3-Octave 12-String Bass Strings
3-Octave String sets?
It is sometimes reported that the 12-string bass is strung so that the strings sound in three octaves, for instance, a low E, a middle E and a high E. These reports almost always originate with people who have never even held a 12-string bass in their hands, let alone played one. The vast majority of 12-string basses have the two smaller gauge strings both tuned exactly one octave up from the fundamental string. There are very good reasons for this. The three-octave tuning is generally considered to be impractical on a 12, and some even consider it to be an impossibility. To determine if three octaves would work in the ‘Real World’...
We did a Test!
We wanted to find out if a three-octave set would work using strings that were commercially available, how three octaves would sound, and if the highest octave strings would be tough enough to take some abuse from an aggressive player. Here are some of the questions we wanted to answer:
It has been suggested that the primary reason a three-octave tuning might not work properly is due to the way a 12-string bass is built. The majority of 12's incorporate an 8-saddle bridge. Would the intonation be close enough with an 8-saddle bridge to be acceptable? With an 8-saddle bridge the four fundamental strings have individual saddles and each pair of high octave strings share a saddle. As long as the two high octave strings are the same gauge this system works fine. This is because the distance between the saddle and the bridge is identical for each string so the strings will intonate properly. Many players will tune one high-octave string slightly flat and the other slightly sharp anyway to give a chorus effect, so an 8-saddle bridge is perfectly acceptable.
An intonation problem arises when strings of different gauges are used. It's simply a matter of physics. Strings of differing gauges require different distances between the saddle and bridge to properly intonate. The whole purpose behind an adjustable bridge is to compensate for the slight differences in string gauge / length that are necessary for the instrument's harmonics to be in tune.
A three-octave string set would require two strings of significantly different gauges to inhabit the same saddle. The only way this would intonate properly is if the saddle was machined with two different crest points in an attempt to compensate for the different string gauges. These differing fixed crest points would probably still not give exact intonation as they would be only be correct for one specific string gauge. Change the gauge and the crest point will be in the wrong place, hence a string that is out of tune.
So for a three-octave string set to intonate precisely a 12-saddle bridge is required. No manufacturer currently makes a 12-saddle bridge and only a few custom 12-saddle 12-string bass bridges exist. But would the intonation be close enough to work?
As mentioned earlier, many players will detune the two high octave strings from each other. The amount of this detune can result in everything from a slightly thicker sound to a wide chorus effect. It is this interaction of the two high octave strings with each other that gives the 12-string bass "The Sound" that defines the instrument. The strings vibrate and feed off of each other to produce a tone quite unlike any other type of bass guitar.
How would introducing a third octave affect this interrelationship? It seems like the detune and chorus effects would be completely lost as each string would have to be precisely tuned. Detuning the high octaves from each other might only result in the instrument sounding out of tune and would not produce the chorus and detune effects.
Another component of the 12's sound is the mix of the high octaves relative to the fundamentals. How would eliminating one of the two upper octave strings and adding that string back in as the third octave change the sound? The highest octave string would be sounding in the same frequency range as guitars, keyboards, hamsters and many other instruments and vocals. At best the overall sound may be similar to an 8-string bass. Why bother to change over to a three-octave configuration when it might result in a significantly smaller sound?
The smaller the string gauge, the easier it is to break. Will the highest octave strings be tunable to the proper pitch? And assuming they reach the right pitch, will these strings, particularly the high G's, be able to take the punishment dished out by an aggressive bassist?
In late 2003 we decided to try to answer these questions and set out to learn as much as we could about bass guitar strings. By early 2004 a major string manufacturer that was thinking along these same lines (they have asked not to be identified) commissioned us to help in the development of a three-octave set and supplied us with some string sets to test. We distributed these sets to a number of professional 12-string bassists as well as a few avid local players. The gauges we tested were:
These string gauges were suggested by the manufacturer as being the most likely to work for the given application. The strings were round-wounds except for the plain .014 and .009 strings. Extra highest-octave G strings were included in case of breakage.
All of our bassists tested these sets on 34" long scale basses of various brands. Long scale basses were used for two reasons: the vast majority of 12-string basses on the market today are 34" scale, therefore this test would more fully address the market involved and would give the string company a better idea of the potential commercial viability of such a set; and secondly, there simply were not enough funds available to test three-octave sets in every possible application. With each test set costing better than $30.00 apiece it didn't take long to run up a rather considerable bill. Research for its own sake is fine but the fact of the matter is that when a major company finances a test such as this one, there are market realities involved and a specific objective in mind.
The test results were best expressed by one tester who wrote, "Well, I would have to call the experiment a successful failure. I was able to triple the E's and D's but the highest octave A went 'thwank' just prior to pitch and the highest octave G snapped when playing. I believe the .030 is too large for a high octave A, a .020 would have probably worked. As for the high octave G - well I'm just not sure there."
