That 12-string guitar is a difficult thing to tune! All those high-tension thin strings can be really difficult to deal with, especially the high G string, so this instrument doesn’t necessarily readily encourage alternate tunings. It is a lot of work, but if you take the time to explore the options for alternate tunings on a 12-string, it can lead you in tons of exciting, creative directions for playing, many of which simply aren’t possible on a 6-string guitar.
In standard tuning, simply strumming a chord or playing a “single note” shows that the 12-string guitar is capable of creating a distinctly large sound that has a wider harmonic range and greater sonic density than a regular 6-string guitar. Any alternate tunings for 6-string can be applied to the 12-string and used to great effect, giving the instrument a more open frequency range and creating limitless new chordal possibilities. Yet if we dig a little deeper, and get a little bit creative, there are other ways to tune up a 12-string that can create wholly unique sounds as well as challenges.
Forget About Tonality
My first recommendation is to forget about tonality and just explore. Get used to the sound of unpredictability. We’re going to look at some tunings that make it a lot harder to keep track of what notes you’re playing, so it’s best to let your ear guide you through this in the beginning as we break up the courses (i.e. each pair of strings) and create two notes with every finger position.
The best way to think about this is to consider the effects of harmonizer pedals, pitch shifters, whammy pedals, and ring modulators. All of these effects add new notes to the notes you play, or change the notes the guitar creates into other notes. Essentially, we can create these effects, pedal-free, on the 12-string. Have fun exploring these new combinations of tones.
You can see this in action in the video below, where Pete Cosey uses an undistinguishable alternate tuning on his Vox 12-string to play atonal funk music with Miles Davis in 1973:
There are virtually limitless possibilities to create this sort of sound and I’m not going to try and document every one, but I can give a few ideas on where to start!
Split the Guitar
Let’s break the guitar into two halves (not literally of course!) — the bottom three courses and the top three courses. We’ll keep the top three strings and their pairs (G, B, E) in their standard tuning. Take the bottom three courses, keep the “regular strings” as is — the ones you’d find on a 6-string – and harmonize the octave strings down to a major sixth above the standard note. It’s worth mentioning here that on a 12-string, the “G” course will be an octave, while the “B” and “E” courses are unison pitches.
Thus, your tuning should be as follows (with the paired note first, as is standard on most 12-strings except Rickenbackers):
(high string / low string)
Now, you’re free to play normally and see how crazy it sounds, but to get started, I suggest using the top three strings to play melodies or chords like you normally would, and using the bottom strings as if they’re bass notes — like the left hand of a piano player. I recorded some short improvisations in each tuning to demonstrate. Here’s the first.
Once you’re comfortable with this tuning, any interval you use for the bottom notes is going to have interesting and unique results, so experiment away!
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In the last example, we used three possibilities — major sixth intervals for the bottom three courses, an octave on the “G” course, and unisons for the top two courses. Now, let’s keep that example, but use two new intervals on the “G” and “B” courses, shall we?
Keep the “E,” “A,” and “D” courses tuned to a major sixth, the “G” course to a minor seventh, and the “B” course to a minor second. So, your tuning should look like this:
(High string / low string. All notes are tuned down from the original note, except the C in the second course is one half step higher than usual.)
To get started, let’s stick with the idea that the bottom three strings are your bass notes, but now your chords on the top strings will sound much more dense. As you get used to this, try taking each string and treating it like it exists in its own universe and look for melodic ideas that fit that one string. Then, switch strings for dramatic effect and see how much the sound changes when the interval changes.
I like to imagine that each course is its own instrument and treat them completely differently from each other when moving around the neck of the guitar. Here’s another short improvisation:
You might find that with some of the intervals we’re using, especially the more dissonant ones like the minor second and minor seventh, can create some really harsh sonic effects when you add overdrive or compression. This can be especially cool if you like harsh sounds like I do!
Here’s an example of a piece I created using a minor second on the “B” course and a minor seventh on the “G” course. The only pedals used here are are a Boss compressor, a Maxon overdrive, and an Electro Harmonix Freeze for sustain, which means most of the harsh tones are actually created through the tuning!
Listen closely for combination tones that are created by the close proximity of some of the notes. Another way to create this type of effect is to tune a course only slightly “out-of-tune,” particularly on the top two courses, where you’d usually have a unison. If you use your ear and seek out these microtones, you can find some very interesting effects that would be hard to recreate with a pedal. If you’re using an electric guitar, compression or overdrive will help give your guitar more sustain which will bring this sound out more clearly.
These ideas I’ve mentioned only scratch the surface of what is possible with alternate tunings on the 12-string. Here are a few more quick, creative prompts that are maybe a bit more experimental, but will get you thinking about all sorts of new possibilities.
Remove one string. I break the high “G” string a lot and often find myself keeping it off. I think having a single string in the middle of your guitar creates such a contrast in tone, since the note is so direct and unaffected, that it can be really fun to play around with. Tune one string in a course really low, so it feels loose, but keep the pair tuned to its standard note. I find that this makes me approach that course in a much different way. It feels like a muddy octave shifter, take a listen:
Or, find a tuning you like and then only play its harmonics. If you’re playing an electric 12-string or have a pickup, try using a little overdrive and compression and this can sound almost like you’re playing a synthesizer.
With that I leave you to continue exploring on your own. Have fun experimenting and feel free to share any recorded experiments with alternate tunings in the comments below!