How To Tune A 12 String Guitar

How to Tune a 12 String Guitar

12 string guitars have a lush, rich sound that’s unique and unmistakable.  They are more commonly acoustic guitars, although there are electric varieties of 12 string guitars too.  Their rich sound is due to each string being doubled. 

Where a normal guitar has 6 strings, 12 string guitars have an extra string tuned either an octave higher or in unison for each string.  You may not know where to start with tuning your 12 string, so we’re here to walk you through it.  The good news is that it isn’t complicated! 

When playing a 12 string guitar, you will be pressing down a pair of strings with your left hand as you play a note or a chord, much like a mandolin. This means, as long as you’re in standard tuning, that all chords and scales will be played the same way on a 12 string as you would a normal 6 string guitar.  

With our explanation, we’re going to be using standard tuning: (E A D G B E)

The main difference between tuning a 6 string and a 12 string is that each pair of the lower strings including the E, A, D, and G pairs are tuned in octaves.  

The two higher pairs of strings, the B and high E pairs, are tuned in unison.  By this, we mean the same note at the same octave. 

When tuning the E, A, D, and G strings in octaves, it’s important to make sure that you tune the thinner strings to the higher octave, and the thicker ones to the normal octave (the same as a 6 string guitar). For example, with the low E pair of strings, you’ll notice that the string nearest to you as you hold your guitar is thinner, and there is a thicker string right next to it. 

Tune the thicker string to low E as you would a normal 6 string guitar.  Then, tune the thinner string right next to it to E as well, but an octave higher.  Using a guitar tuning pedal will be very helpful here. 

If you don’t have a tuning pedal, there are many free guitar tuning apps available, some of which will have settings specifically for 12 string guitars.  

After you’ve tuned the low E strings to be an octave apart, repeat these steps for the A, D, and the G string pairs.  

Now, for the B and E string pairs, you’ll want to tune each pair in unison.  You’ll notice that each pair is of the same thickness, unlike the lower set of string pairs.  Because of this, you’ll want to tune the B strings to exactly the same note.  The same goes for the high E pair of strings. 

Now, you should have your 12 string all tuned up and ready to play.  

If you’re still having some trouble with this, we recommend getting yourself a chromatic tuner and following the following instructions.

Tuning A 12 String Guitar Using A Chromatic Tuner

What Is A Chromatic Tuner?

A chromatic guitar tuner can be either a pedal that you can plug your guitar into or a clip-on tuning device that you can attach to the headstock of your guitar. 

Some guitars, particularly acoustic guitars, have an inbuilt chromatic tuner.  This will usually be found on the top side of the body of your acoustic guitar.  There will usually be a button here that says “Tuner”.

What Is The Chromatic Scale?

Simply put, the chromatic scale is the entire range of possible notes in a musical scale.  This consists of 12 notes, including the flats and sharps.  For example, the C chromatic scale includes the notes C, C#, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, Bb, B.  The note after B will be C again, but this time an octave higher.  

How Do I Use My Chromatic Tuner?

The first thing you’ll need to do is get your tuner set up and turn it on.  If that is a clip-on tuner, then you will need to clip it onto the headstock of your guitar, on the very end of it. 

If you’re using a pedal tuner, then you will need to plug your guitar into it and press it to turn it on.  You should see it light up, and if you pluck one of your guitar’s strings, you should see the note come up on the screen of your tuning pedal. 

This shows that the pedal is receiving the signal from your guitar.  If not, then check your volume knob is turned up and that your pedal either has batteries or is plugged into a power supply.  

As you play a note on your guitar (try not to play multiple strings at once, you’re only tuning one string at a time!) you will see the note flash up on your tuner.  If the note is flat, you’ll see an arrow to the right on the note, indicating that you need to tune up in pitch. 

If there’s an arrow to the right of the note on the screen, you’re too sharp and need to tune down in pitch. Once you get the lower string in tune, it’s pretty easy to tune the other string in the pair by ear. 

Play both strings at once, and listen to how the strings ring out together.  If one string is out of tune, it will sound warbly and there will be a sort of chorusing effect.  A good method of doing this is tuning the other string down and then slowly back up until it sounds just right.  

A common alternate tuning for the 12 string guitar is to tune each string down a whole tone.  This means you can play all the same chords the same way as you would in standard tuning, but one tone lower.  For this tuning the notes would be: D G C F A D. 

If you’re using this tuning and want to quickly go back to standard tuning, all you have to do is put a capo on the second fret.  This will put you back in standard, and the action of the strings will be significantly lower.  A capo can be really useful, especially if you’re playing with other people and want to play open chords in different keys. 

One Last Thing… 

Playing a 12 string can be such an enjoyable experience and creating such a beautiful, resonant sound will hopefully improve the way you play.  The important thing is to enjoy yourself, be creative and have fun! 

Some of the most iconic bands, songwriters, and guitar players have used a 12 string, so by getting that lush sound, maybe you can channel those amazing musicians and use that inspiration for your own playing.  We hope we’ve been able to clear up any confusion you may have had about getting your 12 string guitar in tune and ready to play. 

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