The 12-String Guitar In Rock Music

The 12-string guitar has been used to add more fullness and depth to a long list of rock songs. Image courtesy of

The 12-string guitar has made a very distinct impact on music fans in some of the most notable bands and songs in rock music history.  Whether it was George Harrison of the Beatles, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, or Roy Orbison, these guitarists have used the 12-string guitar in some very recognizable songs.  This post is dedicated to the 12-string guitar and some highlights of the instrument in famous rock songs.  I also included some information on re-stringing a 12-string guitar and how to create a fake 12-string sound for those of you who want a similar sound with the guitar you already own.  The 12-string guitar is yet another tool to take into the recording studio or on stage and add a new sound to the song.

The first article I collected features a quick overview about playing a 12-string Yamaha acoustic guitar.  Now whether or not you are a Yamaha guitar fan, I chose to include this article as an introduction to playing a 12-string guitar.  The information is quite useful at

I own a Yamaha acoustic guitar. I’ve owned it for over 25 years and it sounds even more beautiful now than when I first bought it. The construction of the guitar is very high quality, the neck has remained quite stable over the years, and the body and top woods have aged very well. I have had to replace some of the frets but that is only because I’ve played the guitar so much. Of course, I’ve replaced the strings many times but that is par for the course with guitars because you’re always putting your fingers on them.

If you’ve never played a 12-string guitar, you’ve got to try it. I recommend using a very light gauge pick for strumming. Finger-picking style playing is quite a bit more difficult due to the string spacing being so close together.

How do I describe the sound of a Yamaha Acoustic Guitar

I don’t know if that’s even possible, but it might help if I first describe the way the strings are tuned. First off, the high E and B strings are duplicated, then the next four pairs are an octave apart. So the typical D string on a guitar is a wound string that is tuned to a mid-level pitch of G and right next to it is an unwound steel string that is tuned to G one octave higher.

So, those six pairs of strings combine together to create a guitar sound that is much richer, smoother, and fuller than a standard acoustic guitar sound. Think of how a song sounds when only a single person is singing it. And then think of how that same song sounds when several people are singing different notes and pitches (all on key of course!).

I guess another term I could use to describe the sound is that it is “chorused”. A “chorused” sound is like I described above, many, many, many people singing the same song or melody, just at different pitches.

Playing the Yamaha acoustic guitar is very similar to playing any standard six string guitar. The chords and the fingerings are the same, the pitches are the same… The tuning is essentially the same with the caveat that the lower-pitched strings have a higher pitched string next to it that matches the note one octave higher.

The classic rock band “The Eagles” often used a 12-string guitar on there recordings. Listen to the opening riff of “Hotel California” – that was played on a 12-string acoustic.

I have recorded many of my own songs using my Yamaha acoustic guitar as the base rhythm guitar. Properly miked up, the sound is rich and full and makes for a beautiful sounding recording.

Overall, I would have to say that Yamaha builds excellent quality musical instruments. I know that they are better known for their motorcycles (at least that is how I first came to know about the company), but motorcycles are not their original line. Just take a look at the company logo: it is three tuning forks laid out to perfectly divide a circle into thirds. If you know anything about music, you’ll recognize the circle is representative of the “circle of fifths” and dividing it up into thirds is acknowledging the fact that the third interval from the root note is one of the most influential of the intervals in making a chord sound happy or sad.

In summation, a Yamaha acoustic guitar is a worthy investment for any guitarist whether they be professional level, intermediate, or beginner because they always sound great!

One of the most iconic guitarists in rock music history was Roy Orbison.  Orbison often played his Epiphone 12-string guitar as a songwriting tool.  Gibson Lifestyle produced a great feature about Orbison and his 12-string guitar here at

A problem many exceptional guitar players have with songwriting is choosing chords that are right for the melodic and harmonic path of the appropriate vocal performances.
And then there was Roy Orbison, a master of both picking and structure with a vocal method that was the American roots music equivalent of Caruso’s — literally a voice for the ages.
Although Orbison was most often seen with a Gibson ES-335 on stage, for songwriting he often used a 12-string acoustic Epiphone Bard model. The guitar, with its lush, natural chorusing quality, was the perfect compliment to the heavy purr of his singing. And it’s the instrument that helped him create “Oh, Pretty Woman” with fellow Texas songwriter Bill Dees during a mere 40 minutes in 1963.

