How To Play A 12 String Guitar

How to Play a 12-String Guitar

Mastering The Extra 6 Strings Is Easier Than You Think

The majestic jangle of a 12-string guitar is utterly unmistakable. From Hotel California by The Eagles, to Hear My Train a Comin’ by Hendrix, to Breaking the Girl by the Chili Peppers, these double-string wonders are the cornerstone of countless classic songs.

Their unique timbre has drawn in many a six-string strummer over the years, and if you, too, have been seduced by their shimmering siren song, you’re in the right place. Today, I’m going to be giving you some key pointers on taming this mythic 12-stringed beast.

Is Playing A 12-String Guitar The Same As Playing A 6-String Guitar?

As people rarely jump straight to the 12-string when they first start their musical journey, I’m assuming that you’ve already been playing a 6-string for a certain amount of time.

If that is indeed the case, then I’ve got some fantastic news for you! All the skills you picked up playing your 6-string guitar will translate seamlessly onto a 12-string — hooray!

That’s right, folks; besides a few minor variations in technique, playing the 12-string doesn’t differ all that much from your garden variety axe. The core fundamentals are the same. You fret notes, pluck or strike the strings, and voilà; music to our ears!

However, those minor variations I just mentioned, they can make the transition from 6 to 12 strings a little…turbulent. If you’re unaware that you need to alter your technique, the guitar’s extra metal may get the better of you, earning it a prime place in a dusty corner of your attic.

But I’m not going to let that happen. Let’s take a look at some of the difficulties new 12-stringers face and how they can be overcome.

Obstacles You’ll Run Into When Picking Up A 12-String For The First Time

Fretting And Neck Width

The most irritating hurdle I faced when I brought home my first 12-string guitar was that I couldn’t fret notes or chords for a very long time. Within seconds, the notes would be marred by fret buzz, killing the sustain (and my vibe).

Even though I’d been playing a “standard” guitar for years, it took all of 10 minutes on a twelver for my fingers to call it quits, but why did this happen?

Well, there are a few reasons why a lot of 12-strings are harder to fret than their 6-string counterparts, the most prevalent being that you’re dealing with greater resistance — more strings require more muscle.

Another reason is that the doubled-up strings can be too far apart for you to fret at the same time with your fingertips. As soon as a string slips from your grasp…the buzz cometh!

The final reason why it can be harder to fret notes on a 12-string is that their necks are usually considerably wider, meaning your fingers have to strain more to reach certain locations.

The Solution

Instead of fretting notes with the very tips of your fingers, you should drop your wrist from behind the neck, to below it, flatten out your hand, and use the meaty pads of your fingers instead. This gives you a wider surface area for fretting the strings and prevents the excess neck width from limiting your reach.

You might have already come across this handshape if you’ve ever learned any songs on the 6-string that require big stretchy chords, such as Message in a Bottle by The Police. It feels alien to begin with, but after a week or so of practice, it becomes second nature.

Picking

Picking can also be quite difficult when you acquire a 12-string guitar. The strings can feel a lot closer together for your picking hand, and you also have to strike them a little harder than normal to chime both as one.

The need for greater pick accuracy and power is a deadly combination, one that can trip your picking hand up for a while.

The Solution

A heavier pick will help here, but other than that, there is no instant fix that you can apply to your playing to solve this issue. It just takes lots and lots of practice. Eventually, your strumming hand will develop muscle memory specific to the 12-string’s spacing, and your picking will become more accurate.

Strumming

The extra tension in the strings of a 12-string guitar can be another shock to the system. All of a sudden strumming doesn’t feel natural, you’re missing strings, and you’re dropping your pick every two seconds.

The Solution

Firm up your hold on your pick, but don’t let the muscles in your hand and wrist seize up, as the key to hitting every string when strumming is to keep the wrist loosey-goosey. Try not to rely on your arm and shoulder.

7 Tips For Making The Most Of Your 12-String

With those pitfalls covered, let’s focus on techniques you can use to really let your 12-string shine.

  1. Arpeggios

12-string arpeggios sound breathtaking! Break up your chords for extra twinkle.

  1.  Avoid Barre Chords

The extra tension will fatigue your fingers and wrist, and open chords sound way cooler on a 12-string.

  1. Your Capo Is Your Friend

If you think a 12-string sounds good normally, throw this Shubb 12-string capo into the mix and get ready to weep.

  1. Use Different Chord Voicings When Playing With Another Guitarist

A six-string and a twelver blasting out the same chords can be a bit much. Let your six-string buddy take the standard chords, while you shimmer your way up the fretboard with some triads and arpeggios.

  1. Know When a 6-String Is a Better Choice

I love 12-strings, but sometimes, a 6-string serves a song or passage better.

  1. Trim Your Nails

It’s easy for longer nails to get caught up in the double strings, so keep ‘em short for velveteen fingerpicking.

  1. Keep It in Tune

6 out of tune strings sound bad enough. Introduce 6 more, and it’s headache central.

How To Play A 12-String Guitar — Summing Up

That just about covers all bases. With a heavier pick, a 12-string capo, and a few minor changes in technique, you’ll have all the tools you need to explore these wonderful instruments.

My final piece of advice is to seek out artists known for their 12-string work, such as Roger McGuinn and Peter Buck, watch videos of them playing, and see if you can pick up any more neat tricks.

Keep on twinkling!

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