simulacrum party

Tenor Guitars

I've been playing guitar for a long time, maybe fifteen years. Along the way, to keep things interesting, I've picked up various other string instruments as well. I've played mandolins and ukuleles and banjos, a cuatro that my friend's mom brought back from a visit to Puerto Rico, a mountain dulcimer, and so on. For some reason (intimidation?) I've never played any bowed instruments, but other than that glaring exception, I love anything with strings. My latest addition to this list is the tenor guitar, and since they aren't very common, I thought I'd write a little article about it.

I first heard of the tenor guitar five or six years ago in an article about Jason Molina who played one early in his career. A tenor guitar is essentially a small guitar with four strings, tuned in fifths1, like members of the violin and mandolin families. The traditional tuning is CGDA, but GDAE is common as well. The story is that in the 1920s, the four-string tenor banjo was a common instrument in jazz bands but was getting edged out by the guitar by the 1930s. Guitar manufacturers were eager to capitalize on the population of out-of-work tenor banjo players and so introduced an instrument with the appearance and sound of a guitar but the string layout and tuning of a tenor banjo. The tenor guitar was never very popular, but has maintained a solid, if small, community of players, mostly in bluegrass and Celtic styles music.

When I first heard about the tenor guitar, I thought it sounded pretty neat and so rather than trying to hunt down a rare, and probably expensive, instrument, I took an old acoustic guitar I had, removed the highest two strings, and tuned the remaining four to CGDA, from the C below low E to the A from the second fret of the third string. I realize now that tenor guitars are supposed to be pitched slightly higher than a normal guitar - the tenor's low C string is equivalent to the third fret of the fifth string on a normal guitar, and the tenor's high A is equivalent to the fifth fret of the first string - and what I had done would technically be considered a baritone tenor2. Regardless, I really liked playing this makeshift tenor. The chord shapes are different enough to be interesting and easy to play, with most requiring only two fingers. There's something about tuning in fifths that produces a sort of ringing, chiming sound that you don't get from standard guitar tuning. I can't quite put my finger on it but I think it sounds great.

Jumping ahead to the present, I found myself getting into tenor guitars again. This time I experimented with a regular guitar tuned CGDAAA, where you have to bar the top three strings all the time. This is a cool effect - the three barred notes produce a kind of chorus sound that I quite like, similar to a twelve-string guitar. It's a little tough on the fingers though, and since my career situation has improved a lot in the last six years, I figured I would just buy a real one.

My first attempt was a seller on Facebook Marketplace who was selling an old Harmony tenor from the 70s. It looked like it was in great shape, so I asked if I could come check it out. After some back and forth trying to set something up, the seller actually went and sold it to someone else. Oops! I was hoping to get a chance to play whatever I bought in person before I bought it, but after that initial good find, nothing else came up in my area. Eventually I bought a slightly used Ibanez PFT-2 from eBay. At $200 new, they're already the cheapest tenor guitars you can get, but if I could get it even a little cheaper, why not?

I'm not totally sure why Ibanez makes this guitar. Other tenor guitar manufacturers seem to be rooted in the Celtic or Appalachian music traditions, whereas I associate Ibanez (perhaps unfairly!) with the kind of electric guitars that appeal to high school heavy metal bands. And it's not even the only tenor guitar they make! There's also the AVT1, which has what I consider to be a very odd body shape, and the AVT2E-NT which is $400, and if I'm paying that much, I'm going to spend a little more and look into a Blueridge.

However, it's not a bad instrument for a little over a hundred dollars. It's all laminate, so you aren't going to get the tones you might get from a handcrafted mahogany guitar, but it's well built and sounds good. Mine came tuned GDAE but, after struggling to get it to sound like it was in tune, I realized it was strung with lighter strings for CGDA tuning. Tuning up to CGDA fixed the tuning situation, but I found I preferred the lower pitch of GDAE, so I bought a set of strings intended for GDAE3. The action is set a little high for me, so I'll probably adjust that at some point but otherwise I've been having a lot of fun with this thing.

Never satisfied, I'm already thinking about my next tenor. I think it'd be a fun project to get a Squier Mustang or some other shorter scale electric guitar and convert it into a tenor, maybe a baritone tenor. While I like the Ibanez a lot, it's obviously a cheap instrument and I think that eventually I'll want something a little nicer like a Blueridge. I'm still working out the shapes and patterns that feel most comfortable to me but I already feel pretty comfortable. Overall, I strongly recommend trying out a tenor guitar to any guitarist who feels a little bored with their instrument.

  1. Starting from the lowest string, each successive string is five whole notes higher than the previous one

  2. While this sounds oxymoronic, it is a real thing, and you can buy one. Here's one made by Eastwood Guitars.

  3. John Pearse 450 80/20 Bronze Tenor Guitar Strings