A Classic 6 String vs. the 12 String Guitar: Should You Go Non-Traditional?

What is a 12 String Guitar?

The guitar itself is an evolved lute, its story going back centuries and longer throughout several continents. But in its most recent incarnation, the famous stringed strumming instrument typically comes with six strings. These strings play six individual open notes: E, A, D, G, B, and E.

However, outside the traditional six string, guitars come in a number of different flavors – the next common and equally famous one being the 12 string guitar. 12 string guitars are tuned much the same way that six string guitars are tuned – instead of a single set of six notes, you have two sets. For the lower four pairs, each second string is an octave apart from the first – while for the highest two pairs, the strings are identical. It may sound like a strange tuning tradition, but it can produce some truly magical music almost effortlessly.

A guitar is a guitar – but there are differences between one with six strings, and one with twelve. The question is: what are these differences, and why should you care? No matter whether you’re a starting musician or someone with a much longer interest in music, we’ll help you figure out which guitar is best for you – or rather, which guitar is best for what situation.

The History of the 12 String

Whether it’s Goodnight Irene, Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California or a large collection of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits, the 12 string guitar makes an appearance all throughout contemporary music history. However, its origins trace back a lot longer than that – although no one is entirely sure to where.

Epiphone DR-212 12-String Acoustic Guitar

Epiphone DR-212 12-String Acoustic Guitar

In the United States, the first appearance of the 12 string guitar most likely has to owe its invention to the innovations of immigrants from the country that developed and oversaw the evolution of the lute – Italy. Whether in New York, Chicago or someplace else, it was likely Italian luthiers – that is, instrument makers – who first decided to double the strings on a regular six string guitar.

Another hypothesis is that, instead of being developed in the United States, the 12 string slipped over the border from Latin America, particularly from the guitar culture in Mexico. Either which way, it’s been a thing for over a century – hardly a new trend, or an innovation in the field of music. Yet to aspiring guitarists, the switch and difference between six-string and 12 string guitars is a big one.

The early stages of twelve string guitar work in America were dominated by the blues and other genres in the southern states. Pete Seeger and others helped revive it in the 60s, describing the beautiful and round sound of a 12 string as the clanging of bells. A fan favorite among folk singers, the fullness of the guitar helped inspire a new kind of sound that even built heat and inspired folks during the civil rights movement of the later 60s.

How 12 String Guitars Are Built

The biggest difference between a regular six string guitar and a twelve string instrument is the structure. Strumming twice the number of strings requires a little modification, which can truly change the way the instrument is made, and how it feels in your hands.

For one, the body of a twelve string guitar is reinforced compared to the body of a regular six string guitar. On top of that, the neck of a twelve string is a lot stronger to make up for the increased tension of having twice the number of strings attached to their pegs. The headstock and its pegs is appropriately extended to make up for the fact that there are twice as many tuners, and finally, the fretboards for 12 string guitars are shortened to reduce stress on the instrument.

Taylor 150e Spruce/Sapele Dreadnought 12-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Taylor 150e Spruce/Sapele Dreadnought 12-String Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Why You May or May Not Want a 12 String

The pros of a 12 string are obvious – it’s more versatile, capable of fuller and more complex sounds, and isn’t much harder to fingerpick than a regular guitar. However, there are considerations to make beforehand. For one, a 12 string guitar is much, much more time consuming to tune.

Then there’s the increased cost, and finally, the consideration that the increased density between strings can make it a little harder to pull off some bends, while sounding clean.

For the right songs, a 12 string guitar is a musical blessing in the least. But you’ll have to be ready for a good deal more maintenance.

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