The best budget 12-string acoustic guitar for most people is the Yamaha FG820. It has a solid spruce top and a build quality which looks and feels like a higher end guitar. It sounds like a 12-string should: bright and shimmery with a faint chorus effect due to the scalloped bracing. User reviews show the neck stays straight (as long as you use light strings), and works well in almost any situation you need it. If you want a great sounding 12 string, but are on a budget, the Yamaha FG820 12-string guitar is the one to get.
This Guitar Player magazine article sums it up well:
“The sonic magic that occurs when you double the number of strings on a guitar and tune the four lower courses an octave apart has captivated artists from Lead Belly to Led Zeppelin, and helped to make iconic 12-string tunes like “Hotel California,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” huge hits for the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Byrds. Calling the 12-string sound “magic” isn’t a stretch, either, as anyone who has experienced the immediate sense of gratiﬁcation that occurs when strumming open chords on a 12-string guitar can testify. The chiming of the octaves combined with the syrupy sweet “chorusing” that is created by minor tuning discrepancies between the strings is a sound that leaves a standard 6-string guitar in the dust.”
Your prime focus should be the neck, bridge, and saddle. Right around the $500 price range you can usually find models with solid wood tops.
Many of the 12-strings in the budget category are pretty bad. A simple search of reviews by users on Amazon or Guitar Center for some of the cheapest ones all complain about how difficult it is to keep in tune. This is one of the most common complaints about 12-strings.
Part of the reason is the string tension. Twelve strings pulling on the neck will make the neck bow if it’s not stout enough. Use lighter guage strings, to reduce the amount of tension on the neck.
However, there are a few 12-string guitars in the budget range that actually pretty great bridge, saddle, and neck setups.
We chose $500 as the top price for a budget 12 string. It seems to be the sweet spot for a great instrument. You generally get a solid top, a well-built neck that won’t warp with the extra string tension, and have that consistently great shimmering, chorusy sound you want from an acoustic 12 string guitar.
From there, we perused the guitar forums like Acoustic Guitar Forum, Gearslutz, Harmony-Central, and so on.
I have had the displeasure of ordering guitars online, and I must say, I won’t do it again. You might get lucky, I have a few times, but generally the warehouses just grab the closest box, double check that nothing is broken, then ship it to you.
The problem with this is they don’t generally check if the fretboard is bowed, or any of the general action settings. They don’t plug it in (if it’s electric, or acoustic-electric) and make sure everything is working. I’ve had several problems on this front. However, I’ve also received some pretty great guitars by mail. Basically, it’s a big chance. If you’re willing to return it if it’s defective, or at least take it to a local guitar shop to have all the necessary adjustments made.
The GuitarCenter.com website will let you order a guitar online, and then pick it up at your local store. This means you can try it out right in the store. Their guitar tech will take a look. If it needs some additional setup or tweaking, you can have it taken care of right there.
The best 12-string acoustic for most people is the Yamaha FG-820. It’s right around $300, with a bright shimmery sound. The bridge and saddle are setup correctly, straight from the factory, and every one I’ve played has not had any of the neck bowing that is so prevalent on other 12 string acoustics in this price range.
Gregory P. Carrier notes, “Fantastic value. I don’t know how they can build a guitar this good for this price. Compares with guitars costing hundreds more. Sounds really good out of the box, but with the solid top it should only sound better as it’s played. Solidly built, excellent craftsmanship, very playable, beautiful guitar.”
The reason fretboards on many 12-string guitars tend to bow (called a “relief bow”) is because people use heavier gauge strings. With twice as many strings, you get A LOT more tension, which causes the bowing.
It might seem a little overwhelming, but it’s worth it, ESPECIALLY with 12-strings, if you want to preserve the neck and not suffer from relief bowing and expensive guitar repairs.
Depending on your skill level and needs, any of these guitars will provide you years of playing, performing, recording, and general fun.
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User reviews show the neck stays straight (as long as you use light strings), and works well in almost any situation you need it. If you want a great sounding 12 string, but are on a budget, the Yamaha FG820 12-string guitar is the one to get.
“This one will make you happy. They for sure have a quality neck on this baby with the right tolerances built into the neck-set and truss rod and neck materials. It's the first 12-string I've had that doesn't get a funky HUGE "relief" curve in the neck from the 5th fret to the nut no matter how I mess with the truss rod.”
“Although I've always been a Martin fan, I never thought I'd buy an HPL Martin until I played a D12x1AE. Pretty amazing guitar for the money. Good tone and the best 12-String neck I've ever played.”