How do I tune a 12 string guitar?

Feb14

I know a lot of people like to number the strings of a twelve-string guitar from one (high E) to twelve, but I find it much easier to number them as a six-string guitar, that is one through six, adding the designation “a” or “b” to each string as well. “A” means closer to the floor (as viewed when I am sitting with the guitar) and “b” is closer to the ceiling. The main reason I do this will, hopefully, be readily apparent when I tell you that all the “a” strings are tuned just like those of a regular guitar in standard tuning. So if you ignore the “b” strings for the moment, you’ll see that the two guitars compare like this:

String equivalents

The first two sets of strings, the high E (1a and 1b) and the B strings (2aand 2b), are unison pairs. When struck, they sound the same note and this is the same note as on the first and second string of a normal guitar. So let’s add them to our chart:

String equivalents

And now the fun begins. The next four pairs of strings are tuned in octaves.This means that, although they are the same note in name – like the “do’s” in”do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” – they will be two different notes. String”3a,” we already know is the same as the G string on regular guitar. String”3b” is tuned to the G note that its an octave higher. The simplest way to think about it, if you’re a linear person, is to think that it’s the note at the twelfth fret of the G string. But it’s just as easy to find these notes in first position.The G an octave higher than the open third string is at the third fret of the first string. Let’s go on and find the rest of the notes:

String equivalents

These six “b” strings give the twelve-string guitar its fullness of sound.Whenever you play a string, you are playing an additional note.

For a complete lesson on using a 12 string guitar see the article Double Your Pleasure – A Guide to the Twelve-String Guitar.

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About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

Comments [5]

  1. Kerry Corker says:

    Very well described. putting it in chart form is the best way for a beginner to understand. thanks for that. cheers kerry

  2. Paul Hingtgen says:

    Excellent way to present how to tune. I have been avoiding a 12 string because everyone hates to tune them. Was in a high end guitar store yesterday and they advised to just tune it like a normal guitar. Thanks from Milwaukee

  3. Thanks for the effort, excellent explanations and advice, just got my first 12 string.. 14/1/14

  4. jax jaxon says:

    one of the best explanations on tuning and alternate tunings i have found. Helps me to understand the complexities of the guitar more than many other instrument. Thx for the infomation.

  5. Hi there, great info, thanks.
    I have had a Sigma 12 string (well 11 string actually) and has been in a case for quite a few years and not played. I thought I would dig it out and change the strings. I purchased some decent Martin strings and have put them on and tuned up. All seems good….until I play a chord, basically the thinner string for example the top (higher) ‘A’ string becomes too high in pitch. The previous strings were fine, maybe I shouldn’t have changed them after all and just replaced the missing G string. Any ideas? Many thanks in advance. Steve

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