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I recently purchased a 12-string acoustic guitar. I've played guitar for 40-odd years, being very familiar with 6-string acoustics AND electrics and I also have played many a 12-string, both electric and acoustic. But I'm getting back into it after a multi-year layoff, and my fingers are both tender and weak.

I wanted to string my new guitar with the lightest possible gauge strings, but I find that that would be the 008s for ELECTRIC 12-string (Ernie Ball Super-slinkies).

Would it be okay to use these on my acoustic 12-string?

Do they even make 008s specifically for the 12-string acoustic? I don't think this issue has ever come up for me before.

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    When starting out, I found that using too light of a gauge made my fingers more tender thanks to the strings cutting into them. – Matthew Read Nov 26 '15 at 8:36
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    I have found that a good action makes more of a difference for me that string gauge for finger comfort and fretting ability. – Whelkaholism Nov 26 '15 at 12:05
  • I agree with @Whelkaholism, when I took my 12str in to be serviced the first time he was able to make it MUCH easier to play. – Mr. Boy Nov 26 '15 at 15:08
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Product recommendations are out of order here, but let's think more in terms of which gauge. The highest, thus most tense string on a 12 string is the octave G. This is probably the one that will be tightest from an ordinary set. .007s are readily available, and what I've done is use one for that G. Rather than buy a set, which admittedly is chosen for its component parts, I've bought each string as a separate entity. (Which is what I've done for years with 6 strings, too). So, check what each gauge is for the .008 set, and maybe go a little lighter for each. With a half decent action there's no need to be concerned with the cheese cutter syndrome especially as the pressure is spread over 12 rather than 6.

There is nothing wrong with using electric strings on acoustic - I've done it for 40+ yrs with no problems. The third string (normal) is a personal choice - wound or plain.

Another alternative I've used on 12 strings is to tune down slightly, to Eb or even D.

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I can relate to your issue. Twelve strings can add up to a great deal of resistance - so it definitely helps to go as light as possible. And with a 12 string, the sound you are going for is not necessarily dependent on boomy volume out of your acoustic strings. It's more of a chimey chorus effect and with 12 strings, you get more volume inherently.

Having said that, I still prefer to use either a phosphor bronze or 80/20 bronze for all of my wound strings on all of my acoustic guitars. The bronze wound strings are only available as acoustic strings because they resist the magnetic field found in electrics. And they sound much better acoustically than nickel wound electric strings. I know this because I had an acoustic with a magnetic pickup and I tried several brands of electric strings to get more amplified volume from my wound strings. They did sound louder when plugged in. But they sounded very dull and dead (all brands) acoustically.

But the plain steel strings (unwound) are made from the same material for electric or acoustic. So I will sometimes buy a set of super slinky electric strings to rob the set of the thinner plain steel strings and mix them with a light acoustic bronze set.

A better option if you have time to wait on the strings to arrive in the mail, is order individual strings from a company that sells strings on-line. I personally use Just Strings Just Strings Website. They carry a wide variety of strings from all the major manufacturers.

It is common in a 12 string set for the octave g string to be the same gauge or even slightly thinner than the high e pair. However, I don't recommend going any lighter than .08 on any guitar. Any thinner than that and it's like playing a thin thread and they tend to break easily.

Another option you might want to consider until you get your calluses built back up - is to go with soft feeling silk and steel strings such as the ones found in this 12 string set 12 String Soft Set. In a "silk and steel" set, all of the wound strings have a polyester wrap beneath the bronze outer wrap that acts like padding - making them very soft to the touch. I know they won't sound as bright or loud as regular wound strings, but playing them for a month or two (until it's time for a string change) might minimize the pain involved in the callous building process. To make this set even easier to play, order some .08 and .10 plain steel individual strings to swap out the .09's and .12 plain steel strings in this set. Save the .09's for later when you build up your callouses and want to go to slightly heavier strings.

Many folks (myself included) tune their 12 strings to D#/Eb (half step flat). The theory is that tuning flat results in less tension on the neck with 12 strings tugging against the truss rod. I don't know if the neck of most decent 12 string guitars would have a problem coping with standard tuning, but tuning a half step flat does mean less pressure is required to fret the strings. And it's easier to hit the high notes in the songs I sing.

