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Twelve String Guitar Facts

By: Pat Newsome

Have you ever tried playing a twelve string guitar?  If your experience is limited to the six string variety, you owe it to yourself to give a twelve string a go.  It's not as hard as it might sound, since the only difference is that each finger has to cover two strings instead of one.  And don't worry - the strings you have to cover are close together, like on a mandolin.

One of the most famous of the old-time blues singers, Lead Belly, was known for playing a twelve string.  Famed folk singer John Denver played one, too, and there are other twelve string aficionados among professional guitarists.  It is appreciated by anyone who likes a full ringing sound, and can almost give the impression of two guitars being played.  Electric twelve string guitars have been used in the rock scene for years.  Some guitarists use a double necked guitar, which gives the choice of a six string or a twelve string.

The strings on a twelve string are in pairs. We'll start with the bass strings.  The first string you come to is actually tuned an octave above the second string you come to, which can be tuned to a low E, like a standard guitar, or to a D.  (More about that in a minute.)  The second, third, and fourth sets you come to are also tuned with the first one an octave higher than the second.  The last two sets (highest pitched) of strings are identical pairs without the octave difference.

There is disagreement among guitarists about tuning.  Modern 12-string guitars are designed to be tuned to the same notes as a six string guitar, that is E, A, D, G, B, E.  However, in the past, 12-strings had a reputation for the necks warping within a few years, so many players would tune them down a step or two.  (The extra strings place extra tension on the neck, which yields the warping.) 

As a result, it's common even today to tune 12 strings down a step.  This means the sets of strings are tuned to D, G, C, F, A, D.  To play along with a group, you would probably want to be equipped with a capo especially designed for a 12-string.

One main difference you will notice in playing one of these "harp guitars" is that the neck is wider.  It is similar to the feel of a classical guitar, which also has a wide neck.  Other than that, playing is basically the same.  If you like to finger pick, you're in for a treat as your fingers find those sets of strings, producing a warm, full sound.

One unique aspect of the 12 string is that the higher octave G string is actually higher pitched than the high E strings, and it's out in the middle of the strings.  This is one reason you get the bell like ringing sound, even if you're just strumming.  If you're already familiar with the guitar, you really ought to try playing a twelve string.




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