Tenor guitar

Tenor guitar
String instrument
Other names Four-string guitar

String instrument (plucked, stringed instrument usually played with a plectrum)
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322-4
(Composite chordophone)
Developed ca. 1927
Playing range

Related instruments

The tenor guitar or four-string guitar is a slightly smaller, four-string relative 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.[1] 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

1928 Dobro style 37 tenor guitar from Lowell Levinger's collection

The earliest origins of the tenor guitar are not yet fully clear but it now seems very unlikely that a true four-stringed guitar-shaped tenor guitar appeared before the late 1920s. Gibson built the tenor lute TL-4 in 1924, which had a lute-like pear-shaped body, four strings and a tenor banjo neck. It is possible that similar instruments were made by other makers such as Lyon and Healy and banjo makers, such as Bacon. In the same period, banjo makers, such as Paramount, built transitional round banjo-like wood-bodied instruments with four strings and tenor banjo necks called tenor harps. From 1927 onwards, the very first true wood-bodied acoustic tenor guitars appeared as production instruments made by both Gibson and Martin.

Almost all the major guitar makers, including Gibson, Martin, Epiphone, Kay, Gretsch, Guild and National, have manufactured tenor (and plectrum) guitars as production instruments at various times. In collaboration with Cliff Edwards, Dobro built the four-stringed round-bodied resonator tenor scale length instrument called the Tenortrope in the early 1930s. 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 both Gibson and Martin from the 1920s until the 1970s. National, formed by the Dopyera Brothers, 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 associated with the Dopyera Brothers, as well as National, also built various resonator tenor guitar models.


Tenor guitars are normally tuned in fifths (usually C3 G3 D4 A4, similar to the tenor banjo, mandola, or the viola) although other tunings are also common, such as "guitar tuning", "Chicago tuning," or baritone ukulele tuning (D3 G3 B3 E4), "Irish" or "octave mandolin" tuning (G2 D3 A3 E4, like a violin but one octave below) and various "open" tunings, for slide playing. The tenor guitar can also be tuned like a soprano/concert/tenor ukulele, using various versions of G3 C4 E4 A4 tuning.

The normal CGDA tuning is very "open" and it gives the instrument voicings more reminiscent of the mandolin family than the guitar family, 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 attractions of this instrument is the breadth of available tunings.

Related instruments

1928 National Style O plectrum guitar from Lowell Levinger's collection

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. As string tension for any pitch increases with length, some have said these guitars cannot be tuned to the normal CGDA fifths tuning because the A string cannot be tuned to pitch without breaking. However, there are a variety of available methods for addressing this point and bringing the longer-scaled tenor guitar up to standard tuning and pitch: special string sets; strings extracted from a seven string guitar set; etc. Tenor guitars can also be tuned to a reentrant CGDA tuning where the A and sometimes the D are pitched an octave lower.

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 pickups 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

Cincinnati, Ohio musician Kentucky Graham playing a hollow-body electric tenor guitar

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 duo 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 mold 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 tribute album to the Delmores that featured Rabon's Martin 0-18T tenor played by mandolinist Ira Louvin, but tuned as the four treble guitar strings. 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.

1932 Martin 0-18 T Sunburst Tenor Guitar

In British Columbia, Canada, Professor Douglas Fraser plays thirties jazz with “The Genuine Jug Band” on a 1939 Gibson arch top tenor guitar. A musical style called Texas fiddling uses the tenor guitar as part of its rhythm accompaniment. 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 on the Tenor Guitar Registry discussion board web site.

In the 1930s Selmer Guitars in Paris manufactured four string guitars based on guitar designs by the Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri that were to be marketed to banjo players as a second six-string guitar-like instrument. 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.

Modern acoustic tenor guitar from Gold Tone

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 and rhythm and blues styles from the 1940s to the 1970s was the jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes, who recorded with Cats and The Fiddle, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and others. Tiny used guitar (DGBE) tuning on his tenor guitars, rather than tenor CGDA tuning.

The Martin 0-18T flat top acoustic tenor guitar was played 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

Modern replica of a 1930s Lyon & Healy tenor guitar. Background tiles are 20cm square

In the last five years there has been an upsurge of interest in the tenor guitar and specialist luthiers now build a range of tenor guitar models or can adapt existing instruments.

Contemporary players of the tenor guitar include Neko Case, Josh Rouse, Joel Plaskett, Adam Gnade,[2] Ani DiFranco, Carrie Rodriguez, and Joe Craven. Jason Molina played a tenor guitar for much of his early work as Songs: Ohia. 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.

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.

Wes Borland, the guitarist for nu metal band Limp Bizkit plays a low-tuned (F#1-F#2-B2-E3) tenor guitar on the songs "Nookie", "The One", "Full Nelson", and "Stalemate".

Since 2010, Astoria, Oregon, has hosted an annual Tenor Guitar Gathering, on the basis of which some call it the "unofficial Tenor Guitar Capital of the World."[3]

Warren Ellis plays a tenor guitar on the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away, and has custom tenor guitars built by Eastwood Guitars[4]

See also


  1. The Stringed Instrument Database
  2. Live and on recordings Gnade plays a four-string guitar he rebuilt and modified to play in the tuning of F, A sharp, D, F.
  3. http://www.tenorguitargathering.com
  4. http://www.eastwoodguitars.com/warren-ellis-signature-tenor/
Further reading
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