5 Best 12-String Guitars: When Six Isn't Enough
By Mason Hoberg
From the classic Beatles’ anthem “A Hard Day’s Night” to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, the 12-string guitar has been heard on some of the most famous albums the world has ever seen. The characteristic shimmer and shine of the 12-string guitar has inspired millions of musicians the world over, and while its popularity may have declined in recent years it’s still an important part of modern music (one notable example is the 12-string guitar’s use in Tom Petty’s recent track “Somewhere Under Heaven”).
While 12-string guitars are similar to their six string brethren, there are a few things prospective buyers will have to know. Thankfully for you, this article will help you out. The sections below will give you all the information that you’ll need to help you figure out what is the best 12 string guitar for you, as well as give you some great recommendations to help aid you in your search.
- 12 String Guitars Vs. 6 String Guitars
- Know What You Want Before You Buy
- Top 5 12-String Guitars
12 String Guitars Vs. 6 String Guitars
So assuming that you’re looking for an acoustic 12-string guitar, (which you most likely are considering that electric 12-strings are a bit of a niche piece of equipment unless you’re in a Beatles cover band) there are a few things that you’re going to need to keep in mind.
The most important thing is that 12-string acoustic guitars don’t necessarily have to be made out of the best materials to give a good 12 string sound. A 12-string guitar produces much more energy when strummed, which in turn makes the wood of the body resonate much more. With cheap six string guitars the wood is too stiff or thick to properly resonate, but this is less of an issue with 12-string instruments. So while a better made 12-string will still sound better than a cheap one, a cheap 12-string can still give you a useable 12-string sound.
Another thing that people don’t really know when they set out to buy a 12-string is that your fingers are going to hurt when you first start playing it. A 12-string is much harder to fret than a six string, so even if you’ve been playing for years there’s still going to be a period of adjustment. This can be mitigated if you don’t overdo it. Just play your 12-string for fifteen to twenty minutes a day until you’ve built up some more calluses (generally a couple weeks if you’ve been playing for awhile).
Know What You Want Before You Buy
A 12-string guitar is a novelty instrument for a lot of people. After they’ve strummed around on it for awhile a lot of guitarists end up relegating their new guitar to its case or a closet, because they find that they don’t really have a lot of use for the instrument. To avoid having this happen to you, make sure that you have a relatively substantial collection of songs you want to use your 12-string for. Look up different recordings and get inspired by some notable 12-string players. Guitarists have used the 12-string in just about every genre imaginable. Everyone from Pantera (“Suicide Note, Part 1”) to Jimi Hendrix (“Hear My Train a-Comin”) have used a 12-string. Looking up different examples of great 12-string songs will help keep you inspired to play, which in turn will help you get more value from your new purchase.
Lastly, you’re also going to have to know your preferred dimensions. 12-string guitars are obviously going to have a wider neck by nature of their design, but there’s just as wide a variety with 12-string guitars as there is with six string instruments. If you prefer a thinner neck, you’re going to want to find something more similar to a six string neck. On the other hand, if you’re looking to do some more intricate pieces of music on your 12-string you’re going to want to find something a bit wider.
Top 5 12-String Guitars
As always, our recommendations are selected with widespread applicability in mind. While we recognize that a more expensive guitar is going to be objectively better than a cheaper counterpart in the majority of cases, we also know that it doesn’t matter how good a guitar is if you just can’t afford it. So just keep in mind that the best choice for you may not be the best choice for your fellow musicians, and vice versa.
Founded by Epaminondas Stathopoulos, there was a time when Epiphone made some of the best acoustic instruments in the world. Though the early days of the company were defined by their outstanding archtop guitars, they also made some of the most popular upright basses and banjos in the country.
A little known fact about Epiphone is that it actually has its roots in Smyrn, Ottoman Empire (the area which is now called Izmir, Turkey). Anastasios Stathopoulos, Epaminondas’s father, was actually a notable instrument maker in his home country as well, making his own fiddles and lutes before he came to the United States in 1903. Shortly after Anastasios moved to the country he unfortunately passed, though his son Epaminondas was poised to take over the country.