"The other thing I noticed was there was much more overall tension on the neck as there was more relief than normal. I used my 34" scale Hamer B12L for the test. It may have worked better on a short scale. I believe to do this on a long scale you would have to start in low B with a bass strung B-E-A-D, use a smaller high octave A and be ready to adjust the truss rods."
"I was able to get a feel for the sound on the strings I was able to tune. To me it actually thins out the sound, almost canceling the middle octave string. Instead of a pair of Harley Davidson's running at the same speed and a semi truck following them down the road, it sounds like a moped, a Honda and a loud 6-cylinder truck all fighting to get ahead of each other. Sounded more like a thin 8-string bass with not much crunch, just tink."
A participant in Illinois wrote, "The idea sounds good on paper. But I tried the triple octave 12-string bass idea and I found it doesn't work like you think it would. It's hard to get the right 'high' octave string because of the extra high tension on that third octave. When you do get it then you will find it sounds much thinner and it cancels some of the frequencies. It sounds better when the 'two of the same box it out'."
Another tester wrote, "Dude, this ain't happening! The G's broke before they got to pitch and the sound is terrible. The high octave is shrill and overpowering, and the middle octave completely disappears."
My experience with the three-octave set was similar. I was only able to get one of the highest-octave G's to pitch and it broke after only a few minutes of playing, plus the spares all broke before they hit F# so they never got to pitch. There was definitely an increase in overall string tension. And the sound? Imagine Barry White and Alanis Morissette being run through a wood chipper together - a little low end with a nasty, harsh high end with nothing in the middle. (Sorry Barry and Alanis!) The sound was significantly thinner than what I was used to hearing from a 12-string bass.
The other testers all reported similar results: Some string breakage, more tension and thinner sound. Complete results of our test were turned over to the string company involved and, based upon these results, that company decided not to pursue this idea any further at that time.
We were certainly not the first to try a three-octave string set on a 12-string bass, in fact there are players who claim to have experimented with this idea in the 1980's. A handful of 12-string basses have been built specifically with three octave tuning in mind. For instance, Scott McDaniel had this custom 12 built by Moze Guitars in 1996. It was originally set up as a three-octave bass, hence the three different sizes of tuners. Scott writes, "We used singles for the third octave. They were Ernie Ball guitar strings, it's been too long for me to remember the gauges. The highest octave D string was a real challenge to find but we did it."
"As to the practicality of the three octaves: It sounded like absolute garbage. Tuning and intonation weren't the real problems, tone was. The bass was so biting and piercing that no one (not even a hamster) could stand within twenty feet of my amp. The high end didn't actually get lost in the mix, it dominated it. The guitars were lost behind the bass' shrill voice."
"Two gigs later I was at Moze Guitars having the bridge set back to where it belonged and proper octaves installed."
In July of 2006 a video of a bassist who had strung his Dean Rhapsody 12-string bass in three octaves appeared on YouTube. Custom strings that he developed himself were used for the highest octaves. In order to make the claim that he was the "first" player to make a three-octave set actually work, he knowingly ignored and misrepresented the information on this page: On various forums he has claimed that since some of the highest G strings we tested broke before getting to pitch, that we had not actually heard the three-octave sound; that since we hadn't used "his" strings we couldn't possibly have gotten the highest G strings to pitch; and also that, since he was the first to put a video on YouTube, that he was the first to make a three-octave string set a reality. In his written comments from a different video he even claimed that he "invented" the 12-string bass! Despite the self-serving inaccuracies of the bassist involved, his video gives a sample of how the three-octave stringing sounds. You can decide for yourself if the sound is something you choose to explore. And unintentionally to be sure, that video validates our opinion that intonation is a serious concern.
As we have already documented here, the three-octave idea is not a new one, either in theory or in practice. It has been tried (and discarded) by quite a number of players over the 40-year history of the instrument. Almost all of the participants in our 2004 test including me were able to get the highest octave strings to pitch including the G strings, so we most definitely HAVE made a three-octave set work and HAVE heard the three-octave sound. And needless to say, the fact that we didn't videotape ourselves testing the three-octave sets (neither did any previous testers) is completely irrelevant. We have no reason to lie about our work, we have no axes to grind, we didn't "invent" anything nor are we looking to be "first" at anything. We wanted to know if commercially available strings would work in this application and we tested what was available to us - just that simple.
Given the current state of string technology, three-octave string sets will not work properly on a 12-string bass. Yes, it has been and can be done using a combination of commercially available bass and guitar strings, even though those strings were not designed with this application in mind. But the typical 12-string bass bridge is not designed for the strings to properly intonate, almost everyone who has tried a three-octave set agrees that the sound is a huge step backwards, there is a significant neck tension issue with long scale basses, and the commercially produced highest octave strings currently available are not designed for this application.
It is certainly possible that a different brand of strings or different string gauges would be superior to those we tested, and also that a three-octave set might work better on a medium or short scale bass. A few individuals are continuing the research on their own....
Thanks to everyone who participated in our test!