The only thing better than one guitar would have to be, of course, two guitars. Even though a 12 string guitar isn’t exactly like two separate 6 string guitars, the sound you’ll get is richer, more resonant, and perfectly suited to fingerpicking.
The caveat concerning any instrument is tuning. You can put loads of work into learning and perfecting guitar chords, but when it comes time to play, you won’t get that great, satisfying sound you practiced for if your instrument isn’t tuned.
When it comes to tuning your 12 string guitar, as with learning to play it, things may seem a little more complicated initially than a 6 string. However, with the right tips and tricks and with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to tune like a pro and get that satisfying, harmonic sound every time.
Let’s Take a Look at Your Guitar
Even if you’re a complete beginner to guitar playing, you’re probably pretty familiar with the look of a typical 6 string guitar. It’s easiest to think of a 12 string guitar as a 6 string with 6 sets of strings instead of 6 singular strings. If you look at the neck of your guitar, you’ll see that the strings come in pairs.
This perspective comes in handy not only when you’re playing your instrument but also when you’re tuning it. So don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of tuning 12 individual strings; you’re simply going to be tuning 6 sets.
Strum your guitar and hit each of the strings. You’ll hear that instead of 12 individual notes, you hear the same 6 notes, each one repeated twice. In each of the string pairs, you’ll only be tuning one note twice. See? Nice and simple!
If you continue to look at your guitar’s strings, you’ll also notice something about their thickness: four sets of strings are of mismatched thickness, while two sets have strings with matching thickness.
The thinner strings should always give higher notes than their thicker counterparts, but the thickness of the strings within those pairs will also be important later in the tuning process, so put this on the back burner for later.
Take a second to also notice the layout of the tuning pegs. On the head of your guitar, there are tuning pegs on both sides that you’ll use to adjust the tightness, and therefore the tone, of your guitar strings. Because there are twice as many strings as on a 6 string guitar, your 12 string guitar will have twice as many tuning pegs, too.
Before we get into guitar tuning basics, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with this tuning peg layout. With your guitar neck in your left hand, the tuning peg closest to you on the left side of the guitar’s head tunes the bottom string (the string closest to your face as you look down at your guitar).
The following tuning peg behind that one tunes the next string down, and so forth. The tuning peg closest to you on the other side of the guitar’s head will tune the furthest string from you (considered the top string).
When we move on to tuning, make sure that you’re grabbing the correct tuning peg for the right string! Even with only 6 strings, it’s easy to turn the wrong peg, wondering why the note you’re playing just isn’t changing. So at first, it will take even more intentional focus to make sure you’re keeping all 12 tuning pegs straight.
Now that you’re familiar with the layout of your guitar’s strings and tuning pegs let’s move on to the tuning basics.
Time for Tuning Basics
Remember how, in grade school, you memorized the order and names of planets using the mnemonic device “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” (or just a singular pizza depending on how old you were when they denounced Pluto)? We’ll use the same sort of acronym to remember the notes for tuning your 12 string guitar.
If you’re holding the guitar neck in your left hand and looking down at the strings, the bottom string (the string closest to your face) starts the tuning sequence with the following notes:
E A D G B E
You can make up any sort of acronym you’d like to help you remember this order. The funnier or more relevant, the better, such as: Eat All Day Get Big Easy, or Every Amateur Does Better Eventually.
The main thing to see here is that there are only 6 notes in the acronym. Did you notice? When tuning your 12 string guitar, you’ll tune each pair of strings to one of the notes in the acronym, from bottom to top, in the order we mentioned before.
For example, when you’re looking down at your guitar, the top pair of strings consists of one thin string first and then a thicker one paired together. Both these strings will carry the tune of the first note in the acronym, E.
But remember what we mentioned about thinner strings giving higher notes? Well, in this pair, both strings will be tuned to E, but the thin string will be an octave higher than the thicker string: same note, only a different pitch.
The same idea is replicated with all the pairs of strings on your guitar until you get to the top two (the ones furthest away from your face when holding your guitar neck in your left hand and looking down). Notice how these two pairs of strings are both of matching thickness? These sets of strings are tuned to B for the second-to-top pair and high E for the top pair in unison with no octave differences.
In summary, the string pairs with mismatched thicknesses are tuned to be the same note, one octave apart. But the pairs with matching thickness are tuned to the same note and the same octave.
Almost ready to test it out?
By this point, I’m sure you’re thinking — that’s great and all, but how am I going to actually get my guitar tuned? As you probably don’t have perfect pitch or note recall to be able to tune every string by ear (not many of us do!), you’ll probably need a little help getting there. And, good news, you have some options here.
If you’re just getting starting in the music world, you’ll want to invest in a tried-and-true chromatic tuner. They are not often expensive, and you can find them at any music store or online. This is a simple, small device that you clip onto the head of your guitar. It reads the string vibrations as you’re tuning and lets you know which note you’re playing.
The significant benefit of chromatic tuners is their convenience, ease, simplicity, and precision. Most chromatic tuners will show on a small digital display whether your note is sharp or flat and how close it is to the next registered note on the scale, all while giving you a visual as you tune up or down to show you if you’re getting “hot” or “cold.”
Chromatic tuners run on batteries, so it’s always a good idea to keep the tuner and a spare battery in your guitar bag as needed. Find the perfect guitar tuner for you today!
There’s an app for everything, and there are plenty for tuning your guitar, too. Most of these apps function identically to a chromatic tuner, only in app form on your phone. Just like with a chromatic tuner, you’ll still need to have your tuning sequence memorized to make sure you are positioning each note correctly in order.
