Twelve-string guitar

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This article is about guitars with 6 courses. For guitars with more than six separate strings, see extended-range classical guitar or ten-string guitar.
An acoustic 12-string guitar.

The twelve-string guitar is a steel-string guitar with twelve strings in six courses, which produces a richer, more ringing tone than a standard six-string guitar. Essentially, it is a type of guitar with a natural chorus effect due to the subtle differences in the frequencies produced by each of the two strings on each course. The strings are generally arranged such that the first string of each pair to be struck on a downward strum is the higher octave string; however, this arrangement was reversed by Rickenbacker on their electric 360/12.

Twelve-string guitars are made in both acoustic and electric forms. However, it is the acoustic type that is most common. Some progressive rock (Alex Lifeson), hard rock (Jimmy Page) and heavy metal (Dave Mustaine) musicians use double-necked guitars, which have both six-string and twelve-string components, allowing the guitarist easy transition between different sounds.

Origin and history[edit]

The exact origin of the modern twelve-string guitar is not certain;[1] however the most likely ancestors are the Mexican guitarra séptima and the bajo sexto,[2] a six-course bass stringed instrument used in norteño music of that region, and traditionally tuned like a conventional guitar doubled at the lower octave (like a modern eight-string bass with two additional strings).

The earliest twelve-strings were regarded as “novelty” instruments; it was in the 1920s and 1930s that 12-string guitars became a major part of blues and folk music, where their “larger than life”[2] sound made them ideal as solo accompaniment for vocalists, especially Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell.[1] The twelve-string guitar has since occupied rhythm or accompaniment roles in folk, rock, and popular music, as because it is more difficult to pluck individual strings on the twelve-string guitar and substantially more difficult to bend notes than on a six-string.

Design and playing[edit]

The strings are placed in courses of two strings each that are usually played together. The two strings in each bass course are normally tuned an octave apart, while each pair of strings in the treble courses are tuned in unison. The tuning of the second string in the third course (G) varies: some players use a unison string while others prefer the distinctive high-pitched, bell-like quality an octave string makes in this position. Some players, either in search of distinctive tone or for ease of playing, will remove some doubled strings. For example, removing the higher octave from the three bass courses simplifies playing running bass lines, but keeps the extra treble strings for the full strums.

The tension placed on the instrument by the strings is high, and because of this, twelve-string guitars have a reputation for warping after a few years of use. Until the invention of the truss rod in 1921, twelve-string guitars were nearly universally tuned lower than the traditional EADGBe to reduce the stresses on the instrument. Lead Belly often used a low C-tuning, but in some recordings can be recognisable low B and A-tunings.[3] Some twelve-string guitars have non-traditional structural supports to prevent or postpone warping, at the expense of appearance and tone.[citation needed]

Some performers prefer the richness of an open tuning due to its near-orchestral sound. The usual gamut of guitar tunings are also available; additionally for a very complex plucked-string sound, the 12-string can be set to standard tuning (or possibly an octave lower), then the top two string pairs can be tuned to whole-tone intervals instead of in unison, as done by Michael Gulezian.[4] Ralph Towner of Oregon was known to tune bass courses to the upper fifths and trebles to the lower fourths instead of octaves and unisons.[5] Lead Belly and some other players have doubled the lowest course two octaves above instead of one, producing a third string in unison with the top course.

The greater number of strings complicates playing, particularly for the plucking (or picking) hand. The gap between the dual-string courses is usually narrower than that between the single-string courses of a conventional six-string guitar, so more precision is required with the pick or fingertip when not simply strumming chords. Note bending and some forms of extended playing techniques are also complicated by the presence of doubled strings.

Chorus effect[edit]

The double ranks of strings of the 12-string guitar produce a chorus effect, due to the fact that even though the strings are tuned to exactly the same pitch, they can never vibrate at the same time, that is they vibrate out of phase, this is known as a phase difference. When the effect is produced successfully, the result is a sound that resembles strings that are slightly detuned. The interference between the out of phase vibrations produces a phenomenon known as a beat that results in a periodic rise and fall of intensity that is, in music, often considered pleasing to the ear. Pete Seeger described the distinctive sound of the 12-string guitar as "the clanging of bells".[6] The effect is more apparent when listening to notes that sustain for longer periods of time.

Nashville Tuning[edit]

The Nashville Tuning attempts to emulate the chorus, or jangle-like quality of the twelve-string guitar on a six-string guitar by tuning the last four strings an octave higher. This is normally achieved by using the higher octave string for those four courses from a 12-string set. The tuning is commonly used in recording studios to double-track an existing guitar to achieve a natural 12-string effect.

