12-string guitars put out a brilliant full sound as if you’re playing 2 guitars at once. But tuning a 12-string can be a tedious process; there are twice as many strings, so it takes twice as much time, right? Guitar tuners make it easier but you don’t have to rely on a tuner to get your guitar ready to play. This article will show you a few techniques and tricks how to tune your 12-string guitar by ear.
12-string guitars are tuned to the same notes as a 6-string guitar. Those notes, from lowest to highest are E-A-D-G-B-E. The 12-string has a second set of strings tuned to the same notes. The top 4 set of strings, E-A-D-G, will be different gauges, or thicknesses and are tuned an octave apart. The other two sets, B and E and the same gauge and are the same tone. You will tune a set of strings together before moving on to the next set. Let’s go through each set step by step.
Start with the low E string. For this article we will assume you have no other instrument or tuning devise to get your starting E note and we’ll assume that the string is close enough to and E note. The first step is to tune the higher gauge string, this thin one, to the lower gauge string, the thick one. A great technique you can use to get the strings perfectly tuned to each other is to listen to the oscillation of the sound waves. Two different tones will produce and audible “wah-wah” sound. The shorter the interval between the “wah’s” the farther out of tune your strings are. Turn the tuning key slowly while listening to the wah-wahs. If the wave gets slower, your going the right way. Turn the key until you can no longer hear the oscillation. When you pluck the two strings together and don’t hear the wave, your strings are perfectly tuned to each other.
Now, move to the next set of strings, which will be tuned to an A note. To get the correct note pluck the sixth string on the 5th fret. Only play the low string to get the note for the low A string. Use the wave technique to make sure these two notes are matched. Once you have the 5th string matched to the 6th string move on to the 5th strings partner. Turn the tuning key until these two strings are perfectly matched.
Tip: If a string’s tone is too high, always turn the key until the tone is lower than the desired note and then gradually bring the pitch up. This will give you a more accurate tuning.
So far, you should have the top two sets of strings in perfect tune. Continue with this technique for the next set of strings, the D strings until they are tuned to match each other. Repeat the same process with the G strings.
To get the proper note for the B string, instead of placing your finger on the 5th fret, place it on the 4th fret. Tune the top string of this set to the prior strings. When tuning the B note you’ll notice that the two strings are the same gauge. This is good because it makes it easier to hear the tonal differences. When tuned together you can pluck both strings and they will sound like one string, with no wah-wah sounds.
Repeat the same process for the highest set of strings, the high E, but this time be sure to move back up to the 5th fret, on the second string to get the correct E note. Adjust your tuning keys until both nigh E strings match each other and you’re all set.
There are a couple of things you can do to make sure all the strings are perfectly tuned to each other. Pluck the high gauge 6th string and it should be the exact same tone as the first strings, the high E strings. Another check is to pluck the low gauge 6th string (the thick one) on the 3rd fret and make sure it matches the low gauge open G string. Play a few chords to make sure your guitar sounds in tune. Now, you are ready to play and entertain your friends.