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Thread: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

  1. #1
    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Recently I've begun falling down the tenor guitar rabbit hole quite hard.

    A few weeks ago I decided I'm interested in a getting a tenor to take abroad with me this year. I love the idea of a fifths-tuned instrument that can be used to play lead or be strummed behind vocals in a guitar-style way or played fingerstyle, etc. And being a violinist and mandolinist, fifths tuning, GDAE specifically, is ideal for me.

    So, the past few weeks I've been trying out every tenor guitar I can get my hands on (a 1928 Gibson TG-L4, a 1945 Martin 0-17T, a lower end Ibanez, etc.) I haven't purchased anything yet, but I have been having an absolute blast and I am feeling really excited to buy a tenor. I know it'll make a good companion and I'll put it to good use!

    However, playing all these instruments and doing an admittedly gross amount of internet research and video watching has left me with a lot of questions. So, I was hoping those of you who have experience in the tenor world might be able to help me out a bit by answering some of them. Here they are:

    -Generally speaking, how do the body size and neck length affect the sound of the a tenor? For instance, what makes some sound tinny and others smooth?

    -Further, what determines if a tenor will sound good in GDAE? I have read some posts that attest to certain instruments sounding better in CGDA and vise versa. I'm specifically hoping to find a tenor that I can play in GDAE. What should I keep in mind while searching for this?
    For what it's worth, I thought both the Gibson and the Martin sounded great in GDAE, though the Gibson did lose some volume at that range, and I think I could've gone for higher gauge strings to tighten things up a bit on both.

    -I have read a few posts saying that the quality and sound of the older Gibsons can be a bit variable. Is the same true of the Martins? Say, for instance, the 0-17Ts and 0-18Ts. Or are these more consistent? I ask because if I end up saving up for one of these I might have to buy it without playing that specific one first.
    Additionally, is there any major quality change for those Martins over the many years they were made?

    -What have people's experiences been with some of the other older brands such as Kay, Harmony, and Kalamazoo? I was particularly turned on to some of the old arch tops when I saw this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyxlt_FU2q4
    I think it sounds great!

    -And, given that I haven't had a chance to play an arch top f hole tenor yet myself, would something like this work for strumming along in a singer/songwriter style? Or is the sound different enough that it would sound weird?

    That's all for now. I'm sure I have quite a few more questions, but those seem like good ones to get me started on my merry way. I really appreciate any responses and input that you all might have. And please feel free to share any of your own experience or advice, even if it doesn't respond to my questions. I'll just be happy to talk tenors; I'm sure you all know how it is when you get excited about a new instrument.

    Thanks very much!
    2016 Martin TEN515 Tenor Guitar
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    Registered User Seonachan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Hi and welcome to the rabbit hole - glad you could join us! I give you my opinions as someone who mostly plays GDAE and adjacent tunings (FCGD, GDAD).

    When you ask what kind of guitar is better for GDAE tuning, my question is, what do you mean by better? Most people who prefer GDAE are looking for a loud, boom-y low end, For those folks a larger body will more likely fit the bill. But body size is only one factor. Build quality, bracing, setup, string choices, and playing style all influence the sound as well. I've heard more than one Martin 5-15T/5-17T that sounded bigger and fuller than most 0-size tenors, including a lot of Martins. I've had 2 0-18Ts, a '57 and a '61, and they sounded totally different - the latter was super bright and chimey, pefect for CGDA, while the former was dark and deep and made for GDAE. With Martins, the older you go, the lighter the construction tends to be, which usually allows them to open up and project more (including the low end), but also makes them more susceptible to the kind of damage and wear that can constrict the tone if not fixed up.

    Kalamazoos are Gibsons, though with slightly cheaper builds (e.g. no truss rods, less or no binding) but the same build quality. One common difference is that most Gibsons will be X-braced while most Kalamazoos will be ladder braced.

    Archtops are a different sound altogether. You can strum them while you sing of course, but they won't have that familiar sustain that usually goes along with a voice in a singer/songwriter setup. On the other hand, maybe that's just the thing that brings the whole room together, so to speak. One person who accompanies his singing with an archtop tenor is Aaron Embry, and I don't think anyone will argue with his choice of guitar:


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    Registered User fox's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    You seem set on a vintage instrument?
    There are some nice new tenors around like the Blueridge BR 40t that really are good value for money.

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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    @Seonachan, thanks very much for your response. I really appreciate all the information, especially about the Martins. As someone who doesn't know much about old companies' build qualities, it's nice to hear your thoughts and experience with them.
    And thanks for posting the video! Very cool to see an artist who features a tenor as the primary instrument. That's awesome!

    @fox. You're right, I haven't been considering a Blueridge very much. I want to buy an instrument that I totally love and that makes me want to play it all the time, and for whatever reason it tends to be more unusual or older instruments that appeal more to me. From what I can tell the Blueridges sound great for the price and have good reviews to boot, but for some reason they just don't really excite me, you know?
    But who knows? I have yet to play one. Maybe that will change my mind. For now though, you're right. I'm looking at vintage first.
    2016 Martin TEN515 Tenor Guitar
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    Registered User fox's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I do understand, I have quite a few tenors and I have a couple that I have bonded with!
    In fact the one I use every day is not actually a tenor guitar but a 1960s Mahogany baritone ukulele tuned GDAE.

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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I own a Blueridge BR-40TCE that I love! Full sound, and great setup as GDAE.
    Best, Stevo

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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Thanks for the input, you guys. I appreciate it.

