Acoustic 12-string guitars go back to the delta blues era, but electric 12-strings have also been around for 60 years now. 12-strings give you a natural “chorus” sound that still can’t be exactly reproduced via electronic chorus pedals or amps, and for some players there is simply no substitute to a genuine 12. You’ll find the sound of electric 12-strings on numerous studio and live recordings by The Who, Guns N’Roses, Rush, Led Zeppelin, The Smiths, The Beatles, The Byrds, Tom Petty, and many others.
Playing a 12-string doesn’t require any new thinking—unless you bravely wanted to attempt alt tunings on a 12, which could take time just to get it sounding right—but you’ll need to finger with decent accuracy to avoid unwanted buzzes and clams.
Some players swear that flatwound strings sound better on a 12—though that’s more likely because in the ‘60s roundwound strings weren’t widely available. Other players recommend using a light-gauge pick: a medium-upwards may be your usual choice for digging out riffs and solos, but the extra signal of those 12 strings is often better coaxed with a more delicate choice.
Gibson 12-strings are pretty rare, but if you’re a dedicated Gibson fan and want that 12-string sound on a genuine Gib, there are some great choices…
Les Paul Traditional 12-String
You can still find these in some stores, but they are rare and special. The guitar is equipped with all the hallmarks of the popular Les Paul Traditional, including its legendary tonewoods, classic hardware complement and humbucking pickups, with minor alterations to make it a solid and smooth-playing 12-string electric. Naturally a 12 sometimes needs a little more width for your fingers: Gibson USA extends the width of the PLEK-cut Corian™ nut to 1.750-inches.
They came in three finishes of Heritage Cherry Sunburst, Goldtop and Ebony Black, all in high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer, and complemented with traditional vintage-cream binding and pickguard and gold speed knobs.
50th Anniversary SG 12-String
Back in 2010, a 50th Anniversary SG came in a 12-string guise. Its classic Heritage Cherry finish was in high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer and complemented by traditional trapezoid inlays, a mother-of-pearl Gibson logo, and a “50th SG” silkscreen on the headstock. With the SGs’ thin body this offers plenty of beefy yet jangling tones. The glued-in neck is crafted from ultra-hard maple, which has plenty of strength to maintain stability against the added string tension posed by a 12-string design. Note, however, the neck is a traditional 1-11/16-inch width—the same as on a 6-string SG—so play before you decide it’s right for your fingers. Twelve Mini-Grover™ tuners keep the headstock compact as possible but, as ever, a 12-string headstock will nearly always be bigger. A stunning twist on a Gibson classic.
12-string ES-335s debuted in the 1961 and are seriously handsome guitars. And seriously rare. Vintage buffs will still be lucky to find one from the mid-1960s.
The most recent incarnations—the Gibson ES335 12-String VSB and AC and the Gibson Memphis ES-335—add refinements. All models’ Burstbucker #1 and Burstbucker #2 pickups have splittable coils for extra “jangle” via push/pull pots. The Gibson Memphis ES-335 12-String is a super-sounding 12, and the nitro finish adds to the vintage vibe.
Ex-Smiths guitar maestro Johnny Marr is a fan of vintage ES-335 12s. He once had one in each available color: red, black and sunburst—though he later gave his sunburst ES-335 12 (in The Smiths’ live “Shoplifters of the World”) to Suede guitarist/producer Bernard Butler.
Marr’s ES-335 12-strings are all over The Smiths’ final Strangeways Here We Come album, particularly “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
For vintage folks, this was/is a rare 12-string “non-reverse” version of the Gibson Firebird, produced between 1965 and 1967. With less than 300 ever made, it’s a rare ‘Bird indeed, especially in Pelham Blue (Sunburst was the regular finish). Fitted with mini-humbuckers and a stop bridge/tailpiece. If you even see one, you’re lucky.
The most-famous Gibson electric 12 is, of course, not only a 12-string. It’s the 6-plus-12 double neck EDS-1275.
“A completely new and exciting instrument … combines the conventional six-string guitar neck with a twelve-string neck—six strings double strung which can be tuned either in thirds or an octave apart for reinforced resonance and unusual tonal effects,” said the Gibson catalog back in 1962.
It debuted in 1958 as the ‘Double 12’—the same year as Burst Les Paul Standards and the Explorer and the Flying V. Yet it found fame in the 1970s.
Famously, Jimmy Page played his 1968 EDS-1275 live for “Stairway to Heaven,” allowing him to replicate the numerous overdubs of the studio version. Page has also used to live for “The Song Remains the Same, “Tangerine,” “The Rain Song” and “Celebration Day.”
Page fan Alex Lifeson soon followed suit in ‘70s Rush. Images of Page with his EDS-1275 made an impression on Lifeson. “You probably saw more pictures of Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page playing that than probably anything else,” Lifeson told Gibson.com. “And that was the funny thing that happened [to Rush] too… We were a little different in that I had a double neck and then Geddy had a Rickie double neck, and we used it for “Xanadu.”
“There was really only one point in the show where we played double necks but I see more pictures from that era of those two guitars than anything else.” Gibson Custom can build you an Alpine White EDS-1275 just like Alex Lifeson’s.
Get your cowbell-lovin’ capes out for Rush’s official “Xanadu” live video, with Alex Lifeson playing his other Gibson EDS-1275 in red. Awesomely prog!
The Eagles’ Don Felder Hotel California EDS-1275 is a signature with subtle modifications. As for Jimmy Page, his Gibson 6-plus-12-string has been an iconic guitar since the 1970s.
There’s plenty of other fans of the EDS-1275. Tom Morello plays one and Slash has used a black ’67 in quite a few Guns N’Roses and Velvet Revolver songs.
If you don’t get a 12-string, there are ways to closely emulate the sound on a 6-string with Nashville Tuning.