History of the Tenor Guitar


Although most people have never heard of the tenor guitar, it has a long and storied history. According to tenorguitar.com, the tenor guitar "is a fretted four stringed instrument, most commonly shaped like a guitar, sometimes smaller than a normal guitar, which usually has a scale length of 23 inches and which is tuned in "fifths" to CGDA. It has been around for 100 years or more, built by some of the most famous companies and played by several well-known musicians in a wide variety of musical styles."



Evolution of My Tunings

I learned from my dad on his old Gibson flattop acoustic, which was tuned in the traditional CGDA - the same as a viola. I also played a little 5-string banjo and the four main strings of it were tuned to CGBD. It seemed more conducive to the rock and folk that I was playing at the time, so I also tuned my tenor to that scheme. When I was about 18, I was fooling around and put a thick E string (6th string...the lowest one) on the 4th string of my tenor and created an octave (D, octave D,F#,A) which created an open D major chord and used this as my predominant tuning (I call it drop major triad tuning).  Within a year, I did the same thing to the traditional tuning (I call this drop fifths tuning) and have been writing, recording and performing across all four tuning schemes since then. 


Concert Logistics

Because the thickness of the strings vary so much and it's almost impossible to get a capo to work successfully, I bring an assortment of guitars tuned in different schemes and different keys.  I also have two 8-string tenor guitars as well.  These handmade models by Jon Soderman are the tenor guitar equivalent of a 12-string guitar and have a particularly distinctive sound.



Tuning Examples

"Amniotic Universe I", "Amniotic Universe II" and "Furious Pace of Life" from The Weight of the Rose are in drop fifths tuning. "Vermont is afire in the Autumn" is in 5 string banjo tuning.  "Songs from the Heart", Please Be Sure to Remember and "She Loves Blue" (instrumental) from Songs from the Heart are in traditional fifths tuning.  "Gray Diner at 5am", "Friend of Mine" and "Lura, Lura, Lura" from Gray Diner at 5am are in drop major triad tuning.


Photo Credits
Black & white guitar
Guitars at Milton Hall ~
Richard Wanderman
Header Photo | Suzhou, China ~ Francois Ferchaud