12 String Guitar Tuning

Kevin Ott
Tuning 12 strings can be as easy as six when you get the hang of it!

If you are interested in 12-string guitar tuning, you have likely found it to be more difficult than tuning a six-string guitar. However, once you see the steps for tuning a 12-string, the process will not seem as intimidating as it did in the beginning, and you might even enjoy learning how to make your 12-string's sound shimmer and sparkle.

How to Tune a 12-String Guitar

Unless you're a professional with an ear for perfect intonation, you should always tune a 12-string guitar with a tuner. Precise intonation is critical. Otherwise the guitar will sound terrible even if just one of the 12 strings is slightly off. If you do not want to shell out for a plug-in tuner or tuning fork, you can use a no-narration guitar tuner video or download a tuner app for your phone.

Follow these steps to tune your 12-string:

  1. Observe the strings, pluck each one, and note that it is not 12 different notes like a scale, but six pairs of strings tuned to six notes--two strings per note. In most of these pairs, one string is a low version an octave below the standard tuned note of its twin string.
  2. To tune to standard tuning, you will tune each pair of strings to the normal six notes of standard guitar tuning: low E (i.e. E2), A, D, G, B, high E (i.e. E4). Some musicians prefer tuning a whole step below standard tuning (D, G, C, F, A, D) to reduce string tension if they're breaking strings or if they want a lower tone quality, but this example will stick to standard tuning.
  3. Begin with the pair of strings for the low E note (the two strings closest to your body). The thin string in this pair is the standard low E like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard low E, which is 82 Hz on a tuner.
  4. As you pluck the string to match its tone to the E on the tuner, stop the twin string next to it from ringing too by resting your pick or finger on it after you pluck the string you are tuning.
  5. Tune the next string in the pair, which is the thicker, lower sounding string close to the string you just tuned. Tune this an octave below the standard E note you just tuned with the previous string. (This would be an E1 note, 41 Hz.)
  6. Move on to the next pair closest to your body, the pair for the A note in standard tuning. The thin string in this pair is the standard A like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard A, which is 110 Hz on a tuner.
  7. Tune the next string in the pair, which is the thicker, lower sounding string close to the string you just tuned. Tune this an octave below the standard A note you just tuned with the previous string. (This would be A2, or 55 Hz.)
  8. Move on to the next pair closest to your body, the pair for the D note in standard tuning. The thin string in this pair is the standard D like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard D, which is 147 Hz on a tuner.
  9. Tune the next string in the pair, which is the thicker, lower sounding string close to the string you just tuned. Tune this an octave below the standard D note you just tuned with the previous string. (This would be D2, or around 73.42 Hz.)
  10. Move on to the next pair, the pair for the G note in standard tuning. The thin string in this pair is the standard G like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard G, which is 196 Hz on a tuner.
  11. Tune the next string in the pair, which is the thicker, lower sounding string close to the string you just tuned. Tune this an octave below the standard G note you just tuned with the previous string. (This would be G2, or 98 Hz.)
  12. Move on to the next pair, the pair for the B note in standard tuning. The first string in this pair is the standard B like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard B, which is 247 Hz on a tuner.
  13. Tune the next string in the pair, but in this case you will not be tuning the string an octave lower. This string is matched to the exact frequency as its twin string, so this is also a B at 247 Hz. Some guitarists will tune this second string just slightly off tune intentionally by turning its tuning peg a hair off after it is tuned properly. This can enhance the 12-string chorus-like effect.
  14. Move on to the next pair, the pair for the high E note in standard tuning. The first string in this pair is the standard high E like you would have on a six-string. Tune this to standard high E, which is 300 Hz on a tuner.
  15. Tune the next string in the pair, but in this case you will not be tuning the string an octave lower. This string is matched to the exact frequency as its twin string, so this is also a E at 300 Hz. Some guitarists will tune this second string just slightly off tune intentionally by turning its tuning peg a hair off after it is tuned properly. This can enhance the 12-string chorus-like effect.

Some guitarists make a shorthand version of the tuning to help them remember the steps above:

EeAaDdGgBBEE

Note: Uppercase means it is a standard guitar tuning note and lowercase means it is an octave below standard tuning.

Watch the Tuning Steps in Video Form

This video will give you a visual walk through of the process. The instructor spends the first few minutes demonstrating the sound of a 12-string and explaining some of the basics. The actual tuning instructions begin at 5:35.

A Few Final Tuning Tips and Resources

A 12-string sounds wonderful, but it can be slightly more complicated to maintain and play correctly. These tips will aid you in the journey.

  • The lower G string is the most likely string to break on the guitar. To prevent this, be sure to use the proper gauge for your guitar and do not over-tighten.
  • If you repeatedly break strings, consider tuning your 12-string into a drop D tuning, which follows the same steps outlined above, except you're tuning every note a whole step down on your tuner (i.e. instead of tuning the 6th string to E, you're tuning it down to D. Instead of tuning the 5th string to A, you're tuning it down to G, and so on.)
  • Until you become used to the notes of all the strings, you may want to keep a reference guide around so you can always see which note corresponds to which string in case you forget.
  • Each pair of strings are set close together because the player is always supposed to press each pair down together. In other words, each finger is always pressing down two strings at once. This requires extra finger strength, and it may take time for your hands to build up the proper pressure and stamina. Be patient with the process as your body learns to adjust.

Additional Resources

The following links have additional resources to aid you as you master the 12-string guitar:

  • Guitar Noise offers a free 12-string lesson as an article
  • If you're in the market to buy a 12-string, Taylor Guitar, one of the most renowned makers of 12-strings and six-strings, has a free ebook guide to knowing what to look for when shopping for a new guitar.

Tune Like a Pro

With the steps, videos and resources above, your 12-string will play in tune. It won't be long before you're recording your own 12-string guitar instructional videos for YouTube.

12 String Guitar Tuning