Tenor guitar

Tenor guitar

The tenor guitar is a slightly smaller, four-string version of the steel-string acoustic guitar or electric guitar. The instrument (in its acoustic form) was developed so that players of the four-string tenor banjo could double on the guitar. Later, solid-body electric models were also produced.


Tenor guitars are four stringed instruments normally made in the shape of a guitar, or sometimes with a lute-like pear shaped body or, more rarely, with a round banjo-like wooden body. They can be acoustic and/or electric and they can come in the form of flat top, archtop, wood-bodied or metal-bodied resonator or solid-bodied instruments. Tenor guitars normally have a scale length (from bridge to nut) of between 21 and 23 inches.

History and development

Almost all the major guitar makers, such as Gibson, Epiphone, Kay, Martin, Gretsch, Guild and National, have manufactured tenor (and plectrum) guitars as production instruments. Makers such as Gibson even used to offer the tenor (or plectrum) models as a custom option for their six string guitar models at no extra charge. Gibson also had a line of tenor guitars under their "budget" brand name of Kalamazoo. Budget tenor guitars by makers, such as Harmony, Regal and Stella, were made in large numbers in the 1950s and 1960s and are still widely available.

Tenor guitars were manufactured continuously by Gibson and Martin from the 1920s until the 1970s. National Instruments also made significant numbers of resonator tenor and plectrum guitars between the 1920s and 1940s, some of which were also used by jazz musicians as a second instrument. Dobro, another company formed by the Dopyera Brothers, as well as National Instruments, also built resonator tenor guitars. In 1983, Klira, a German manufacturer, built 30 handmade jazz-tone, TG-58 tenor guitars. This very rare tenor guitar was sold in Switzerland in 2002 for 12,000 Euros.


Tenor guitars are normally tuned in fifths (usually CGDA, similar to the tenor banjo or the viola), although other tunings are possible, such as "guitar tuning", "Chicago tuning," or baritone ukulele tuning (DGBE), "Irish" or "octave mandolin" tuning (GDAE) and various "open" tunings, for slide playing. The tenor guitar can also be tuned like a ukulele, using various versions of GCEA tuning.

The normal CGDA tuning is very "open" and it gives the instrument unusual voicings from both open and closed chords. The fifths tuning also makes for easy moveable chord shapes. The instrument is equally well suited to both rhythm and lead playing.

Though books are available for the standard tunings above, books are also available for more esoteric tunings as well such as GDAD, CGBD and DGBE in the Chord Genius series of books published by Northern Musician Services. One of the main attractions of this instrument is its breadth of available tunings.

Related instruments

There are versions of the tenor guitar with four strings but a scale length of around 25 inches, similar to that of a six string guitar. These guitars cannot be tuned to the normal CGDA fifths tuning because the A string cannot be tuned to pitch without breaking. These guitars can be tuned to a re-entrant CGDA tuning where the A and sometimes the D are pitched an octave lower. They can also be tuned to DGBE (equivalent to the top four strings of a six-string guitar), or other fifths tunings, such as GDAE.

The plectrum guitar is a close four stringed relative of the tenor guitar with a longer scale length of 26-27 inches and tunings usually based on the plectrum banjo - CGBD or DGBD. Plectrum guitars are also very suitable for guitar tuning - DGBE - because of their longer scale length but are much less suitable for CGDA tuning because of the high A string. Plectrum guitars were not made in as large numbers as tenor guitars and are now more rare.

Plectrum guitars played a similar role for plectrum banjo players in this period as the tenor guitar, but they were less common. One of the best known plectrum guitarists from the Jazz Age was Eddie Condon, who started out on banjo in the 1920s and then switched to a Gibson L7 plectrum guitar in the 1930s and stayed with it all his musical life up to the 1960s.

In 1968 Eddie Peabody, a very well known plectrum banjoist who performed from the 1920s through to 1970, designed a six string, four course, electric guitar-like instrument with a plectrum scale length of 26 inches and plectrum tuning of CGDB. It was called the Banjoline and it was mainly manufactured by Rickenbacker. The Rickenbacker version of the Banjoline was based on their hollow-bodied 360 guitar model and it had two pick ups with a selector switch and two sets of volume and tone controls.

The six strings were grouped into four courses with the C strings doubled as an octave pair, there were two G strings doubled in unison and the D and the B strings were single strings. It also had an Ac'cent tremolo arm. It was available as the standard model 6005 and the De Luxe model 6006 and it came in three colours Fireglo, Mapleglo, and Azureglo. The De Luxe 6006 was double-bound with checkered binding and it also had checkered binding on the headstock.

