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So I've been playing the guitar for a while, and I'm comfortable with different styles of music (classical, blues, a bit of jazz, folk etc.) and I have a few different guitars (an acoustic steel string, a nylon string classical, and an electric.)

I'm looking to buy a 12 string, but I don't really know much about them. I know I like the sound that they produce, but that's it.

I just want to have some general info before I go out and get it, namely -

  1. Are the strings the same as a regular 6 string? What kind of strings are the higher octave strings on the lower notes?
  2. What gauge strings do I get? I've heard the tension is a lot higher on them, so lighter gauge strings? Or with that cause some buzzing while playing chords?
  3. Are there any "common" problems that I should look out for (i.e., the cheaper ones warp quickly etc.)?

As I mentioned before, I don't really have any information about them, and I don't want to purchase one blind, so to speak. Any help would be wonderful!

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I've been playing a 12-string since 1971, so I'm pretty comfortable with them. When people tell you the neck can deform with the string tension, they are correct but usually it's due to using heavier gauge strings.

I've owned two 12-strings so far- a Yamaha FG230 from '72 until '90, then an Ovation thin body since then. The first set of strings on the Yami were 'normal' gauge and the neck was flexing. The first person I asked told me to re-tune the guitar to D from the normal E tuning and then use a capo. I tried that and hated it. Made the guitar sound 'tinny'. Another person told me to buy the thinnest gauge set of strings made for a 12-string, and tune for E. I did that. The guitar sounded great and the neck never bent again. With the Ovation, I did the same - thinnest strings and tune to E.

As for the capo, I have never like the sound of them. No matter the style or cost, they all tend to deaden the sound or make one or more strings sound tinny.

Better to learn barre cords. At least once you get the hang of them you can control the pressure to make the guitar sound it's best in any key.

I also found there seem to be some other things to notice when selecting a 12-string.

  1. Some have a rich, full sound, with good ringing high tones and full bass. Others just sound tinny - no bass at all. Choose what you personally prefer, but I always go for the full sound.

  2. The action of a 12-string varies a lot. Play the guitar before you buy. My Yami was considered pretty normal by those who played it. With the light strings, it was quite easy to play. The Ovation had a light action from day one that I just love. Not much finger pressure to play and strings quite close to the frets. Makes it very easy to play barre cords. The downside of light action is that the strings can touch the fret and buzz if you aren't careful, or if the neck ever twists.

  3. If you can, might as well get one with a decent pickup built in from the factory. Most use a piezzo pickup mounted inside the body, and many have active electronics (that is, you need a battery). I find they really do sound great and give you many more playing options. Nothing like tossing the 12-string sound into a pedal FX board and running a full-distortion patch when no-one is expecting it. I've seen people craning their necks trying to find the strat in the room... ;-)

  4. Get a good case, and invest in one of those 'in the sound hole humidifiers" if you live in a dry climate. The case protects your investment, as does the humidifier. Also, store the guitar where you live. That is, guitars don't like to be stored in basements or garages - they like warmth and 'normal' humidity. Cold or damp is a great way to twist the neck.

Most important is to play the guitar when you are looking to buy, and select the one you really like playing and which has the sound you like.

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Normally you would buy a set of strings specifically designed for a 12 String. If you choose to buy individual strings, use a string tension guide such as D'Addario's; or just use the same gauges as are in a 12 string set.

See: How do I use string gauge tables?

As I'm sure you know, the 12 strings are arranged in pairs, known as "courses". Each 2-string course corresponds to one string on a 6-string guitar.

The bass courses are typically tuned in octaves; that is, one string is tuned to the same pitch as a six-string, and the other is an octave higher. Usually the string you would sound first when strumming downward is tuned to the higher octave. Of course, the higher pitched string will have a narrower gauge.

The remaining courses are typically tuned in unison.

Some people have 4 "octave courses" and 2 "unison courses". Others prefer 3 courses of each type. It's a matter of taste. Having the G course as an octave causes a "ringing" property, which may or may not be what you want.

Double the strings does mean more tension. It also means more pressure for your fingers to exert, and more vibrating sound sources. So lower gauge strings is appropriate.

12-strings do have a reputation for warping, because of that extra tension. However a modern instrument should have been designed to take the tension. Like any guitar, it should be regularly maintained, and a neck bowed by the tension can be fixed by adjusting the truss rod.

As for purchasing one blind... don't purchase one deaf! Never spend serious money on a guitar without holding it, playing it, listening to it.

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So if I use regular strings to string up my twelve string guitar, I could (for example) use a (high) e string as the second string of the low E? –  Kitchi Nov 23 '12 at 12:23
1  
That would be a pretty arbitrary choice. Bear in mind a "high E" on a guitar is 2 octaves higher than the "low E". Buy sets of strings specced for 12 string - e.g. stringsdirect.co.uk/products/… -- or copy the gauges from one. In this case 10, 10; 14, 14; 22, 08; 30, 12; 40, 18; 50, 26 –  slim Nov 23 '12 at 13:06
    
Oh, right! Didn't think of that. :P Thanks! –  Kitchi Nov 23 '12 at 13:25

It's usually tuned the same way standard guitars are tuned. Except....

  • standard guitars are often tuned in non-standard ways, and while you'd have to adjust and balance twice the number of strings to retune a 12-string guitar into alternate tunings, I'm sure it's done by some.
  • 12 strings is an awful lot of tension, and while guitar makers compensate (sometimes over-compensate) to avoid warranty issues, it is not unknown for players to downtune and capo up to protect their instrument from itself.
  • Normally, the octave string is strung closer to the top than the low string, but the Rickenbacker electric 12-strings used by the Beatles and the Byrds reversed that.

I've played them, but not often, and never owned one, so I can't tell you the gotchas, except that the sheer number of strings has always kept me from digging in as much as I like. Good luck.

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