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12-String Guitar

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12-String Guitar

This article is about the Twelve-string guitar. For the similar instrument (Twelve-string tiple), see Colombian tiple.
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.

The twelve-string guitar is an acoustic or electric guitar with 12 strings in 6 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 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 of the 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 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.

The tension placed on the instrument by the strings is high, and because of this, 12 string guitars have a reputation for warping after a few years of use. Some twelve-string guitars have non-traditional structural supports to prevent or postpone such a fate, at the expense of appearance and tone. 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.[1]

Some performers prefer the richness of an open tuning due to its near-orchestral sound. For a very complex plucked-string sound, the 12-string can be set to standard tuning (or possibly an octave lower), then the top one and low two string pairs can be tuned to whole-tone intervals. The usual gamut of guitar tunings are also available.

The twelve-string guitar has traditionally occupied rhythm or accompaniment roles in folk, rock, and popular music. This is largely because it is more difficult to pluck individual strings on the twelve-string guitar and substantially more difficult to bend notes than on a comparable six-string instrument.

Some hard rock (Jimmy Page), progressive rock 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.

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.

Twelve-string guitars are made in both acoustic and electric forms. However, it is the acoustic type that is most common.

Chorus effect

The double ranks of strings of the 12-string guitar produce a chorus effect, because the individual string sounds with roughly the same timbre and nearly (but never exactly) the same pitch converge and are perceived as one. When the effect is produced successfully, none of the constituent sounds is perceived as being out of tune because of the minute difference in pitch. The interference between the slightly different frequencies 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".[2] The effect is more apparent when listening to notes that sustain for longer periods of time.

Nashville Tuning

The Nashville Tuning attempts to emulate the chorus, or jangle-like quality of the 12-string guitar on a 6-string guitar by tuning the last 4 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

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", Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, Cregg Rondell of Boy Hits Car, Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, George Harrison,[3] 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, Andy Partridge[4] and Dave Gregory[5] of XTC, and Nick Valensi of The Strokes).[6] 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 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

Guitar portal


External links

  • History of the 12-string
  • Vintage Guitar Museum

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