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Tenor Guitar Buyers' Guide, from Riverboat Music(tm)Historically, a tenor guitar is a full-sized guitar equipped with four strings and tuned like a viola (ADGC, starting from the highest string). It was a way for professional Jazz banjo players - who once numbered in the tens of thousands - to "double" on guitar without having to learn new chords and scales. The name "tenor guitar" resulted from using the same tuning as the "tenor banjo," the most popular fretted instrument of the Jazz Age.
Every manufacturer who made 6-string guitars offered 4-string versions as well, and many fine instrument were produced - all the same size and quality as their 6-string brethren. Yet, despite its "jump start" in popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the tenor guitar remained an instrument for people who had started out on banjo. Youngsters who started out on guitar on purpose tended to start on 6-string guitars. So as 4-string Jazz banjos faded in popularity, the market for 4-string guitars eventually diminished as well. For more information about the history of tenor guitars, as well as links to current players, collectors, and organizations, check out the CreekDontRise.com article What is a Tenor Guitar?.
The tenor guitar had never penetrated many music markets beyond Jazz, so it's no surprise that it was bypassed by the Folk Revival and ignored by early Rockers. By the time I got my first guitar in the 1960s, the pawn shops were full of fine, well-made, but dusty tenor guitars that nobody wanted. Within a few years most of them had been discarded.
Recently it seems that the rise of interest in the ukulele has spurred interest in other four-string guitar-like instruments. So a bunch of importers are putting ADGC string sets on their baritone ukuleles and their "baby," "travel," and "1/2-sized" bottom-of-the-line instruments and calling them "tenor guitars." Yes, some of these toys are fun to play, but they rather miss the point. If you want to play an undersized guitar-like instrument, you probably might as well just get the six-string version. On the other hand, if you want the experience of playing a four-string guitar that is tuned in fifths (like a viola, Jazz banjo, or mandolin), you might consider getting a real tenor guitar. Unfortunately, many of the so-called tenor guitars on the market today are more toy than musical instrument, but a few are available.
Ordinarily I have a section on the pros and cons of starting on each kind of guitar I review. But even at the peak of the tenor guitar's popularity, very few people ever started out on one, and there is far less reason to do so today. If you're a tenor banjo player looking to add new sounds, or a 6-string guitar player looking to experiment with different chord structures, go for it. But if you don't play any fretted instruments at all, consider starting on guitar, banjo, or mandolin.
Full-sized or Mini?
A full-sized tenor guitar is the same size as any other guitar, although you wouldn't know that by looking at most so-called "tenor guitars" being imported today. That said, if you want to buy a mini version, there are certainly plenty available, and most people today know so little about tenor guitars that they will assume you're playing the real thing.
If you want the full effect of playing tenor guitar, though, I recommend at least trying a full-sized instrument. By the way, the minimum scale length for traditional tenor banjos or guitars is 21 3/4". 22" or 22.5" are more common. If the guitar your looking at has a scale length under 21", you're looking at a mini in more than overall size.
Conversely, if all you really want is an itty-bitty guitar, get a baby or travel or "1/2-size" six-string. There's no shame in that, unless you never practice and sound like like you never practice.
ADGC or EADG?ADGC tuning, starting with the highest string first, is the traditional tenor guitar tuning. That's based on the traditional tenor banjo tuning, which was tuned like a viola, one fifth down from violin (and mandolin). This is still the most popular tuning for folks using tenor guitar to play traditional jazz, including Ragtime, Dixieland, and related genres.
A number of modern players play EADG, tuning one full octave below mandolin. This gives the guitar more range and helps mandolin players pick up the instrument very quickly. EADG is also the most popular tuning for Irish banjo. So if you see a Celtic banjo player doubling on 4-string guitar, chances are he or she is playing in EADG. The reason this is worth mentioning is that if you plan to play your four-string guitar in Irish tuning or "Chicago" tuning (below), you'll probably need to change the strings soon after you get the instrument. Conversely, many folks who've gotten a tenor guitar that was originally tuned to EADG try tuning it up to AEDG, only to discover how easy it is to break strings and get your guitar neck out of whack by trying the bring the strings up a whole fifth from their intended range.
Other Tunings - By the way, some folks who own tenor guitars tune them like the highest four strings of a six-string guitar: EBGD. This is sometimes called Chicago tuning. And a tiny minority tune them like the old Plectrum banjos, which preceded tenor banjos: DBGD or DBGC
Note About Tuning - In the paragraphs above, all the tuning schemes are listed with the highest string first, the way all other guitar, banjo, and mandolin players describe their tunings. If you get involved with tenor guitar, you'll soon learn that many tenor guitarists invert that scheme, starting with the lowest note first. So when you hear a discussion about whether CGDA or GDAE is "better for Jazz," don't assume that there are more popular tunings we haven't told you about; just remember that tenor guitar players have their own subculture.
US-built or Imported?
Unfortunately, the demise of the tenor guitar's popularity by the mid-1960s, meant that many fine old instruments were discarded. If you can come up with one of the old ones, you may find an instrument that will rival any other guitar of its class and age.
Also, during the 1940s and 1950s a number of second-tier American companies like Kay and Harmony built these in both "starter" and "upgrade" versions. Although they're nowhere near the quality of the Gibson and Martin versions, and they're not pretty by today's standards, even the "starter" versions are more solid than a number of imported "tenor" guitars.
As with all imports, if you wind up buying online, you must have someone who knows what they are doing check it out and set it up while it is still in the return period. When I've ordered off-brand import instruments online, I have to return the first one because of manufacturing defects or shipping damage about 60% of the time. When I've ordered "brand name" import instruments online, I have to return the first one about 40% of the time. When I get a good one I have to restring and set it up 100% of the time. If you don't believe me, look at the 1-star reviews for any Chinese-made instrument. Ninety percent of them are complaining either:
On the other hand ninety-five per cent of the 5-star reviews are from people who know nothing about the instrument and just know it's pretty.
