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Don Rickert Musician Shop

The Tenor Guitar: Odd Loner without a Real Family

Posted by D. Rickert on


This article is by D. Rickert Musical Instruments and its online store, Don Rickert Musician Shop. We hope that you find this article interesting in its own right. That being said, the article is a background piece to an article that proposes a new graduated family of 4 or 5-string steel-strung instruments, tuned in 5ths and intended primarily for melodic playing rather than rhythmic chords. The instruments are designed to be played with a plectrum (pick).

The instruments, as well as plans and kits for building them, will be available very soon at the Don Rickert Musician Shop.

Introduction  Tenor vs 6-string

The tenor guitar is more or less a fluke (i.e. an accident) of musical instrument design history. It is a bit smaller than a 6-string guitar with a slightly shorter playable scale (23” vs. 25”-25.5”). It has four strings tuned in 5ths (just like the violin and mandolin families). Okay, an instrument of the tenor guitar’s size tuned in 5ths would be appropriate for a melody instrument tuned an octave lower than a violin or mandolin; essentially a single course octave mandolin. Note: The Octave Mandolin did not appear until about 40 years after the tenor guitar. Well, it is not. What we call the “Historic Tenor Guitar” is tuned way higher than an instrument of its size should be (rather, it is tuned like a viola: C-G-D-A) and traditionally is NOT used to play melodic parts (except in the hands of Irish tenor banjo players…another story altogether). Rather, the historic tenor guitar was created to strum chirpy little chords in jazz-swing music, which was popular in the 1930s.

To call a Historic Tenor Guitar a guitar is a serious stretch. In other words, it is not really a solidly legitimate member of the guitar family. The Historic Tenor Guitar, was in fact, created for tenor banjoists (or band leaders) wanting to achieve more of “guitarish” sound to their choppy rhythmic chord playing. The tenor banjo is another musical instrument oddity, which was created to fill one need, which was to provide barely audible chord rhythm to jazz-swing music.

We Have Nothing Against Jazz-Swing Music

In our introduction to the tenor guitar, one could get the impression that we do not like jazz-swing. In the spirit of full disclosure, a little bit of this genre goes a long way for us; just as bagpipe or accordion music does for many people. Any reference to jazz-swing was simply to explicate the aberrant use of a potentially good musical instrument in an especially non-musical way.

One does wonder about the percentage of tenor banjo and tenor guitar players in the 1930s who really enjoyed their roles, or whether making a living played a larger role than musical fulfillment. This is not to deny the skill it takes to play jazz chords with good timing. In any case, we will not be surprised to hear from the various historic jazz-swing tenor guitar interest groups wishing to express their displeasure.

Despite its oddness, the historic high-tuned tenor guitar is currently enjoying a resurgence, as it has a number of times in its near century long existence.

Summary of Things that are Just Plain Wrong About the Historic Tenor Guitar

  • It is strung and tuned too high for an instrument of its size
  • It is tuned for melody (in 5ths), but used exclusively for chords
  • It is misnamed: The tuning is such that it is in no way a tenor instrument, but rather, it is an ALTO instrument!

Leave it to the Irish Do Things Their Own Way!

Irish musicians have well-established history of playing fretted instruments melodically. Early on, Irish musicians started using tenor banjos and tenor guitars as melody instruments. They had already set the precedent with their unique use of the 5-string and the plectrum banjos, for instance.

It did take until the 1960s for Irish Traditional musicians to start tuning both tenor banjos and tenor guitars as proper tenor instruments (i.e. an octave below the fiddle). It was Barney McKenna, tenor banjoist of the Dubliners, who introduced the lower-pitched so-called “Irish tuning” (G-D-A-E) for tenor banjos. Use of the Irish tuning for tenor guitar followed. I have NEVER met an accomplished tenor guitarist who did not use the G-D-A-E nor have I met a tenor guitarist who used the instrument for anything but primarily melodic playing. Of course, I have heard recordings of the tenor guitar in jazz-swing. I have also heard the instrument when strung and tuned like the first four strings of a 6-string guitar (D-G-B-E). This is called either the “Chicago tuning” or the baritone ukulele tuning. Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio is probably the best-known chord strummer of a tenor guitar in Chicago tuning.

Side Bar: An Enigmatic Irony

At about the same time that tenor guitars were being re-strung, retuned and used for melodic playing, there was the introduction of the so-called “Irish bouzouki”, followed by the appearance of the “Irish Octave Mandolin”. The Irish Bouzouki uses octave stringing (like a 12-string guitar) on the lower courses and the subsequently developed Octave Mandolin generally uses unison courses (like all mandolin family instruments). Both the Irish bouzouki and the octave mandolin are tuned an octave lower than the fiddle (G-D-A-E).

Here is the ironic part: Common playing practice, established early on, for both of these instruments, is primarily chordal rather than melodic. Go figure! But I digress.

The Idea of the “Melodic Guitar” Instrument Family: The Melodic Guitar Quartet

In my next article, I will propose a 4-member family of instruments, graduated in sizes, as follow: Treble, Alto, Tenor and Baritone. These instruments are to be metal strung, tuned in 5ths and intended to be played with a plectrum (pick). The Tenor of this new instrument family is the tenor guitar strung and tuned an octave below the violin (G-D-A-E), a proper tenor tuning. The smaller Alto of the family will be tuned in the historic tenor guitar C-G-D-A (i.e. viola) tuning.

Stayed tuned!

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