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I'm considering using a 12-string guitar I don't play all that much as a testbed: Is it possible to restring an acoustic guitar as a baritone guitar, or even just string it so I can tune it down a few frets?

For anyone who doesn't know, a baritone guitar is tuned much like a normal guitar, but with the high E removed and a low B added. Standard tuning on a baritone guitar would be B-E-A-D-F#-b, I believe, or, more realistically, C-F-B♭-E♭-G-C. You can get regular guitar tuning using a capo.

Using heavier or lighter strings can require setting up a guitar for the different gauge of strings, and a 12-string guitar is built to take the enormous weight of 12 steel strings pulling at the neck.

Is it possible to do this? Questions I have include:

  • Am I better off stringing it with twelve or six strings?
  • What tuning would be best?
  • What problems are likely to show up?
  • Do I need to have a new nut cut to do a quick-and-dirty test?
  • The guitar has tuning problems; will this make them worse or, due to the thicker strings, might it make them better?

Edit: If this plan is impractical, what about stringing the guitar with slightly heavier strings and tuning it down two or three frets?

Update on the project:

It works well, but not perfectly The guitar has tuning problems, but they're improving slowly with each round of changes. And the guitar sounds great! It's now named Barry. I've recorded with it, but I'm not planning on gigging with it until it stays in tune for longer.

I currently have a set of .015 - .080 strings on the guitar, strung as a 6-string tuned down 5 frets to BEADF#b. I widened the nut slots carefully with thin sandpaper, but you really need a proper set of nut files to do this. Have been making changes very slowly, restringing each time.

That nut is a bit of a problem - I'm looking into getting one cut professionally, but I don't know if I can afford it yet. But the locations of the tuning machines also pull the strings sideways a little too much, particularly the middle ones. I'm wondering if a string tree might help or if it woud introduce more problems. I'm not against the idea of drilling new holes for machines further in and cutting down the headstock.

The low B string has the most problems staying in tune, Reaming out bridge pin hole may also help; an .080 is big, and the pin sticks out quite a bit.

That truss rod adjustment Jduv recommended is without a doubt in my future, once I get the nut and tuning machine problems sorted.

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Talk to local shops and ask about getting a nut cut. I did that for a low-end Tele copy and it was less than I thought. – VarLogRant Oct 2 '12 at 12:42
What would be really intersting is to get the base-strings down by a fifth, but keep the extra/octave strings at their original tuning... – leftaroundabout Oct 9 '13 at 11:31
up vote 3 down vote accepted

You certainly can do all of the things you listed with relative ease. There aren't any real gotchas that I can think of other than the nut issue you raised. Anytime you do a major change in the string gauge you should reset the action, and as long as you get the guitar properly set up for the string gauges and tension that you are looking for it should be fine. A guitar is as versatile as the wood will allow it to be, and a well built one should handle less tension on the neck flawlessly. A couple of truss rod tweaks are probably in your future if you want to string it as a baritone guitar else the strings might feel super flimsy under your fingers, or you could leave it that way and simply play with a light touch. Since you're talking about cutting your own nuts, I don't think I need to warn you about the dangers of messing with the truss rod on an acoustic guitar ;).

As for tunings, with less tension on the neck you could probably do anything you wanted outside of dropping it so low that the strings don't vibrate properly. Additionally, you get the added bonus of being able to capo up to standard tunings whenever you'd like as you mention. Lower tunings and thicker strings will probably get you more in the range of the low end you are looking for with the guitar anyway, so I'd go for it.

Lastly, stringing it with 6 strings would be fine as well, but you'd have a fairly wide neck to navigate. If you're used to playing a classical then you'd likely be at home on it--but I've never tried that before. YMMV.

<personal opinion> I really like your ideas here. I've generally avoided 12-string guitars due to their tinny sound and that they are flat out impossible for me to play (I have delicate hands XD). I may take some of your ideas and implement them on my own--or at least I'd be interested in hearing your finished product :)</personal opinion>

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Truss rod adjustments are where I draw the line. I've never cut a nut on my own -- I don't have the tools -- but I'd be comfortable widening the slots in the existing one slightly. (I might have to special-order a nut if this works out well.) – neilfein Mar 13 '11 at 22:02
Have put a set of .014 strings on the guitar (six strings only for now), and they sound pretty good tuned to D-G-C-F-C-D. I'll play the guitar for a while and see if they stay in tune well. In the meantime, I'm ordering a couple sets of these .016 baritone strings, and I'll see about tuning down even lower to the C-standard-tuning above. Once I get everything sorted out -- I definitely need to widen the nut slots now -- I'll see about doubling up the strings. – neilfein Mar 13 '11 at 22:50
String tension on an acoustic affects the neck, but it also affects the bridge and top bracing. Personally, I'd take the guitar to a good repairman, have them look at the bracing and bridge and see if it needs reinforcement. Nothing could be more exciting than to open the case and see the bridge pulled off, or the top bowing out. – Anonymous Mar 14 '11 at 2:04

12-string guitars going back 100 years ago were usually tuned to low C, a third below the standard tuning for the guitar. This is what the famous blues musician Leadbelly played. Many other folk musicians, notably Pete Seeger, played a lower-tuned baritone 12-string acoustic guitar as well. Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary used this C-tuning on his 12-string for his famous "The Wedding Song".

Back in the day I converted a 1990s regular-scale Danelectro 12-string electric guitar into a baritone 12. I restrung everything down a 4th, starting with low B. However, I paid a professional luthier to select the string gauges, re-file the nut slots, adjust the truss rod (that's the most important part!) and set up the instrument. The great thing about the Danelectro 12-string electric is that it came with a stoptail electric bridge that had separate, individually adjustable saddles for all 12 strings. This was very important in getting proper intonation.

I really enjoyed playing this guitar for some time, but I sold it many years ago.

If you are talking about acoustic guitars, and you can afford it, C. F. Martin makes a Pete Seeger tribute model 12-string baritone acoustic guitar tuned to low C and with a long 27.5-inch baritone scale.

Viellette Guitars in New York also makes an acoustic-electric baritone 12-string.

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Did you have any tuning issues on the Danelectro? If so, how did you handle them? As it currently stands, this instrument sounds great but is unusable in any live situation; strumming vigorously for maybe a minute or two will push it out of tune. – neilfein Oct 2 '12 at 6:42
An issue with the old 12-strings was that the bracing wasn't up to par, and the tuning down was for the instrument's continued survival, not the artistic choice of the player. (Not that Leadbelly didn't make it work, of course.) – VarLogRant Oct 2 '12 at 12:36
I had no tuning issues with the Danelectro, but bear in mind that it was an electric guitar, not an acoustic guitar. You don't strum an electric guitar as hard as you strum an acoustic. Intonation was also really good because I could individually set each of the 12 separate bridge saddles. You don't have that possibility on an acoustic guitar. – Wheat Williams Oct 3 '12 at 4:03

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