When exploring the 12-string, it all begins with Lead Belly, who used his huge, dropped-tuned Stella flattop to orchestrate such folk-blues classics as “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Midnight Special.”
A handful of musicians have built their careers around the 12-string guitar—Lead Belly, Leo Kottke, and Roger McGuinn come to mind—but for most guitarists, an electric or acoustic 12-string is a specialty instrument to be hauled out when a song needs a little extra jangle. As such, 12-string guitars get a smaller part of a player’s setup budget and are rarely checked, despite the fact that they may suffer more from string tension issues than their 6-string siblings. That’s too bad, because when a 12-string’s action is too high or it’s not set up correctly, it feels twice as hard to play.
With a good setup, a 12-string can sound magical. If you have one, or are considering acquiring one, you’ll benefit from understanding some of the factors that contribute to this instrument’s sonic mojo. If you’re not accomplished at setting up a guitar—or game to learn how—we suggest you seek the services of a professional to work on your instrument. However, armed with a little knowledge, the proper tools, and a bit of patience, you can achieve excellent results doing your own basic setup and maintenance. At the very least, understanding the setup process will help you identify a good tech.
Also—and this is important—if you’re shopping for a used 12-string, knowing how to recognize and identify potential setup issues will help you make an informed buying decision, and potentially save you a lot of money.
Just as with a 6-string guitar, bass, banjo, or mandolin, 12-string setup can be divided into playability and intonation. On the playability side, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and through experience, guitarists need to discover their personal comfort zones. At Glaser Instruments we typically tell people that for good tone and a wide dynamic range, your setup should be as high as you can manage to play comfortably, yet as low as necessary to keep you wanting to play that instrument. The playability part of setup is personal, but, for the most part, tuning is more absolute. (Some session players have their own intonation formulas, but that’s a subject for another day.)
Because there’s no one “correct” way to set up a guitar, we’re simply going to share a few things we’ve learned in the last 35 years—proven techniques that work for us and our clients. To illustrate these concepts, we’ve chosen two guitars: a 1965 Rickenbacker 360/12 and a ’65 Guild F-212. The latter belongs to producer Bob Ezrin, whose credits include Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Kiss, Lou Reed, and Phish. This Guild has added jangle to countless tracks, so chances are you’ve actually heard it.
Each guitar needed some work to play and sound its best, so we’ll take you through what we did and describe how we approached those procedures and why. Some setup issues are common to both 6- and 12-string instruments and have been already covered in Premier Guitar, so instead of rehashing them here, we’ll link you to them. In this article, we’ll focus on considerations that are unique to 12-string setup.