Double Your Pleasure – A Guide to the Twelve-String Guitar

You are all probably aware (especially since I tend to say things over and over (and over) again) that my first guitar was a twelve-string guitar – specifically an Ibanez, which I re-strung to play left-handed. I didn’t know a thing about why it had twelve strings; I just wanted something that was different than the other guitars. Once I got past the adolescent I’m-not-like-everyone-else aspect (funny how everyone goes through that, no?), I found myself drawn to its warm, full sound. Whether strumming or fingerpicking, it filled up a room.

Almost twenty-eight years later, the twelve-string is still my primary instrument. If I am playing a solo gig, it’s a good bet that I’ll be playing an acoustic twelver. My Seagull gets the lion’s share of the work these days. If it’s an electric jam, then my Raven will be in my hands.

This is not to give you the impression that my relationship with the twelve-string has always been the stuff of fairy tales. Far from it! But, just like winters in Chicago, many of the hardships involved have been greatly exaggerated.

For those of you who have always wondered, let me take some of the myth and mystery out of this beautiful instrument. If you can play a six string, you can play a twelve. But just as playing an electric guitar requires a different mindset than playing an acoustic, one also needs to develop the right feel for the twelve.

You should always look at any guitar as an instrument of it own. It waits for you to find out what it’s capable of. If you were to give me three different electric guitars and three different acoustics and told me to play the same song, you would get six different, possibly very different, versions of that one song. That’s because I believe that the guitar and I are a partnership – we work together to produce music.

Today, I’d like to go over the basic principles of the twelve-string guitar with you. As a thank you for letting me indulge myself on this topic, I’ve included an “Easy Songs For Beginners” lesson with it. So I guess that means we’ve got to get this out of the way…

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Looking back, I suspect that not knowing how to play guitar at all helped me a lot. I treated learning the twelve-string simply as learning the guitar, going painstakingly through the same processes that everyone else did – finding the notes on the strings, memorizing chords from diagrams, wondering if my fingers would ever stop hurting. But one thing it did do was make me learn how to tune (and listen to hear being out of tune) in a hurry.

To the casual observer, the twelve-string looks pretty much like other guitars. The headstock may be slightly larger to accommodate the extra six strings. The fretboard is slightly wider for the same reasons. The strings are set together in pairs and each pair of strings is fretted as a single string.

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:

Comparison chart

The first two sets of strings, the high E (1a and 1b) and the B strings (2a and 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:

Same notes

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:

Rest of the notes

These six “b” strings give the twelve-string guitar its fullness of sound. Whenever you play a string, you are playing an additional note. Here are a few basic first position chords. Each one is accompanied by two charts – one showing the notes of the “a” strings (again, the same as a regular guitar) and the second one giving the notes sounded by the “b” strings:

G Chord
C Chord
Em Chord

Where this gets really interesting is when you start using notes on the G and D strings. On the “b” strings, you are now using notes that are extending beyond the range of the “normal” chord. Take a look at these:

E Chord
A Chord
D Chord

I’ve often wondered if playing the twelve-string guitar led to my fascination with chord voicings. When you start playing up the neck, especially on the G and D strings, you bring in notes from all over. If you’ve read our latest Intermediates’ Lesson, Give A Little Bit, or the Beginners’ Lesson, Love The One You’re With, then you’ll be intrigued by how some of those chords sound on a twelve-string. Here’s the notes that would be involved:

A Chord
D add 9 / A Chord
G6 / A Chorda

Knowing that you have this extra range of notes at the first position also helps you figure out some songs. I’ve always loved Paul Simon’s For Emily Wherever I May Find Her. The song’s theme is a simple arpeggio:

For Emily Wherever I May Find Her line 1
For Emily Wherever I May Find Her line 2

I came up with all sorts of ways of playing this, none of them good or even remotely like the recording, which is full of shimmering notes that ring over one another. I just couldn’t figure out how he did it until I took the “b” strings of the twelve-string into account. If I put a capo on the third fret and use the high strings of the D and G strings, then I can play these notes, conveniently formed by the Dsus2 chord (made into an Fsus2 by use of the capo):

Emily 12 string line 1
Emily 12 string line 2

This is one case where the type of guitar you play does indeed matter a lot. Here, the twelve-string is essential in order to get these notes.

But that is not usually the case. Some people write and ask what songs can be played on twelve-string guitar and my response, invariably, is “Any song you’d like to play.” This may sound strange, but I think of songs as simply songs, not electric guitar songs, acoustic guitar songs, piano songs, songs with intricate horn arrangement songs. Imagine a song being a person or an object in the middle of an art class. If you have fifteen students painting a picture of the subject, will you not get fifteen visions?

