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12 String Guitars, Tunings and Tension

[Portrait of Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau, Stuyvesant Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946] (LOC)I’ve decided to keep the Breedlove 12 String Guitar I ordered. Now I’ve got to share all the random things suggested by owning a 12-string guitar.

One of the first considerations for a new 12-string owner is tuning the guitar. The nearby photo of Leadbelly playing his Stella 12-string reminds me that Leadbelly tuned his guitar down to C, maybe even to B. That is, instead of E-A-D-G-B-E (6th to 1st string), his guitar would be tuned C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C. That doesn’t result in quite as low of a string tension as you might expect because the scale length of his guitar was 26.5 inches, an inch longer than is common now.

A string tuned from standard tuning to 4 half-steps lower has a tension 63% of the original tension1. The increased scale length at 26.5 inches increases the tension by about 8%2. The net tension is thus 63% x 108% = 68%.

Leo Kottke said he typically tunes his 12 strings to C#. Here’s a table of how detuning 3-half-steps from standard tuning affects tension on a 12 string guitar using D’Addario EXP-38 strings (the strings that came installed on my Breedlove).

Standard Standard -3
String Note Freq Tension EXP38 New Note New Freq Change in Tension Tension
1 E4 329.6 16.22 C#4 277.2 71% 11.47
2 E4 329.6 16.22 C#4 277.2 71% 11.47
3 B3 246.9 17.85 G#3 207.6 71% 12.62
4 B3 246.9 17.85 G#3 207.6 71% 12.62
5 G3 196 26.34 E3 164.8 71% 18.62
6 G4 392 14.68 E4 329.6 71% 10.38
7 D3 146.8 25.56 B2 123.5 71% 18.09
8 D4 293.6 18.54 B3 246.9 71% 13.11
9 A2 110 23.86 F#2 92.5 71% 16.87
10 A3 220 23.41 F#3 185 71% 16.55
11 E2 82.4 19.38 C#2 69.3 71% 13.71
12 E3 164.8 25.62 C#3 138.6 71% 18.12
Total Average Total
245.53 71% 173.64

Some interesting statistics on why to de-tune your 12-string from standard tuning: If you look at what the tension would have been if this were a six-string guitar by looking only at the odd numbered strings (the first string of each pair) we can calculate the six string tension would have been 129.21 lbs. The tension for the 12-string isn’t quite double, but nearly so (190% higher than the six-string tension). Remember, four of the paired strings are an octave higher in pitch on a 12-string. By de-tuning to C#, the tension is reduced to only 134% higher than the six-string tension.

I had originally tuned my 12-string down to a C (4 half-steps lower than standard tuning). I loved the deeper sound with the guitar tuned so low. The reduced tension also made playing almost as easy as on my electric or classical guitars. I could do jazz chords in the fifth position with no effort. But the trade-off is obviously the individual string tensions are now so low that buzzing is inevitable. Either you learn to live and love that sound or you tune up until you’re happy with the sound. Tensions under about 14 pounds are going to a problem. I have since tuned to C# for standard tuning, the same as Leo. That gave less buzzing and is still reasonable for ease of playing.

The next subject, alternate tunings for twelve-string guitar, also deals with string tensions. Essentially, any alternate tuning you might use on a six-string can be applied to a twelve-string guitar with the understanding you will tune the lower four strings in octaves and the highest two strings in unison. The more important thing is to remember you don’t need to tune to open D or open G or any other alternate tuning using the same pitches you do on a six-string. Instead, you can lower those tunings by several steps, unless you enjoy the higher tension.

Here are some statistics on how this affects tuning. Starting with the twelve-string in standard tuning and tuning to Open D, the average change in tension over 12 strings is 88%. Retuning from standard 12-string tuning to Open G results on almost no overall change. The average tension of the strings is 97% of what you started with.

If we detune from Open D to Open D -1 or Open C#, the average tension is reduced by another 10% to 78% of Standard tuning tension. Detuning from Open G to Open F, two half-steps down from Open G, the average tension is 77%, not much different from Open C# (D -1). The trade-off for these lower tensions is the same as with standard. Some strings may have too little tension to not flop around against the frets causing buzzing.