Once the company got its start it wasn’t long before it was manufacturing instruments on par with any examples from its competitors. It’s upright basses and archtop guitars were actually preferred over some other instruments. Though Epiphone did produce world class guitars, the company was actually acquired by Gibson because of its upright basses. Epiphone’s upright basses both sounded great and were more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity than similar instruments, making them the choice of both hobbyists and professional musicians.
Epiphone became a budget line for Gibson following the production of Fender’s electric bass, which eliminated the need for an acoustic upright bass. Though the company may have moved away from its roots in recent years, it’s still producing some great instruments for its price point. There’s no better example of this than the DR-212, a great 12-string guitar at a price that can’t be beat.
The defining feature of this guitar is that it’s a completely viable and useable instrument for an extremely low price. Most guitars in the $200 to $300 price point are instruments aimed exclusively for beginning musicians. However, this 12-string guitar is capable of sounding a lot better than you would assume it would considering its price.
The Epiphone DR-212 is made with a mahogany body and a select spruce top. While the guitar may not be made from solid wood, because it’s a 12-string it resonates much more than it would if it was a six string. This increases the guitar’s overall volume and tonal response, making it a great fit for acoustic sessions or DIY recording work.
While solid wood is generally preferred, laminate does have its advantages. Laminate wood is much more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity than solid wood, which is great if you’re not prepared to buy a humidifier for your guitar or you often find yourself traveling with your instruments.
An important thing to note with this guitar is that it does not come with onboard electronics or a case. While this is to be expected, it is a bit inconvenient if you don’t already have a spare case available for the instrument. However, if you don’t plan on traveling with your instrument a case, while convenient, isn’t really a necessity.
While this guitar may be cheap, it really is a good sounding instrument. The Epiphone DR-212 has a bold and strident tone, with a reasonable frequency response at every level of the tonal spectrum. The guitar is a bit thin sounding, though this can be mitigated if you use heavier gauge strings or a thicker pick.
The guitar also has plenty of volume, which is great if you plan on playing with friends. So long as you play with enough force you shouldn’t have any problem being heard over other guitars or basses. The guitar’s volume also makes it much easier to mic, which is sure to be a plus if you plan on gigging or playing at open mics.
As far as quality is concerned, the Epiphone DR-212 is representative of the build quality that Epiphone has maintained for decades. Unlike other companies at this price point, Epiphone has always been extremely reliable in this department. Every instrument they’ve produced has been well made and extremely stable, so if you buy an instrument from Epiphone you can be sure that it will withstand the rigors of regular practice/performance provided you perform consistent maintenance.
The Epiphone DR-212 is a great 12-string guitar at a price that most musicians can afford. While there may be better sounding 12-string guitars available, if you’re looking to experiment with the instrument you definitely can’t go wrong with this guitar.
Founded in 1947 by Nathan Daniel, Danelectro is one of the manufacturers of instruments who are keeping the Art Deco flavor of early electric instruments alive. The guitars have an incredibly unique aesthetic, and even better they have a tone that you just can’t find anywhere else.
A little-known fact about Danelectro is that they actually produced a range of products for different companies throughout the 1940s. They actually produced guitar amplifiers for Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward. It wasn’t until 1954 that the company started producing guitars under their own name. Though they did maintain relations with the companies that they were previously producing amplifiers for. They were actually producing guitars for the Silvertone and Airline brand, which though they were budget instruments at the time have gone on to become cult instruments. Fun fact: Danelector’s “lipstick tube” pickups were literally made from surplus lipstick tubes.
Some notable musicians who have used Danelectro guitars (not to say that these were their main guitars, just that they’ve used them) include: Syd Barrent (used on the first two Pink Floyd albums) Beck, Peter Buck of R.E.M., J.J. Cale, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Lighnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Page, and Tom Petty.
A faithful reproduction of the original aesthetic and sound of Danelectro instruments, the Danelectro 12SDC 12-string electric guitar presents a unique value to musicians at a price almost any musician can afford.
