to use a 12 string. Once the initial learning curve of a 6 string guitar has been surpassed.
12 string guitars are generally more expensive than 6 string versions, so they may be outside of a beginner’s budget range.
Playing a 12-String Guitar
- Pick up and hold the guitar
First, we need to pick up and hold the guitar properly.
Posture has a large impact on how comfortable it feels to play guitar.
Using a strap will make holding the guitar a lot easier, read our guide on how to use a guitar strap for more information.
A strap is essential if you plan on playing the guitar whilst standing up. They aren’t so important when sitting but still help.
Adjust the strap to a comfortable height so your elbows, shoulders, and wrists have free movement.
Hold the guitar so your right arm has enough room and angle to strum, the left hand should be able to access all the frets, and transition between chords without discomfort.
- Tuning the guitar
The guitar must be tuned before being played. The importance of tuning cannot be understated. Playing an out-of-tune guitar will make you sound like a bad player, no matter how skilled you are.
I recommend using a clip-on tuner, or an app on your phone. There are loads of free ones out there that are accurate enough for professional use.
Tuning a 12 string guitar is a more complex procedure than six strings. Not only does it have double the amount, but the extra strings need to be tuned harmonically to the original.
The open-string notes are the same as with a 6 string guitar.
First, tune the main strings to an E-A-D-G-B-e tuning. All the extra other strings are tuned an octave above their pair, except for the first and second-highest strings. The B and e strings are tuned in unison.
For more specifics on tuning, check the How to Tune section further down this page.
- Right Hand Technique
Forgetting the neck and fretting hand, let’s look at the right-hand action first. There are a couple of different ways for the right hand to play the guitar. The main options are either strumming or plucking the strings. Strumming is easier than plucking on 12 string guitars. Using a plectrum aka guitar pick is a great option to save your fingers and nails. Even after 30 mins of playing you can start to feel your nails hurt after strumming.
For picking, it is a little more complex. If you want to pick out individual strings with your right hand, use your pinky finger to anchor your weight into the top of the guitar. This gives the rest of your fingers and your thumb more stability to pick individual strings. Practice picking with each digit in turn.
Go Thumb > Index > Middle > Ring finger, and in reverse. You want to train each finger to be strong and accurate.
The PIMA technique is a method for reading and playing right hand technique.
- Left Hand Technique
Once you’ve got to grips with the right hand, it’s time to look at the fretboard. The fretboard is where you control the pitches to produce different chords and notes. The design and pitches of the fretboard are identical to a 6 string.
With a 12 string guitar, when you fret a string, you want to make sure you are cleanly fretting both the original string and its pair. This means when you hold one note, one finger is holding down two strings (one run of 2).
Chords are held in the exact same way as six-string guitars. Barre chords can be hard to hold cleanly for new players, so build up your hand strength with left-hand finger exercises.
Electric guitar requires a little less strength because the strings tend to be a smaller gauge, although not always.
Using chord and scale charts is a great way to find new ideas for your playing, whilst learning music theory on a deeper level.
You should learn all the different ways to hold the same chord. For example, there are tonnes of ways to play a G major chord on a 12 string guitar.
- Putting it together
When you get the feel for the basic technique involved for both hands it’s time to put it all together. Try playing some chords, holding the chord in the left hand, then strumming it with the right. Practice picking through chords with the right hand, each finger at a time.
That’s all you need to know to get started. There is a huge amount of depth to guitar technique, and mastering it all comes from practice and study. There are a few sides of knowledge that you need to know. These are things that musicians study constantly throughout their life.
Harmonic theory – how chords and notes relate.
Rhythm – the timing and space between notes.
Muscle Memory and Technique – the physical process of playing instruments can be refined infinitely.
There are loads of interesting techniques which only work on 12 string guitars. They have a much broader range of harmonic possibilities in comparison to a 6 string model.
If you want to get better at guitar you need to practice as much as possible. There are loads of great exercises which improve muscle and technique for 12 string guitar playing.
In reality, you need to give each finger a solid workout as often as possible. Try playing experimental sessions where you only pick with your ring or pinky finger. Improving hand coordination is one key to becoming a legendary guitar player.
When I do practice sessions on 12 string guitars I like to do the following exercises.
Left Hand: Walk up the fretboard, fingering each fret on one string, going 1-2-3-4-5…11-12. Do this up and down the fretboard. This increases left-hand strength and accuracy.
