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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

Click to go to home page.What is a Tenor Guitar?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

Harmony Stella Tenor Guitar, 1940s-1950s era.  Click for bigger photoWhen I was a kid in the sixties, every pawn shop in Dayton had deeply-discounted four-string guitars bleaching in the store windows, and nobody I knew wanted one. "Real" guitars had six strings, after all.

At the time, I hypothesized that maybe they were a kind of "toy," or "starter," or "poor man's" guitar. They certainly got no respect, even from the pawn shop owners. I certainly never saw anyone playing one (except Jimmy Dodd of the Mouseketeers).

By the time I was an actual (6-string) guitar player and (5-string) banjo player, all of those poor things were just a memory and a curiousity. But some fifty years later, when I started collecting information about various folk instruments for this page and the Riverboat Music Buyers' Guides, I couldn't help remembering those poor things and wondering about their real history and uses.

Turns out that it's no surprise that the twenty-something pawn shop salespeople in the 1960s had no idea what they were good for - they hit their "peak" in the mid-thirties, decades before those guys were even born. But they played an important role in American Jazz music before that.

Tenor Guitar's History

This 1932 Gibson TGR-50 had a fourteen-inch bout, making it as wide as their full-sized six-strings, but it had a banjo neck and head. Click for bigger photo.

I earned a sort of notoriety on the Internet a couple years ago by pointing out that the six-string banjo is a century-old instrument with it own history and uses, not a way for second-rate guitar players to become master banjo players instantly as many importers claim. Ironically, the tenor guitar started out going the other direction - banjo to guitar.

But the story goes back farther than that. About 1900, the mandolin was the most popular fretted instrument in the US. But early jazz (what we might now call "ragtime") was gaining notoriety. By 1920, jazz and Tin Pan Alley's sanitized imitation of jazz (what we might now call "Dixieland") had raised the 4-string banjo to first place. But as jazz evolved toward swing, orchestras started looking for a more subtle rhythm instrument to replace the banjo. A few jazz orchestras adopted guitar instead, and companies like Gibson started making guitars to meet the specific needs of orchestra's rhythm sections. The 1932 Gibson TGR-50 to the right has a 14" bout, meaning that the body was as large as most of their full-sized 6-strings. But the neck and head are nearly identical to their four-string banjos of that era, including the planetary tuners and the marker at the tenth fret.

So banjo players who weren't also accomplished guitar players started doubling on 4-string guitars that were tuned the same as their banjos. Many migrated permanently to the instrument, and demand for 4-string guitars outgrew demand for 4-string banjos. For a time it nearly kept up with demand for 6-string guitars, among jazz players at least.

In 1930, jazz guitar consisted of an unamplified instrument playing staccato barre chords to help keep the beat. And, frankly, hardly anyone could hear the difference between a 4-string guitar and a 6-string guitar played that way.

For a time, even amplified jazz guitar kept the staccato chord styles of its predecessor. But as amplifiers advanced, electric guitars could eventually be used in ways that caused the differences between 4-strings and 6-strings to become more obvious. And music continued to evolve.This 1950ish electric tenor from Gibson represents perhaps the height of tenor guitar design.  In the 1940s, and early 1950s, it could hold its own with any six-string arch-top, but at electric guitar styles expanded, it was left behind.

In the meantime the 4-string guitar had never really penetrated the music world outside of jazz. So when the Weaver's era of the "Folk Revival" came, the 4-string guitar wasn't even on the radar. Neither was the 4-string banjo, really. 6-string guitars (and 5-string banjos) ruled the "folk" genre from its earliest beginnings.

Though well-made 4-string electrics like the Gibson to the right were available, they weren't popular outside of the jazz world. Early rock guitarists like Chuck Berry all played 6-string electrics.

In short, by the time I was a youngster looking at the heavily-discounted tenor guitars in the pawn shop windows in the mid-1960s, about a thousand rock, pop, and folk guitar players had come and gone, NONE of which played four-string guitar (except, inexplicably, one member of the Kingston Trio). And there certainly weren't any more jazz banjo players looking to convert.

Most tenor guitars were just as well made as the 6-string guitars in same price range. But by the late 1960s, they weren't marketable. And the pawn shops weren't going to keep them forever, any more than they held onto the "obsolete" C Melody saxes once they realized they were just taking up space. I don't know where all those instruments wound up. I'm guessing they sold them all out for $5@ or something just to get them out of their hair. But now that there's a little bit of renewed interest in the instrument, a few great vintage models have turned up. Here's hoping there are a bunch more in closets somewhere, because there were some fine pieces.

Nowadays, with the renewed interest in the ukulele, the notion of an undersized four-string guitar isn't as noxious as it was just a few years back. In fact, several of the too-short "tenor guitars" I've seen advertised recently were made by ukulele companies.

When I search for new "tenor guitars" these days, I can find a few that are halfway worthy of the name. When I search for "tenor guitar players," I can find a few of those as well. In light of the fact that the tenor guitar is no longer, strictly speaking, a jazz instrument, a growing number of modern players are tuning it one octave down from mandolin, as many Irish banjo players tune their instrument. (EADG going from highest string to lowest). This gives them maximum range. If they play mandolin, it allows them to use mandolin chords.

Tenor Guitar Construction

This 1963 tenor Martin shows that serious guitar manufacturers would still produce tenors years after they 'peaked.'  Click for bigger photo.Though many "tenor guitars" today have small body sizes, most of the tenors of the 1920s-1960s had the same body size and construction as the equivalent parlor or archtop guitar. The 1963 Martin tenor to the right shows that tenors were still being manufactured as full-sized guitars right up until the end of their reign.

