Monday, October 20, 2008

On the Tenor Guitar

I had a pleasant email exchange this weekend with Robert Frost’s Banjo reader Ron from Toronto, who’s interested in the tenor guitar. This reminded me that I’d promised a while back to post something about the origins of the tenor guitar, a very fun instrument that’s not so well-known.

For those of you who’ve never seen a tenor guitar—I'm playing one in the pic; an archtop acoustic tenor made by Mike Soares’y of Queens, NY. As you can see, the tenor guitar has four strings, as opposed to six on a standard guitar. The instrument is typically tuned CGDA (from lowest tone to highest tone); you musician types out there will notice that the interval between strings is always a fifth, & in that sense the tenor guitar is in its origins also related to the mandolin family, since these instruments also are tuned in fifths. In fact, the mandola (which, if the mandolin is equivalent to a violin, would be equivalent to a viola) is also tuned CGDA.

While CGDA is the standard &
most common tuning for tenor guitars, they are also sometimes tuned DGBE, like the four highest pitched strings on a guitar—this is called “Chicago tuning,” & also for obvious reasons, “guitar tuning.” It’s the tuning I use on the tenor myself (as explained in more detail here), mostly because when I got mine, I had to be ready to jump in immediately on relatively complicated songs. In addition, some folks tune the tenor guitar GDAE, like a mandolin. In fact, I’ve even seen the tenor guitar referred to as a “baritone mandolin” on the wonderful whacky web. When tuned to tones other than the standard CGDA, the tenor guitar does need to be re-strung.

The tenor guitar is useful both as a rhythm instrument & as a melodic instrument. Some folks particularly love it as a rhythm instrument because the chord voicings in the standard CGDA tuning are quite unusual. There’s a wide “spread” between the notes, so the voicings are considered “open.” In other words, the instrument is spanning close to three octaves in the space of just four strings. In contrast, the four highest-pitched strings of a guitar only span an octave plus one note. Besides the unique sound of these chord voicings, the tenor is also a nice complement to a guitar in a rhythm section, because of the different chord voicings (again, assuming both are in standard tuning).

As far as melody goes, the tenor falls into a good melodic range, & is useful either for single note solos or for chord melody. The latter is a form of melody playing often used on guitars & banjos (mostly the four string tenor & plectrum banjos) which involves playing a melody by changing chords each time the melody note &/or underlying harmony changes. It’s a bit challenging, but is very fun. It’s also about the only way a person can play melody on one of these instruments when
playing without other accompanists, because this way you get both harmony & melody.

I’d always been under the impression that the tenor guitar was developed as a direct response to the move from the banjo sound to the guitar sound in early jazz music. Of course in its origins, jazz favored the tenor & plectrum banjos. Unlike the five-string banjo, these didn’t have the fifth drone string getting in the way of more complex chord progressions, & unlike the guitars of the teens & 20’s, banjos actually could cut thru the sound of horns & woodwinds, which were of course the main melody instruments. Also, a number of these bands (like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Hot Sevens) featured a piano, & I’ve always thought the piano & banjo are a particularly felicitous pairing. In the case of Armstrong’s bands, the piano player was Louis’ wife, Lil Hardin, a formidable musician & composer, & someone who most definitely should be more widely known. The banjo player was Johnny St Cyr—St Cyr actually played what we’d call a guitar banjo these days: a six-stringer tuned just like a guitar.

Anyhoo, I’ve learned more recently that the tenor guitar was probably developed in the late 19th century as part of the mandolin craze—those were the days of mandolin orchestras, which I’ve also written about previously. It makes sense that the tenor guitar would work in a mandolin orchestra setting—even though it’s in the same range as the mandola, it has single strings & the mandola has paired strings (like the mandolin itself). Because of this, the mandola would have a more “jangly” sound, & the tenor a more “direct” sound. However, there seems to be little argument that the tenor guitar came into its own in the late 20’s & early 30’s as jazz switched from the harsher banjo to the more mellow guitar sound. The tenor guitar provided tenor banjoists with an easy transition instrument. There was also a plectrum guitar for the plectrum banjoists, but these remained relatively obscure, & are hard to come by nowadays.

So who plays the tenor? There are some reasonably well-known folks who’ve used the tenor guitar, either as a main instrument or at least as an occasional switch from the standard guitar. Rabon Delmore of the early country duo, the Delmore Brothers played tenor, & when the Louvin Brothers later did a tribute to the Delmores, Ira Louvin (who usually played mandolin) played Rabon’s Martin 0-18T tenor. The McKendrick brothers "Big" Mike & “Little” Mike (obviously coming from a George Foreman type houseold: though the father’s name was Gilbert, all five brothers were “Mike”) played both tenor guitar & tenor banjo in the early jazz days—“Big Mike” played with Louis Armstrong’s bands. Tiny Grimes was a tenor guitar player who played swing & bebop using “guitar tuning.” Another relatively well-known swing jazz player who’s associated with the tenor guitar is Eddie Condon, but Eddie actually played the plectrum guitar. The late Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio played the tenor guitar; more recently, the folk punker, activist, & Utah Phillips cohort Ani DiFranco plays the tenor on some recordings.

So where do you get one? This isn’t the sort of instrument you can purchase by going to a common garden variety music store. There are some beautiful vintage instruments—both Martins & (sigh) Gibsons, as well as very nice luthier made contemporary tenor guitars. However, these aren’t cheap, to say the least. If you’re a “real musician” (i.e., have a day job), there are a couple of places to look for good but affordable alternatives. On the more affordable side, there are Soares'y instruments & Gold Tones. There are also some good old Harmony tenors around, & being a Harmony fan, I’d expect many of these should be a good deal. It's always advisable to do as much research as possible before buying an instrument, & the best way, without doubt, is to play the instrument before you purchase it.

There’s not a huge amount of info on tenor guitars online, but there is one great source, which is the Tenor Guitar Registry. You can find that site here. It has a lot of background info, plus an informative chat room.

Pic by Eberle Umbach


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