The Gibson Company immortalized Orbison’s acoustic with the Ltd Ed Roy Orbison Signature 12-String Acoustic. The guitar is a highly accurate reproduction of Orbison’s 1962 original. It has a solid spruce top, a solid mahogany back, a rosewood 12-string bridge and vintage tuners. For this limited edition release, the back of the guitar’s headstock includes a replica of Roy’s signature and the notation for the first measure of the “Oh, Pretty Woman” intro riff.

A little known aspect of Orbison’s history is that early in his career Sun Records’ boss Sam Phillips — who signed Orbison’s group the Teen Kings in 1956 and made the minor hit “Ooby Dooby” with them — valued him more for his picking than his songwriting, and that Orbison could tear out a rockabilly solo with plenty of fire. In fact, he played guitar on Sun’s singles for Ken Cook and others.

Orbison got his first guitar when he was only six years-old and typically composed the riffs that served as the hooks of his songs himself, including the memorable pattern that opens “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

His first significant commercial success was as a songwriter for others, penning his first big hit, “Claudette,” for the Everly Brothers. In fairness, even Orbison contended that his voice wasn’t fully developed until 1960, when he recorded “Only the Lonely.” At first, he tried pitching the tune to his friend Elvis Presley and to the Everly Brothers. Orbison believed so strongly in the song that after they turned it down he cut it himself, and it reached number two on the Billboard charts to make him a star. At that point Orbison had developed a method of singing that came from his chest and abdomen rather than his throat.

Further hits like “Crying” and “Running Scared,” the latter based on Maurice Ravel’s famous composition Bolero, cemented his reputation and forever insured that Orbison would be remembered for his voice rather than his guitar. He also developed a memorable look to compensate for his lack of movement on stage, dressing head to toe in black.

Unlike most early rock heroes, Orbison was never a slave to the backbeat. His tunes were arranged more to fit the seemingly capricious nature of his vocal lines. They are full of daring chromaticism and defy the variations of the I-IV-V structure of most tunes of the era, in soaring contrast to the works of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, for example. Orbison’s darkly beautiful song “In Dreams,” for example, eschews any verse-chorus-bridge-verse pattern to deliver instead seven distinct verses without a repeated lyric hook or chorus. “Running Scared” repeats its first verse four times before resolving with a chorus and abruptly finishing.

And his themes were often plucked from the troubled corners of romance, where love is eternally insecure, often fleeting and loaded with consequences. That gave his songs a more adult perspective than typical teenage fare, with the notable exception of the blithe “Oh, Pretty Woman.” And yet, that song is also partly a wish, with an edge of quiet desperation in the singer’s hope that the lady in the title will look his way.

Another testament to his vision is that throughout the 1960s Orbison refused to edit takes together or splice performances. He believed in the collective strength of individual performances and that editing diluted that strength. Despite the depth of his musical resolve, Orbison suffered from stage fright regardless of his ability to create silenced awe in his audiences and win such fans and friends as Bob Dylan and George Harrison, with whom he shared the spotlight in the Traveling Wilburys for a short time before his death from a heart attack in 1988.

Orbison left behind an expansive catalog, including 23 authorized solo albums, nearly 100 singles and four live discs. He appears on only the first Traveling Wilbury’s disc and died shortly after it was recorded. But Orbison’s career was once again on an upward arc even before he entered the studio with that supergroup. Director David Lynch used Orbison’s staggeringly powerful song “In Dreams” for a particularly brutal sequence in his surrealist noir revival film Blue Velvet in 1986, which introduced the Other Man in Black to a new generation of hipsters.

