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An Intro to the 12-String Bass Guitar

by Low-End Monster


The 12-string bass guitar.  Many know of it, but to date few have lived to tell the tale.  To understand the concept of this mighty instrument, we have to learn more about its beginnings.  Back in 1977, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick approached Hamer Guitars to help him develop an 8-string bass to replace the Hagstrom 8-string he was currently experimenting with.  The Hagstrom was a nightmare to contend with as the overall playability and construction was unimpressive to say the least.   As Hamer and Tom collaborated, they started pushing the designing envelope and Tom asked if Hamer could build him a 12-string bass in the form of 4 fundamentals with two octaves each (eeE, aaA,  ddD & ggG).  Hamer was leery about the concept but agreed to “test-build” him a 10-string bass (eE, aA, ddD & ggG) as a confirmation that the neck would or would not be able to withstand the tension.  To everyone’s surprise and delight the design prove worthy of the task and Hamer went ahead with the construction of the world’s first 12-string bass guitar.  Since then the 12-string bass guitar has become a force to be reckoned with in the world of the bass player.  

Early 12-String Basses were built as Short (30-30.5") or Medium (31-32") scales due to the effects of stress on the neck by the added octave strings.  It wasn't until the implementation of dual truss rods, graphite slabs/ rods that the ability to build viable longscale 12-string basses was realized.   There are many proponents of both scales. As usual it remains a personal choice/ preference.  Today all but one (the Hamer B12S 30.5” Shortscale ) of the standard models manufactured are 34 “ longscales.

The 12-string bass guitar sounds like a handful, (and to some it can be) but overall there are only a few differences to be concerned with.  Tuning the 12-string is quite simple (though a good chromatic tuner is a must!).  With the four fundamental strings tuned to concert/ standard pitch (E,A,D,G) the two octaves for each fundamental are tuned in unison one octave higher.  (Tuning them two octaves higher would have a catastrophic effect on your neck with respect to tension.)  It is basically the same tuning configuration as an 8-string bass with an extra octave for each group, but it sounds nothing like it.  The sound / tone of the 12-string bass is much fuller and louder than you would expect.   

Most 12-string bassists use a pick to strum the 12ver to life, although there are those that prefer to use a finger style (in this case however both the octaves are usually strung below the fundamentals… i.e. Eee, Aaa etc.)  Experienced 12-string bassists can manipulate the octaves (which are both above the fundamentals) and or fundamentals separately to accent  the notes they play, but the most common method is to depress three separate strings for each note simultaneously.  Do you feel a hand cramp coming on already?  Like most things it is more technique than strength, but until you are used to it, it will wear you down more quickly than a 4-string.      

In the last year the 12-string bass has become a more readily available instrument with the introduction of low cost “Korean” models entering the market namely the Galveston 12-String Bass, Dean Rhapsody 12, Musicvox SpaceCadet as well as Hamer’s own CH-12 ( a Korean version of the B12L model) .  They all run around the US$1000.00 list price area, but can be found on eBay ranging between US$300.00 to US$700.00 brand new!  Higher end USA made models such as Hamer’s B12A,S and L models, and the Chandler Royale can push into the US$3500.00 range and up depending on the options you request.  But like most things in life, you get what you pay for and / or buy what suits your needs/ budget.  

There are many options available with your twelve string bass (more notably with the higher end models) with respect to your electronics.  The ultimate expression of the 12-string bass is to have 3 outputs (one for each pickup) that are each sent to a separate amp.  Neck and middle pickups are each sent to individual guitar amps (highs and mids), while the bridge pickup is sent to a bass amp (lows).  The highs are usually distorted to give the bass a mean growl like nothing you have heard before.   This as I said is the ultimate rig for a 12-string bass player like Tom Petersson.  For the rest of us on a lower budget (and a less dedicated / patient soundman) we have the more familiar mono setup.  All pickups are routed through one output to one bass amp or spilt between a guitar and bass amp via a crossover or a SansAmp Bass Driver DI.  Most 12-string bassists find that a good 4x10 combined with a 1x15 cabinet (with a generously powered bass head) as the best mono bass rig for a gig.  These are just some of the setup /rig options you can experiment with to customize the tone of your 12-strting bass guitar.   

Many who have never played a 12-string bass are intimidated, as it looks too hard to play.  Some consider it as a novelty for use with a song or two in a set.  With the affordability of the new Korean models, many are taking the plunge to discover that these pre-conceived conceptions are not the rule.  More than ever the 12-string bass has come into its own as bass players discover the diversity and power of the instrument.  Some call it the “pocket piano”, while others refer to it as the “wall of sound.”  At the very least, it is by far the biggest threat to your rhythm guitarist’s job security.  The look on his / her face will be priceless.  Isn’t that a good enough reason to own one? 

Low-End Monster is the publisher / editor of 
The 12-String Bass Page

For the most thorough enjoyment of 12-string bass visit T12SBP.





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