Nowadays, a number of ukulele importers are putting tenor-guitar-style strings on their "baritone ukes" and calling them tenor guitars. Other importers are putting four strings on their "travel" or "baby" guitars and calling them tenor guitars. But the original tenor guitars had the same scale length of a "19-fret" tenor banjo (21¾"-23"). So I have trouble applying the name "tenor guitar" to anything with a scale length shorter than 21". That doesn't mean that four-string baby guitars labeled "tenor" aren't musical instruments or fun to play, of course. But if a jazz banjo player can't transition to a so-called "tenor guitar" without substantial adjustment (or vice versa), the guitar don't quite meet the definition. In my opinion, of course.

Tuning

Because of its history as an alternative to plectrum or long-necked tenor banjo, the most popular tunings tended to be banjo tunings:

  • The most common tuning for the early plectrum banjos was DBGC (from the highest string to the lowest), so that was one choice. If you have come across a four-string guitar with a 26" to 28" scale, you have a "plectrum guitar," and it's original tuning would probably have been DBGC. That said, there's no reason you can't play it in one of the other tunings, but you would need light gauge strings (if not extra-light).

  • The most common tuning for 19-fret tenor banjos was probably ADGC (tuned in fifths, the same as a viola). This is considered by many to be the "standard" tenor banjo or tenor guitar tuning.

That said, when mandolin players double on 4-string guitar or banjo, they often tune them an octave down from their primary instrument: EADG, an octave lower than mandolin. This allows them to use the same chords as mandolin. It also gives the instrument its greatest range, with the low G only three half-steps above the lowest note on guitar. This happens to be the most common tuning for Irish banjo, so if you see an Irish banjo player playing a tenor guitar, he or she's probably using this tuning.

Also, some guitar players who pick up a 4-string guitar tune it like the highest four strings of a guitar (EBGD, sometimes called Chicago tuning). That works for jazz chords played up the neck, but keeps you from playing any low notes to speak of.

Note about Strings - If you want to play a tenor guitar or banjo (ADGC tuning) in Irish banjo tuning (EADG), you will need heavier strings. Yes, you can just tune the strings down, but they'll be sloppy and the neck will need serious adjustment. If you want to go the other way (from Irish tuning to tenor tuning), you will need lighter strings. If you try to tune the same strings up a fourth, you may break your banjo.

I always recommend buying new strings soon after you get a new fretted instrument anyway. Usually I recommend doing your preliminary setup before you put them on because it stresses the strings. But if you're changing from Irish to tenor tuning or vice versa, you need to change the strings first.

Below is a chart showing recommended medium and light gauge strings for tenor and Irish tunings respectively, taken from various manufacturers' recommendations. "Medium" give relatively high volume and brighter tone, and tend to stay in tune longer. "Light" are easier to play, especially if you're doing a lot of fancy stuff with your left hand or don't have as much time to practice (and keep your left hand strength and calluses up) as you should. I confess, I use light strings on almost everything, but if I was playing four-hour gigs every night, I'd probably migrate to medium eventually on some of my instruments. For beginners, I always recommend light gauge strings.

Recommended string gauges always vary slightly from one manufacturer to another, and many musicians wind up buying individual strings and "customizing" a set to their liking, so please take this as a general guideline.

String #
Medium Tenor
Light Tenor
Medium Irish
Light Irish
1
(highest)
10
9
12
11
2
15
13
18
15
3
24
22
28
26
4
(lowest)
30
28
38
36

Playing Style

Back in the 1920s-1930s, the most common playing style was strumming with a flat pick, the same as the jazz banjos of that era. Today, most people are coming to the four-string guitar from other genres. Depending on their needs and habits, they may flatpick melody and arpeggios (like Irish banjo players), or fingerpick, or strum with the fingernails or ??? Because it's a fairly rare instrument today, audiences don't have the same kind of expectations they do when you get out, say a 5-string banjo. Do whatever you want, and if you do it well, people will enjoy it.

For More Information

My research into this genre brought me into contact with TenorGuitar.com which includes more history and lists of other resources. That site brought me into contact with VintageTenorGuitars.com, which describes notable and rare tenor guitars in the owners collection.

The TenorGuitarFoundation.org site is also a good source of more information. In addition, the "TGF" sponsers an annual gathering of tenor guitar players, during which they have workshops, concerts, and jam sessions.

Conclusion

Click to see the Tenor Guitar Buyer's Guide on RiverboatMusic.com

I'm not saying to rush out and buy one. Just that they do exist and were once one of the most popular fretted instruments in American Popular music. And the growing interest in the things gives me hope for the genre.

Finally, while I was digging around, I found several people who were interested in trying one and didn't know where to start. Usually we recommend checking the used market first to see if you can get a superior instrument for less money. In this case, the main reason we recommend checking the used markets is that most of the tenors that were made before 1965 really are superior to most of the tenors being made today. And almost all of them are bigger, with a bigger sound. But we ran into a number of people who were delighted with certain new products. So we figured we'd put up buyers' guide to help folks toward the best choices in this category. Plus there's information on that page we couldn't fit on this one. So click on the box at the right if you'd like to see what we'd recommend as of this writing.

Please get in touch if you want to share photos of a unique instrument or ask any related questions.

Whatever road you decide to travel, I am certain that it will be made more fun with a properly chosen and set-up instrument. :-)

- Paul Race



Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.


All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
Creek Dont' Rise(tm) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising
program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Note: Creek Don't Rise (tm) is Paul Race's name for his resources supporting the history and
music of the North American Heartland as well as additional kinds of acoustic and traditional music.

For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this page or this site, please contact us.

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