Since no one told me “You can’t play that song on a twelve-string guitar,” I played everything on it. Granted, I learned that not everything sounded great. Some songs needed special care and thought in arrangement in order to make it work. But developing this attitude early in my playing made me learn a lot about the fretboard and the magic a guitar can produce.

And damned if we don’t find ourselves looking at chord shapes again!

Let’s learn the song Melissa, by the Allman Brothers. Before we do that, though, I’d like to recommend that you also read (or reread) the column But Then Again… as we’ll be using a lot of the theory discussed there and I don’t want to bore you to tears repeating a lot of it. By the bye, if you don’t have a twelve-string guitar, don’t let that stop you from learning this! It sounds great on a six-string, too.

We’re going to simplify matters greatly by not calling some of these chords by their proper names. Please don’t get too hung up on that for now. I’m more concerned about you following the logic. If you’d like, feel free to go back over this and determine, for instance, that wherever I have “F#m” I should have “F#m7add4.”

Bearing this in mind, here are the chords to the song:

Lyrics 1
Lyrics 2
Lyrics 3
Lyrics 4

Now, let’s make this easier, shall we? I use these chord voicings (all E or Em shaped, in fact they are the same chords I show you to use in Angels Of The Silences over in But Then Again…) in the introduction and first two lines of the verses:

Verse 1

Each chord here, by the way, is held for four beats. We want to start out with our first position E chord. You’ll want to play this so that your index finger is free, so put your middle finger on the 1st fret of the G string, your pinky on the 2nd fret of the D and your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the A string. Now, when you change from the E to the F#m, all you have to do is slide your pinky and ring finger up two frets and place your index finger on the 2nd fret of the G string. To move from there to the G#m, slide the entire shape up two more frets.

This is the heart of the song, its signature, if you will. You should practice this until you have it down smoothly, letting the changes flow into each other.

At the third and fourth lines, the chords change every two beats. We shift to a first position A shape and the other chords in this progression will also be A (or Am) shapes:

Verse 2

Again, the trick to being smooth here is in using as little finger movement as possible. Depending on how you form your first position A chord, try to keep one, or possibly both of your fingers in position on the G and D strings. This way you only have to worry about fingering the B string as you move up the neck.

The fourth line of the verse brings us back to our original chords, now being played for two beats apiece. From the G#m, we go to A (in E shape) and then to C and finally B (or B7) before coming back to the intro progression at its leisurely four beats per chord. You can approach this fifth line in any number of ways. Here are two that I suggest to my students:

Verse 3

In the bridge, all the chord changes, except the final B, take place every four beats. We start out with standard first position E and D chords and then move to A. Depending on your inclination, you might want to use partial A-shape chords (still keeping the B string open):

Bridge 1

Or E-shapes:

Bridge 2

On the closing A and B of the bridge, I use my index finger to sound the bass note. The final B is held for eight beats, and I like to add a little slide on that eighth beat. I simply strike the sixth string and let my index finger slide from the 7th fret down to the head of the guitar. Since my other fingers have no choice but to follow, they are now in position to take up the E chord when I start the third verse.

Bridge 3

And that’s the song!

A couple of final thoughts concerning the twelve-string guitar: Some people worry about the extra tension on the neck, that the additional strings might cause it to warp faster. To combat this, they tune their twelve-string lower to reduce the risk. While I understand this concern, I’ve never found this to happen in any of the twelve-string guitars I’ve owned. I use standard tuning and all sorts of alternate tunings (and man, oh, man, can you have a blast with those!) with both my electric and acoustic twelve-strings. I guess it’s really up to you to figure out how you feel about it. The best thing to do is to discuss it with someone who knows a lot about your particular make of guitar. Go straight to the manufacturer if you have any doubts.

Finally, I’d like to mention one other thing that the twelve-string makes possible, even though it’s done on a six-string guitar. It is called Nashville Tuning. You may have heard of this and wondered what it is. Simply stated, you take one regular six-string guitar, buy a set of twelve-string guitar strings and put all the “b” strings on the six-string! This is what you end up with:

Nashville

This, as you might imagine, leads to some very interesting sounding chords. I’ll be writing a column about this sometime in the future. In the meantime, two popular rock songs that you might know that use this are Wild Horses, by the Rolling Stones and Hey You, by Pink Floyd. And, of course, David Gilmour has to make thing even more interesting by using a “3b” string as his 6th string. This is why you may find yourself wondering why no one has the right TAB for this song!

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this basic guide to the twelve-string guitar and the song lesson as well. As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected]

Until next lesson…

Peace