Right Hand: I’ve talked about this a little already, but try to push your right fingers to the limit as often as possible, this will increase picking ability. Spend 5 minutes picking with each finger.
Whether you are Left or Right handed, these exercises are essential for improving speed, strength, and accuracy.
Ibanez Performance Series 12-String Acoustic Guitar
Is a 12-string guitar harder to play?
I think most players will find a 12 string harder to play than a six string. Not in all situations, but some.
The extra strings clutter up the fretboard a little, which makes it a bit fiddly. Any right-hand fingerpicking will require better accuracy, as more strings could be accidentally hit.
The increased string count also raises the string tension, which makes it harder to fret the strings and hold barre chords.
This can be slightly resolved by using lighter gauge strings. But 12 stringed guitars require a noticeable amount of extra strength compared to 6 string models.
Overall there aren’t masses of difference, a 12 string guitar will be harder to play complicated solo lines on, even for a skilled guitar player. They’re great for chords and rhythm guitar.
One thing that makes 12 strings harder to play and use is tuning. It takes more time and effort to tune a 12 string guitar over a 6 string guitar. It’s easier to mess up the tuning up which makes the guitar sound horrible. Also getting hold of 12 string guitar sets isn’t always easy.
How do you use a 12-string guitar?
12-string guitars are used in a very similar way to 6 strings.
The only difference is that 12 strings tend to be used more for chords and strumming rather than soloing and picking, but not exclusively.
The strings are held to the fretboard with one hand and strummed with the other. In blues and folk music 12 string guitars are often played using a slide technique, where a sliding device is used on the fretboard with the left hand to achieve a unique pitch sliding, portamento effect.
Genre-wise, 12 string guitars lend themselves better to traditional types of music. Folk, Spanish Guitar, Country, and Blues artists are known to favor their sound.
How do you tune a 12-string guitar?
The way a 12 string guitar is tuned differs slightly from a six-string guitar. I recommend using a clip-on tuner or phone app to ensure the most accurate tuning possible. Tuning is super important for guitars, even more so for 12 string models as any issues will be more apparent.
The main 6 strings are the same, using the E-A-D-G-B-e tuning.
The extra (sympathetic) strings are tuned differently.
The four lowest pitched strings (E-A-D-G) are tuned an octave higher than their original pair.
So the lowest string is E2, with its paired string tuned to E3.
The two highest strings (B-e) pairs are tuned to the exact same pitch, essentially doubling the string. This creates a modulating, chorused sound, as the close pitches of the two slightly detuned voices interfere with each other. Try out detuning the strings and seeing how far apart the pitches can go before it sounds unpleasant.
Below is how the tuning system is written for a 12 string guitar, from top to bottom.
(E2,E3) – (A2,A3) – (D3,D4) – (G3,G4) – (B3,B3) – (e4,e4)
The letter indicates the note, and the number represents the octave the note is found in. Higher numbers = higher octaves.
Physically, it depends on the guitar design, but usually, the higher pair is placed above the lower pair.
In reality you can tune a 12 string any way you want to. Experiment with different tuning systems to find interesting new sounds.
What is the benefit of a 12-string guitar?
The main advantage of 12 stringed guitars is their sound. This is what sets them apart from 6 strings.
If it didn’t improve the sound, the extra strings would just be creating more hassle. Fortunately, there is a major difference in the sound of 12 and 6 string guitars.
The extra strings improve the sound of a guitar in several ways.
Primarily, most of the additional strings are an octave above their paired strings. This creates a doubled-up sound, giving each fingered string an octave doubling effect. This makes the guitar sound higher, brighter, and fuller.
12 string guitars also have a louder volume than six-string guitars, as each extra string contributes more acoustic energy. Double the strings create nearly double the volume. The final difference is its chorus effect from the unison strings. This creates a wide, harmonic sound.
As the strings are doubled, and the highest two strings are in unison, this creates a phasing, chorus effect, which makes the guitar sound larger than life.
When you compare the sound of a 6 and 12 string guitar from the same range, the sonic advantages are immediately clear. If you play the same song, in the same manner, on both two guitars, the 12 string guitar is going to sound a lot fuller, louder, and brighter, with a more interesting harmonic sound.
Sound-wise the 12 string wins, for feel, 6 string guitars are stronger. For a full exploration of 12 string vs 6 string guitars, read my other post!