Tuning Chart


  1. The formula for calculating the change in tension when a string is tuned to a different note is (New Frequency in Hz)^2/(Original Frequency in Hz)^2. If you know the original tension you can multiply it by the result to get the new tension. Otherwise, the result is the ratio of the change.
  2. The formula for how a change in length of a string affects tension is similar to frequency. It is the square of the new length divided by the square of the old length. It doesn’t matter what units of measure you use for the string length as long as new and old are the same units. The result, as above, is a ratio, or if you multiply by 100, a percent. If you know the actual starting tension, you can multiply the result by the tension to get the new value.

11 thoughts on “12 String Guitars, Tunings and Tension”

  1. I have a Taylor 150E 12-string tuned to standard, and I’m thinking of removing the low E and A octave strings to replicate the Michael 10-string. Will this affect the tension to a degree that will torque the neck, and cause damage? Thanks

  2. It occurred to me that a 12 string guitar might be set up as follows:
    a) remove the b and e string pairs.
    b) move the other 4 pairs down.
    c) replace the two top pairs with strings suitable to be tuned in octaves to G and C
    d) tune this to G-C-F-a#-d-g

    This would produce a lower toned guitar with octave pairs on all strings and the traditional chord patterns but in a different key.
    I am fascinated with this idea but reluctant to try it as it would require nut alteration.
    Has anyone ever tried this?

  3. Strings and Tuning: Some of this tuning I got from Gordon Lightfoot. I use Kurt Mangan phosphor-bronze 12 string 10-48 and replace the low E and A with a 53 and 42 from D’Addario. I tune 1,2, 5 and 6 small strings 1/10th of a half step sharper than the larger string. It gives them better harmonics in that the high E and B strings are the same and when tuned the same don’t give you much. But sharpen the top string a little and it sounds great. D and G strings already sound great so I leave them alone. The low E and A are rather quiet in the mix so I put larger ones on to give it more bass. But that tends to drown out the smaller string so I tuned in sharp as well so it stands out and harmonizes nicely with the other string. What a sound. Very cool. I also tune down a half step to Eb and capo as needed.

  4. I’ve using .010-.047 on my Simon Patrick (Godin) tuned to pitch; sounds iike magic! I’m thinking of tuning down like on my 1960’s Gakkis.

  5. I’ve strung my Cozart 12 String Strat with Ernie Ball 8-40 Ultra Light Gauge 12 String Guitar Strings which are very low tension & interestingly lowered the action down all the way to make it beginner friendly. I tune it to Eb Standard cause it not only helps those thinner strings last longer & minimize tension further but it’s also easier for me to sing those higher notes when I do song covers. Reminds me of this video:

  6. Not sure your comparison between 6 and 12 string tension is fair. Avsix string normally has heavier gauge string than a 12 string. For example if a 12 string has 2 high e strings of gauge 10 then that would contribute about 32lbs of tension whereas a 6 string with medium strings would have a high e of 13 gauge and tension of 28lbs so quite as different as you might expect. On balance I would say it’s about 150% for typical gauges used.

    1. You are quite right and very close. A six-string light gauge set from D’Addario has a set tension of 152.35 lbs while a light gauge 12-string set’s tension is 247.05 lbs which is about 162% higher.

  7. Isn’t one of the biggest problems with alternate tunings that ‘require’ using wildly different gauge strings, in the ‘setup’? In other words mainly the need for re-slotting the nut and bridge, and the intonation adjustments to them?

    1. Yes, if you switch to an alternate tuning wildly different from standard, you may need to make a custom gauge string set and re-slot your nut and bridge. However, most of the most popular alternate tunings are not that different from standard. Switching string gauges with an alternate tuning is another personal preference. I have had my 12-string tuned to open D, open G, and standard tuning without changing string gauges. I’ve tuned down by up to 4 half-steps and only at the extreme thought maybe heavier strings would be better.

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