12-String Bass Strings:
The Inverted String Arrangement

"I wanted my bass to sound like a 12-string guitar combined with a bass."  Tom Petersson - 1997

There are several ways to make your band sound bigger. One way is to hire more players, but then you've got to pay them. Another way is to pawn your kids and use the money to buy tons of effects processors, which only increase your set-up time and complexity then quickly become obsolete. A third and significantly more efficient way is to add more strings to the instruments that you are already playing. This allows you to expand your sound without the extra costs, complexities, and potential psychotic episodes that would result if more humans were introduced into the mix. When Robin Zander of Cheap Trick plays guitar, it's frequently a 12-string for exactly one reason: More strings equals bigger sound.

Tom Petersson's use of the 12-string bass gave the bass guitar a new prominence, energy and impact. The sound Tom created was a big step forward in the development of the instrument. But the Standard string arrangement places limitations on how this instrument can be played, and a 12 strung this way never really achieves its' full potential. With all due respect to Tom, a 12-string bass strung Standard will never achieve the sound of the 12-string guitar and bass combination that he initially envisioned for this instrument.

There is another way. And it entails nothing more than changing the arrangement of the strings. Inverting the strings allows you to play guitar chords and bass notes simultaneously and in their correct octaves. And these chords can be played with a single finger in a single position. This page is an attempt to specifically demonstrate the greater capabilities that are possible with the Inverted arrangement.

The Inverted string arrangement, also sometimes referred to as Root-On-Top, is found on very few 12-string basses, probably less than 2% of all 12s are strung this way. This is the same string configuration used by Rickenbacker on their 8-string basses, although obviously those 8-string basses have only one high octave string paired up with each fundamental string.

A common statement heard about the 12-string bass is that players sometimes have difficulty getting enough lows out of the instrument, particularly when playing short scale basses. Any time you hear a comment like this you can be certain that their bass is strung using the standard string arrangement. The high octaves strings can overpower the fundamentals, which is not surprising since there are twice as many high octave strings. Most players use a pick and are mostly playing down strokes. In doing so they are emphasizing the high octave strings by not only playing them first but also with slightly more energy since the pick will slow down slightly as it contacts the strings. The differences in time and energy are extremely small, but they do make a difference in the final sound that is produced. The result is that the fundamental strings are outnumbered and are getting 'outgunned', hence the relative lack of low end.

1979 Hamer Quad Bass changed to the Inverted arrangement

This comment about lack of low end is seldom made about basses strung with the Inverted string arrangement. This is because the fundamental string is emphasized on the down stroke. It also seems like the high octave strings are somewhat protected by the fundamental string as the pick 'bounces' over the larger diameter string. This tends to de-emphasize the high octave strings, resulting in a much more balanced mix between the fundamental and octave strings.

Inverted String Arrangement

Perhaps a more accurate term for the Standard arrangement is "Octave Mode" since a 12-string bass strung this way is almost always played like a 4-string bass with an upper octave. In contrast, the Inverted arrangement might best be known as "Chord Mode". You'll soon see why....

Playing 5, 8, or 11 Strings -
Even though they are grouped in 3's !

Note: On the following charts Red indicates a muted string, Green is a fretted position and White is a string played open position. Suppose that on a 12-string bass strung Inverted the D and G strings are played. Use the thumb to mute the E and A strings as well as the low D string. You are now playing 5 strings: The fundamental G string, the high-octave D strings and the high G strings: a G 1-5-1 chord!

Inverted 5-String G chord on open strings

Standard Arrangement: Chord difficult to play

If you were to try to play this same chord on a 12ver strung standard, the low D string would be on the inside of this group of strings, making muting the low D very difficult. Remember that you'll need to mute the E and A strings with your thumb to keep them from sounding, then wrap your finger around the neck and position it precisely to mute only the low D while letting the rest of the strings sound. Unless you're like ET and have long fingers that taper down nearly to points, this is extremely difficult. It's literally impossible to play this when you're rockin' out in the middle of a Cheap Trick tune!

These 5-string chords are a "built-in" feature of the Inverted string arrangement! Take any of the fundamental strings except the E plus the two high octave strings on each side of it and you have a 1-5-1 chord. This does not occur with the standard configuration and is the fundamental difference that gives the Inverted way a significantly greater range of playing possibilities. Here are some more examples...

Inverted 5-String A chord

Inverted 5-String Bb chord

Take the chord in G above and continue to mute the low D string, then simply move up the neck. You can now play any chord you want by playing these remaining five strings with a single finger in a single position!

Inverted 5-string D chord

Inverted 8-string D chord

Now drop down to the A string, mute the E strings and fundamental A with your thumb and also mute the G strings and you've got a 5-string chord in D. In essence this is a "Drop D" guitar chord! Or instead of muting the G strings play the second fret A notes, and you've got a bass note in D with an 8-string D chord played as though on a 12-string guitar. Talk about a full sound!

Inverted 5-string C chord

Inverted 5-string E chord

Just a couple more examples of 5-string chords are shown here. It would also be theoretically possible to play an E chord by moving the C chord shown to the 7th fret. However, it would be significantly more powerful to just play all 6 strings and have the E sounding in three octaves.

This brings up an important point. Just because the Inverted arrangement opens up new possibilities this doesn't mean that it should be used all of the time! It's not my intention here to imply that these chording techniques should replace standard bass playing methods. Most of the time I play the 'normal' way, that is, I play my 12-string bass as though it were a 4-string. There are plenty of opportunities to use these chording techniques in the 'real world', and it's best to use them conservatively.  Like most things a little bit can go a long way. But I have to admit that it is fun to throw a chord or two into a song where it's not expected, and then watch the facial expressions of people while they're thinking, "How did he do that?"

Standard Arrangement D Chord:

9 Strings played including 3 fundamental strings

Compare this D chord played with the Standard arrangement to the 5-string and 8-string Inverted D chords shown above. Nine strings must be played, none of them open tuning, and with a great deal of accumulated string tension. You must play three fundamental strings, so the sound can become somewhat bottom heavy, but the high octave strings do help to alleviate this problem. 

Inverted 8-string D chord with high D

The main difference between the 9-string standard chord and the 5-string Inverted chord is that the standard chord has higher octave D strings being played. Using the Inverted D chord, simply add the higher D notes with a single finger at the 7th fret to make an 8-string chord. Which do you suppose is easier to play, the standard chord using at least 2 fingers and tension from 9 strings, or the inverted chord which is mostly open strings?

Inverted 11-String A chord

Even 11-string chords are possible, but then you end up with three fundamental strings being played. A primary difficulty in playing 'guitar-style' chords on the bass arises due to the over-abundance of low frequency information. The bass notes are all sounding in a narrow frequency range so the sound can quickly become very muddy. Perhaps that is why chords are seldom played on 4-string basses. It also might partially explain the fascination some players have with 6-string and 7-string basses, since they include upper strings in the guitar range. (So why not just play guitar?)

Thinking about converting to the Inverted arrangement? Before you start I would STRONGLY RECOMMEND spending some Quality Time with a Rickenbacker 8-string bass! The principle will be exactly the same as playing an Inverted 12. Many players have a difficult time playing Rick 8's because of this arrangement, it's a counter-intuitive way of doing things and it's not for everyone. When I ordered my Inverted fretless bass Kim Keller at Hamer told me that they had only made a handful of 12-string basses with the Inverted arrangement over the previous decade, and without exception they had all been returned to the factory to be returned to the Standard configuration. So this is not a decision to be made lightly!

I really think that Inverted is the superior way of doing things, it just takes a little time to get used to doing it.