The most notable feature of this guitar is the unique lipstick tube pickups used by Danelectro. The pickups have a very unique tone, which of course will be covered more in depth shortly.
The great thing about reissue Danelectros is that they sound like the original guitars without having any of the problems that plague vintage instruments. You’re not going to have to invest in a neck reset as soon as you get this guitar, and you’re not going to have to go through the hassle of trying to find aftermarket or vintage parts to replace anything components that were worn out over the decades. Another great part about buying a reissue as opposed to a vintage instrument is that reissue instruments come with significantly better tuners than those that were originally used with the earlier guitars produced by the company.
One great feature of this guitar is the double cutaway, which gives musicians easy access to upper frets. Though this may not be quite as useful on a twelve string guitar it does help increase the utility of the instrument, especially if you’re using this guitar for slide.
One thing to note about this guitar is that it does feature a wider neck. While this is expected on a 12-string, it is something you should be aware of if you choose to purchase this guitar. Though electric 12-strings may be easier to play than their acoustic counterparts this guitar will still require a period of adjustment if you’re not used to playing a 12-string instrument.
For those of you who haven’t previously played a Danelectro, you should be aware that these are very distinctive sounding guitars. They can best be described as a cross between the shimmering sound of a Rickenbacker guitar and a Telecaster. They have a great clean tone, but they are very twangy. While as a general rule Danelectros take distortion very well, it should be noted that because this is a 12-string instrument you’re not going to want to play this guitar with a lot of gain. However, you will be able to achieve a moderate crunch with this instrument.
As far as quality is concerned, the Danelectro 12SDC is on par with other Asian made instruments in its price range. Everything from the components to the materials used are of a high enough quality that you shouldn’t have to worry about the guitar being overly delicate, and so long as you take proper care of it the instrument should last as long as any other electric guitar.
Danelectro has always been the choice of musicians who are lucking for a unique sounding instrument, and with the recent reissues produced by the company it’s become incredibly easy for any musician to afford one.
Seagull Coastline S12 Cedar Guitar
A subsidiary of Godin, Seagull has a reputation for producing some of the best bang for your buck acoustic guitars around. The company uses a selection of unique woods, generally those native to the company’s home country of Canada, and in addition to maintaining a high level of quality control they’re one of the few companies who produce guitars geared towards performing musicians that any guitar player can afford.
The company was actually established in 1982 by Robert Godin and some of his peers in La Patrie, Quebec. The company is reflective of its roots, and to this day offers a range of features that you just can’t find anywhere else.
The distinctive headstock exclusive to Seagull guitars is meant to make the tuners level with their respective nut slots to help improve tuning stability. The guitars also feature a compound-curve top design, which adds a slight arch to the top of the guitar. This arch allows the company to produce a thinner and more resonant top without sacrificing structural strength.
With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Seagull Coastline S12 has become a cult hit with guitarists the world over.
The most notable thing about this guitar is that it’s topped with cedar. Cedar isn’t generally used with dreadnought body styles because it breaks away from the tradition set by Gibson and Martin in the early parts of the previous century. More on the tone of the guitar later, but rest assured that even though it may not be the most traditional tone there’s nothing objectively inferior about it.
The nut width on the guitar is a bit on the wide side, though this is to be expected with a 12-string guitar. A larger nut width isn’t necessarily a flaw, but it may be a bit uncomfortable for those of you with smaller hands. However, it does make intricate passages a bit easier. This is definitely going to come in handy if you’re a finger picker or like to dabble in jazz.
The guitar also has a relatively short 24.48” scale. Essentially, the trade off with scale length is that you lose volume the shorter it gets but you gain playability. Thankfully the difference isn’t so noticeable that it’s going to be a dramatic change from any other guitar, but it’s still something you should know before you choose to purchase this guitar.
