December 1, 2022

With so many different types of guitars, many people ask about the difference between a 6-string vs. 12-string guitar. A forgotten fact is that the 12-string guitar was once just a cheap novelty and only started picking up popularity in the 1960s. The 6-string guitar has been around much longer, being the instrument of choice for guitarists of many music genres.

So does this mean that a 6-string acoustic trumps the almighty 12-string guitar? Absolutely not! Some of the most famous guitar songs played on a 12-string include Stairway to Heaven, Hear My Train a Comin’, and Hotel California.

Are you a beginner or just curious about the different types of guitars that you can add to your collection? There’s a dizzying array of guitars out there, and for many new guitarists, it can be overwhelming.

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Are both guitars played in the same way? Is there much difference in sound? Will you lose a finger or two playing the 12-string? Maybe.

So to answer these questions and more, we’ve put together the ultimate guide that describes the key differences between these instruments. Read on to learn about both types.

6-String vs. 12-String: Physical Differences

The 12-string guitar might be double the strings of a 6-string guitar, but luckily, the additional six strings are not completely different tunings. If you look at the strings on a 12-string guitar, you’ll notice that the strings are in pairs.

On a 6-string guitar, the standard tuning is E A D G B E, and on a 12-string guitar, it is exactly the same. The only difference is that the additional strings on the last four strings are an octave higher in tuning, and the first two additional strings remain the same.

More strings also mean a wider neck. This does unfortunately make it more tricky to play, especially for anyone who’s starting to learn.

Tuning the guitar will also take more time since there is an additional 6 tuning pegs to handle. Due to the strings being in pairs, it’s important to keep them all in tune. This can be a problem, especially on cheaper models.

The fact that the strings are in pairs means that it will be noticeable if one string is out of tune. This is less of a problem on a 6-string guitar, where you might be able to get away with it.

Keep in mind that you’ll also need to regularly tune a 12-string guitar. All guitarists, especially beginners, should keep a chromatic tuner on hand and other guitar essentials from this list of accessories.

You’ll notice that 12-string guitars are much louder. This was one of the reasons why earlier street guitarists preferred to use a 12-string guitar to cut through the noise of the crowds.

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Differences in Playing Style

The majority of guitar techniques were developed on a 6-string guitar. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do the same on a 12-string guitar. It’s just more difficult.

But if you’re wondering whether you can play a 12-string guitar like you would a 6-string, then the answer is yes. Because of the same tuning, this makes it easy to transfer notes and chords.

Techniques like bending will be harder, but it’s definitely possible to bend notes. The main problem with bending on a 12-string is that the notes will not sound the same because you have to bend two strings at the same time. This is due to one string being higher than the other.

What about fingerpicking? If you heard that the 12-string guitar is only for strumming, then you’ll be happy to know that it’s not the case. You’re definitely not limited to strumming on a 12-string.

Fingerpicking sounds great on a 12-string guitar and there are plenty of songs that are played using fingerstyle, strumming, or both. However, you’ll need to play with more precision since the spacing between the strings is more narrow.

Is a 12-String Guitar Harder to Play?

Not to dissuade anyone amateur guitarist from starting with a 12-string guitar, but yes it would be much harder to play for a beginner. One of the challenges when learning to play guitar is fretting or when you press the strings down to create notes.

Fretting on a single string is already hard on the fingertips. But if you add in an extra string, then it’s only normal to feel more pressure on the fingers.

Beginner guitarists need to develop finger strength and build callouses while learning the guitar. This can be more of a struggle on a 12-string because of the extra string tension.

The strings are also strummed in doubles, so as a beginner, there’ll be more strings to worry about—plus more tuning, which can slow down progress.

More experienced guitarists will find that playing a 12-string guitar is not that much different from playing a 6-string guitar.

Is a 12-String Guitar Better Than a 6-String?

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and it really depends on the type of music you enjoy and which sound you prefer. A 6-string guitar is easier to play because of the narrow neck, so you’ll find that there may be a wider range of songs that you can play with ease. But a 12-string guitar gives more tonal variations and will sound richer in comparison.

Does a 12-String Guitar Sound Different?

Yes, songs that are played on a 12-string guitar will have a distinct sound, often appearing like two guitars are playing together. The extra tonal range from the additional 6 strings adds more depth and sparkle when played. 

Some great examples of songs include “Closer to the Heart” by Rush and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. 

Can You Play a 12-String Guitar With Small Hands?

