Aural Illusion: How to Mimic a 12-String Guitar
It’s one of the most heavenly, downright gorgeous sounds in rock history: a ringing 12-string acoustic guitar playing an ethereal chord. Or it’s one of the most sonically exciting: an overdriven electric 12-string playing a pedal tone riff punctuated by big chord jabs, like in Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same.” Or it's one of the most unusual lead guitar sounds imaginable: the stacked octaves of George Harrison’s solo in The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” or Roger McGuinn’s work on The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” Even Eddie Van Halen got in on the action with chiming 12-string overdubs on “Poundcake” from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
And 12-strings aren’t just for classic rock. Dave Mustaine routinely straps on a double-neck guitar featuring a 12-string neck to perform the dramatic arpeggios of the Megadeth classic “In My Darkest Hour.” But we don’t all have access to a 12-string, so sometimes you need to find creative ways around the problem: how do you fool your audience into thinking they’re hearing a 12-string when you’re not actually playing one? There are lots of creative ways around this. Let’s look at a few.
The most obvious and easy is to simply use a pitch shifter set to double your playing by an octave. This has the advantage of allowing you to play very fast lines such as the hammered arpeggios of the “A Hard Day’s Night” solo just as you would if you were actually playing a 12-string. And depending on the particular riff you’re playing, it can be very effective. But watch out! If you set the level of the pitch-shifted note too high, you’ll hear a digital chatter that will give the game away. Set it too low and the effect will be lost. The illusion is heightened if you’re using a multi effects unit with deep editing capability. If you can reduce the treble of the pitch-shifted note while also delaying its attack by about 20-40 milliseconds, you’ll get much closer to the sonic signature of a real 12-string guitar. Be careful though: a real 12-string has pairs of strings tuned in octaves for the E, A, D and G strings, but the B and E aren’t octaves, they’re just two identical strings in unison. If you want to maintain the illusion of playing a 12-string, you may need to avoid those two strings or their octave-shifted duplicates will clue clever listeners in that you’re using an effect.
But there are a few other very handy ways of tapping into the 12-string sound that don’t involve electronics – ways that can be applied to one track of a multi-track recording, or one guitar of a two-guitar band on stage. Or even tricks that can make a single acoustic guitar sound like a ringing 12-string. Let’s have a look at a few of my favorite tricks.
This is an old studio trick where you take a set of guitar strings for a 12-string guitar, remove the lower octaves of each pair from the E to G strings, and string up your guitar with only the high octave strings and, of course, the regular B and high E strings. Do one pass of a guitar part on a regularly tuned guitar, and then record another pass playing the exact same part on the Nashville-tuned guitar. The result is a sparkly, jangly sound that is “bigger” than a single guitar can produce. The effect is further enhanced when you pan each take slightly apart in the stereo spectrum.
Poor Man’s Nashville Tuning
This is a trick I stumbled across when I was about 15, messing around with multi-track recording for the first time. Again, record a guitar part in standard tuning. Clean guitar tones work best. Then, double the part an octave higher. This is most effective if your guitar is well intonated, and depending on the song and the up-front-ness of the part you might want to simply “sit out” any notes on the B and high E strings when recording the second take. But when done right, it can be a surprisingly effective substitute for a real 12-string. Record a few passes of each part for an even bigger sound, and experiment with panning the guitars far apart or close together. Feeding multiple parts through the same short reverb is a great way of selling the illusion that it’s a single guitar.
Simply playing a chord an octave higher and including lots of open strings can be a great way of getting some 12-string vibe even on a single guitar. This can be done by simply playing the chords an octave higher on the same strings while letting any open strings ring out in their original octaves, or by playing higher versions of traditional chords. Bar 1 features a regular E Major chord as well as a higher variation. Ditto for Bar 2, which shows two ways of playing A Major. Bar 3 is a bit of a finger-pretzeler but it shows a new way to approach a G chord. Bar 4 is one of my favorites. The first chord is, of course, C Major. The second is also based on C Major but the C note on the first fret in the first version is dropped to an open B in the second. The result is a C7m chord, which has a certain lilting, wistful quality that opens up a whole new musical world, while retaining much of the prized 12-string-like jangle.