View Full Version : Martin or Gibson or ???

Oct-01-2008, 2:07pm
Well, for some reason unbeknownst to me, I seem to have an itch to get a Tenor Guitar! I've seen more than a few older Gibsons out there, but not as many Martins. At least not in as good a shape. This begs the question...which would be better suited to me?

Can anyone out there help me determine the major differences between these two, in terms of size primarily I guess, but also scale length, sound, quality of older instrument, and any other parameters I should know about, etc..

Also, should I be looking at the "lower quality" used ones out there, like Regal, Harmony, Stella, etc.. Or is it even worth it to get an older one, versus say, a new Gold Tone, or Breedlove, etc..? Any purchasing hints and suggestions would be most helpful. Thanks...!

Eddie Sheehy
Oct-01-2008, 3:09pm
Soares'Y - baby model and full model are good value and suited to a beginner/intermediate player. Mike Soares posts on the yahoo tenor guitar group forum - also a good resource for info on tenor guitars.

Oct-01-2008, 3:49pm
I had the itch too after I spent a week playing a prototype archtop tenor guitar made by Paul Lestock of Arrow Guitar and Major Fifth Instruments. I liked it so much, he is finishing one for me as we speak...(should be here next week!).


Oct-01-2008, 3:51pm
I would do some web searches and spend a little time gathering some info, esp. about the older guitars. There is, or was, a very good website (www.tenorguitar.com) devoted to tenor guitar, with lots of pictures and informations on various makes and models down through the years. (I tried but was unable to access that site just now)

IMO, based on frequent browsing, is that older Gibson flat top tenors seem to be priced a little lower than older Martins, but I think it would be rare to find one of either for <$500-$600. I like the smallest size tenors myself, like the Martin size 5. These have ~21.5" scale. The more common tenor scales tend to be ~22-23"; I think this would apply to the more common Martin 0-T and Gibson flattop tenors.

I don't know enough about currently made tenors you mention to comment, although I would look in the vintage pile before I would buy a Goldtone or Soars'y, or one of the new plastic (ie, HPL) Martin tenors. I have Harmony flattop and an archtop tenors, both of which are solid hardwood. Both are in pretty good shape and playable. These come and go pretty regularly on ebay, and some of them would be a good value (and some wouldn't) - the average asking price on these keeps going up, but you still see them for $100-$200. The main thing is to look carefully for a straight neck. I would look for an archtop myself. The flattops too often have pulled-up bridges and warped tops.

Oct-01-2008, 6:19pm
I think the Fletcher tenor guitars are among the coolest looking around. I have played one or two and they play well and sound great - but what really attracted me was how cool they look. Thin wasted, round soundhole, floating bridge, and most especially the banjo style peg head.

I have absolutely no financial interest in this maker, except that I am saving to get one of these!


Oct-01-2008, 6:43pm
Agreed, those Fletcher Tenors look VERY nice. Scale length is only 21" though, I wonder about which tuning/strings would work?

Oct-01-2008, 6:51pm
More research on the Fletcher tuning, looks like it is intended for GDAE (GDAD, etc.), octave lower than mando. Hmmm...

Oct-01-2008, 8:03pm
Hi Asha,

good info above, and of course you've asked for opinions, so there's no right or wrong...

FWIW, I have a '54 Martin 0-18t that is terrific, chimes when you want it to, and growls too. If I could only keep one, this would be it. They aren't cheap, however, typically go for $1200-1600 in good, playable condition. There is one posted on another site: http://theunofficialmartinguitarforum.yuku.com/topic/68747
that looks fine, and the seller has a very good reputation (I have no affiliation)

I also have a '50 gibson TG-50 archtop that is lots of fun, has a thinner, faster neck, and sounds great. It projects more of it's sound forward, so it cuts through in a louder session nicely, though you can have a harder time hearing it as the player. These sometimes sell for less on ebay, real music shops tend to ask $1500 or so.

I played a few Gibson flattops and wasn't as impressed, but they are notoriously variable. Others love them to pieces.

I have an '20's vega flattop with banjo head, ladder braced. It is too sweet for words. these are rare.

Lastly, I have a really sweet '60's Regal (made by harmony), that has a bit of a "nasal" tone to it. It's ladder braced and has a brass fretwire saddle that I keep thinking about replacing. There is one on Ebay now.

You wouldn't go wrong with any of the above. All have 23" scale length, which is the standard for tenor guitars whether tuned CGDA or GDAE (as I do)
I've played a few of the little regals from the thirties.. 21" scale length, usually birch back and sides and spruce topped. They're sweet... quieter, wonderful for vocal accompaniment.

Warning... tenor guitars are addictive. I sold my mando and mandola, and rarely touch my 6 string anymore.

best of luck,

Pete Martin
Oct-02-2008, 2:23am
The right Martin or Gibson is a good instrument, a pretty fair cut above any other old brand I've played. The Martins tend to be crisper and have more ring, the Gibsons more mid range and more percussive. I suppose it depends on what style you are playing on them which you might prefer.

Charles E.
Oct-02-2008, 7:10pm
I have owned Martin and Gibson tenors and I think Martin understood the concept of a tenor guitar to a higher degree. It is hard to beat a O-18T. Gibson was variable in quality and I would avoid the later ones where they stuck a tenor neck on a full sized body without regard to bridge placement. a visit to tenorguitar.com will be usefull, they have a listing of current makers. I have played Fletcher instruments, they are a nice instrument and a great value. Jodi patterned them after an S.S.Stewart she owns. And yes they are made to be strung GDAE.
Good luck with your search!


p.s. I play a 1923 National Triolian, these are in a class by themselves!