However, some apps have pre-settings for specific instruments, such as 12 string guitars, to help you remember and achieve standard tuning. There are tons of options for both iPhone and Android users. If you need some recommendations to get started, check out these options here that will work well for 12 string tuning.
It’s always best to go with the chromatic tuner if you can choose between a tuning app and a chromatic tuner. Apps are often not as precise, and as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. You’ll want each string to be tuned as close to perfection as you can get it to give you that harmonic sound, and a chromatic tuner is best suited to that.
But, in a pinch, an app is better than nothing. And since your phone is always close by, having a downloaded tuning app on it can come in handy if needed. Invest in a chromatic tuner and download your favorite app tuner as well to cover all your bases.
The Nitty Gritty
Now that you’ve chosen your preferred method for tuning assistance, let’s put everything you’ve learned into practice. Attach that chromatic tuner to your guitar or pull out your tuning app and let’s get started!
As you’re tuning each string, remember to keep track of which tuning peg you’re using and which string pair you’re working with. Utilizing the octave-relationship between those string pairs will keep you organized and right on track.
Moving through the strings as you wrap up your tuning, this should be the layout of each string’s specific note positioned across the corresponding tuning pegs:
Low D Octave higher G
Octave higher D Low G
Low A High B
Octave higher A High B
Low E High E
Octave higher E High E
If you’re ready to expand on your memory mnemonic from before, the new acronym expands into the following:
eE aA dD gG BB EE
Think you’ve got the hang of it? Here’s one more bit of information to help make sure that your string tuning is as precise and perfect as possible to make sure you get the best sound out of your instrument.
Many chromatic tuners and tuning apps will provide on-screen frequency read-outs for the note that you are playing. While it’s simple and effective just to match the name of the note desired, it can also help to utilize frequency matching.
Each note, as with all the sounds we hear every day, has a particular frequency. Knowing the particular frequency of high E can help you make sure that your top two strings are in perfect tune. So here’s what each note’s frequency should be, reflected in your string tuning:
e: 164.81 Hz
E: 82.41 Hz
a: 220.00 Hz
A: 110.00 Hz
d: 293.66 Hz
D: 146.83 Hz
g: 392.00 Hz
G: 196.00 Hz
B (both strings): 246.94 Hz
E (both strings): 329.63 Hz
One crucial part of tuning a 12 string guitar is repeating the tuning process for the first few strings once you’ve completed the tuning once through. Typically, guitar strings will hold their tones pretty well. But with a 12 string guitar, the number of strings puts tension on the neck of the guitar, and as you increase and decrease the tightness of other strings, it could knock those first few strings out of tune.
Tips and Tricks
Neck tension, in general, is an essential and unique factor to keep in mind when tuning and playing your 12 string guitar. Because these guitars are under much more consistent tension than 6 string guitars, you’ll need to consider the effects of tension on several facets of tuning and guitar care.
While tuning, your high octave G string will be the highest note represented among your guitar strings. Because it’s strung more tightly than any of the other strings, it’s under more pressure and is more susceptible to snapping. Make sure to tune it slowly and carefully, not twisting the tuning peg too quickly or too much at once to keep the string intact.
Given the tension, it’s always a good idea to keep one hand rested gently across the neck of the guitar while you’re tuning. In case a string snaps and goes flying, this protects your eyes and face and anything else that may be in the danger zone.
Beyond Standard Tuning
Practicing further with the standard tuning that we’ve worked on today will help your fingers develop muscle memory and will make it like second nature when you pick up your 12 string guitar for tuning.
Once you’ve got standard tuning down, however, there are many other options for you to move on to and master. The sky’s the limit, and how you choose to tune and play your instrument will be dictated only by your creativity and the flights of your inspiration.
Standard tuning, though, is a great place to start if you’re looking to play along with some of your favorite songs that utilize a 12 string guitar. The John Butler Trio’s famous fingerpicking masterpiece Ocean, Jimi Hendrix’s bluesy Hear My Train a Comin’, and the Beatles’ iconic A Hard Day’s Night all feature the rich and robust tones of 12 string guitars.
If you research some of these popular guitar songs, you’ll find that many of them utilize 12 string guitars tuned a half step down. It’s popular mainly because it reduces some of the tension on the neck of the guitar, meaning that you can play it with more enthusiasm and speed without fear of snapping strings. You may also find that it can relieve discomfort in your fingers and enable you to play longer.
If you’ve mastered standard tuning and want to delve into alternative tunings, then tuning half a step down is a pretty simple next step. After tuning your guitar to regular standard tuning, simply go back and adjust each string down a semitone, which is also called a half step.
In this instance, E will turn into E-flat, D will turn into D-flat, and so on. When using your chromatic tuner or tuning app, it will be easy to tell when you’ve hit a flat note, even if you’re not particularly adept at reading music. The symbol for a flat note that you’ll want to see come across your tuner screen when tuning a step down is this:♭
Of course, in regular standard tuning, you won’t want to see the flat symbol on your chromatic tuning screen at all, but when tuning a half step down, it’s what you’ll want to look for to know that all your strings are in the proper tuning sequence.
As you spend more time practicing on your 12 string guitar, you’ll become more familiar with the layout of the tuning pegs and strings, and you’ll become better at tuning more quickly. No matter how practiced you get at tuning, make sure to tune slowly to reduce neck tension on the strings and keep each string tuned with precision.
Even though it seems far more complicated than a 6 string guitar, we’re confident that with enough time and practice, you’ll agree that with a 12 string guitar, there’s simply more to love! Happy tuning!
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.