The rise of the tenor guitar

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Gold Tone tenor guitarTenor guitars have been around since the 1930s, possibly a few years earlier*, but they’ve never had a big following compared with six-string guitars. That seems to be changing, and I suspect it’s in part due to the incredible popularity of that other four-string guitar derivative: the ukulele.

In the past six-twelve months, I’ve been seeing more tenor guitars on the Net, including several new custom tenor guitars made by talented luthiers. New sites about tenor guitars have sprung up, too. Both new and vintage tenors are showing up on eBay in what seems to be increasing numbers. There’s even an annual gathering for tenor guitarists, perhaps more (the page linked above doesn’t actually say where the event takes place, and there are no maps, but it’s in the USA somewhere).

I hadn’t really given tenor guitars much thought, myself, until fairly recently. The only tenor guitarist I’ve ever known is Eugene Smith, who sometimes still plays here in Collingwood. But as a ukulele player, my interest in four- and eight- stringed instruments has widened to all sorts of instruments I’ve never really thought a lot about before (like bouzoukis). I suspect other ukulele players have also considered tenor guitars as a natural complement to uke playing, especially after trying a baritone uke.

1930 Gibson tenor guitarI started playing ukulele in early 2008, put down my guitars shortly after, and never picked one up again once I got bitten by the uke bug (okay, I’ve picked them up, but not played one for more than a few minutes). I quickly gravitated to tenor ukes as the best size and sound for my own playing and finger size. Tenors have a 17″ scale compared to the 13″ scale of a soprano, which I found too cramped.

I started playing baritone uke more than a year ago, after I bought one on a whim from another uke player online. Baritones have a 19″ scale and I really enjoyed the space, and fuller sound. Last year I picked up another musical whim – a four-string cigar-box guitar. I just wanted something to challenge me and give me a different sort of sound to experiment with. It’s the full, standard 25″ guitar scale. While fun to play, the body of a cigar box instrument is small and limits tonal production. That got me interested in tenor guitars.

Many uke players look askance at baritones as too close to guitar scale to be considered a “real” ukulele. I have found them tonally rich, and the lower key suits my limited singing range for many songs.

Eastwood tenor guitarI had to be in Toronto, last week, and my route into the downtown took me past the Twelfth Fret music store. What musician, even an amateur like me, can resist its siren call? I had to stop and see if they had any tenors for me to try. Only one, sadly: a 1936 Gibson priced at $999. Ouch: that’s a bit rich for my wallet, I’m afraid, but I did get to play it and compare it with a baritone uke (a Kala spruce top). I suppose for its age, the Gibson is not overpriced for most people. Since I’m not a pro nor a collector of vintage instruments, I decided to continue looking.

Mostly what I wanted to discover was how a tenor felt to hold and play: was the fretboard too narrow? Too wide? The stretch of fingers comfortable or not? How did it feel in my lap? The ergonomics of an instrument are very important.

Maybe it’s because some popular trends, even in music, seep more slowly into the Canadian consciousness, that the tenor has not taken hold here. Canada has been 10-20 years behind the USA in the tequila craze, and is at least six years behind the US, UK and Australia in the ukulele wave. Since tenor guitars seem to be a new revival, I suppose we should start to see Canadians take notice and for music stores to stock them somewhere around 2020.

I’ve called many music stores around Ontario asking if they had any, and none have – a few have responded with comments that they didn’t even know what a tenor guitar was. Yet there are at least two manufacturers – Gold Tone and Blue Ridge – who are making them (two acoustic models each; a solid and a laminate top). Gold Tone even sells a tenor resonator, metal-body model. Eastwood has a sold-body electric tenor.

Gold Tone resonator tenorI have all sorts of technical questions about a tenor resonator guitar, however, and whether the tension on the biscuit is sufficient for the cone to make the expected sound.** National made a metal-body tenor in the 1930s, and I believe the Gold Tone is homage to that.

Tenor guitars usually have a shorter scale than a standard guitar – 21 or 23 inches, although some new models seem to also share the guitar’s 25″ scale according to some comments I’ve read online. They have a narrow neck, but a big body – and steel strings. That makes them a sort of super baritone uke. However, tenor guitars traditionally have a different sort of tuning than a ukulele or guitar: often tuned in “fifths” to CGDA. Just like a tenor banjo.

A baritone uke and a guitar would be tuned DGBE. I don’t see any reason why I can’t tune one like a guitar. That would be easier than trying to learn an encyclopedia of new chord patterns.

The main attraction, for me, of a tenor guitar is the combination of large body (for fuller volume and tone production) and steel strings. While I love playing my nylon-stringed ukes, sometimes the music calls out for the more metallic, crisper sound of steel. It’s not better, just different. I also think that the combination of nylon and metal in different instruments would sound nice if I get back to recording some of my music.

All of which should suggest to readers that I intend to get one, and yes, I have found one on Kijiji and expect to pick it up next week. Actually I’m quite excited by the notion of having a new musical instrument to experiment with. Would that my talent matched my passion for playing…

* says they’ve been around for “100 years or more” and that “‘Lyon and Healy’, whose main guitar brand name was ‘Washburn’, claimed to have invented the tenor guitar just after the turn of the twentieth century. Certainly tenor guitars must have been around in the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century from the existence of published and dated instructional books for both the tenor guitar and tenor banjo from this period that still exist today.”
** Traditional biscuits are made of dense wood like ebony or rosewood. I suspect one could improve the energy transfer to the cone by using a piece of brass or even glass as a saddle. I’ve never found one of these resonator tenor guitars to play in a shop, so I don’t know how they are constructed. I am very curious to try one, however.

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