Another thing that you’ll need to know before you purchase this guitar is that it does not come with onboard electronics. While this isn’t a con at the price point, it does mean that in order to get this guitar ready for consistent performance you’re most likely going to have to invest a bit more into it. It may be cheaper to purchase the Seagull Coastline S12 QI (the QI denotes that the guitar comes with a pickup) instead of purchasing this guitar and installing an aftermarket pickup later.
As previously stated, the Seagull Coastline S12 features a solid cedar top with laminate wild cherry back and sides. The cedar top gives this guitar a lot of warmth, which when paired with the extra overtones inherent to the 12-string configuration results in a guitar with plenty of warmth and depth.
The wild cherry back and sides do a lot to help tighten up the guitars response, so while it is definitely warm it’s not going to sound dull or flabby. The combination of these two tone woods produce a guitar that’s capable of covering a lot ground sonically, which is a huge plus for gigging musicians.
As far as quality is concerned, Seagull has always produced stable guitars. They’re not a company that’s known for receiving complaints, so while there’s always the possibility of receiving a lemon it’s not likely to occur. As always, just be sure that you store your guitar in an appropriate location and that you regularly perform proper maintenance.
While the Seagull Coastline S12 may not reflect traditional designs, there’s no doubt that it presents a great value to musicians. While the voice of the guitar may not be a perfect fit for every guitarist, in the right situation it truly does have the potential to be both dynamic and versatile.
Dean BOCA 12 String Semi Hollow Electric Guitar
Founded in 1977 by Dean Zelinsky in Chicago, Illonois. When he founded the company he was only 17 years old, though even at the young of an age he was crafting instruments at a master level. Just like builders today, Dean entered the guitar building market at a time where it was difficult to do so. At the time professional level players believed that if they wanted to find an instrument worthy of their skill their only option was to play a vintage American made guitar.
While playing a vintage Strat or Les Paul is fine for musicians who don’t require or use a lot of gain, these vintage instruments aren’t a great choice for musicians who play more modern music. Guitarists at the time were facing a similar choice, which allowed Dean (among other innovators of course, a notable example of which includes those who were the first to produce aftermarket pickups) to capitalize on a burgeoning market of new musicians looking for a fresh sound. As some of the top musicians of the day began gradually adopting Dean guitars it inspired hobbyists and less notable performing musicians to do the same.
No exception to the trend of innovation that Dean has maintained for decades, the Dean BOCA 12 String Semi Hollow Body guitar is a unique instrument that’s affordable enough to allow any musician to experience a 12-string electric guitar.
The most notable thing about this guitar is obviously that it’s a 12-string electric. While this does make the guitar a bit less versatile, it does allow musicians to access different tones. The semi-hollow construction also helps enhance the harmonic overtones of the guitar, giving it a rich and warm tone that’s dry enough to perform well in an electric setting. More on the tone of the guitar in a moment.
The Dean BOCA 12 String Semi Hollow Guitar comes equipped with a bolt-on neck, which when coupled with the semi hollow body design result in a guitar that isn’t going to have a lot of sustain. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, and considering that the guitar is a 12-string it may actually be a pretty positive feature. If the guitar had too much sustain it’s incredibly possible that because it’s a 12-string there would be too many overtones. This is of course going to depend on what you’re playing, but if you happen to playing faster or more intricate passages you’ll find that less sustain will help to make your playing sound a bit more clear.
This guitar has a body made from mahogany. Though the effect that tonewood has on an electric instrument is a controversial topic, the general consensus is that mahogany results in a warmer sounding guitar. The guitar also comes equipped with two humbuckers, Grover tuners, and an adjustable bridge with a stop bar tailpiece.
Because this guitar is a 12-string you’re never going to be able to use it with a lot of distortion. 12-string guitars don’t handle distortion well because there are too many overtones, which when coupled with distortion (which also introduces different overtones) results in a sound that is dissonant and muddy. However, 12-strings can be used with moderate amounts of distortion (think a very light crunch) to good effect.
When judging the guitar on its own merits, you see an instrument that’s warm yet articulate. The design benefits from the extra warmth of the mahogany body, and though it may not be capable of as much distortion as a six string instrument it’s still capable of producing a healthy crunch.