Due to its doubled strings and electric pick ups, its sound was similar to that of the doubled strings of the twelve string electric guitar that had been made famous by Rickenbacker as played by George Harrison of The Beatles and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. Eddie Peabody recorded two LPs playing his banjo classics on the Banjoline for the Dot label which still exist today. They are entitled Eddie Plays Smoothies and Eddie Plays More Smoothies.

It is reported that versions of the Banjoline were also built by other manufacturers, such as Fender, and possibly even Vega. Vega certainly built at least one tenor scale length solid-bodied two pick up electric guitar with six strings arranged in four courses. Unfortunately, although the Rickenbacker Banjoline was made in quite large numbers, it was not commercially successful. However, it remains a fascinating instrument with a unique sound and a wide range of very interesting tuning possibilities.

Use and performers

Tenor guitars are now very closely associated with the tenor banjo with its similar standard CGDA fifths tuning and they initially came to significant commercial prominence in the late 1920s and early 1930s as tenor banjos were slowly being replaced by six string guitars in jazz bands and dance orchestras. Tenor banjo players could double on tenor guitars to get a guitar sound without having to learn the six string guitar. This is a practice still carried out by many contemporary jazz banjo players. This period is generally regarded as the initial "golden age" of the tenor guitar.

Two of the McKendrick brothers, confusingly both named Mike - "Big" Mike and "Little" Mike, doubled on tenor banjo and tenor guitar in jazz bands dating from the 1920s. According to Bob Brozman in his book on National instruments, "The History and Artistry of National Instruments", they both played National tenor guitars and they are both shown in the book in photos with their National tenor guitars.

"Big" Mike McKendrick both managed and played with Louis Armstrong bands while "Little" Mike McKendrick played with various bands, including Tony Parenti. Brozman's book also features photos of Hawaiian music bands that include players with both National tenor and plectrum guitars.

The Delmore Brothers were a very influential pioneering country music duet from the early 1930s to the late 1940s that featured the tenor guitar. The Delmore Brothers were one of the original country vocal harmonising sibling acts that established the mould for later similar acts, such as the Louvin Brothers, and even later, the Everly Brothers.

The younger of the Delmore brothers, Rabon, played the tenor guitar as an accompaniment to his older brother, Alton's, six string guitar. Rabon favoured the Martin 0-18T tenor guitar and the Louvin Brothers later recorded a famous tribute album to the Delmores which featured the Martin 0-18T tenor that had been played by Rabon.

Another interesting 1930s band to feature the tenor guitar was the Hoosier Hotshots, considered to be the creators of mid-western rural jazz. Their leader, Ken Trietsch, played the tenor guitar, as well as doubling on the tuba.

A very old musical style called Texas fiddling uses the tenor guitar as part of its rhythm accompaniment. Texas fiddle music has had a very long continuous history which still continues strongly to this day. Annual old time fiddling contests have been held in Weiser, Idaho, since 1914, but the current contests date from 1953. The music in these contests usually strongly feature the tenor guitar. The tenor guitar of choice for this style seems to be the Martin 0-18T.

Well known exponents of the tenor guitar in Texas fiddle music include Jerry Thomassen, Al Mouledous, and Gary Lee Moore. Thomassen has a signature tenor guitar named after him that is built by luthier Steve Parks. Gary Lee Moore has produced an excellent teaching resource for playing the tenor guitar as backup for Texas fiddling, entitled "Getting Started in Fiddle Backup", obtainable as a free pdf download - see External Links.

In the 1930s Selmer Guitars in Paris manufactured four string guitars based on guitar designs by the famous Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri that were to be marketed to banjo players as a second six-string guitar-like instrument. The-six string versions of these guitars had been made very famous by French Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

The two main four string models offered by Selmer included a regular tenor guitar, with a 23 inch scale length, tuned CGDA, and the Eddie Freeman Special, with a larger body and a longer scale length, using a reentrant CGDA tuning. The Eddie Freeman Special had been designed by English tenor banjoist Eddie Freeman to have a better six string guitar sonority for rhythm guitar work than the normal tenor guitar with its very high A string. However, it was still tuned CGDA so that it could still be played by tenor banjoists.

The Eddie Freeman Special was based on a six string model and it had a larger six string body and a six string scale length of 25.25 inches, rather than the tenor's smaller body and normal 23 inch scale length. The CGDA tuning used was re-entrant with the C and D tuned in the same octave and the G and the A tuned in the same octave, lowering the overall tone. The tuning and scale length give this very unusual four string guitar a sonority that is very close to that of the six string guitar, compared to a regular tenor guitar.

