12 String guitars have featured on some of the world’s most iconic tracks, from Pantera’s ‘Suicide Note Part 1’, to The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’. Many write off 12 strings as a folk instrument, but this is definitely not the case. A big part of the defining sound of a 12 string guitar is the strings themselves, whether electric or acoustic.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ve taken an in depth look at the best strings for 12 string guitars. We’ve broken it into 2 distinct sections, giving you our top 3 choices for electric 12 string, and for acoustic 12 string.
For the electric 12 string test, we loaded up a beautiful Epiphone G-1275 ‘SG’ Double Neck, and played clean through a Katana Boss 50 MK11. For the acoustics, the test was performed on a Breedlove Pursuit 12 string.
In both cases, we were primarily looking for:
- String durability
- Tuning stability
- Our Top Three Picks – Electric
- Our Top Three Picks – Acoustic
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky – Top Pick – Electric
- D’Addario EXL 150 – Best Budget – Electric
- Gibson Brite-Wire – Editor’s Choice – Electric
- Elixir 80/20 Bronze Nanoweb – Top Pick – Acoustic
- Ernie Ball Earthwood 80/20 Bronze – Best Budget Acoustic
- D’Addario XS Phosphor Bronze – Editor’s Choice – Acoustic
- Buyer’s Guide
- Final Thoughts on Strings for 12 String Guitars
Our Top Three Picks – Electric
Our top pick for electric guitar went to the Ernie Ball Regular Slinky in Nickel Plated Steel. EB Slinkies are widely available, great quality, and always sound great, making them a solid choice when balancing price with performance.
Our best budget choice strings were the D’Addario EXL150s in Nickel Plated Steel. With these strings you’re getting the famous D’Addario tone and build quality at an unbeatable price.
Those of you looking for the very best strings for your electric 12 string need look no further than our Editor’s Choice award winner – the Gibson Brite-Wires in Nickel Plated Steel. These strings are outstanding in almost every way – tone, playability, durability, you name it.
Our Top Three Picks – Acoustic
We named the Elixir Nanoweb in 80/20 Bronze as our top pick in this review. Elixir strings are great on any platform, and they sounded (and felt) especially good during our acoustic strings for 12 string guitar test. They’ve got great tone, and superb longevity.
Our best budget choice was the Ernie Ball Earthwood in 80/20 Bronze. These strings were bright and shimmery, they held tune well, and felt great. They outperform other uncoated strings sometimes costing more than double, and for that, they deserve your consideration.
We found our Editor’s Choice, the D’Addario XS in Phosphor Bronze to be the cream of the crop. The use of phosphor bronze really set them apart. Feel was exceptional, as was tone and tuning stability. We were unable to fault these strings, and they come highly recommended.
Impressive quality and consistency meet great feel and tone
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see that Ernie Ball make their most popular strings for 12 string players, too, and of course they’re just as reliably good as they are for 6 string as well as other extended range guitars.
We found that the Regular Slinkies worked really well on 12 string, although this was a custom gauge, measuring in from .008 – .040, so they were really on the lighter side. While the initial concern was that they’d sound thin, we found that they actually worked beautifully with the hot Epiphone pickups.
Tones were bright and super shimmery and note separation was very good. Sustain and overall resonance were phenomenal – in fact it was hard to believe that these aren’t expensive, high end strings. As with the rest of the Slinky lineup, they are uncoated, and made with nickel plated steel and a hex core.
Because this set was so light, tension was super low, making this probably these the most comfortable electric 12 string set we’ve ever had the pleasure of trialing.
Once we got these strings on board and stretched, they held firm at the correct pitch. Of course, while restringing we had to be especially careful of the plus octave strings given the light gauge, but as long as you’re aware of this before you start tuning, you will be fine – we’d definitely recommend avoiding string winders, and wind by hand, at least for the + octaves!
Verdict: This is an impressive string set that massively outperformed its price tag. Tones were impressive both clean and with FX, and we didn’t notice much of any dulling between the start and end of the test. At any price you can’t go wrong with these strings, but considering the low cost, it’s worth buying these a few packs at a time!
D’Addario EXL 150 – Best Budget – Electric
Bright tones and quality construction without breaking the bank
D’Addario unfortunately don’t make their incredible XS series strings for electric 12 strings, but not to worry – their EXL series are a strong alternative, and best of all, they are incredibly affordable.
These are uncoated, nickel plated steel strings. They’re about as basic as strings come, but they’re well made, and consistency between packets is always good, and if you’re planning to try and find “your strings”, then knowing that every pack will feel the same means a lot.
This set was a medium light, ranging from .010 to .046. This gave them a lot more presence that we’d usually expect from a budget string, leaving us pleasantly surprised. The extra string weight helped the resonance and sustain a lot, but the big downside of this gauge, however, was the comfort factor.
