by Scott Zimmerman

This article is about why beginners should avoid the 12 string guitar when starting out. To learn about the guitar, view our courses here, or see our article about how to learn the guitar at home.

Are 12 String Guitars Good For Beginners?

The short answer is: It is not the easiest way to learn guitar for a beginner. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play a twelve-string guitar eventually. Your best path, if you desire to learn the twelve-string guitar, is to learn the six-string guitar first, and then make the transition over to twelve strings. Let’s compare the six and twelve-string guitars in terms of playability and how that relates to learning the guitar.

Are 12 String Guitars Good For Beginners? Due to the increased string tension, doubled strings, and close proximity of the string courses, twelve string guitars are more difficult to play, and therefore learn, than six string guitars.

String Tension

A twelve string guitar will have more string tension than a six string guitar. This is due to the doubling of the amount of strings. When a note is played, two strings will be pressed at once, which will require extra pressure from the finger to sound the note clearly. However, due to the increased string tension, many twelve string players will tune down a whole step, i.e. D standard tuning. This will decrease the tension and make the twelve string easier to play.

Finger Strength

Also, due to the increased string tension of a twelve string guitar, more finger strength is needed to sound the notes. For a beginner, this is the most challenging aspect of learning guitar. Because the twelve string guitar will be harder to learn than the six string guitar, in this respect, there is a possibility that a new guitar player may quit playing because of the discomfort. Therefore, a six string guitar will help condition the hand for the strength necessary to later play the twelve string guitar.

Fingertip Wear

Because the twelve string guitar requires two strings to be pressed down for every note, the wear on the fingertips is greater than that of the six string guitar. This is another area of difficulty for the beginner. Overtime, the fingertips will develop calluses, but there is a “break in” period where it can be uncomfortable to play the guitar. Starting on a twelve string guitar will increase this discomfort and also may lead to quitting the instrument due to this physical obstacle. However, once the fingertips have developed calluses from playing the six string guitar, there will be less fingertip discomfort when moving to the twelve string guitar.

Neck Thickness and Width

The thickness and width of the neck on a twelve string guitar can be larger than on a six string guitar, although this is not always the case. This can also make playing the twelve string more difficult than the six string guitar, especially for a beginner.

Tuning

Twelve string guitars take more time to tune than six string guitars and they will need to be tuned more frequently. For a beginner, learning to tune a six string guitar, even with a tuner, will take some time to master. It can be very difficult for a beginning guitar player to properly tune a twelve string guitar. This leads to playing an out of tune guitar, which can be discouraging for a beginning student of the guitar.

Intonation

It is common for inexpensive guitars, six and twelve string versions, not to play in tune in the higher frets. For a beginner, this is not usually a big issue because most playing is done in the first position, i.e. the first four frets. However, because a twelve string has six more strings that can potentially play out of tune, there can be some very noticeable intonation problems when playing the twelve string guitar in the higher frets. More expensive and higher quality guitars will be less likely to have these issues.

Chord Playing

Open position chords work very well on the twelve string guitar and are very similar to playing open position chords on the six string guitar, albeit with slightly more hand pressure and fingertip conditioning. However, barre chords are very challenging on the twelve string guitar. Barre chords in general require a lot of hand strength and pressure, and when six extra strings are added, barre chords become very difficult to manage, especially if you are a beginning player. 

Single String Playing

Compared to playing a six string guitar, single string playing is more difficult on a twelve string guitar. There is less space between the courses of strings, i.e. the two strings that make up each note, and both strings must be plucked at the same time. Add to it the extra finger tension necessary to press down the two strings, and you have a more difficult time playing single string notes on a twelve string guitar.

Vibrato and Bending

For the reasons mentioned above, e.g. string tension, proximity of the strings, etc., vibrato and string bending is also very challenging on the twelve string guitar. Because these are essential techniques to master on guitar, this is another reason why beginning on the twelve string guitar is not an ideal choice. 

Twelve String Electric

The twelve string electric was made popular by George Harrison when he used it on a Hard Day’s Night (Listen to the opening chord). Some acoustic folk guitar players adopted this instrument, e.g. Roger McGuinn, and blended folk and Beatlesque elements together to create a new sound, e.g. The Byrds, Tom Petty, R.E.M., etc. Because electric guitar strings are under less tension than acoustic strings, the twelve string electric is relatively easier to play than the acoustic version. This is also an option for a beginner who is set on starting on the twelve string guitar first.

Practical Utility

The twelve string guitar has a unique sound that cannot be obtained on any other instrument. It is not only a beautiful solo instrument, but it is very useful in adding fullness to the harmonic structure of a live performance or recording. It is not as versatile as the six string guitar, but it has some specific sounds that only it can produce. Therefore, it is a great instrument to add to your guitar playing arsenal. 

OK, But I Really Want To Play The Twelve String What Should I Do?

No problem! This is not an all or nothin’ situation. If you are really determined to play twelve string guitar, you can make it happen. These are just some things to consider, and by being aware of some of the challenges ahead of time, you will be better prepared to overcome them. Alternatively, you can begin on the sixth string guitar and learn the twelve string guitar songs that you enjoy; then, transfer them over to the twelve string. Let’s take a look at some iconic twelve string songs in order to inspire us along our twelve string journey!

Classic Twelve String Guitar Songs

  1. Stairway To Heaven
  2. Wish You Were Here
  3. Wanted Dead Or Alive
  4. Space Oddity
  5. Hotel California (with capo)
  6. Mr. Tambourine Man
  7. A Hard Day’s Night

Conclusion

Generally speaking, if you are looking to start playing the guitar, and you want to choose the most sequential path for learning, starting on the six string guitar and then moving to the twelve string is your best option. If you want to play the guitar because of the twelve string guitar sound, then as long as you are aware of some of the challenges, then go for it. If you come to a point where you are not enjoying your playing on the twelve string because of technical difficulties, don’t give up on the guitar, try a six string for a while.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.

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