Bernie Daniel
Oct-02-2008, 7:37pm
Eddie Sheehy: Soares'Y - baby model and full model are good value and suited to a beginner/intermediate player. Mike Soares posts on the yahoo tenor guitar group forum - also a good resource for info on tenor guitars.

I have no experience with the full sized Soares'Y tenors --but I would not necessarily recommend the "baby model" which I have.

It was indeed inexpensive (I paid about $130 + shipping) which is by any standards very inexpensive. But in truth it's a relatively inexpensive instrument too.

The one I have is certainly worth the money I paid for it but it has a very reserved sound --i.e., very modest projection. I think it would be good for self accompaniment but would not be heard well in a group of instrments.

That said it is a tenor guitar and you can develop your picking and chording styles on it just fine.

But I'm on the trail of an older Gibson -- I've played several over the last few months -- and they have all sounded great to me especially two of the lower end TG-0's from the 1920's that the owners will not part with.

I've never played a TG-25 or TG-50.

Here is a nice web site called tenor guitars! :)


Eddie Sheehy
Oct-02-2008, 7:49pm
Barbara Schulz had some very nice things to say about her Baby Soare's Y a few months back. I have a full-size Saores' Y - although it is a limited edition upper-end "Gibson" model. Great sound acoustically and, of course, it has a cool pick-up. I would not argue against the quality of the Gibson/Martin instruments, but if you are just starting out a more modest invstment might be prudent - not I've ever been accused of being prudent.
Good luck in any case.
Soares'Y "Gibson" (http://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=31962&d=0)

Oct-03-2008, 11:25am
Thanks everyone for your great comments. It's confirmed my sense about the Martins. That is the range I think I'm looking at. I've been playing various mandolins for some 12+ years (and clawhammer banjo well before that) so I think adding a nice tenor to the instrument collection (growing larger by the year) makes sense. How about an O-17T versus the O-18T? Or even the 5-15T? I don't know much about guitars per se so this an exursion into new territory.

first string
Oct-03-2008, 1:07pm
I have a 1940 O-18t, and I can't say enough good things about it. Best instrument for melody I've ever played. You don't get that big/full six string strum of course, and it's more of a workout on your fingers than playing mando, but it is nonetheless unbelievably versatile for flat picking. Great tone, great sustain, and mine at least is very playable.

If you have decent sized hands, the 23 inch scale is great too. It can definitely be a stretch, but you can still pull off most things you could on a shorter scaled instrument, and I think you get better tone than on most shorter instruments. I'd be a little wary of those Breedloves if you want to tune in fifths. If I'm not mistaken it's longer than 23 which is getting a little beyond the sweet spot IMO. I also tried out a few Gibsons when I was looking for a tenor, but preffered the Martins. The O-17T is a fine guitar, but I think you get more depth with the spruce topped 18. Never played one of the smaller bodies 5 series (the singer Neko Case plays a 5-17t if I'm not mistaken), though the very rare 5-28T is the only rosewood backed vintage tenor that I've heard of. Would love to get my hands on one of those, though my gut tells me that I would still prefer the O sized. The fives seem a little small.

The only issue with the Martins is that they don't have a truss rod. That makes me hesitant to put as heavy strings on there as I would like. The G would probably have a bit more pop with a .048 on there instead of the .045 that I'm using now. Of course the truss rod doesn't really strengthen the neck from what I understand, but it would give you a more affordable recourse if, heaven forbid, the neck did start to bow.

But really, tenors are great. You can't go wrong.

Pete Martin
Oct-03-2008, 1:38pm
Everyone I know who bought an O17T eventually sold it for an O18T. It depends on what sound you want. In general, 17s are thick and thuddy. 18s ring much better with more sustain. Can't beat that good spruce top.

Oct-03-2008, 3:49pm
I just found an interesting O-18T from 1980. Didn't realize they were made that late. How might that date compare to an older one, say from the 40's or 50's? Seems to be the direction I want to go.

Other possibility would be a shorter scale 21" Fletcher. I've got a Flatiron Octave Mando (pre-Gibson) and do not want anything longer than that.

Oct-08-2008, 9:22pm
I can't say enough good things about my 58 0-18T. It's had the snot beat out of it but is still rings like a bell.

Oct-08-2008, 10:34pm
More research on the Fletcher tuning, looks like it is intended for GDAE (GDAD, etc.), octave lower than mando. Hmmm...

They work with CGDA, I played one tuned that way.

Oct-10-2008, 11:53am
Arch-top Gibson TG 50 would be a good Score [understatement]

there is a matching P90 electric, ETG 150, to go with the EM 150 mandolin , too.

~o) ~o)

Oct-10-2008, 1:19pm
JeffD, or anyone who's played the Fletchers: How would you say the volume on a Fletcher is compared to the Martin O-18T? Louder, softer?

Charles E.
Oct-10-2008, 8:37pm
The Fletcher's I played were not as loud as a Martin O-18. They have a smaller body, shorter string length and are tuned octave mando tuning. That said I thought they had a respectable sound. I did get to play a couple of them and the sound did vary according to the choice of wood used. I cant remember what I liked best however.


Oct-11-2008, 1:34pm
I've got a possible line on a 1980 Martin O-18T. How would that "newer" compare sound and/or quality wise to the older ones say from the 40's-60's, etc..?