The Difference between a 12-String & a 6-String Guitar

by Alasdair Smith
A standard six-string guitar is easier for beginners to master.

A standard six-string guitar is easier for beginners to master.

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There's much more to the difference between six- and 12-string guitars than the number of strings. There are significant differences in the sound and playability of each type of guitar, as well as considerations about durability. Anyone serious about taking up guitar should know a little about these differences so they may make an informed decision when considering a purchase.

Strings and Tuning

A 12-string guitar differs from a standard six-string by having twin sets of strings for each of the six notes paired close to each other on the neck. The two high notes, E and B, will normally feature an identical paired gauge such as a 1/10,000 of an inch for the E and a 14 for the B. Thereafter, the other notes are paired with different gauges which allows the notes to be tuned to the same note, but an octave apart. A typical set will be: a 23 and an 8 for the G; a 30 and a 12 for the D; a 39 and an 18 for the A; and a 47 and a 27 for the low E.

Tone

The 12-string guitar's tone tends to be louder and more rounded than that of a six-string because of the extra strings and the octave differential between the four bottom notes. A 12-string guitar is excellent for standard strumming and rhythm work because it delivers a richness that can't be replicated by a six-string. It was a popular choice with early blues musicians such as Leadbelly because it delivered a powerful sound without the need for amplification.

Playability

The extra neck width required to accommodate the additional strings means that a 12-string guitar can be more difficult to play than a six-string. People with smaller hands may struggle to get the most from a 12-string. Fretting the notes and chords also requires additional pressure to prevent unwanted string dampening which can make the guitar sound discordant. A six-string guitar in contrast is more forgiving of small hands, and requires a lighter touch to get an effective sound. Beginners in particular should really consider a six-string as their first choice of instrument.

Durability

Despite the beautiful ringing sound, the extra strings on a 12-string guitar place a huge amount of additional stress on the guitar's neck. Even with extra truss rod reinforcement, 12-string guitars are notoriously prone to warped necks and headstock breaks. When this happens it is very difficult, and potentially costly, to repair. If you're likely to travel a lot with your guitar, or it may be subject to unexpected knocks, then a 12-string may be an unwise choice.

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