My Quirky Tribe

I mentioned to a friend recently that one of the reasons I liked playing the tenor guitar — the slightly smaller, four-string variant of the instrument — is that aside from the fact it’s less complicated, it’s also fairly unique; not a lot of other people out there play one, so when I show up somewhere with one, it’s always a fun topic of conversation. I realize this makes me sound like a musical hipster (“oh, this thing? It’s a kind of obscure instrument. I’m sure you haven’t heard of it before”), but I don’t mean it that way, honest. I merely mean to say it’s fun to bring something different to the party.

The flipside of having a moderately obscure instrument, however, is that it does limit things, access-wise. There are dozens of guitar makers out there, making all sorts of acoustic guitars; for tenor guitars, there’s really only two companies making them in any quantity (Blueridge and Gold Tone), and while they’re fine guitars — I have a Blueridge and Krissy has a Gold Tone — they’re not particularly cheap, and the prices for tenor guitars go up from there. I have a dream of one day getting an eight-string tenor guitar, very much like a 12-string, but to do that I will probably have to commission it from a luthier, and I shudder to think how much that might cost.

It’s an instrument with a high(ish) cost of entry, in other words. I’ll note I sort of backed into having a tenor guitar by playing ukulele first and then stringing my tenors like ukes, and ukes, at least, are relatively cheap. So maybe that’s the way in for other folks too. But otherwise I think the tenor guitar is destined to remain a specialty instrument, and that’s a shame. I like that I’m playing an unusual instrument, but I wouldn’t mind a few other people in my quirky tribe.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

32 replies on “My Quirky Tribe”

If your schedule permits, you should hop over to Columbus for the Ohio Valley Filk Festival ( when it rolls around in October. I can’t recall specifically if there are any tenor guitar players among the regulars, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are usually at least two uke players.

I play a banjolele (in fact, there it is in my icon), because I have read too much PG Wodehouse. It’s fun because it’s always an icebreaker if you’re turning up to a uke meetup/group that you’ve never met before – everyone is immediately interested (and often wants a go).

I got around my similar difficulty by getting an antique one from eBay – I couldn’t afford a GoldTone at shipping-to-Australia prices. Having been to a few folk festivals and hung around the instrument makers stalls, you may find that commissioning one from a luthier potentially cheaper than you think.

What Dave B said about mandolins/mandolas/bouzukis, or a taro-patch tenor uke. If you do a uke-type instrument, you’ll have to play around a bit to find the right strings, since the strings are tuned closer together than your tenor guitar or a mandolin/fiddle tuning.

With digeridoos, mine is close enough to D that the issues with using it in a jam are unrelated to its base pitch and have a lot to do with my lack of skill, though in a filk jam that’s been ok.

They made a lot of tenor guitars in the 1960’s because of the Influence of the Kingston Trio, and a lot of those are starting to appear in the used instrument market. I bought a used Martin from Gruen Guitars in Nashville, and it is a spectacular instrument. You might also check with Elderly Instruments in Michigan, they have several used Martins for sale.
On a separate note, you can have a 4-string converted to an 8-string, which should be less expensive than a custom instrument. A new custom tenor will cost at least $3,000, which for custom instuments is not really that expensive (sorry).
I assume you are using Chicago tuning, since you came from the uke. Note that string sets for tenor guitar are usually not optimum for Chicago tuning. I use the string guages recommended by Ry Cooder on his web site. You will get a better sound and feel from your tenor and ordering custom strings is no big deal.

Hmm. Have you played around with bass guitar? Also four strings as baseline, although I will admit I usually play a five string (B-E-A-D-G rather than E-A-D-G). If you are going to go low, you might as well own the bottom…

I learned on a 12-string nylon classical guitar, forgot how to play that particular instrument, then relearned years later on a concert-sized six-string once I realized I could jack it into a midi interface and give a little more life to some of my plucked string virtual instruments. But I’ll tell you what, learning guitar is easy, mastering guitar is hard. I prefer 88 ivories most any day.

I play a vintage ’61 Harmony tenor guitar. It wasn’t as cheap as the Gold Tone tenor I started with, but it wasn’t too horribly expensive either, and you can find older instruments on eBay or Craigslist sometimes. I like the sound of the Harmony about a thousand times better than the Gold Tone; the wood is much more live and I get a lot of high end harmonics that I never heard with the GT.

I also have a bit of a stringed instrument problem, though (one six-string, two tenor guitars, a ukulele, a walkabout dulcimer, a bass walkabout dulcimer, an octave mandolin, an 8-string Irish bouzouki, and the custom-made ten-string guitar-bodied bouzouki).

I was going to suggest making your own, but I see you addressed that above. But if you like interesting guitars you might like my Dad’s website:

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