I've played the guitar for over 40 years—I'm now 59 and I started when I was 11 or so. I've played professionally, been in many bands, played every sort of guitar imaginable and even been a bass player for several of those years.

Now, however, I've been on 12-string for going on two years. Why 12-string? Because I've always loved the sound, and besides—I know I'll never be a guitar hero, so why not try to explore the realm of unique sounds? Everyone plays the 6-string—hardly anyone I've heard plays the 12-string, except as an afterthought to a six.

I had had a 12-string years ago but when I started up again this time around two years ago I found it incredibly difficult to just press down the strings!

After two years, however, I'm fairly used to it and can press the down well enough; my problem this time comes down to high action/heavy gauge strings.

The guitar people who are dealing with my two 12-strings have done their best to accommodate my request for the lowest possible action/lightest possible gauge strings, but past a point it's obvious that there is going to be buzzing, tuning problems and so on with BOTH these requests.

So the latest incarnation that they sent back after restringing and re-setting up is a 12-string with .011-gauge strings and, to me, incredibly high action, even though the tech told me proudly he had "lowered the action to the lowest" he'd ever accomplished on a 12-string.

But now I find it almost impossible to play the chords I was playing before . . . the strings are just too high and the force required to push them down is just too great!

My question here is, will I ever get to the point that I will be able to play this guitar, or am I just banging my head against a brick wall? How do I get around the high action? It feels (although it isn't!) that the strings are a centimetre from the fretboard (they're more like 3 mm).

Now, I remember when I could barely play this guitar with the lightest strings (.009s) and lowest action possible (it led to much buzzing and other problems) but I despair at ever being able to play it now.

Don Felder of the Eagles once said of the 12-string—that he used to write Hotel California—that it made his fingers bleed and you needed the "hands of a gorilla" to play it, but I can't believe this is true.

CAN I ever get to the point where I can play this thing? I do NOT want to play it like a 6-string. I realize that soloing on a 12-string is a ridiculous idea. I want to use it more as almost a harp.

What should I practice to increase hand strength, and especially accuracy at just being able to press the two strings of each course down properly?

I can't find anything on YouTube for 12-strings specifically and what I do find usually treats the 12-string as just a different kind of 6-string.

Many thanks for any advice provided!

  • Exactly what 12 string guitar is it - they vary an awful lot. – Tim Mar 29 '17 at 22:14
  • A lot of people tune 12 strings down to D for this very reason; it lowers the action and releases string tension. I actually really like the sound of 12 strings tuned a little lower too, I don't think you lose anything doing this. And if you want to play something using open chords "at pitch" without transposing, you can always just capo 2. – Some_Guy Mar 30 '17 at 8:24
  • Also, have you tried martin's silk and steel strings? I've not tried them on a 12 string, but they're light (I think 11.5?), low tension (which will lower action), and sound GREAT. They're not "muddy" or "muted" like some people assume, and they're not just for finger pickers either. I mainly use a flatpick, and I have the standard set on my main acoustic 6 string now simply because I like the tone so much. Shimmery and clear, and dynamically responsive. For me, the fact that they're nice and easy under the fingers is just a bonus but for your purposes I imagine it'd make a real difference. – Some_Guy Mar 30 '17 at 8:35
  • (For reference, I have them on a big solid topped dreadnought which protects like nobody's business. I've don't know how they'd sound on a quieter guitar, but they sound beautiful on what I'm playing.) – Some_Guy Mar 30 '17 at 8:37
  • Yup, Silk and Steel is what I always use! I had never heard of them until they were suggested right here in one of my posts. (Oops, can't use paras in these comments boxes; see my reply in a general reply below =+) – Kamakiri Mar 30 '17 at 21:09

It is possible to set the action of a 12 string to be very low and be adjusted for very light gauge strings, but you lose volume and tone. I have set up an acoustic 12 string to play like an electric, using electric gauge strings (.008s). The tone wasn't great but the play-ability was very easy, so it is possible to get a soft playing 12 string, you just have to shop around, and find a competent technician.

The ability to lower that action of a 12 string guitar is entirely dependent on the build of the guitar. If the guitar neck has a large 14th fret hump, or the the bridge lip to the saddle is too high, it will be impossible to lower the action further than those things allow.

You should have your nut slots checked for proper setup. For lighter playing action you want the smaller gauge strings in the pair to be set to the same height as the top of the thicker strings, making it easier to be more accurate on your finger placement on the strings. Stock 12 strings usually have the nut slots all cut to the same depth making the smaller strings lower than the larger strings. For even better setup you can have the strings set to the same height at the saddle, which also improves the play-ability significantly.

With a good setup a 12 string shouldn't require much more hand strength than a 6 string.

For accuracy practice on the courses, look at working on mandolin style tremolo picking. By practicing tremolo across both strings of a course you can tell when your finger isn't aligned in-between the strings.

A 12 string was the first guitar I owned, and I still play one regularly. It is entirely possible to play solo lines on one, and I really like the way the Blues sound in it. Fingerpicking is also possible on a 12 string, and I have seen players use a slide on them.

  • I found a good article on setting up 12 strings: premierguitar.com/articles/22046--string-setup-secrets - they recommend keeping the strings set to the fret height at the nut for tuning stability, but I'm willing to trade a little tuning for ease of play... – Alphonso Balvenie Mar 29 '17 at 19:40
  • Wow! Great article! Why isn't there a magazine for 12-strings? There's probably one called Machine Head Today, why not 12-strings? Let's start one . . . I'll be the managing editor. Alphonso can be the Editor. Some_guy can be some guy. – Kamakiri Mar 31 '17 at 2:03

Sometimes you have to do what is right for you. I purchased an electric mandolin, and it came with heavy gauge phosphor bronze strings. You had to tune them up until they felt like rebar, and I felt that they were on the brink of snapping. Going against all sorts of mandolin lore, I decided to simply use a couple of sets of light electric guitar strings. Instantly the string tension was lower, tuning was easier and the tone was, if anything, improved. You could use light gauge electric guitar strings on an acoustic. It wouldn't do any damage, though it would offend the purists.

12 String guitars don't have to be unplayable and nasty. From my somewhat limited experience the nut slots tend not to be cut deep enough on , so you have to put a lot of effort into squeezing the strings down. On my 12 string, a cheap Stagg electro-acoustic piece of nonsense, I filed the nut slots deeper and filed the saddle down. I also checked than the neck relief was flat. The next stage would be to make sure the frets are level. Do this and you should be able to use gauge 8 strings without issue. Granted it still isn't the easiest guitar to play as the neck is thicker, but it is a lot easier to play than when it left the factory.


Some just are not easy to play, even given the lightest strings and enver will be. I cannot get my Tanglewood Oddesey to go any lower. If you can't get a 12 string to a state where its actually a pleasure for you to play, with your geometry and attributes, then take a trip to a local music store and try whatever they have to gain some perspective on what is possible with other models.

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