There was quite a lot of tension held on these strings, making them quite tiresome to play for extended periods. If you’re only planning to play in short bursts, or if you’re used to acoustic 12 strings, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue for you.
We found that the EXLs were incredibly bright, but this mellowed pretty quickly. They didn’t become dull, but the drop in brilliance was noticeable.
Tuning stability was good. The stretch and settle did take a little longer than the other strings on trial, but it didn’t become an issue, and within an hour or two, they held pitch well.
Verdict: Any electric 12 string player looking for consistency and good tone, while trying to stick to a lower budget will know the struggle of finding a string set that meets the price criteria, but sounds terrible. With these D’Addario EXL 150 strings, you really can have strings that sound great, and come in under budget.
Gibson Brite-Wire – Editor’s Choice – Electric
Exceptional strings from the maker of some of the most famous 12 String Guitars
If you were challenged to think of an electric 12 string, there’s a good chance that your first thought is the Gibson SG double neck. Gibson know 12 string electrics, and it stands to reason that they know how to pair strings with them. In this case, that’s absolutely accurate. These are Gibson’s OEM spec strings for all of their 12 string electrics, both off the shelf and custom shop.
These strings also happen to be OEM spec for our test rig – an Epiphone SG double neck. They really did sound great, exactly how you’d want a 12 string electric to sound – shimmering highs, and almost tambourine-like jangle. They are finished in nickel plated steel, and we found them to be bright, clear, and the sustain was excellent.
They stretched out quickly, and tuning stability was almost instant. The core is high carbon steel, which goes a long way to providing the additional tensile strength that gives these strings such rock solid stability.
Gibson lists these as a light, but they play closer to a medium – the gauge range was .010 – .046. The feel was good, and despite not being as light as the Ernie Balls, they remained comfortable, again probably down to the additional flexibility afforded by the high carbon hex core.
Verdict: Gibson Brite-Wire strings for 12 string guitars are simply put, some of the best all around strings available for this style of instrument. They are bright, resonant, and offer superb note separation. We found them to be reliable and long lasting, with little to no loss of tone during the duration of our test. Feel was great, and they still provided enough flexibility to play expressively.
Elixir 80/20 Bronze Nanoweb – Top Pick – Acoustic
Unbeatable longevity without sacrificing feel and tone
When it comes to coated strings, or long life strings, the first name most players immediately think of is Elixir, and with good reason. They’ve carved a niche for themselves over the years with top quality, premium coated strings that feel great, play great and sound great.
The Elixir Nanoweb strings are made from an 80/20 bronze alloy, which, of course, sounds great on acoustic guitars. For coating, they are treated with Nanoweb polymer, which is Elixir’s proprietary blend. This coating is so thin, we barely noticed it at all, so it was a little unusual to have such an uncoated feel, paired with almost no string squeak – this unwanted noise is especially painful on 12 strings, so this alone would have been worth the additional cost!
This was a light gauge set (.010-.047), and we found the feel to be great; pliable enough to avoid discomfort, and despite being light, we didn’t find that they sounded brittle or thin.
Over the period of the test, the strings only ever sounded bright and clear. Not even a hint of degradation or dulling. They stayed bright, resonant, and retained wonderful note separation throughout.
Getting these strings installed and up to pitch was as straight forward as it gets. The stretch and settling period was over and done with almost instantly, and tuning stability afterwards was close to perfect.
Verdict: If you’re looking for a long life set for your 12 string, look no further than Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze 12-Strings. They fully deserve the reputation they hold as some of the best feeling strings on the market. By the end of our test these strings sounded exactly the same as the day we installed them. No corrosion, no pitting, and absolutely no loss of tone.
Ernie Ball Earthwood 80/20 Bronze – Best Budget Acoustic
An incredible combination of tone and value
Earthwood strings from Ernie ball are a perfect example of basic strings done right. There’s a good reason for them being so popular amongst beginners and professionals alike. At any price, these are great sounding strings that compliment any 12 string acoustic.
Ernie Ball has gone to great lengths to ensure that these strings are factory fresh when they reach the player. We found that each string was sealed in a special packaging known as the “Element Shield”, which is a nice touch given 80/20 bronze’s tendency to corrode after exposure to oxygen. Every string came out of the packaging in perfect condition, so it’s safe to say the Element Shield did its job.
The feel of these strings was excellent. They were comfortable, with even texture, and there was, of course, no pitting or rough patches anywhere on any string. As with all Ernie Ball strings, they’re made in the USA, and overall quality and consistency is excellent.
