Tag Archives: twelve-string guitar

Experiment, part 2.1

48 hours later, I’m back where I was on Thursday night. A tolerable drum part and guitar part. Not that I’ve been slaving over this all day, but still progress could be quicker.

Bass next. Wonder if I could hire Lee Sklar?


Leland Sklar. Bass ‘n’ beard.


Twelve-string guitars, part four

‘But Mr Songsfromsodeep,’ I hear you say, ‘I don’t have a twelve-string guitar. Is there anything I can do to simulate one?’

Well, yes. There’s one thing.

Apologies to those who know this, since this is not in any way a new or innovative technique, but you can double a part played on a six-string guitar with the same part played on a guitar in Nashville tuning. Nashville tuning is when you take the four octave strings from a twelve-string (the low E, A, D and G) and put them on a regular six-string guitar. That means the D and G strings will be higher in pitch than the B and E strings, leaving you with a guitar that sounds jangly indeed. If you can tightly double the original six-string part on a recording, it will sound very like a twelve-string. D’Addario and Martin do a ‘high-strung/Nashville tuning’ set (10-27 and 10-25 respectively), and possibly other manufacturers do too.

You don’t need to present Nashville-tuned parts in this way, though. Try panning the two parts left and right to create a stereo version of the effect. To hear examples of both techniques, have a listen to Hips and Makers and Strange Angels, the first two solo albums by Throwing Muses/50 Foot Wave singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh. Examples of Nashville-tuning parts are numerous on Strange Angels; you’ll have to hunt harder for them on Hips and Makers but they’re there (on Velvet Days and Teeth, at least, I think).

You can also hear Nashville tuning on on many, many country records. Where’d you think the name came from?


Kristin Hersh, 2006 (Dina Douglass). Guitar probably not in Nashville tuning.

Twelve-string guitars, part three

OK, another tuning for you. CGCFCE

This is a nice tuning for the keys of C, a minor and F, and not too adaptable beyond that, but what’s nice about it is the range it spans: two octaves plus a major third, which is just about as much as practical without having bass strings that are too floppy and treble strings that are too tight and liable to break.

Those of you who’ve studied alternate tunings might know this one as a favourite of Nick Drake’s – it’s the tuning behind Pink Moon, Which Will, Parasite, the two Hazey Jane songs and the Introduction instrumental. But the tuning works equally well on a twelve string, where the added octave strings make the range of the tuning even wider (two octaves plus a fifth).

The approach that Drake took on Pink Moon (and Place to Be, which uses a similar tuning with the B string tuned down to G rather than up to C) is to fret the lowest three strings and play the top three strings open: 222000, 555000 and so on. Those two shapes will give you a d minor and F respectively.

D minor you say? But it’s got a G in it! And a C and an E! Bu that’s really the point of alternate tunings. You can create these wide, harmonically open chords that would be impossible to play in standard. In the context of Pink Moon (and Place to Be), the ear hears that as a minor chord built on the second degree of the scale. Which is to say, it hears d minor. The beautiful ambiguity of this kind of chord is what made Drake’s guitar playing so expressive and what attracts so many of us to alternate tunings in the first place.

If you play these kind of shapes on a twelve-string it won’t sound earthy and intimate, as on Pink Moon. ‘Earthy’ isn’t what twelve-strings do. Instead it will sound bright, airy, ethereal. But that’s good, too.

Two more chords: 000200 (C major). x20200 (a minor7).



Nick Drake. Just imagine that his guitar is a twelve-string

Things to do with a twelve-string guitar, part two

Actually, I lied: I’ll get back to the tuning stuff tomorrow. Today I’d like to talk very quickly about double-tracking acoustic guitars.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts can apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you could do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open tuned part can be fun. Imagine using one of the C tunings I talked about yesterday in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

All of these ideas are time-honoured, copper-bottomed arrangement techniques that have been around for decades. I’d like to be able to tell you who did it first in order to give them their due credit, but I simply don’t know who we have to thank. So give them a go yourself, practice until you can double acoustic parts tightly (there’s no shortcut: you have to earn it through hard work, I’m afraid), and then go crazy in a 1971 George Harrison, All Things Must Pass stylee.