One other thing to note, is that a lower action will make the guitar easier to play. On my 12 strings, I like to get the action as low as possible and still remain buzz free. I have tried to play 12 string guitars with a high action and find it impossible for me to cleanly play any barre chord (even with light strings). So the setup of your guitar can be as big a factor as string gauge.

I hope your new 12 string provides untold hours of enjoyment as you continue to get used to playing it and discover the magical sounds it can make.

  • I too have used silk and steel on a crappy acoustic with a terrible action I can't afford to fix, but can't bear to throw away for sentimental reasons, and they worked really well to make it easier on the fingers. Great suggestion. – Whelkaholism Nov 26 '15 at 15:50
  • Your suggestion of minimum .008s is fine, which actually makes the octave third need to be .007, to retain similar tension. – Tim Nov 27 '15 at 9:31
  • @Tim you could as it is true that many 12 string sets make the octave G actually thinner than the high e pair. But Cleartone and Ernie Ball among others, configure their lighter gauge 12 string sets with the same diameter on the high e and octave g. So I am sure it would be fine to put .08 on both - especially on a temporary set used until the callouses are tougher. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 27 '15 at 13:50
  • @Rockin Cowboy - These callouses keep getting mentioned. When I was doing 3/4 gigs a week, I didn't get them then. Maybe I was just lucky, but maybe the thin strings and great action had something to do with it too! – Tim Nov 27 '15 at 19:14
  • Is it even possible to buy 007s? I seem to remember using them in my teenage years, but that was when dinosaurs roamed the earth. – Kamakiri Nov 28 '15 at 4:27
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You would benefit greatly from a proper setup for your guitar, to lower the action. A setup re-calibrates various components of the guitar to make it easier to play. With lower action (when done properly) the strings sit closer to the fingerboard. Your fingers will have less distance to press the strings down to the frets, meaning less tension and less fatigue, requiring less finger strength, regardless of what strings you use. A setup needs to be done by a qualified professional.

Take your guitar to a qualified guitar repair technician. Tell them you want a full setup to achieve the lowest action. With a setup, the technician will modify the nut, bridge saddle, truss rod adjustment, and possibly re-shape the frets, to enable the best calibration for your particular guitar without causing string buzz. A good setup will also improve the intonation so your guitar will play more in tune up and down the neck. A setup will cost around US $50 and up depending upon the amount of work that needs to be done, plus the cost of a new set of strings.

You should also try Elixir or other brand coated strings. They are more expensive, but they last much longer; the coating (on the wound strings) retards corrosion. But the other benefit of the coating is that the strings are smoother to the touch and less abrasive to your fingertips. Try the Elixir Acoustic 80/20 Bronze 12-String set with Polyweb Coating.

  • I'd have to really trust the guy doing the setting up. This is Montreal, Quebec . . . not to diminish it because they have some amazing artisanal products, but I'm not sure luthiering is a widespread craft. I suppose the place to look would be the local music stores. And I'd wager that sort of thing can't be cheap. Like piano tuning, which I once looked into, for lessons. Wayyy out of my league! – Kamakiri Nov 28 '15 at 4:37
  • Hey Wheat, if I'm to put an ad in my local bulletin board, what wording should I use to get the right guy? "Guitar technician wanted to adjust new 12-string" or something like that? I don't want to attract some amateur schlub. – Kamakiri Nov 28 '15 at 6:54
  • Kamakiri - I wouldn't place an advert. I'd go to a reputable music shop and ask them who they use. Otherwise you'll get any number of people contacting you, and no guarantee as to their experience or skill. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 28 '15 at 11:53
  • Dr. Mayhem: Yes, you're right. I just have to re-acquaint myself with the music stores in Montreal. I used to hang out in them when I was an active musician but now I have no idea what they're like or who works in them. No Guitar Centers in Montreal! No Centres de Guitares ether! – Kamakiri Nov 28 '15 at 19:06
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Well, Andrea says it's okay to post an answer instead of a comment, and I do tend to be long-winded, but I will try to stick to the topic! I received the guitar today (Alvarez AD60-12) and I must say, it's a nice guitar. Umm, dare I say, maybe not quite as nice as those two $600~ Martin and Taylors that I played in the store the other day? But perhaps it's because it's so new that it keeps sliding a bit out of tune. And the action up near the body is a tad high, maybe by a millimeter? but what do I know?