Tonally, the Earthwoods were fantastic. Incredibly bright and resonant, with all the jangle and sparkle you could ever ask for. They were nice and responsive to variations in attack, and handled fingerstyle very well. Sustain was excellent, and
We were very happy with the tuning stability. If you’ve read our “how to tune a 12 string guitar”, you’ll be familiar with the pitfalls of restringing one of these guitars, but with these strings we had no issues. No breakages, and no excessive time required to settle and hold pitch.
For longevity, of course they weren’t able to match the Martins or the Elixirs we had on test, but nobody is expecting that from 80/20 Bronze. Regardless, the brightness remained intact for most of the test period, with a slight warming of the tones towards the end.
Verdict: The Ernie Ball Earthwoods are definitely some of our favorite strings for 12 string acoustic guitars. You can’t beat the shiny look of a fresh packet of 80/20 bronze strings, and the shimmering brightness was absolutely wonderful. Consistency and quality was great, and if you don’t want coated strings, you can’t do much better!
D’Addario XS Phosphor Bronze – Editor’s Choice – Acoustic
The ultimate coated strings for your 12 string acoustic
Trying to find the best of anything in the world of guitars can be pretty subjective most of the time, but it’s definitely hard to deny that D’Addario’s XS Phosphor Bronze Strings stake a pretty good claim, so much so that we’ve named them our Editor’s choice for Acoustic strings for 12 string guitars.
We found that the main difference maker was the coating on the wound strings and the unwound strings. It’s fairly uncommon even for 6 string sets to have the unwound strings coated, but even rarer with 12 string packages! They had an insanely smooth touch, which kept them comfortable for hours.
Tuning stability was rock solid here, and D’Addario’s Fusion Twist technology definitely play a part in that. They use an improved method of securing the ball end to the string, and this helps to reduce slippage over time, keeping the strings in tune better than standard connections. We didn’t suffer any breaks during the test, and nor did we experience any loss of tone.
Given that they are made from a phosphor bronze alloy, they had a notably different tone to the other strings on test, which were both 80/20 bronze. The phosphor certainly gave them a warmer tone than we heard from the Elixirs and the Ernie Balls, but regardless, they remained clear, and given the fact that they’re coated, the sustain was huge.
Verdict: We loved pretty much everything about these D’Addario XS Phosphor Bronze strings. From the feel to the beautiful warm tones. They were exceptional for fingerstyle, but still sounded excellent strummed with a pick. On top of the beautiful tones, they blend incredible longevity, with extreme comfort, and in our opinion, are the best acoustic 12 string strings out there.
When it comes to purchasing strings for your 12 string guitar, the philosophy is pretty much the same as it is for any standard or extended range guitar. The plus octave strings on a 12 string set are made from the same materials, and to the same specifications as the standard 6 that they are paired with.
Keep reading to learn more about this:
As 12 string guitars are available in both electric and acoustic, it stands to reason that there are strings designed for both styles. Acoustic strings are made with particular alloys because their sound profiles are appropriate to the instrument, however acoustic strings lack the required magnetic properties to sound good on an electric guitar. Similarly, strings designed for electric guitars are made with magnetic field interaction in mind, and while there’s nothing stopping you from putting them on an acoustic guitar, they will likely sound thin and twangy.
Electric Guitar Alloys
- Nickel plated steel – the most common electric guitar string alloy, bright and clear
- Pure steel – excellent pickup response, bell like clarity and great resonance
- Pure nickel – warm with great sustain
Acoustic Guitar Alloys
- 80/20 bronze – the most common acoustic guitar string alloy, bright and resonant, but dull quickly
- Phosphor bronze – warmer than 80/20 bronze, excellent clarity, and increased lifespan due to the phosphor content
- Aluminum bronze – some of the brightest acoustic strings, with excellent longevity, but can lack depth
A strings gauge is its width, or thickness. For 12 string guitars, string shoppers actually still looking for the same numbers as they would with a regular 6 string. The packaging will still provide the gauge range from the thinnest string of the first course, to the thickest string of the sixth course, for example, you’d still see .010” – .046” written on the package, despite the fact that the thinnest string in the pack is the + Octave string on the G course at .008”.
On 12 string guitars, gauge is going to play a big role in overall comfort. There is a lot of tension on the strings, and while you aren’t likely to be playing full step bends, the increased pressure to depress notes can result in finger fatigue if you choose an excessive gauge for your skill and experience level.
Final Thoughts on Strings for 12 String Guitars
Resources for 12 strings are surprisingly limited, so we’re pleased to have been able to bring you our guide to the best strings for this instrument. To recap, if you’re looking for a blend of solid performance at a moderate price, the Ernie Ball Regular Slinkies for electric 12 strings, or the Elixir Nanoweb are our recommendations.
Players looking for the best possible 12 string sets, regardless of cost should invest in a set of Gibson Brite-Wires for electric 12 string guitar, or, the D’Addario XS Phosphor Bronze for acoustic.