Tuning a 12-string guitar is a more complicated process than a 6-string guitar.  Find a step-by-step guide to tuning a 12-string guitar here at

Changing the strings on your 12-string guitar can be a real hassle.  Read on to find out the simplest and most effective way to change your strings.

Here’s How:

  • Loosen and remove the low E (sixth) string and it’s accompanying higher octave string.
  • Using a soft cloth (and optional guitar-cleaning agent), polish the exposed portion of fretboard and headstock.
  • Restring both strings, taking care to keep the higher octave string in the top (closest to you) position.
  • Bring each string approximately 1-1/2 inches past it’s appropriate tuning peg. Make a 90 degree angle bend in the string at this point. Feed the string through the tuning peg, up to the bent point.
  • Bend the string at the point it protrudes from the tuning peg. This will hold the string in place as you tune it.
  • Bring the strings into approximate tune. Since pitch will change somewhat as other strings are being changed, exact tuning is not required at this point.
  • Using a pair of pliers, cut off the excess string, leaving approximately 1/4 of an inch of the string protruding from the tuning peg.
  • Repeat steps one through seven for each of the remaining five string groups.
  • Using a tuner, fine tune the pitch of each string. Standard tuning for the 12-string guitar is as follows: E(upper octave),E | A(u.o.),A | D(u.o.),D | G(u.o.),G | B(unison),B | E(unison),E


  • Optionally, to relieve neck tension, a 12-string guitar can be tuned down a tone (D,D,G,G,C,C,F,F,A,A,D,D) and capo’d at the second fret.
One band that hit the rock music scene hard with the 12-string guitar is the Beatles.  George Harrison made his 12-string sing on several Beatles’ recordings and even on stage.  Check out the Guitar World article featuring Harrison’s 12-string guitar here at

Although the last thing the red-hot Beatles needed in early 1964 was a “secret weapon,” that’s exactly what they got when George Harrison received his first Rickenbacker 12-string, in a beautiful Fireglo finish, in February of that year, during the Beatles’ first U.S. tour.

The guitar was given to him by Francis C. Hall, owner and president of the California-based Rickenbacker company, which is now celebrating its 80th anniversary.

Hall spoke to Brian Epstein before the Beatles arrived in the U.S. and arranged a meeting with the group. On February 8 at the Savoy Hilton in New York City, he showed the band several different models. Lennon tried out the 360/12 but thought it would be better for Harrison, who was sick in bed at the Plaza Hotel. When Harrison finally got to see it, he loved it immediately.

“Straight away I liked that you knew exactly which string was which,” Harrison said, referring to how the guitar’s 12 tuners are grouped in top- and side-mounted pairs on the headstock. “[On some] 12-strings, you spend hours trying to tune it.”

Harrison’s first 360/12 was the second Rickenbacker 12-string ever made; its serial number — CM107 — dates it to December 1963. The main difference between it and the prototype is how they are strung. The first model had a conventional 12-string setup, in which the octave string is the first to be struck in each string pair. On Harrison’s model and subsequent Rickenbacker 12-strings, the octave strings occur second in the string pairs and the lower-pitched string is struck first.

Harrison’s guitar has a trapeze tailpiece, triangle inlays, double white pickguards, black control knobs and mono and stereo (Rick-O-Sound) outputs mounted on a chrome plate on the side of the guitar.

The guitar, with its unique, chiming sound, can be heard on the bulk of the A Hard Day’s Night album, “I Call Your Name,” “What You’re Doing” — and several other songs, up to and including “Ticket to Ride.” His second 360/12, a 1965 model with rounded cutaways, is heard on “If I Needed Someone.”

I came across a YouTube video featuring Randy Bachman and the infamous first chord of the Beatles’ classic song, “A Hard Day’s Night.”  In the video, Bachman explains the first chord of the song in detail.  Check it out at

A 12-string guitar may not be on the wish list of every guitarist reading this article.  Those of you interested in producing the sound of a 12-string guitar, without having to buy one, will be interested in this next article.  Find out how to produce a “fake” 12-string guitar sound here at  Original audio examples can be found at the article source in the link above.

