Vintage Guitar - February 2018 - 62
A NEW SOUND
Tenor Guitars Expand the Tonal Palette
By Steven Stone
needed. So, the tenor
guitar was born.
Like a tenor banjo, a tenor
guitar is tuned in fifths - C,
D, G, A - but has a guitarstyle body, the shape of which
has a major influence on how it
sounds and plays. Gibsons first
tenor was the TL-4, introduced in
1924 with a lute-shaped body. The
TG-50, introduced 10 years later,
had an archtop-style body complete with f-shaped sound holes.
It sounded much like an archtop
guitar, with a pronounced attack
and quick decay.
Martin gave its tenor a flat-top
body; first was the 5-17 introduced in 1927 followed in '29 by
the 0-18T, and through the years
1928 National Style 2 Tenor
and a '42 Gibson T-50.
Steven Stone is the editor
of Audiophile Review. He has
also written for Stereophile,
The Absolute Sound, Creem, and
Spin magazines. For relaxation,
he plays and collects guitars
and mandolins. His e-mail
address is sstone8807@
Photos: VG Archive.
uitarists who play through an amp
can find a different or new sound
simply by adding an effect pedal or
tweaking a knob. For acoustic players,
though, a new sound often involves a new
instrument - even a completely different
instrument... like a tenor guitar.
Unlike most "folk" instruments, the
tenor guitar hasn't been around for 10
generations. Rather, it's distinctly North
American, created by pop culture and
evolving musical tastes.
The tenor guitar was created in response
to musical cross-currents at the turn of the
20th century; mandolin orchestras popular
from the 1890s until circa 1910 played mostly
classical music, but jazz, Hawaiian, country,
and blues supplanted classical melodies.
As mandolin orchestras lost their hold,
mando players began to take up the tenor
banjo. Tuned like a mandola (in fifths, but
one below), the transition was relatively easy
since the chord positions and scales easily
translated to the four-string tenor banjo.
A new generation of star players emerged,
including Vess Ossman, Fred Van Eps, and
But, after a couple years, public
tastes became urbanized and
larger jazz groups began to displace other genres. While the
tenor banjo was perfectly
suited to Dixieland jazz,
it wasn't as appropriate
for more-urban jazz
and pop, where, a
mellower (but still
loud) sound was
the company produced a variety of tenor
guitars in 0, 2, 5, 00, 000, OM, and even D
sizes. The flat-top body with a tenor neck
had a slower rise time and more-pronounced
sustain than Gibson's archtop tenor, but could
be equally loud.
National's tenors were built on pearand guitar-shaped bodies in styles 1, 2,
and 3, along with Style 0 bodies with
one or three cones. The last National
tenors were metal-bodied resonators
produced in the early '40s. They were
the loudest tenors ever made, and lacked
the distinctive National metal nasality.
Since the '30s, the tenor guitar has been
used by a variety of musicians, including
Roy Smeck ("Wizard of the Strings"; see
George Gruhn's feature on his Gibson L-5
in this issue), the Delmore Brothers' Rabon
Delmore, and Tiny Grimes, whose electric
tenor graced recordings by Art Tatum and
In the '60s, the tenor was poised for a
comeback thanks to Nick Reynolds of the
Kingston Trio, who was a huge pop star at
the time. But it was not to be, as most young
folkies began migrating to six-string guitar.
Today, a tenor guitar pops up occasionally
in the hands of pop artists such as Neko
Case, Josh Rouse, Ani DiFranco, Carrie Rodriquez, Joe Craven, and even Elvis Costello.
Should one be your next acquisition? If you'd like another voice
or if you play mando and
would like to add a different guitar-like sound, it
could be just right.