As far as quality is concerned, there aren’t too many complaints that we or any online reviewers could find. The components and materials are all regarded to be of a respectable quality for the price point, and though the tuners aren’t the best around they perform completely adequately. The Dean BOCA 12 string guitar is available in three different finishes: Classic Black, Trans Amber, and Trans Cherry Burst.
The Dean BOCA 12 String Semi Hollow Body is a quality instrument that allows any guitarist to experiment with the wide variety of tones that are only available on an electric 12-string. The components are all well made, and provided that you perform proper maintenance it will hold up to the rigors of consistent practice.
Founded in 1883 by Christian Frederick Martin, C.F. Martin & Company has been one of the most important manufacturers of instruments in the world for almost two centuries. Though Martin is mostly known for being the premier manufacturer of flat top acoustic guitars they’ve actually produced a number of different instruments. Martin has produced mandolins, a wide variety of electric guitars and basses, and they’ve even tried their hand at producing acoustic archtops.
Something most people don’t know about Martin is that they’re largely responsible for the development of the acoustic guitar. The company was the first to widely sell guitars with the X-bracing system, though it’s unlikely that Martin actually invented the bracing pattern. The X-bracing pattern was used by almost all of Martin’s peers who immigrated from Germany, so it was most likely invented by an unknown German luthier.
While fan bracing began to overtake x-bracing in Europe, American luthiers continued using the x-bracing patter. While the x-bracing pattern isn’t as dynamic as the fan bracing patter when paired with gut strings, the x-bracing pattern allowed guitar makers to outfit their guitars with steel strings in the early 20th century.
Over the decades Martin produced a variety of guitars that would go on to define the instrument. A notable example of this is the D-28, a guitar which has been used by some of the most important musicians in music history. The subject of today’s review, the Martin D12-28 is a fantastic 12-string guitar that lives up to the legacy that Martin has spent almost two centuries building.
The most important thing to remember about the Martin D12-28 is that thought it may not be the most visually distinctive guitar in the world it is made with some of the finest materials available. Martin doesn’t spare any expense to ensure that they produce guitars worthy of their legacy, and as such the materials used all help to make this instrument one of the most dynamic and focused guitars available.
The Martin D12-28 is topped with solid Sitka Spruce. Sitka Spruce is a focused tonewood that emphasizes mid-range and high-end frequencies. The back and sides are made from solid East Indian rosewood. Rosewood is more focused than mahogany, and makes for a very articulated sound. These two tonewoods work well with the 12-string configuration, giving the guitar a clear and dynamic voice.
Just like any other 12-string the Martin D12-28 does have a pretty hefty neck, though when weighed against other 12-strings the neck on the Martin is fairly middle of the road. It’s wide enough to facilitate intricate passages of music, though it’s thin enough that the majority of you should find the guitar comfortable to play.
Lastly, while the guitar comes with the option to add electronics it’s not a standard feature on this model. Though an aftermarket pickup may not be much of an expense when compared to the base cost of the instrument, it does require another investment if you plan on performing with the guitar.
The Martin D12-28 is voiced to maintain a relatively equal tonal response. The low end is tight yet refined, and the mid-range and high-end are clear without becoming piercing or harsh. The guitar is great for everything from live performance to recording, and due to the materials it’s made from it’s easily one of the more articulate 12-strings you’re going to come across. It avoids most of the pitfalls inherent to the 12-string configuration, as it retains a lot of pleasing overtones without sounding sloppy.
As far as quality is concerned, the Martin D12-28 is representative of what you would expect from a Martin made in this decade. The fit and finish are beautiful, and provided that you take good care of this guitar it should last for decades. As an added bonus, if anything happens to your guitar you can send it back and get it repaired for free (provided you register the serial number with Martin of course).
There’s a reason that Martin has maintained its position as a leader in the industry for as long as it has. Every guitar the company produces is an instrument worthy of a professional musician. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford one of these guitars odds are it will be a lifelong companion.