Three Tenors: A Brief History of the Tenor Guitar

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Michael John Simmons-

At the start of the 1920s, the tenor banjo was the fretted instrument of choice for dance, jazz and pop bands. The tenor banjo was loud and brassy, making it the perfect instrument for the dawn of the frenetic Jazz Age. And the fact that its focused, almost strident tone was well-suited to the primitive recording gear of the time was a bonus. But as the decade wore on, recording technology advanced to the point where it was possible to effectively record softer, mellower sounds.

Singers like Bing Crosby, Jean Sablon and Nick Lucas took advantage of the new microphones and developed an intimate vocal style that came to be known as crooning. Crooners quickly found it was was almost impossible to sustain a romantic mood with a banjo clattering away in the background and they increasingly turned to guitarists to accompany them. Crosby relied on Eddie Lang, for example, while Sablon, gave a young Django Reinhardt some of his first recording gigs. Nick Lucas, a brilliant guitarist in his own right, backed himself.

By 1930, with the new recording techniques and the introduction of guitars like Gibson’s L-5 and Martin’s OM-28, instruments that were loud but mellow, it became apparent that the tenor banjo was well on its way to extinction, at least in mainstream popular music. But what to do about those thousands of tenor banjo players who didn’t want to switch to guitar after spending years honing their skills? Enter the tenor guitar, essentially a tenor banjo neck grafted onto a guitar body. The instruments pictured here show three different approaches to creating the hybrid instruments.

The Paramount Style D is the instrument that most shows its banjo heritage. In the 1920s Paramount were making fine tenor and plectrum banjos, but they didn’t have the woodworking setup to make guitars. This instrument was made for them by Martin and it was constructed with a unique resonator that resembles the look of a banjo. This tenor guitar has a sweet, ringing tone with a lot of sustain. As you can imagine, this was a very complicated guitar to build and only a handful were ever made.

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When Selmer started making guitars in 1932, they offered three different tenor guitar models. The other two models, the Eddie Freeman and the Orchestre, both had long, 25.5” scale lengths, making them a real handful for tenor players. This example, though has a standard, and more reasonable, 22.5” scale length. The Selmer has a bright, clear tone and really cut through in a band situation. Like the Paramount Style D, this was a very complex guitar to build and only a handful were built.

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The Collings Tenor 1 is a wonderful modern example of the style of tenor guitar that actually found players beyond the displaced tenor banjo players of the 1920s and has survived into the present era. This guitar is inspired  by the Martin 0-18T, a model that was first introduced in 1929. Over the years Martin-style tenor guitars have found a home in groups like the sophisticated harmony singers the Ink Spots, folk singers like the Kingston Trio and modern singers like Neko Case. This Collings tenor guitar has a rich, clear tone with a lots of sustain and it works well in standard tenor tuning (CGDA) or tuned to the top four strings of a guitar (DGBA).

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You can download a great introduction to playing the tenor guitar in CGDA tuning here.



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