One of the best things about the 12-string guitar is that it works so similarly to a 6-string. Anything that was written for a 6-string can immediately have its sound upgraded with that extra octave. Likewise, anything written for a 12-string is easily played on a 6-string if you don’t have a 12-string lying around.
Because of this, we often don’t tend to pay much attention to dedicated 12-string guitar riffs and songs, generally opting to just pretend they are 6-string guitar parts.
So today, we’re taking some time to appreciate the incredible songs we’ve been able to enjoy thanks to the magic and signature sound of the 12-string guitar. If you don’t already have one, you can pick them up for under $1,000 pretty easily. In case you’d like to play along yourself, we’ve included both video lessons and tablature for your convenience.
- ’39 by Queen
- A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles
- A Horse with No Name by America
- Early Morning Rain by Gordon Lightfoot
- Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty
- Breaking the Girl by Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Give a Little Bit by Supertramp
- Hotel California by The Eagles
- Hurricane by Bob Dylan
- I Stay Away by Alice in Chains
- More than a Feeling by Boston
- Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds
- Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
- Space Oddity by David Bowie
- Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
- Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
- Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
- Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
- Nothing Else Matters (Elevator Version) by Metallica
- Mama, I’m Coming Home by Ozzy Osbourne
- Final Thoughts on 12-String Guitar Songs
’39 by Queen
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Let’s start off with an incredible song written by Queen guitarist Brian May. While he usually very much stays as just the band’s guitarist, this is one scenario in which he was able to take on a vocal role too, and he’s not half bad! The song is called ’39 because it’s quite literally the 39th song Queen has released since the band’s formation back in 1970.
This requires just a regular 12-string guitar in standard tuning, but we’ll be using a capo on the 1st fret. Most of this song is spent strumming huge barred chords that span all 12 strings, creating that really huge sound. This can also put some tension on the wrist due to the pressure required to keep everything fretted for that long. So try to watch your hand and arm positions and ensure you’re as relaxed as possible.
A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles
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Another classic track that makes great use of The Beatle’s iconic Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar, which had a distinct twang to it thanks to the soap bar pickups and hollow body construction that made it a fixture of many classic Beatles tunes. This song was named as such after drummer Ringo Star mistakenly said they had a hard day when it was night, so he quickly corrected himself by adding ‘night’ to the end of the sentence. This became a joke within the band and thus birthed the song name.
The 12-string guitar parts of this song tend to stick around that minor blues/minor pentatonic area, being played very much how you would a 6-string electric guitar. The main difference is in the tonality of the instrument, with it sounding deliciously twangy and ‘steel-like’, almost akin to something like a sitar which the Beatles were known for being big fans of.
A Horse with No Name by America
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America only had 1 really big single and it’s the first song from their first album, released in 1971. It was met with unanimously positive reception due to its great tonal atmosphere, which was inspired by a particular Salvador Dali painting that prompted them to want to write a song depicting a hot and dry desert. It ended up topping the charts in the United States, Canada, and Finland.
This is perhaps a song you’ve already learned at one point on a regular 6-string. But in the studio, this was actually double-tracked, which means recording an instrument’s parts twice. So they used both a 6-string and a 12-string guitar, giving it that unique tonality. Fortunately, for anyone trying to learn the 12-string guitar part, it simply follows what the 6-string plays, so there’s no need to learn two different sections here.
Early Morning Rain by Gordon Lightfoot
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Here’s a classic song from the mid-’60s, written and recorded by Gordon Lightfoot as part of his album Lightfoot! He was inspired to write this song after becoming homesick during his time in Los Angeles, frequently visiting the LA International Airport to watch airplanes approaching. This imagery of the overcast skies and planes taking off and landing would remain with him and later inspire this song. And you can really hear it in the delivery!
This is played on a 12-string guitar in drop D tuning, so you’ll just need to take your 2 lowest strings and drop them 2 semitones to D. You’ll also need a capo on the 3rd fret of the guitar.
Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty
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After Tom had finished his time in his previous band, he found immediate success with his first solo album Full Moon Fever. Which was massively successful and is easily one of his most well-known tracks. He even got the opportunity to perform it alongside Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose at the 1989 MTV Music Video Awards. Rolling Stone also ranked it as one of the greatest songs of all time.
This is another song that makes use of both a 6-string and a 12-string guitar, but you can pick whichever guitar part you wish, as they will all work together. You’ll need a capo on the 3rd fret of the guitar to bring it up to key and the whole song is playable just using the easy chords D, G, and A.