I was going to say in my comment, in case the action was going to be high, I bought a capo to nail down the strings at the first fret — the cheapo 12-string I have in Montreal (a Takamine Jasmine) has a nut that is way too high so just pressing the strings down in the first couple of frets makes at least the G strings go sharp, making the thing impossible to tune. Amazing that cheapness can affect an instrument so badly! I swear, I spent at least an hour trying to tune it, to no avail.

I'm now wondering, after seeing a few references, whether or not to investigate the silk-thread string options, but I'm certainly going to look at the individual-string purchase option — it looks like a one-stop solution to the whole "which gauge is lightest" question.

But after playing with this thing for half an hour or so my fingers are throbbing — I can tell this is going to be a multi-week process until the callouses start to form, and the strength begins to return. I believe these are at least 010s if not 011s that this is strung with.

And as usual with Boys and Toys, I have to have all the accessories: the battery string winder, the hard shell case, the young Japanese showroom model sales associate . . .

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12 strings are hard on the fingers, however long you've been playing. Left field suggestion: tune down a full tone to D G C F A D and use a capo at the second fret to get normal E pitch. String tension will be lower and you can still use your regular gauge of strings and get roughly the same volume. NB you may need to add some bow to the neck using the truss rod.

Lighter strings will sound a little thin and weedy, and I would personally avoid them; they are not in my humble opinion, the answer.

to address the second part of your question, don't be tempted to use electric strings on an acoustic. It will sound ridiculously bright.

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First of all I would not put electric strings on an acoustic guitar because the strings are not built to be played without an amp or with a piezo. The can work but not as well as an acoustic strings. (This part of the question was discussed here a while ago)

On the other hand big size strings on acoustic sound louder, warmer and (IMO) better. I used 0.09 for a long time, when I was a child, but now I prefer 0.12 (if you try you will agree with me that the guitar sounds better!). And I prefer a little pain on the fingers and a big sound than no pain and no sound. And on a 12 strings these considerations are true more then on a 6 strings. Maybe not 0.12 but 0.10 are recommended.

  • Wow! This is in response to ALL the answers—I'm not quite sure of the protocol around here so I don't want to do anything inflammatory such as answering my own question! But it's a dream come true, finding a place with actually well-qualified respondents who can erm . . . how shall I frame it inoffensively? Put two paragraphs together without a single error in spelling or grammar (such is the woeful state of the Internet today, methinks, but that is another story). – Kamakiri Nov 27 '15 at 0:40
  • (cont.) I'm getting an Alvarez AD60-12 tomorrow (I'm in Oakland in from Montreal, taking advantage of the incredible "bargains" available here.) Unfortunately it's a sight-unseen purchase, but from the reviews I see that Alvarez has a fairly good reputation, so I'm not too worried that the strings will be half an inch off the neck at the 20th fret. Not sure what gauge it will ship with, but I’ll be replacing it with the 008 electrics! Thank all of you immensely. As I celebrate my 58th birthday and the guitar tomorrow, I will no doubt hatch more questions for you good folk. Cheers Nick – Kamakiri Nov 27 '15 at 4:57
  • @Kamakiri you can post an answer to your questions, there's nothing wrong and maybe there's even a badge! – Andrea Dellera Nov 27 '15 at 11:12
  • Thanks, Andrea! You never know, these days. Barging into unfamiliar forums can be a risky business. I was never good at flame wars (do they still call them that?) – Kamakiri Nov 28 '15 at 4:10
  • @Kamakiri - Welcome to the Music Stack Exchange community. This site is more of a resource and not intended to be a forum. You will not encounter any flame wars here - the mods keep that under control. The idea is to solicit and provide useful information that future visitors can benefit from. Be sure to take the tour to learn more about how the site works. And I hope you will post some more questions in the future .... and/or answers to questions. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 28 '15 at 18:38

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