Maccaferri heavily promoted the EFS guitar through the Melody Maker and Eddie Freeman even wrote a special tune for it called 'In All Sincerity'. There are also promotional photos of the well known British singer, banjoist and guitarist Al Bowlly, playing the Eddie Freeman Special and it can be seen in use by Ray Noble's guitarist in a recording session photo of his orchestra. This guitar, unfortunately, was not commercially successful in the 1930s, possibly due to concerted resistance by the British six-string guitar fraternity, particularly Ivor Mairants. Many were subsequently converted to much more valuable six-string models because of the Django Reinhardt connection. Originals of the Eddie Freeman Special are now very rare and are consequently highly valuable.

Within the last three years, modern Maccaferri-style luthiers, such as the late David Hodson in the UK and Shelley Park in Canada, as well as others, have started building this four string model again due to demand from their customers. Many have now been made and they are becoming more widely played. They are considered to have a beautiful sound and offer a very broad range of tuning possibilities including CGDA, GDAE, DGBE, CGBD, DGBD and ADGB.

As the six string guitar eventually became more popular in bands in the 1930s and 1940s, tenor guitars became much less played, although some tenor guitar models had been made in very large numbers throughout this period and are now still common. Tenor guitars came to prominence again in the 1950s and 1960s, possibly due to the effects of the dixieland jazz revival and the folk music boom. At this time, they were made by makers such as Epiphone, Gibson, Guild and Gretsch as archtop acoustics and/or electrics, as well as a range of flat top models by Martin.

Around this time in the 1950s and 1960s, electric tenor guitars were also referred to as "lead guitars," although the rationale for this is not now clear, unless it was for marketing purposes. Lead playing on a six string guitar often involves just using its top four strings. A major player of the electric tenor as a lead guitarist in the bebop style from the 1940s to the 1970s was the brilliant jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes, whose recordings with the The Cats and The Fiddle and others are well worth investigating. Tiny used guitar (DGBE) tuning on his tenor guitars, rather than tenor CGDA tuning.

The Martin 0-18T flat top acoustic tenor guitar was made very famous in the late 1950s by Nick Reynolds of The Kingston Trio. The acoustic tenor guitar became a popular instrument in the folk music boom of this period, particularly this model. In 1997, as a tribute to the Kingston Trio, Martin re-issued 34 limited edition 40th-anniversary commemorative sets (40 sets had been planned, but only 34 orders were received and executed) of the three main instruments used by the Kingston Trio to celebrate their founding in 1957. The commemorative set included a custom Martin Kingston Trio KT-18T tenor guitar with "The Kingston Trio" and “1957-1997” engraved on the fingerboard in mother-of-pearl and its label was signed by C. F. Martin IV, the CEO of Martin Guitars and 4 of the surviving members of the Kingston Trio.

Current use

In more recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in the tenor guitar and individual specialist luthiers, such as Joel Eckhaus of Earnest Instruments, now commonly adapt or build them as custom instruments for their customers. They are now even beginning to be mass manufactured again, such as the models offered by Gold Tone Instruments and Lark in the Morning. Amistar, a builder of resonator guitars in the Czech Republic who closely follows in the footsteps of the Czech Dopyera Brothers' tradition of making National and Dobro resonator guitars in the U.S., offers several tenor guitar models that are comparable to those offered in their golden era by both National and Dobro, as well as a modern electric/acoustic tenor model, The Stager. Indeed, Martin Guitars have recently released a new production tenor guitar - the Martin LXM Tenor "Little Martin" since they stopped regular production of the Martin 0-18T tenor in the late 1970s. The new Martin tenor guitar can be seen here at Elderly Instruments [http://www.elderly.com/new_instruments/items/LXMTEN.htm] . Elderly also sell vintage tenor guitars.

Modern players of the tenor guitar include Neko Case, Josh Rouse, and Ani DiFranco, although none uses it as their primary instrument. The instrument is often used by musicians looking to replace or augment sounds produced by more conventional instruments. Elvis Costello features a tenor guitar on the title track of his 2004 release "Delivery Man". On the video for "Club Date: Elvis Costello & the Imposters Live in Memphis" he is seen playing an orange 1958 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 single cutaway archtop tenor guitar. The only known modern player who is known for using tenor guitars exclusively is roots rocker Lynda Kay of the Lonesome Spurs.

They find most use in their original role as rhythm instruments in jazz and blues, as well as combining with six string guitars in jazz, blues, folk or ethnic music settings. Being tuned in fifths, they also work well with both mandolin family and violin family instruments. They can also fit into the mould of 'ethnic' sounding instruments, such as the bouzouki.

Tenor guitars can be very difficult to locate since they were mostly manufactured in the United States. Up until relatively recently they were usually regarded as musical oddities with little value but now they are becoming very attractive to both players and collectors, particularly the National resonator instruments.