Breaking the Girl by Red Hot Chili Peppers
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This song has a bunch of cool musical elements to it. Not only does it make great use of the 12-string guitar, but it’s also in an odd time signature of 6/8, which you will count as 1 and 2 and 3 and, etc. Taken from their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the song is a ballad that details the troubled partnership singer Anthony Kiedis had with his former girlfriend.
Unlike many other songs which are written on a regular 6-string and just layered with a 12-string for tonal/textural reasons, this one is actually written solely for the 12-string. For the most part, you’ll be barring across the lower strings with your index while your ring finger does some cool little inflections on the 3rd and 4th strings.
Give a Little Bit by Supertramp
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Heading all the way back to the ’70s next with the opening track from Supertramp’s stellar album Even in the Quietest Moments… The song was a very successful single for the band, garnering them a good amount of exposure to the international market. It was originally written by Roger Hodgson when he was just 19 or 20 years old and wouldn’t actually be presented to the band until nearly 6 years later.
We’ll be using a lot of big open chords in this song. One chord to watch out for is the A7 which requires you to hold the second fret of your D and B strings while leaving an open note on the G string in between them. It’s extremely easy to choke this note out, so do try to angle your fingers in a way where that string can breathe a bit.
Hotel California by The Eagles
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This is the title track from The Eagle’s album, also called Hotel California, and is probably their most famous song ever. It also makes great use of the 12-string guitar. The song was awarded a Grammy Award in 1978 and has since become a staple of their live performances, having been played a staggering 1038 times by the band.
We’ll just be in standard 12-string tuning here, but we do need a capo on the 7th fret of the guitar. There are a lot of arpeggiated chords (that is to say, chords that are played one note at a time) in this song. Unfortunately, we can’t pick this with our fingers like we would a 6 string as we need to catch both strings with each hit, so using a pick is also essential here.
Hurricane by Bob Dylan
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This song has a rather turbulent meaning behind it. Bob wrote this in defense of a famous boxer called Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was imprisoned for what many believed were racial reasons. It resonated strongly with both his audience and supporters of Rubin Carter and went on to be one of his most successful singles, charting well on the Billboard Hot 100.
Bob used a very striking Danelectro 12-string guitar, which looks something a bit like a mandolin, but with a telecaster-esque lipstick-style pickup in the neck. There is a lot of big open chord strumming here to really make good use of all those strings and make that huge wall of sound. You will need a capo on the 3rd fret of the guitar to bring it in key.
I Stay Away by Alice in Chains
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This song is from AIC’s 1994 EP Jar of Flies, wherein they noted that this was the first time they had written with bassist Mike Inez. The song was of special importance to them, as they wanted to show that he was a valid part of the band and a great songwriter. Fans obviously agreed as the song reached the no 10 spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts and hung in there for a whopping 26 weeks.
For this song, we need to tune down to C sharp standard, which essentially involves taking a standard tuned 12-string and lowering each string by 3 semitones. This should be easily doable on any standard 12-string without the string tension becoming much of an issue. The song itself has a good combination of strummed chords with some nice little 3 string arpeggios.
More than a Feeling by Boston
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A classic rock song from Boston’s debut album of the same name. Little did they know this would garner them as much success as it did, to the point where it’s now a quintessential rock radio track. It took songwriter Tom Scholz five years to complete the song, which details the idea of how music can reconnect you to a loved one who has passed away. It was also famously used as part of the video game series Rocksmith.
While there is certainly a lot of electric guitar work throughout the song, the primary arpeggiated motif which simply outlines some open chords, is played using a 12-string guitar. You will want to use a pick for this to ensure it has that same signature twang to it.
Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds
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Written by Bob Dylan but then later performed by The Byrds, Mr. Tamborine Man was part of an acoustic side on his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. However, the song was so popular he would go on to record it many more times, particularly in live settings. This is also a song where the cover went on to all but outshine the original, although The Byrds stripped theirs down a bit from the four verses of Bob’s version, which they deemed a little much. Both were very successful, each winning Grammy awards.
The main motif of the song is played with single-note melodies where all the notes are either laid out over a string to just to adjacent ones. This makes it very easy for beginners, as you’ll seldom need to ‘skip strings’.
Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
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Over the Hills and Far Away is quite eclectic, opening with a signature Led Zeppelin-style acoustic section before surprising the listener by moving into a powerful rock song with distorted electric guitar. It’s one of those songs that has stood the test of time and been given more praise the more time that passes, with publications as recent as 2015 ranking it as the single best Led Zeppelin song.
Like many other tracks that incorporate a 12-string guitar, this isn’t the only instrument used. It initially opens with a 6-string guitar part which is then doubled up with the 12-string guitar afterward before moving into the rock portion of the song. I wouldn’t worry about this. Just play the whole thing with the 12-string! It’ll sound great.