One of the most common questions for all guitars is whether you can play with small hands. So if it’s a struggle to play on a 6-string guitar, then what about a 12-string guitar with a wider neck? Sure, bigger hands might make things easier, but you’ll find that some of the best guitarists in the world have small hands.

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This is why it’s important to try out different guitars to find the one that is the most comfortable for your hands. This applies to both a 6-string and a 12-string guitar. With the number of guitar brands on the market today, there are plenty to try out.

The neck on a 12-string guitar is wider, but this should not stop someone with smaller hands from playing it. A good way to help your fingers stretch over a wider neck is to hold the guitar closer to your body and to keep the thumb at the back rather than curled over. Learning to play using the classical guitar position will also allow your fingers to stretch further across.

You can also do exercises like stretching beforehand. This will help with increasing dexterity and allow your fingers to stretch that little bit extra without injury.

Don’t forget to also loosen up the joints, muscles, and tendons in the fingers with a warm-up. You’ll be surprised at how much difference this can make. You may even find that smaller fingers allow for more precise playing, which can only be a plus.

Which Is Faster to Learn?

The best guitar for beginners is the 6-string guitar, as you will experience much faster progression. Learning to play any instrument is already a challenge in itself, and adding extra difficulty by learning on a 12-string guitar may even stop a learner from continuing their musical journey altogether.

You may have dreams of becoming the next Jimi Hedrix, but you also want to enjoy the journey there. It makes much more sense to make it easy for yourself so that you can advance quickly and start playing the songs that you really want to play.

Fretting, strumming and fingerpicking are tricky skills to master, so why make it harder? There’s always time to get yourself a 12-string guitar once you have a few songs under your belt.

What Type of Music Can You Play?

There are both acoustic and electric versions for both types of guitars. Due to the popularity and versatility of the 6-string guitar spanning over several centuries, there is a wider variety of music played on it.

In the past, the 12-string guitar was widely used in blues and folk music, but now it’s popular in rock, jazz, and pop music. Today, anyone who wants to play a 12-string can do so regardless of the genre.

Many guitarists start with Rock first, as it is one of the most popular music genres. This is especially the case for electric guitars. There are also plenty of melodies and easy riffs for a beginner to get started with.

Jazz guitar is more technically difficult. If you enjoy writing your own music, freestyling, or the ability to express yourself through improvised solos, then there are no limits to Jazz. You’ll find that most Jazz musicians prefer an electric guitar, but it’s also fine to use an acoustic.

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Blues is a form of folk music that originated from African-American musicians in the southern USA around the mid-1800s. Not only is it satisfying to play, but learning Blues will give you a good foundation in learning the guitar.

Classical is the hardest genre to play. The techniques in Classical guitar are more advanced than all the other genres, but it’s definitely worth learning. And since the level of difficulty is much higher, be prepared to spend more time learning it.

Can you play classical music on a 12-string guitar? Yes, you most certainly can. There are excellent players out there that can play technical pieces of classical music, from Bach to Beethoven.

Who Plays a 12-String Guitar?

Most people are familiar with artists that play music using a 6-string guitar, but not so much a 12-string. The truth is, you’ve more than likely heard music played on a 12-string guitar without actually realizing it. Hotel California is one song that almost everyone in the world has heard of but probably didn’t know that it’s played using a 12-string guitar.

Want to know which world-famous artists play a 12-string guitar? Here are some examples below:

  • The Beatles
  • The Byrdes
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • Tom Petty
  • David Bowie
  • Larry Coryell
  • Leo Kottke
  • REM
  • Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Hopefully, this list gives you a good idea of the variety of music that you can play on a 12-string guitar, which you can draw inspiration from.

Guitar Playing Tips

No matter the guitar, practicing correctly and following good technique is the most important. It’s much better to practice frequently for short periods of 20 to 30 minutes daily than to practice for two hours once a week. This will help you slowly build up the skin on your fingertips without causing blistering.

Although there are plenty of online resources to help you learn guitar, getting a teacher can drastically improve your playing. They’ll be able to point out bad habits and keep you on the right track. There’s nothing worse than spending hours learning something only to find that you’ve been doing it wrong and having to unlearn it.

Which Guitar Is Better For You?

So, 6-string vs. 12-string guitar—which is better? By now, you should know that one guitar is not better than the other.

As a beginner, we recommend starting with a 6-string guitar, but it’s really up to you. The end goal is to be able to play the music that you love and to enjoy the process along the way.

Still not sure? Why not head down to your local guitar store and try a few out. You never know what you might discover.  Did you find this article useful? If so, then feel free to browse the lifestyle section of our website for more posts like this one.