When 6 plus 6 is greater than 12

A look into the hows and whys of using a 6-string guitar in “Nashville tuning”, with accompanying audio examples….

As a studio guitarist, a good number of the tracks I play on are from singer-songwriters looking for a more professional guitar recording than they’re able to capture themselves. No doubt in large part due to the success of artists like Ed Sheeran over the last decade, the demand for acoustic-based tracks remains high. Interestingly, I’d estimate 15-20% of these come with a request for “​that 12-string sound​”. Growing up on a healthy diet of Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and the Eagles has ingrained that sound into my ears, I truly love it, however I’ve not always enjoyed playing and recording 12-string as much as I do hearing it.

I can remember the first time I had a specific request for a 12-string acoustic – the track was in open E, and the request was for a Black Crowes ‘She Talks to Angels’ vibe. At the time I didn’t own one but was lucky enough to have a friend lend me a Martin D12-28 to get the job done. I borrowed that guitar many more times over the next year, before eventually buying a newer Taylor 814ce. Both were great guitars and over the coming years I recorded the Taylor on many tracks, but a few things never quite sat right with me….

Firstly (and I fully admit this is my own fault), I always found it too easy to generate creaks, squeaks and general ‘noise’ from 12-strings that microphones would pick up. In a live setting you could get away with these, but when the final sustained chord of a track is ringing out into a microphone you can’t have buzzes anywhere.

The more obvious effect I became aware of is that any 12-string part takes up a lot of ​space on a track. There’s no doubt that a 12-string generates a glorious noise, but there’s lots of it to handle in the mix. If there’s only 1 or 2 guitars on a track it’s easier to find space, however when you’re dealing with several guitar parts in a full production alongside electric guitars, piano, bass etc, a 12-string can grab more than its share of the available mix-space. One of the key factors here is that it’s a mono instrument, and you can’t separate the different frequencies being generated. Even with multiple mics (see below), while you have the option of splitting the pan of the mics, the full frequency range is still hitting each microphone.

So what was the workaround? Over time I gravitated towards using two acoustic guitars, one strung and tuned normally, and the other in ​Nashville tuning (aka: high-string tuning). This involves stringing a guitar with the 6-strings that are added to make a regular 12-string set. Compared to a regular set of strings the low E, A, D and G are replaced with the octave-strings from a 12-string, tuned an octave up from regular pitch, and the B and E strings remain tuned to regular pitch. Helpfully, some manufacturers make string sets specifically for this – such as D’addario EJ38H​ – so you don’t have to buy a 12-string set and only use half of them:

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On it’s own a high-strung guitar has a certain halo-quality to it, almost mandolin-like in it’s timbre, and can lend itself to some unique chord voicings due to the mix of octave-up and regularly-tuned strings. While I sometimes utilise a high-strung guitar on its own, I most commonly use it to double a regular 6-string part. The real pay-off here is that you have the overall sound of a 12-string split into two parts. This allows far greater control at mix-time, and enables you to workaround the “all at once” sound of a regular 12-string. Let’s listen to some samples to see how this can work in practise. Before we go any further, a quick aside on mic setup. For recording acoustic guitars, I almost always use an X-Y pair of Neumann KM184s as shown in the picture below:

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While a pair of mics naturally provides options to pan them apart in a mix and create a wider image than a single mic, I mainly prefer it because it allows me to pick up more of the incoming frequencies than any single mic setup I’ve used. Even when panned to the same spot I find the overall image being picked up much wider than a single large-diaphragm would capture. If the track in question requires a solo guitar part I may pan them hard left and right, but for most tracks I’ll pan them slightly away from each other, eg. 70% left and 85% left. This helps capture the fuller frequency range that X-Y offers, without taking up too much space in the mix. As for why I prefer X-Y over other stereo-mic options, it’s mainly due to consistency of setup – it’s great for when you get asked to do an overdub several days after the original session and need to recreate the same sound as closely as possible!

Let’s jump into some sound samples to hear how a high-strung acoustic can be paired with a regular acoustic to create the 12-string sound with added mix flexibility. First up is each guitar in isolation. The regular-tuned 6-string is a mahogany body, spruce top Froggy Bottom H12. Here it is in isolation with the X-Y mics panned hard left and right:

Regular-tuned acoustic in isolation

Now here’s the high-strung acoustic, again hard-panned. This is a spruce-topped Taylor GS Mini that I leave permanently strung in Nashville-tuning:

High-string acoustic in isolation

Having heard them in isolation, let’s combine the two guitars and mix the levels equally. For each guitar I’ve hard-panned the two mics, so we have 1 mic feed of each panned left, and 1 panned right:

Both guitars 1 mic left and 1 mic right – mixed equally

Hopefully you’ll agree that captures the 12-string fingerprint quite accurately. Now, here’s where the fun begins. Because we have individual mic-feeds for each guitar we can pan them away from each other to create the space that’s not available from a single-guitar feed. Here’s the two-mics of the Froggy Bottom panned 100% left / 90% left, with the two mics of the Taylor panned 100% right / 90% right, at roughly an equal mix level:

Regular-tuned left, high-string right

Perhaps the most common mix I use with this setup is to lower the high-strung slightly against the regular-tuned acoustic. This keeps the core 6-string acoustic sound at the heart of the mix, and adds the halo of the high-strung around the edges. In this instance I’ve panned the Froggy Bottom 100% left / 40% left, and the Taylor 100% right / 80% right. Giving the two mics from the regular-tuned acoustic a wider split here also helps to give that part a more dominant presence in the mix:

Regular-tuned higher and wider, high-strung lower

As you can see here with a total of 4-mic feeds from the 2 guitars, there’s many mix options available. Naturally the pan and levelling options are also possible when using a single mic for each guitar. While I’ve only done it a few times, using a high-strung ​electric guitar can also give great results. With a clean tone and some delay and reverb it can add a wonderful ambience to a track, and can also create some really unique tones when overdriven.

I hope this article has been useful, and may inspire some new ideas for your recordings. For the price of a pack of strings it’s a simple mod you can make to any acoustic – I’ve never had to make any setup changes to the Taylor GS Mini to accommodate the high-string set, and it’s trivial to reverse it. The first time I tried Nashville tuning on that guitar, I only intended to use it for one song – that was 5 years ago and it hasn’t had regular strings on since! Until next time, I wish you all the best with your recordings….