Space Oddity by David Bowie
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Bowie often switched between 6-strings and 12-strings for this song, using a 6-string in the official video. That said, it’s believed that he composed the song on a 12-string and would also use one when performing the song live, so it’s assumed that’s the preferred version. After his debut album was not so successful, they released this as the first single from his second album and it was actually used by the British Broadcasting Company as coverage music during the real landing.
The whole song is played using big open chords with a regular strumming pattern, but there are also some quite unique chord voicings, such as the F7/E in there which adds to the tension and character of the song.
Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
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This was originally written back in the late 1950s by Peter Seeger and lyrically was massively inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes. However, the song achieved significantly more success once it was covered by the American folk-rockers The Byrds. The single shot to the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and also charted very respectfully in the UK and Canada.
This is another song that makes use of an electric twelve-string guitar from Rickenbacker and has that signature, almost Telecaster-like twang to it. Depending on which guitar part you want to play, there is a strummed chord section, and over the top of that, we have some 3 string arpeggios which are used somewhat like an ostinato.
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
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One of Pink Floyd’s most popular tracks, Wish You Were Here was the lead single from the album of the same name. Written between David Gilmour and Roger Waters, there’s lots of great guitar work to be enjoyed here. A fascinating fact about this song is David’s cough before the music begins was unintended. Due to his heavy smoking at the time, he couldn’t hold it in before recording his take. Upon hearing it, he decided to immediately quit smoking!
The whole intro of the song is recorded on a 12-string guitar, but it’s been processed to make it sound like it’s coming through the radio with this additional static. The 12-string parts then continue throughout the song with a good mixture of chords and hammer-ons around that lower, first position on the guitar.
Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
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The irony of this song is that it contains a lyric detailing that he keeps a ‘loaded six-string on my back,’ despite it being played on a 12-string. Regardless, this is a fantastic song by the American rock legend Bon Jovi. It’s considered a glam metal song from his 1987 album Slippery When Wet. It was met with massive commercial success and is considered one of his signature songs, often making its way into his live performances.
The intro is played on a 12-string and uses descending, 3-string patterns that pedal off of the open D note while holding 2 notes on the G and E strings, which are sliding down using various chord shapes. It’s a lot of fun to play and good practice, but you’ll need to ensure you’re holding down both pairs of strings to make them ring out cleanly.
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
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You probably already knew this one was coming. Composed by Jimmy Page and released in 1971 as part of the Led Zeppelin IV album, it’s considered both one of the best rock songs and one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, with guitarists in particular being drawn to that epic opening sequence – what has become known as “the Forbidden Riff“.
This one actually requires you to go a technique called Hybrid picking. Many use simple fingerpicking on a 6-string guitar, whereas on a 12-string, we like to use the pick to get that extra ‘twang’ out of the note. So you’ll be picking the lower notes with a guitar pick while any higher strings that can’t be reached with that pick can be played using your fingers.
Nothing Else Matters (Elevator Version) by Metallica
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While you can certainly play along to the original Nothing Else Matters using a 12-string guitar, the version that was actually recorded using one was from one of their Sad But True singles and essentially emulates the original song but is entirely layered using 12-string guitars. One of the nice things about the Elevator Version is that the orchestral elements were also placed much higher in the mix.
The song essentially follows the original track which you’ll need to hybrid pick. Or if this is too challenging, you can also fingerpick it. It also makes use of natural harmonics on the twelfth fret, which is a technique less commonly used on a 12-string. It’ll need a bit of a delicate touch to ring out properly, but if you nail it, they sound fantastic.
Mama, I’m Coming Home by Ozzy Osbourne
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This is a power ballad by Ozzy from his 1992 album No More Tears. There were 2 music videos shot for this one. Ozzy was unhappy with the first one as he felt it didn’t match the lyrical concept of the song. The second (filmed by Samuel Bayer) was compared by Ozzy to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit for the hazy smoke effect.
This features a fantastic 12-string guitar part written by Zakk Wylde, who is a big fan of the instrument. For the opening, you’ll just be fretting 1 note and moving it down while the 2 strings above it are left to ring out. It’s a really simple and effective technique that sounds fantastic.
Final Thoughts on 12-String Guitar Songs
In wrapping up our list of 20 great 12-string guitar songs, it’s important to note the instrument’s unique ability to create a rich, full sound that’s difficult to replicate with any other instrument.
These songs offer a diverse range of genres and styles, from the acoustic folk-rock of The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan to the hard-hitting rock of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.
Whether you’re looking for complex fingerpicking or soulful strumming, the 12-string guitar has something for everyone.
So why not pick up a 12-string guitar and try your hand at these timeless classics?