Notable performers[edit]

Two electric 12-strings, a Shergold Modulator 12 (top) and a Maton Magnetone TB36/12 (bottom); the latter is a copy of the Rickenbacker 360/12

Performers who use acoustic 12-string guitars span a range of genres, from folk (Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Arlo Guthrie, Keith Potger (of The Seekers), John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Ben Woodward, Guthrie Thomas, Pete Seeger, Noel Paul Stookey, and Warren Zevon), through reggae (Bob Marley), traditional blues (Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell, and Guy Davis), folk rock (Paul Simon, Neil Young, Tim Buckley, Gerry Beckley, John Allan Cameron) and country (Pinmonkey’s Michael Reynolds, Taylor Swift and Mike Nesmith), to rock bands (Mark Tremonti of Creed and Alter Bridge, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix on “Hear My Train A-Comin”, Pink Floyd on "Wish You Were Here", Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, Cregg Rondell of Boy Hits Car, Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, George Harrison,[7] John Lennon of The Beatles, Robert Smith of The Cure, David Bowie for his “Space Oddity” live performances, Pete Townshend of The Who, Roger Hodgson (ex-Supertramp), who used acoustic 12-string on “Give a Little Bit”, “Even in the Quietest Moments”, “C'est le Bon” and “Know Who You Are”; Melissa Etheridge, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Greg Lake on “Lucky Man" and “Still... You Turn Me On", Brian May of Queen on Love of My Life, Andy Partridge[8] and Dave Gregory[9] of XTC, and Nick Valensi of The Strokes).[10] Dave Matthews (Dave Matthews Band) uses one for several songs in the band's catalog. Numerous other musicians use it as their main instrument, including Robbie Basho, Leo Kottke, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Marvin B Naylor, Matt Nathanson, James Blackshaw, John Butler, both Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues, David Arkenstone, Neil Jacobs, Premonition guitarist Cory Stuteville and former Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips. Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett all played the instrument on Genesis albums in the 1970s. Bruce Springsteen has used 12-string guitars live in concert a few times, including an instrumental version of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren has used a 12-string on live versions of “The River”.

Electric Rickenbacker 12-string users include a range of jangle pop guitarists, ranging from McGuinn (The Byrds), Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, George Harrison and John Lennon (The Beatles), John McNally (The Searchers) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) to Les Fradkin and Johnny Marr (The Smiths). The Gibson EDS-1275 electric 12-string was used by jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule and The Allman Brothers Band, Cory Stuteville of Premonition, Alex Lifeson of Rush, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, Jeff Buckley and System of a Down and Scars on Broadway guitarist Daron Malakian, Taylor Swift, The Edge of U2.

Bruce Springsteen has used a custom built Fender Stratocaster 12-string numerous times in concert starting with the 2002 The Rising tour. Springsteen then used a 12-string guitar on the song "Surprise Surprise" on the album, Working on a Dream.

In 1963 acoustic “folk” music was becoming more mainstream in the United States. One folk/blues/occasional jazz group, The Rooftop Singers, led by Erik Darling, formerly of The Weavers and an associate of Pete Seeger, recorded an old song "Walk Right In" which featured a strong opening “hook” played on the 12-string guitar. This song made it to the top of the pop charts and introduced millions to the 12-string sound.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b History of the 12-string
  2. ^ a b See, Derek; “1930s Stella 12-String”; Acoustic Guitar 18.8 (Feb 2008); p. 114
  3. ^ See Julius Lester/Pete Seeger The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, Oak Publications, New York, 1965, 6
  4. ^ Whitehill, Dave; Alternate Tunings for Guitar: A Comprehensive Guide for Over 300 Tunings; p. 12. ISBN 0793582199
  5. ^ Whitehill; Alternate Tunings for Guitar; p. 8
  6. ^ Simmons, Michael. “12-String Power.” Acoustic Guitar. November 1997, p. 51
  7. ^ Smith, Richard R. (1987-09-01). The history of Rickenbacker guitars. Centerstream Publications. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-931759-15-4. Retrieved 3 August 2010. 
  8. ^ "English Settlement: Information from". 1982-02-12. Retrieved 2012-10-13. 
  9. ^ "Dave Gregory Interview". Retrieved 2012-10-13. 
  10. ^ "Pete's Gear: Pete Townshend Guitar Equipment History | Pete Townshend’s Guitar Gear | Whotabs". Retrieved 2012-10-13. 

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