Tuning a 12 string guitar can seem very daunting because there are so many moving parts. Knowing how to tune a 12 string guitar is important if you play regularly. To tune a 12 string guitar you will need to remember that each string comes in pairs. The first six strings can be tuned to your standard six string tuning which is the E, A, D, G, B, E notes. Then you will tune the lower four pairs of strings an octave higher to the notes E, A, D and G. The last two high paired strings will be the same as standard tuning, being the B and E notes.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to tune these pairs of strings properly on a 12 string guitar. We’ll go through standard tuning as well as different types of tunings to use and many tips on getting the most out of your guitar tuning.
The Differences Between Six String and 12 String Guitar Tuning
It makes tuning a 12 string guitar a lot easier if you can understand how it differs from your six string standard tuning. The main difference you will find between the tunings is that a 12 string guitar has extra strings that are paired together. In total there are six pairs of strings making up a 12 string guitar.
Think of your 12 string guitar as a six string instrument, each with a pair of strings. Going about it this way makes it a lot easier to understand in the long term.
Something that you may have noticed is that each pair of strings has a space before the next pair of strings are placed. Another thing you can see is that the lower four pairs are very uneven in their thickness. Each one of these strings is a thin string paired up with a thicker one. This is a very important thing to note because a thinner string will always be tuned to a higher note than a thicker one. A fact like this is one to remember because it makes string guitar tuning easier.
When you are playing a 12 string guitar never think about it as 12 separate strings which are all individual from each other. Instead think of them as six pairs and you will play each pair as if it were just one string on a normal six string guitar.
How to Tune a 12 String Guitar to Standard Tuning
You will find that there is a standard tuning for your 12 string guitar the same as there is for a six string guitar. When you play your 12 string guitars in standard tuning it will almost sound the same as a 6 string instrument.
The key thing to remember about tuning a 12 string guitar is that the strings come in pairs and they will be tuned in unison. You won’t be tuning each string individually as you would with a 6 string guitar.
Take a look at your lower pairs of strings. These will be thicker and these are the ones you tune to the standard six string tuning. This means they will be the notes E, A, D, G, B and E.
There are four lower pairs of strings which are paired up with the E, A, D and G strings. Each one of these will be tuned up to an octave higher. This will mean that when tuning the lowest E string, it will be an octave higher than the thick E string. Playing those strings at the same time should indicate that they are in tune together because they will play in harmony. The sound you will hear will be an octave in difference.
The B and E are the higher strings and are tuned in exactly the same way as the rest. Playing the B strings at the same time you should find that they sound identical to one another. Tuning for a 12 string guitar has its own notation and is written as eE, aA, dD, gG, BB, EE. In this notation any uppercase letters are tuned to the standard 6 string tuning. All lowercase letters show the notes that have been tuned up to a higher octave than the others. In this way each string on the guitar will be tuned as follows.
- e – higher octave tuning
- E – standard 6 string tuning
- a – octave higher tuning
- A – standard 6 string tuning
- d – higher octave tuning
- D – standard six string tuning
- g – octave higher tuning
- G – standard tuning
- B – standard tuning
- B – standard tuning
- E – standard tuning
- E – standard tuning
After you have tuned your strings a few times the whole process will make much more sense and you’ll find that it becomes easier.
Tuning Half a Step Down
If you have done some research on 12 string guitar songs then you may have noticed a lot of them have been set for guitars tuned half step down. The reason for this is because standard tuning can place a lot of tension on the guitar’s neck. Twelve strings is a lot of tension for a guitar to take, so some of the stress can be relieved by tuning in this way.
Taking the tuning of your guitar down half a step is also a good way to get used to playing it. It helps alleviate any finger pain.
To tune your 12 string guitar half step down first start by tuning your guitar using the standard we outlined above. Then you take each string and tune it down a semitone which is your half step. For example, in this process the E string would become the E flat, an A would become an A flat and so forth.
All of the 12 string are tuned as if they were in six pairs and the lower four pairs will still be an octave apart. The difference here is that each string will make a sound that is a semitone lower than standard tuning.
Tuning to Drop D
Drop D tuning is also a popular way to tune a 12 string guitar, with a lot of songs using this type of tuning. Once again you will want to tune your guitar to the standard tuning we outlined first. Then take your lower pair of E strings a whole step down so they are now a D. All of the other strings will stay the same. Only the lowest pair of strings will be changed, remaining an octave apart but tuned to D.
Tuning to Open Tuning
A 12 string guitar can be tuned to any open tuning that you want. As long as you can remember to turn each string in its pair and that the lower four pairs must be an octave apart, you can use any open tuning you want.
Using a Tuner
There are a few methods of how to tune a 12 string guitar that you can use. It all depends on the tuner that you have and the technique you prefer.
The best way to tune your guitar is to use a chromatic tuner. Many modern tuners should include a chromatic mode. This type of tuner will work for any notes on your instrument. This is why it’s so good for 12 string guitars because four of your strings are tuned up to an octave higher than the standard.
Using a tuner you can pick each of the strings individually. Your tuner will pick up the sound and tell you exactly what that note is. All you need to know from that point is what you want to tune that string down or up to. It’s recommended that you always start out by tuning the six strings to standard guitar tuning. Once these ones are correct you can then go on to tune the pairs of strings. This helps you ensure that each paired string sits at the correct pitch.
There are some apps out there that have been specifically designed to help you with how to tune a 12 string guitar. Apps such as GuitarTuna had paid add ons that you can use instead of having a tuner for your guitar. Even if your app only has the standard tuning you can use this as a chromatic tuner for your original six strings.
So there you have it. A comprehensive look on how to tune your 12 string guitar to standard tuning as well as alternate tunings you can use to play popular songs. If you get stuck at any point make sure to check out online tutorials and videos to see how to tune your instrument properly. Happy playing!