That Classic Electric 12-String Sound
(and How to Avoid It)

Digitally enhanced versions of the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage prove that Bigfoot used flatwounds.

Want to get a great ’60s-style Beatles/Byrds electric 12-string sound? Use flatwound strings. It’s almost guaranteed to up your jangle quotient.

This advice is admittedly counter-intuitive—why should relatively dull-sounding flatwounds improve a guitar’s treble response? My best explanation is that when the lower-octave strings emit fewer highs, there’s less phase cancellation against the higher-octave strings. The round wound sound is pretty in its way, but the flat wounds sound tighter and more defined, and are definitely easier to situate in a mix. The strings simply sound more in focus.

Don’t believe me? Hear for yourself.I’ve recorded the same lick with both types of strings—and you dang well better appreciate it! Do you have any idea what a pain it is to restring a 12-string twice within an hour?

(FYI, the guitar is a ’90s Japanese-made Fender Squier with Duncan pickups.)

Electric 12-string roundwound

Electric 12-string flatwound

One problem with this approach: Not many companies make flatwound 12-string sets, and they tend to be expensive. I’ve used both Pyramids and La Bellas with excellent results. The latter are far cheaper in the States.

And what’s the best amp? Bright Fender? Chiming Vox? Well, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was recorded direct into the board with no amp whatsoever, but tons of LA-2A compression.

Try this recipe: Plug straight into your warmest-sounding preamp. Boost the crap out of everything above 2kHz or so. Scoop a narrow  band of low mids around 160Hz. Set the compression between 4:1 and 8:1, but with a slow-ish attack. A touch of plate-style reverb lubricates the proceedings.

On the other hand, maybe you want to liberate yourself from the conceptual prison on jingle-jangle 12-string. There’s no law that says you have to automatically start playing “Ticket to Ride” or “Turn Turn Turn” each time you heft one of these beasts. In that spirit, I offer a mismatched bouquet of alternative 12-string tones:

Spacehead 12-String

Sick Rezo 12-String

Filter Stab 12-String

Titicaca 12-String

Fartflange 12-String

And that’s not even touching on the trouble you can into if you tune each each string in the octave pair to different notes . . .

7 comments to That Classic Electric 12-String Sound
(and How to Avoid It)

  • Ardiril

    “Do you have any idea what a pain it is to restring a 12-string twice within an hour?”

    Yes. Can I join the Cabal now?

    I first heard about flat-wounds for 12-strings last year, but life got in the way of trying them out yet. Your comparison example is pretty much what I expected, and that is the sound I want.

    I got my Carvin DC 12-string with active pickups 9 years ago.  It’s a great guitar with gobs of tone–mahogany body, maple top and fretboard. However, the active pickups were just too in-your-face for my taste and cutting to single coils while active pushes the guitar out front of anything, even at a relatively low volume.

    Kicking it back to passive and staying with the humbuckers, though, is a nice pocket to play in. The neck and bridge pickups have a great night and day contrast, and both played together out-of-phase gives a nice squonk sound.

    In a couple weeks I should be settled back into a situation that will let me play for at least a few hours each day, and I am looking forward to finally stringing up with some flat-wounds. I imagine they will be just what I need to tame those active electronics.

    BTW, I have yet to learn any Byrds songs, but the opening lick of the Hollies “Long Cool Woman” is my go-to riff.

  • i wonder what flats would do for your baritone predicament….

    • joe

      Wow — never thought of that! Well, you’d lose the twang. And depending on the scale of the bari, it might be tricky to find the right strings. But I bet something cool would happen. Gotta try that! Thanks for the idea! 🙂

  • Yer welcome!  btw you can still twang with flats… with the right guitar/amp/speaker.

  • Benj

    Nice post – I got some rounds on the way for my XII to give it a whirl. 
    ….on a side note, I got a Fender Bass VI here with flats and I can vouch for it’s twanginess.  The flats seem to give it a more authentic 60s tone.  I don’t know why – it just sounds right.  Specific to the Bass VI, the flatwounds also seem to keep a better tension on the low E than the roundwounds do – and that’s with the same guage of La Bellas.  Open E was pretty floppy on the Bass VI with rounds.

  • This is a good tip. I read an interview with Pete Townshend where he said it’s important to use flat wounds on 12-string Rics. Flat wound guitar strings are certainly different front he bass version, but I used to use LaBella flats on my Ric bass and I could slap with them, so they weren’t all that dull, like the old Fender flats.

  • steev

    I have flatwounds on everything but my 12 string–which I’ve been aching to do but haven’t yet only because of the difficulty in finding them (well, that and I’m kinda lazy). But now I’m convinced I gotta do it, and right now. Thanks, Joe!

    But what I really want to know is how do you get that filter stab sound? That’s just killer!

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