How to play a 12 string guitar

In which we learn that a 12 string guitar is not played like a 6 string but like a … ten string guitar.

Choosing and picking

This is the fundamental principal when learning how to play a 12 string.

Picking each string individually reveals an altogether different instrument in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, and sound.

We also discover a guitar that is more accessible.

If you lay your 12-string flat across your lap, this is what you see:

There are the six open strings, on a usual guitar, written as capital letters. (EADGBE)

12 string guitar layout

12 String numbers (highest sound away from you)

On a 12 string, each string is paired by another, which makes 6 “courses“.

The two high strings, B and E, are paired by an identical string tuned to the same pitch, giving the same sound as its twin.

The lower pitched strings E, A, D, G are doubled by one pitched just one octave higher. So there are 4 octave strings, written in bold as lower case letters: e, a, d, g.


The highest open string on a 12 string guitar is the g octave string right in the middle of them all!

It’s a tone and a-half above the high E strings and broadens the range of the instrument when compared to a 6 string guitar.

The octave strings fill out the overall sound, but played separately, they can also intervene in their own right in enriching harmony. So we’re not talking about 6 but rather 10 strings that we can mix. Available combinations of notes thus increase in spectacular fashion, and the instrument takes on a whole other dimension.

Using the thumb and fingers of the right hand separately, we find that for each of the 4 lower register courses, there are three possible ways of picking :


How to play a 12 string guitar - fingerstyle

Right hand fingerstyle

1- A light downward thumb stroke plays only the octave string (remember in the image above the octave string is the thinner of the four lower register courses as we are looking at the guitar positioned flat on our lap).

2- A light upward stroke of the index (i), middle (m) or annular (a) fingers plays only the lower-pitched string of the pair. Of course we may still hear the octave string which rings a little (we call this ‘sympathetic vibration’), or indeed because we plucked it in error, (there’s no reason to worry about this – the precision of the right hand increases with practice). You will notice straight away that one of the paired strings is clearly emphasized.

3- When played with greater force, the fingers or thumb will play both of the paired strings, although in general it’s the lower pitched string of the course which predominates. (Here we are playing the guitar just like a 6 string.)

The fingers of the left hand always press on both strings of a course at the same time.
This way of playing implies the use of new techniques for both left and right hands. A specific logic develops which does not replace the usual approach to 6-string playing but rather is superimposed on it.

There are further explanaitions on how to play on the next page, which will introduce you to some practice exercises.  Try the fingerstyle exercises here.