Several weeks ago I received a gift of cash. It maybe wasn’t large to some of you, but it was more than I usually have all at the same time. Knowing how likely it was that I’d just fritter it away, I decided to quickly invest it into my act. One of the things at the top of my list was a tenor guitar. I’d been lusting after one for some time (and talking about it to get the idea “out into the universe”) so this seemed to be my chance.
So on Thursday, November 13th, I went to Dusty Strings and picked up a 1961 Harmony tenor guitar. I’d actually paid for it the night before, but it needed some setup work done to bring it in line with what I wanted. (I’ll get to that later.) In the picture to the left you can see Harmony–yes, I named her Harmony… so sue me!–with Pierson the soprano ukulele in the shot to give y’all an idea of Harmony’s size. And yes, I named him Pierson. It’s a convoluted science fiction/ukulele joke and if you want the whole story behind it, leave a comment and I’ll tell it there.
Right now some of you might be thinking, “Why does Howlin’ Hobbit, Ukulele Ace, want a guitar at all, much less a tenor?” In fact, some of you might be wondering what the hell a tenor guitar is. Well pilgrim, I’m here to supply the answers to just such mysteries. I’ll start with what it is and move on to why I got one.
(Oh… and here’s where the music geek talk starts.)
The first production model of a tenor guitar was produced by Gibson in 1927. They were made because the popular music of the day was starting to transition from traditional Jazz (Trad Jazz is also called Dixieland) into a more big band scene that would later become swing. Trad Jazz used banjo as their rhythm instrument but the proto-swing cats were all about guitar in its place. The tenor guitar allowed the banjo players to double on guitar without having to learn a whole slew of new chord shapes. Tenor banjo “standard” tuning is in fifths, like a viola, and standard guitar tuning is mainly fourths, with one third thrown in just to mess with you. It’s no wonder the banjo players wanted to stick with a tuning they knew.
If you’re going, “Dafuq is with the thirds, fourths, etc.?” don’t panic. It’s just a way to describe the space between two notes in a given scale. (Of course, “space” isn’t fancy schmancy enough, so the official musicianer name for these spaces is “intervals.”)
Returning to our story…
After a time the tenor guitar had spread around pretty well. All over the place there were guitar players going, “Well, ain’t that just as cute as a bug? I want one.” Of course they were also saying, “But fuck a bunch of this tuning! The chords are too stretchy on my hands!” So somewhere–one could assume Chicago for reasons that will soon be obvious–some unnamed guitar slinger decided to tune it like the highest four strings of the guitar (the highest musically speaking, not farthest from the floor). This ended up being called “Chicago tuning.”
See. I told you it would be obvious. Our circle is nearly complete. Stay with me.
Now they could play the cute little thangs with more or less the same shapes they used on the 6 stringed versions they were accustomed to. They simply omitted the two low strings from the fingerings they usually used. And it turns out that the tenor is happy in various alternative tunings so it was fit into various musical styles.
So 90 years later I’m pondering how to expand my act a bit. It’s really great to be able to switch instruments occasionally. This is especially true if you’re doing a longer show, like a house concert for instance. (I really want to do more house concerts!) It changes the texture of the sound, it changes the visual, and it’s just a nice change of pace to keep the audience’s attention. I had Harmony set up for Chicago tuning because it’s also baritone ukulele tuning. (For you fellow musicians, the string gauges, low to high, are 35, 26, 17, 13. Guitar strings are cheap, so I may try a lighter set before calling the matter settled.) But the upshot is I can use all of the chord shapes I’m used to doing, the music will just be in a different key. In other words, I don’t have to learn a whole new batch of finger stretchy shapes.
So that closes the circle. First, you had banjo players that wanted a new instrument without learning new chords. Than it was adopted by guitar players who liked the size, etc., but they didn’t want to learn new chord shapes either, so they changed the tuning. And now a ukulele player wanted a new instrument without learning new chords, but his predecessors had done all the work for him, except for the practice part.
I’m still having a bit of wrist pain on one of the tunes I’m practicing. It’s gotten better though as I rebuild the wrist strength needed for steel strings instead of nylon. I want to “go public” playing a tune on the tenor (even if only in a video) soon, so I better get back to that practice part.