Tell me about the 12-string guitar

I love the sound of the 12-string acoustic guitar. At the moment I’m listening to Your Move by Yes, which features that instrument prominently. The whole song is a lovely demonstration of polyphony, but the 12-string propels it.

Are the tunings of the second set of strings the same as the first set?
Is it harder to play?
When do you prefer using a 12-string over a 6-string? (Type of song, etc.)

Low E through G are tuned in octaves, the last two, B and E are tuned in unison.

I like to use it with lush chords, for a folk music type sound, and with modal tuning.

I missed the second question about is it harder to play. Each set of double strings are treated like their single counterparts on a 6 string. So chords, and single note leads are the same from one to the other. It’s a little harder to play because 12 strings have an enormous amount of tension put on them by having all those strings tightened. But I think you can use lighter guage strings if that’s a problem.

The 12 string has a fuller sound in general.

One of the things that makes it more difficult for some guitar players is that each note being held down now requires that you cover a larger area with your finger. I find this actually to be helpful to me, since I am primarily a bass player.

It definitely can result in some beautiful sounds.

I wish I still had one. I always wistfully play one and let my eyes wander over the price tag when I’m in a guitar shop. I used to love to play my 12 as a slide guitar. Tuned to an open chord, all those extra harmonics and droning notes are just spectacular.

To clarify: The 12 strings are arranged in six pairs that are very close together, and the pairs are played as if they were the individual strings on a six-string guitar. The tuning is essentially the same, except that the lower four pairs (lower notes, that is) are in octaves, so that when you pluck the D “string,” you’re actually playing two strings: one is the same D note you’d play on a regular guitar, and the other is another D, one octave above the first one.

As mambocrow said, it’s a bit harder to play because it requires tremendous finger strength to play cleanly. It also requires more precision; there’s less leeway in where your finger hits when you have to hit two strings at once.

Wish I still had one. Or rather, I wish I still had a roommate who had one.

Another good thing to know: the reason a 12-string guitar sounds so lush and full is that it is out of tune.


Stringed instruments have a unique characteristic - tuning one string puts the other strings out of tune. When you tighten one string to raise its pitch, the tension flexes the neck ever so slightly. The flexing lowers the tension of the other strings, making them go a tiny bit flat. Conversely, loosening one string to lower its pitch relaxes the tension on the neck very slightly, and that pulls the other strings tighter and makes them go a little bit sharp. Hey, there is a very good reason a piano’s strings are attached to a cast iron frame that doesn’t bend easily! This “neck flexing” is the reason it often takes guitarists a while to tune their instruments. If you watch us, you’ll see us tune each individual string, and then go back and check them all again, and then retune strings we’ve already tuned. But regardless of what we do, the guitar’s strings are never going to be perfectly in tune with each other.

The reason you don’t notice this so much is that when we strum a chord on a 6-string guitar, each string is sounding a different note. Because the notes are different, the tiny tuning imperfections are not readily apparent. But when I strum the same chord on a 12-string guitar, each note is sounded by two strings. As I explained already, two guitar strings can never really be “perfectly” in tune with each other. So, the two high-E strings are going to produce ever-so-slightly different pitches. It is that difference that makes the sound more full.

There is a similar effect when two or more guitars play together. One guitar isn’t going to be perfectly in tune with the other, so when they play together the sound is more full than when either guitar plays alone.

Electric guitarists realized all of this early on, and some tinkerer came up with the chorus pedal. A chorus pedal grants a 6-string guitar the benefits of a 12-string guitar. The pedal

The instrument used on “Your Move” is not a standard 12-string guitar, but a smaller Portuguese instrument (incorrectly credited on the sleeve as a vachalia) with a teardrop-shaped body like a mandolin. I don’t know what tuning Howe used.

Oops - accidentally hit the submit button too soon. Picking up where I left off:

Electric guitarists realized all of this early on, and some tinkerer came up with the chorus pedal. A chorus pedal grants a 6-string guitar the benefits of a 12-string guitar. The pedal takes the incoming signal from the electric guitar and splits it into two signals. It slightly detunes the second signal, and then recombines it with the original before passing it on to the amplifier. The result is a richer, fuller sound. Alex Lifeson, guitarist for the band Rush, is famous for his use of chorus in his sound. The effect is especially useful in a three-piece band like Rush, because it fills out the sound of the music.