George, contemplating another guitar overdub

Things to do with a twelve-string guitar, part one

OK, so you’ve got yourself a twelve-string guitar, so you’re obviously willing to suffer for art. That’s a good starting point. But what if you’re actually a crazy masochist and want to go beyond strumming chords in standard tuning?

Here’s a couple of tuning ideas for you.


This is my favourite tuning. In fact, it’s my de-facto standard tuning. My main six-string acoustic is left in this all the time, pretty much, and has been set up specifically to accommodate heavy-gauge strings and a low C. But it sounds great on a twelve-string too. One problem with twelves is that in standard tuning the high G string is prone to snapping, because it’s just a top E, tuned a minor third higher. This tuning gets round that by tuning the G string down to E and extends the overall range of the guitar downwards, by tuning the low E to C.

For a taste of what you can do with this, play this shape: x 0 0 3 2 0, low to high. That’s a G major. Now this shape: 0 0 2 3 3 2. That’s C major. You getting it?


Now we go lower. This is a less all-purpose tuning than the previous one. There are things that you can’t sensibly play in this tuning and it really only makes sense in C, A minor and maybe F. But you can get very droning and modal in this tuning if the mood takes you – I’ve used it to play Lady Margaret with my folk-rock band Carterhaugh: six minutes or so without any chord changes can be quite daunting, but this tuning lends itself very well to noodly modal explorations around a theme.

A chord shape or two? All right. Try this (C): 0 0 0 2 0 0. Or this less droney C major shape: 0 0 4 5 5 4. Here’s an A minor: x 2 0 2 0 0. Here’s an Fadd9: 5 5 0 3 0 0. And slide that up two frets for a G: 7 7 0 5 0 0.

More tuning madness tomorrow!


Be bold with your tunings. You’ve nothing to lose but the skin on your fingers and hours you’ll never get back.

The twelve-string guitar

Cliff Richard famously likes both small speakers and tall speakers. Good man. I can relate to that.

Ella Fitgerald loved Paris in the springtime, and she loved Paris in the fall. I understand that, too.

I love six-string guitars but I also love twelve-string guitars. And never want to have to choose between them.

True, some twelve-strings are formidably hard to play, and some twelve-strings fold in on themselves within a year or two, but a good twelve-string is a joy forever. Nothing, not even Kay Kyser’s spurs, can jingle-jangle-jingle like a twelve-string.

I’ve spent the last two weeks getting closely reacquainted with my old twelve-string acoustic for a show I played the other evening. I’ve put more hours in on the thing in the last couple of weeks than I have for several years. I’ve recorded with it frequently (including – shameless plug alert – on my new single Little Differences), but in recent years have never pulled it out to write on and seldom just for the hell of playing it.


Once you’ve got the hang of getting your fingers around it, a twelve-string has a magical quality. They’re so rich, so full and so resonant that they can make almost anything – even the simplest chord progressions – sound like music. Good music. It’s almost like cheating.

I don’t hear too much twelve-string on contemporary records, so picking some great twelve-string moments to talk about has forced me to go back in time somewhat. So here’s a not-at-all exhaustive list of favourite twelve-string moments from 1965 to 1983.

Little Bit of Rain – Fred Neil

Picking a favourite Fred Neil song is a nigh-impossible task, but I’ll go with Little Bit of Rain to illustrate how the added depth and harmonic interest of a twelve-string can enliven even the simplest chord sequence.

Buzzin’ Fly – Tim Buckley

Around the time of Happy Sad, Buckley was borrowing a fair amount of Fred Neil’s shtick. This included using a twelve-string guitar. Somehow a six-string just would not have been bright enough to convey the joy animating every last second of Buzzin’ Fly.

Love and Affection – Joan Armatrading

Twelve-string arpeggios, smoky folk-jazz ambience, a saxophone solo and Detective Lester Freamon on backing vocals.

Unsatisfied – The Replacements

The greatest song Paul Westerberg ever wrote. He may have been better advised to let someone else play the lap steel though.

A House is Not a Motel – Love

According to Johnny Echols, Arthur Lee didn’t play guitar on any of Love’s records except one tune on their first album, suggesting that the fingerpicking part on twelve-string that begins the songs and recurs throughout was played by Bryan MacLean (or possibly Echols himself, depending on whether any of his electric lead parts were cut with the basic takes). Anyway, it’s great. The whole album’s great. But you knew that already, right?


Fred Neil, looking unusually cool with his twelve