Production tenor guitars by Gibson and Martin from the 1940s to the 1960s are still generally available, such as Gibson's ETG-150 electric/acoustic tenor guitar and Martin's 0-18T acoustic tenor guitar. Original tenor guitars in good condition by any of the major guitar makers are considered very desirable, both as instruments for playing, and as interesting collectibles in their own right. Some specially ordered custom tenor guitar models can be extremely rare since only one of them may have been manufactured.

Prominent UK users of the tenor guitar include the Lakeman brothers, Seth Lakeman and Sean Lakeman, and John McCusker and Ian Carr, who both play with the Kate Rusby Band.

Terry Bohner, a character in the mockumentary film "A Mighty Wind" about the U.S. folk music era of the 1950s and 1960s, uses a tenor guitar.

Sting used a tenor guitar on "Dead Man's Rope," from his 2003 album "Sacred Love".Fact|date=December 2007 Jeff Martin, main songwriter of the band Idaho, exclusively uses custom-made tenor guitars manufactured by California-based [http://www.carruthersguitars.com/ Carruthers Guitars] .

Further reading

* cite book
title = Gruhn's Guide to Vintage Guitars - 2nd Edition - Updated and Expanded
first = George with Carter, Walter
last = Gruhn
publisher = Miller Freeman Books
location = United States
year = 1999
id = ISBN 0-87930-422-7
— An Identification Guide for American Fretted Instruments.

* cite book
title = The Tenor Guitar Chord Bible: Standard & Irish Tuning 2,880 Chords
first = Tobe A.
last = Richards
publisher = Cabot Books
location = United Kingdom
year = 2007
id = ISBN 978-1-906207-05-2
— A comprehensive chord dictionary instructional guide featuring both standard and Irish tuning.

* cite book
title = Tenor Guitar Chord Genius
first = Bruce
last = Dean
publisher = Northern Musician Services
— Gain the freedom to play any chord, any song. [http://www.northernmusician.com/ Tenor Guitar Chord Genius books in most tunings]

External links

* [http://www.tenorguitar.com/ Tenorguitar.com]
* [http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/tenorguitarregistry The Tenor Guitar Registry - a forum for discussing anything to do with the tenor guitar and related instruments]
* [http://www.northernmusician.com/ Northern Musician Services - Easily learn to design advanced chord forms Tenor in Hand." Chord Genius Books.]
* [http://4stringchords.com/ Chordfinder for Tenorguitar and other four-string instruments]
* [http://www.sethausten.com/tenors.html Tenor guitars and ukuleles page from Seth Austen & Beverly Woods site]
* [http://www.delmorebrothers.net/ The Delmore Brothers official site]
* [http://www.nativeground.com/delmorebrothers.asp The Delmore Brothers - A History page from Native Ground Music site]
* [http://www.tenorgitarre.de A German tenor guitar site]
* [http://www.steveparksmusic.com/ Steve Parks, Tenor Guitar Luthier]
* [http://www.elloreeguitars.com/ Elloree Guitars, Rick Felkel, Tenor Guitar Luthier]
* [http://www.earnestinstruments.com/ Earnest Instruments, Joel Eckhaus, Tenor Guitar Luthier]
* [http://www.amistar.cz/ Amistar - Fine Resophonic Guitars, including resonator tenor guitars]
* [http://www.goldtone.com/products/pages/tg-18.asp TG-18 Tenor Guitar by Gold Tone]
* [http://larkinthemorning.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_GUI131_A_Tenor+Guitar_E_ Lark's Solid Top Tenor Guitar]
* [http://www.elderly.com/new_instruments/items/LXMTEN.htm The new Martin LXM Tenor Guitar 'Little Martin']
* [http://home.comcast.net/~ralevine/wsb/TenorGuitar/The_Tenor_Guitar.pdf The Tenor Guitar - Getting Started in Fiddle Backup]
* [http://www.vintageinstruments.com/ Players Vintage Instruments - a great on-line source of vintage tenor guitars]
* [http://soaresyguitars.com/ Soares'y Guitars produces an interesting range of small workshop handcrafted flat top, archtop and solid-bodied tenor guitars that are both excellent quality and great value and are highly commended by their owners]
* [http://www.vintagetenorguitars.com/ Steve Pyott's Tenor Guitar Collection, also featured in tenorguitar.com]
* [http://search.reviews.ebay.com.au/ws/UCSearch?satitle=tenor+guitar&ucc=g&fts=2&ugat=2&ufm=1/ Tenor Guitars - Interesting Four Stringed Instruments - an eBay Buying Guide by Steve Pyott, featuring photos of some rarer tenor guitar models]
* [http://www.archive.org/details/tenor.banjo.and.tenor.guitar Pat Costello giving tenor guitar and banjo video workshops for beginners]

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