30
Aug

Why I play the twelve string guitar

The other day, in a Facebook thread in a huge guitar group, a guitar player asked, "Why do you play the 12-string?" He said he just didn't "get it." Granted, he was young, a mostly electric guy with a few cheap acoustic guitars. So this guy, we'll call him Dick, probably never played a well-made 12-string, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt.
 
He got me thinking though. Why do I play the 12-string? I'll tell you why, but it isn't an easy answer. The easy answer, obviously, is because I really love that sound. It is the orchestra of guitars. Strum it, pick it, open tune it, drop D tune it, slide on it, chicken-pick it, I don't care what you do on it I just prefer, technically, the fuller, more melodic complement of notes and their octaves.
 

I haven't always played the 12-string. I started, as most do, on a sort of toy nylon-string guitar and my first real guitar was also a nylon-string "classical" guitar. Well, technically a "flamenco" guitar, a slightly different shape, made in Spain. I was 4. It was beautiful. I played that for a long time. I've had lots of guitars since then. Nylon string, steel string, electric solid bodies, hollow body, cheap, expensive, stolen, Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Alvarez, Larrivee, from hock shops, trades and boutique music stores - guitars, I've had a few.

(there is a video at the bottom you can listen to while you read the post if you like. NoAutoplay!)

My current, primary show guitar is the one my children bought for me a year to the day after someone broke into my house and took all my guitars and cameras. A Larrivee 12-string, it's kinda special to me. Luckily, it plays like a dream and has grown, with age, to fit my deep, deep voice so well.
 

The history of the 12-string tells us it was invented to be a louder guitar. However, a little deeper study shows that some thought went into the design and much trial and error and years of research to solve the pressure issues. We've come a long way baby! Time and design have created tech that builds incredible 12-string guitars that can be tuned to pitch and play like a slinky electric. We can argue if that is good or bad some other time.

A well-made traditional style 12-string guitar is tuned a whole step lower than a six-string to D rather than E. Even at the lower pressure I've seen charts from string companies that estimate the force at 800  to 1300 pounds of pull on the glue that holds the bridge down and pulling on the neck like a bow and arrow. The bottom set of six strings, one for each course, is tuned just like a six string (a whole step down), and the top set is tuned so that course 1 and 2 are doubled and 2 through 6 are tuned an octave higher. An awful lot of players use a capo to bring it back up to pitch. I don't; I like it down low and transpose when I play with pitch-tuned instruments. This is cool because, when playing with a pitch-tuned guitar player, you will be playing different chord shapes. It makes for awesome and sometimes confusing jams.
 
I believe there is a difference between a twelve-string guitar player and a guitar player that plays a 12-string. Sure they are the same thing, really. The chord shapes are the same, the scales are the same, aside from the octave the tuning is done in the same fashion as you would tune a 6-string. So what's the difference?
 
Well, it's subtle. It is a nuance of play that some 6-string players miss. You see, when you play a single note on a 6-string, aside from attack, it will sound the same if you pick up or pick down. Even on a chord stroke, there is a particular sound for the down and for the up. Arpeggiating a chord, though, gives you single notes that sound basically the same, up or down. On a 12-string, when you play a single note you are actually playing 2 notes and it makes a huge difference how they sound as a down stroke as opposed to an up stroke. With a down stroke the high octave comes first, so if you want more bass or punch you hit an up stroke, even for a chord that a 6-string player might play as a down.
 
Confused yet? Transliterate a few covers to play by yourself, you'll see what I mean. Simply banging out chords on a 12 is louder, and to me sounds better, but it isn't really taking advantage of what the instrument has to offer. There are some amazing 12-string players who just bang out chords and most of them learned on guitars that had really high action and that was all you could do on them. As guitars have gotten better, more players started picking and playing them like 12-strings and now, cheaper than ever before, they are finding voice again.
 

The other thing I love about the 12-string is where it fits in the mix. On the spectrum it reaches an entire octave higher than a six (and 2 notes lower when tuned to D). As you become more of a 12string player you can pick individual strings of the pair. This has some advantages that you just don't have on a six. It can get really confusing, however, when fingerpicking out a melody and the high note is where the low notes usually are and is played with your thumb instead of a pinky, but you have the advantage of economy of hand movement - you can do a 3-octave climb without moving your left hand much.

Tuning is a pain in the ass and sometimes humidity or temperature can make it practically impossible. (Try playing outside at a hot winery with cooling misters sometime!) "Fear of Tuning" is a standard reason most folks don't play them often even if they have one. Once you get the hang of it, it really is no different than tuning your six. As a matter of fact, you can simply tune the bottom six like you normally do and then it's easy to dial in the octaves and unisons. Of course, a tuner makes it easier in a loud room (maybe Santa will bring you one). I use an app on my phone that lets me define a 12-string tuned to D. Some of those cheap clip-on tuners get a little confused but, in a pinch, you can tune the low six with it then just dial in the octaves by ear.
 

A very common complaint is feedback, as with most acoustic guitars. This isn't a guitar issue really, it is a sound guy issue. Feedback in a small club is usually due to a little tiny stage and two big monitors and/or poor speaker placement. Feedback happens when the pickup in your guitar is sending to the speakers the sound coming out of the speakers. So, when you put an acoustic guitar's soundhole in front of a speaker and it is so loud that it is being picked up by your guitar, a loop is created at that frequency and it howls. In small venues it can really be a problem but the answer is simple. Be behind the FOH speakers and either unplug the monitor, turn it or tip it away from the guitar, or use a notch filter (feedback suppressor). Make sure the decibel levels are at a safe and reasonable volume for the small environment and make sure you measure the levels with the house full of people. Learn at which frequencies your particular guitar usually squeals and you can tell the sound guy, "Hey my axe needs a dip at 250" or whatever.

Let's sum up: it's a pain in the ass to tune, it's hard to play, it feedbacks like crazy, it hurts your fingers and all this talk about picking individual strings is gobbledeegook so why do I play the twelve string guitar? Because I love the sound; it fits my songs, my style and my audience. More than that, though, when I am all by myself outside in the forest with a glass of wine and a campfire and I nail it on an instrumental, I'm weeping at the end it is so beautiful to my ear.
 
Oh, one more reason, to be honest, I like being different.
Be different like me.
Stay Tuned, Play Lots.

 
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