My New Toy, 4/30/12

It’s called a tenor guitar (specifically this one). Which means that it’s a guitar, but it’s got four strings, and naturally those four strings are the highest ones. It’s also tuned like a ukulele, which means that all the chords I’ve learned on the one transfer to the other, which is in fact very useful. I got it when I was in California, at the Folk Music Center in Claremont (which for music trivia fans is owned by the family of musician Ben Harper; I believe I was rung up by his mother).

I went in with my friend Natasha to get her a ukulele for her birthday (this one, in fact), and one of the folks behind the counter was fiddling around with the tenor guitar. He gave it to me to try and about three minutes later I was calling Krissy to let her know I was about to drop a non-trivial load of cash for an early birthday present to myself. The store had to ship it; it arrived today.

The quick verdict after a couple hours of playing it: Well, I like it very much. I had no idea tenor guitars existed before I walked into the store, but had occasionally thought that it would be cool to have a guitar-sized uke, so this obviously fits the bill. My history with guitars has not been sterling; I have a couple but I have difficulty with some chords (mostly the ones that require laying one’s finger across the entire fretboard) so I’ve never been able to get a good sound from them. This one has fewer strings and requires less effort to play, which suits my general relationship with musical instruments (i.e., very casual and not inclined to put in the large amount of effort required to be excellent).

That said, I can already tell that the tenor guitar is far less forgiving than the ukulele. One of the things that I like about the uke is that even when you screw up a chord, it still sounds winsome; it’s an instrument that affords the play a huge margin for error. The tenor guitar is more like a guitar in this regard; when I screw up a chord I notice it. It also reminds me that my strumming is completely crap. So if I want to actually sound good with this guitar, I will have to put in more effort than I do now. Maybe not as much as with a six string guitar, but more than I do with the uke.

Which is fine; it’s good to have a challenge and I think I will make the effort. First task: Toughen up the fingertips on the fretting hand. These are metal strings. Ouch.

Incidentally, if you live near Claremont or happen to be going through the area, I do recommend the Folk Music Center to you. There’s a huge number of very cool instruments there, stringed and otherwise, and the folks who work at the store are knowledgeable, nice, helpful and, clearly, able to spot someone who wants a tenor guitar even before he knows he wants one. Give them your business.

37 Comments on “My New Toy, 4/30/12”

  1. Cool guitar. I have the same problem with barre chords on the regular guitar. When I watch real guitarists playing them so effortlessly, it makes me bot envious and sad.

  2. For all the reasons you cited, I tend to prefer the baritone ukulele. It is more forgiving, easier to play and a good one goes for $150, rather than the $500 you’d pay for a good tenor guitar

  3. Oh VERY COOL. I have a local friend with a tenor guitar and it’s got a very lovely voice on it. Good luck with your practice! And hee, you just reminded me I need to break out my own big ol’ dreadnought for practice myself. :D

  4. I think I am very envious of your ambition. I have no musical talent, well I pick good music to listen to but I don’t think that counts. Lovely new toy, good luck with the first order of business.

  5. Oh, this is very interesting. I too have problems with bar chords on my standard guitar, no matter how much I love it, but I haven’t been all that interested in the uke movement because I’m not crazy about the tone of most of the ones I’ve heard. I will have to investigate. @zizban – do you know if anyone plays with alternate tunings on these? I would assume they’d be just as useful/usable as on a 6 string?

  6. Get a pickup on that thing, run it through a fuzz box and then into an amplifier. Mistakes will then sound AWESOME!

  7. That’s a right purdy guitar there, John. So when do we get to hear you on it? Yeah, bar cords suck, but it’s one of those hurdles that once you get through it, you can’t imagine why you had problems with them before.

  8. @melebeth The tenor guitar is really just the top four strings on a six string. I’ve seen people scale a tenor guitar and up and down. One guy I know plays his like a banjo, which is neat (and they’re related instruments). I once tried to play mine like a ukelele once. Eh, it didn’t turn out too good. I can play tenor guitar cords on a six string easy.

  9. I often had a “tenor guitar” in high school and college when I didn’t want to pay (money and also, lazily, time) to replace broken lower strings. My favorite configuration is actually the four high strings plus the lowest one — on a classical guitar, so the high strings are still nylon.

    Don’t they also make, er, “big ukes”? One of these days I’m going to join this crazy ukulele club. It is amusing to play my kids’s “toy” uke. But I can’t seem to unlearn standard guitar tuning, making all the standard uke fingering charts not so helpful.