The reviews you need to look for are 4-star reviews from experienced players who have ordered an import just to have one to take to parties or whatever, and realize it's nearly as much fun to play as their pro instrument. Again, the first one you get may fall short of your expectations, but the next one you get may far exceed them. That's the "upside" - such as it is - of poor quality control.
Acoustic-Electric OptionsIf playing "out" is an eventual goal, and you can get a pickup-equipped tenor guitar for just a tad more than the non-electric version, it might be worth considering. Back in their "heyday," the typical setup for an "electric" tenor had a full-sized arch-top, f-hole body with a single magnetic pickup near the bottom of the fretboard. Except for the relatively limited range of notes that could be played, the sound going into the amplifier was identical to the sound of a similar 6-string. Unfortunately, most of those models have either disappeared or fallen into collections, so you'll have trouble finding one.
But if you want a more "acoustic" sound, you're in luck - relatively speaking. Piezoelectric/preamp-equipped tenor guitars like the Blue Ridge BR-40T CE sound about as good plugged in as any acoustic-electric guitar you can buy for under $1500.
That said, if you wind up with an acoustic-only guitar and later on wish you had bought an acoustic-electric, it is possible to retrofit them.
Cutaway OptionsLead guitarists or jazz banjo players used to playing way up the neck sometimes get frustrated when they get up to the fifteenth fret on a tenor guitar and can't go any higher. A few manufacturers have cutaway options to give those players better access to the higher frets. If you're a jazz banjo player intent on playing tenor-banjo-style jazz parts on a tenor guitar, that might be a consideration. If you're going to use this for other styles, it might not be that important to you, though.
Top OptionsFor about a century, the wood of choice for the face/top of steel-string guitars has been solid sitka spruce. It's rated on appearance and on how close the grain is together (closer is better). The best rating is "AAA"; "AA" usually signifies a professional or near-professional-quality guitar as well. "A" or no rating at all is still almost always better than laminate, which is where they shave a 1/20th of an inch from a sitka spruce board, and glue it on top of who-knows what, and still call it a "spruce top." (Notice the lack of the word "solid" in that phrase.)
If modern tenor guitars continue to grow in popularity, mahogany and cedar tops may be offered. Solid mahogany is not as loud, but it's very resistant to changes in humidity. Solid cedar is louder, but softer, and more likely to be damaged if one of your idiot friends treats the guitar roughly. Of course veneer guitars topped with a thin sheet of mahogany or cedar are no different than any other veneer guitars - there's more glue than wood in some of those tops.
To give you some idea of what you can expect, I've listed some guitars that may be worth checking out in the table below.
Ordinarily when I write a buyers' guide, I can choose among a couple dozen candidates from several brands I'm familiar with. Unfortunately, in this case, there aren't as many good choices as I'm used to. So I will show some tenor guitars that are probably worth considering. The Blue Ridge line is probably the most promising at this point. I only show one example, since they all look the same, but that's a pretty nice instrument in itself, and if you click on that you'll see the upgrade models.
I also tried to include the dimensions, so you could get an idea of how these relate in size to each other. Unfortunately, most of the manufacturers are very cagey with that information. So if you wind up with one of these that is mostly question marks and can measure it and send the details to me, I'd appreciate it.
The Ibanez examples are undersized by traditional tenor guitar dimensions, but they have a good reputation for what they are. They're also available in veneer (plywood) or solid-topped versions, so you go cheap or upgrade, depending on your needs.
I deliberately left the oversized ukuleles off this list. Uke companies as a rule aren't used to designing instruments with adjustable 22" necks and steel strings.
My big disappointment after compiling this list is that no guitar manufacturer is making full-sized arch-top f-hole tenors, one of the classic tenor configuration back in the days of early jazz guitar. I'm told that a person with $3K or more can order one custom-built, but that's not an option for most people.
When you do buy, whatever you buy, please either:
Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.
Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."
Appendix: Why Restringing a 6-String Guitar or an Acoustic Bass Won't WorkFirst: Neck Width. Tenor guitar necks are much narrower than either six-string or acoustic bass necks. Remember, the tenor guitar's neck is based on the tenor banjo's neck, which kept the strings close together to help compensate for the additional reach that jazz chords on an ADGC-tuned instrument occasionally required. 1.25" at the nut (about 32mm) is pretty standard. If my sources are correct, you'll have trouble finding an original tenor guitar with a neck wider than 1 3/8" at the nut (about 35mm). At the same time, you'll have trouble finding any 6-string guitar neck narrower than 1 11/16" at the nut (about 43mm). Most acoustic 6-string necks are wider at the neck. 1 3/4" (about 44mm) is the most common. 1 3/4" is also the minimum width for most acoustic bass guitars. I'm not saying you can't swap out the tuners and strings on an acoustic 6-string or acoustic bass guitar and play it in ADGC or EADG tuning. Only that it won't give you a feel for the instrument, any more than playing a classical guitar will give you a feel for a Telecaster or vice versa.
Second: Neck Length. Traditional tenor guitars seldom had necks much longer than 23 1/2 inches. Most full-sized 6-string acoustics have 24" or 25" necks. This isn't killer. But acoustic bass guitars have even longer necks. Even if the necks weren't too wide, the distance between frets near the nuts would make playing typical ADGC or EADG chords a little tough.
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Note about Buying Musical Instruments New: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the vendor.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online catalog until I can find a replacement or another supplier. For more detailed information about why products seem to come and go and why I have stopped listing prices for most products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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