A while back, I was thinking about the sound of a 12-string guitar, and how much I liked it, but really would like to hear it used on only certain notes and melodic lines within a song.

When you’re recording, you can use all kinds of exotic instruments for embellishing sections of a song. But you probably would like to be able to recreate your recorded performance live. It would be cool to be playing something on a six-string and have certain notes of the melody jump out with a 12-string sound and attack.

I like to use a flat pick held with the thumb and first finger, and use the middle finger for the high-octave sound. This is a good start for rock guitar players to get into branching out into some new sounds and adding some color. You’re also in position to play rockabilly-style alternating bass notes on the fly within your rock riffing.

The 12-string sound works well with all types of amp sounds, from clean to high gain. It works well with a high gain sound because octaves are “perfect” intervals. An example: “A” is 440 cycles per second, and an octave up from that is 880 cycles per second.

It really helps to grow your fingernails out a bit, so the sound of the octave can sound the same as the picked note, and you can get some nice-sounding attack. I’ve become so dependent on the sound of this technique, that now, certain songs I write cannot be played without this sound. So to help insure that I could make it through a tour without breaking a nail, and not sound like I’m making a lame excuse for not playing certain songs, I go to manicure shops to get a clear, hard coating put onto just my middle and third fingernails. You rockabilly cats are probably already doing this!

Give this an honest try, and I think you will be rewarded by the results. To get into this, start with this descending melody. This is in the key of C, starting and ending on G. Some of the fingering may seem odd, but doing it as I’ve written it helps to make smooth transitions possible:

Here it is, changing notes on 1/4 notes:

Fake Twelve String Effect 1

Here it is, half-time:

Fake Twelve String Effect 2

Fretted G on the first string, third fret, use third finger ~ Open G on third string
Fretted F on the first string, first fret, use first finger ~ Fretted “F” on fourth string, third fret, use middle finger
Open E on first string ~ Fretted E on fourth string, second fret, use middle finger
Fretted D on second string, third fret, use third finger ~ Open D on fourth string
Fretted C on second string, first fret, use first finger ~ Fretted C on fifth string, third fret, use middle finger
Open B on second string ~ Fretted B on fifth string, second fret, use middle finger
Fretted A on third string, second fret, use middle finger ~ Open A on fifth string
Open G on third string ~ Fretted G on sixth string, third fret

Then try going up using the same fingering as you did going down:

Fake Twelve String Effect 3

Here’s an example of how I used this technique in one of my songs, “Bird Bone,” from the album Into The Blue Sparkle by my band Slacktone:

Fake Twelve String Effect 4 – “Bird Bone”

The last article of the post comes from a top 30 list of 12-string guitar songs of all time.  I don’t have the space to post all 30 of the top picks, so you’ll have to follow the link to see the whole list, but I will post one of the most popular rock songs in music history.  Check it out at

When considering the choices for this list, we realized it wasn’t as easy a task as we first thought.

What makes for a great 12-string guitar song as opposed to a great song that just happens to have a 12-string somewhere on it? Let’s face it, if “Stairway to Heaven” had a ukulele on it, it would immediately be in the running for Greatest Ukulele Song of All Time.

That being said, we looked at not only the legacy of the song but how prevalent 12-string guitar is in the song and how influential the song would be in inspiring others to pick up their 12-strings. Without the movie A Hard Day’s Night, The Byrds might not have existed as you now know them, and without “Stairway to Heaven,” the doubleneck guitar might be sitting in a museum as a one-time oddity produced by Gibson.

So what song will we crown as the Greatest 12-String Guitar Song of All Time? Read on …

11. Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

With this song, Jimmy Page did for the doubleneck guitar what Roger McGuinn of The Byrds did for the 12-string electric. Or perhaps more fitting, Page did for the doubleneck what Henry Ford did for the horseless carriage.

The 12-string guitar has certainly made its mark on rock music.  Subscribe now to Mike’s Guitar Talk to receive these posts in your inbox everyday.  Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

Have fun and stay tuned!


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