  10. Elizabeth — you can also tune a tenor guitar like a tenor banjo (or cello). That was considered the “standard” tuning in the late 1920s, when it was seen mainly as a replacement for the tenor banjo in jazz bands. But a lot of players even then tuned it like the top four strings of a guitar, or like a uke — banjo players called it “Chicago” tuning. No reason you couldn’t experiment with other tunings, either.

  11. Yes, bar chords are evil. Bad, bad bar chords [/doctor]

    Sadly, playing well without using bar chords is exceptionally difficult.

  12. Cool! I also struggled with guitar. I still have a nice one that I can play 3 or 4 chords on (but not G). I recently picked up a woodrow Mine is a three string and is tuned so you only have to fret the bottom string. I can actually bang out some simple tunes on it, much to my 3-year-old’s delight.

  13. My history with guitars has not been sterling; I have a couple but I have difficulty with some chords (mostly the ones that require laying one’s finger across the entire fretboard) so I’ve never been able to get a good sound from them.

    Is this the case with electric guitars too? I have problems with some acoustic guitars play barre chords because the action is too high. But I don’t have that problem with electrics.

    BTW, there is a work around. It involves using your thumb. I’ve seen people use it including some pros.

  14. I knew you were going to want something a bit beefier in a 4 string. Did I call it or did I call it?

  15. coolblue, in my experience electric guitars have much narrower necks than classical acoustics do, so barre chords (played with index finger or with thumb) are much less physically demanding.

  16. @montsamu

    Go for a baritone ukulele. The four strings are tuned the same as the top four strings of a guitar, so the chords are very close and are the same in many cases. I’ve also found that it’s easier to keep in tune than a regular ukulele, even if you get a cheap one.

  17. If your strumming is crap try some picking patterns on for size.. a quick google of “tenor guitar picking” turns up a bunch of resources.
    My favorite picking patterns from high school lessons at the parks and rec:
    T/3 12131 4/4 time, quarter, 4 eighth notes, quarter.

    And I am now of the opinion that expressions of musical ideas and blog comments are totally incompatible.

  18. So it’s basically a steel-string tenor uke? Which tuning are you using? I’ve tuned my tenor uke to the low-G version of GCEA, concert and small ukes to the standard high-G, and baritone to DGBE (which is like the four high strings on a guitar.) High-G is the standard ukey sound, with a bright high note whichever direction you’re stumming, but low-G or DGBE make it easier to do melodies (if only I’d practice picking.)

    Chris Goodson mentioned a “woodrow” – they also get called “strumsticks”, and are basically a backpacker version of a mountain dulcimer, with a bit twangyer sound (since they’ve got a solid neck and small box instead of being a big box with strings on it) so you can use most dulcimer tunings. I’ve got mine tuned to D-D-A, which lets me do most of the west coast D-A-D scale things (you can’t do much with the middle string except bar chords, so it seemed do make sense to put the A string on the outside, and putting the melody string on the top makes it easier to use dulcimer fingering even though it annoys guitar players.)

  19. If you have difficulty with barre chords on a regular guitar, try thinner strings or lowering the action. (The latter is most easily achieved by having someone who works in a music store take a look at it – on an electric you twiddle some screws but on an acoustic you have to either whittle down or replace part of the bridge, and if your frets are too fat to allow for lower action without rattle and buzz, oh boy.)

    My cousin used to complain about how tough they were constantly, and when I eventually tried her guitar I found there was no way in haaaaail anyone was going to ever play a barre on that thing without their fingers coming off afterwards – strings like piano wire, a full eighth of an inch off the fretboard. Madness. I could barely play the thing at all, being an electric guitar wuss.

  20. I know very little about stringed instruments, but the curling wall ornaments in your house make it look positively Seussian at first glance. Good choice.

  21. coo1b1ue, my guitar-playing days are long past … thanks to brain injury from a bad fall almost 17 years ago, I just don’t have the coordination now. For barre chords, particularly F, I’d use my thumb for the low-E string … I thought of that as cheating, and was interested in your comment that occasionally pros do it too.

  22. one of the greatest music stores in the world World-class musicians make the 35 mile trek from L.A. to stop in when they are touring. Ben Harper grew up there, learning from his grandparents and the likes of David Lindley, Chris Darrow, Ry Cooder, Patrick Brayer, Taj Mahal and many more. Great staff too, and they let you play with most of the things in the store. Check it out if you are ever nearby

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