    Anyone else with experience with vintage stuff? I'd love to hear about it!
    2016 Martin TEN515 Tenor Guitar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I've got a bunch of old tenors...The National's are hard to beat, and my Epiphone Beverly sounds amazing. Both are dynamic and responsive and as loud as you need. My Gibson TG1 and Dobro are the weakest in the bunch, and by that just generally quieter and/or less responsive. I also have some new(ish) tenors from Paul Lestock (Arrow Guitar and Mandolins)...those are all really good. I tune them all either FCGDA (5 string) or GDAE/FCGD (4 string). I like the lower guitar-like tones better than the traditional CGDA tuning.

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    Registered User Seonachan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    See Jake Wildwood's museum page for a long list of instruments organized alphabetically by maker, with plenty of vintage tenors in the bunch. Most of the links will have sound clips in addition to lots of pictures and detailed descriptions. You'll learn a lot!

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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Thanks a lot! I have seen a good bit of his stuff. Actually the video I linked in my initial post is from Jake's page, though I didn't realize he had a whole backlog that I could sift through like that. Thanks!

    And anyone else, still feel free to chime in!
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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Quote Originally Posted by MoreThanQuinn View Post
    -Generally speaking, how do the body size and neck length affect the sound of the a tenor? For instance, what makes some sound tinny and others smooth?

    -Further, what determines if a tenor will sound good in GDAE? I have read some posts that attest to certain instruments sounding better in CGDA and vise versa. I'm specifically hoping to find a tenor that I can play in GDAE. What should I keep in mind while searching for this?
    Generally speaking, I would think that scale length would be an important consideration. A 21” scale might be a bit more comfortable for playing lead, while a longer 23” scale could provide a more satisfying low G for strumming behind vocals. Body size (0 to 5) would probably correlate with volume while construction materials (spruce or mahogany top) would most likely point to tone. So depending on your purposes, one might be optimal for quiet noodling in your parlor while another would be ideal for the boisterous sessions at your local pub. Horses for courses.

    In the debate of vintage versus modern, I understand the appeal of older instruments; in fact, I own one. But as you selected a new Poe Scout rather than an old Gibson Army-Navy DY or Alrite, perhaps you could similarly find a tenor builder who combines modern techniques with vintage aesthetics. You don’t disclose a budget, but Jamie Dougan’s Fletcher tenors might fit the bill if you can find one. In my case, I settled on a David Newton tenor built on a Martin size 2 body, Carpathian spruce over rosewood, with a 23” scale.

    Click image for larger version. 

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  16. #12
    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    @pheffernan Thanks for once again bringing some insight to one of my threads! Given that I don't know much about tenor body sizes, would you might going a bit more in depth regarding the 0 through 5 sizing?
    I have seen numbers like these listed in Martin models (e.g. 5-17T vs 0-17T), do these numbers signify the different body sizes of these tenor models? And if so, which is the larger body, 0 or 5? And finally, are numbers such as these used by all or most tenor builders, or are they specific to Martin? Sorry for all the questions, I just didn't realize that the body sizes were indicated like this, and it seems this would be important to know when buying.

    And to respond to the second part of your post, my budget this time will be a bit less than last time, probably ~$800 or less. However, if I end up finding a Martin or a Gibson just above that price point that I like, maybe I could push it.

    If I knew of any builders within that range, I'd be open to it. However, I've yet find any tenor builders even close to that price and I'm not crossing my fingers that I will find one any time soon. Maybe someday I'll be able to afford a new custom tenor!

    And by the way, that tenor of yours is absolutely beautiful! Congrats
    2016 Martin TEN515 Tenor Guitar
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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Quote Originally Posted by MoreThanQuinn View Post
    @pheffernan Thanks for once again bringing some insight to one of my threads! Given that I don't know much about tenor body sizes, would you might going a bit more in depth regarding the 0 through 5 sizing? I have seen numbers like these listed in Martin models (e.g. 5-17T vs 0-17T), do these numbers signify the different body sizes of these tenor models? And if so, which is the larger body, 0 or 5? And finally, are numbers such as these used by all or most tenor builders, or are they specific to Martin? Sorry for all the questions, I just didn't realize that the body sizes were indicated like this, and it seems this would be important to know when buying.
    When it comes to Martin guitars, the first number refers to the size and the second to the materials/ornamentation. The bigger the first number (5), the smaller the instrument body (terz). The bigger the second number, the fancier the trim.

    http://www.vintagemartin.com/sizes.html

    https://nativeground.com/d-18-d-28-w...y-bob-smakula/

    Quote Originally Posted by MoreThanQuinn View Post
    And to respond to the second part of your post, my budget this time will be a bit less than last time, probably ~$800 or less. However, if I end up finding a Martin or a Gibson just above that price point that I like, maybe I could push it. If I knew of any builders within that range, I'd be open to it. However, I've yet find any tenor builders even close to that price and I'm not crossing my fingers that I will find one any time soon. Maybe someday I'll be able to afford a new custom tenor! And by the way, that tenor of yours is absolutely beautiful! Congrats
    Mine came in a bit north of your figure, but I bought it used. Deals are out there if you look for them. You just have to know what you’re looking for and pounce when you find it. Have you identified any targets thus far?
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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Thanks once again, those links are very helpful. As is everything you wrote.

    And yeah, I've been scouring the internet, mostly just trying to get an idea of the market and where to buy. If I'm going to buy near the top end of my budget or above I need to save up a bit more first.

    Some models that I see as real options right now:
    -Martin 0-17T. I played one of these and loved it. I have found some down near $1,000 and I bet they slip even a bit below that from time to time.
    -Gibson TG-0 (The earlier model). These look similar and I've heard some good audio samples. Again, I've seen some just over $1,000.
    -Kalamazoo KTG-21. If I go with an arch top, I like this one. There's a great video on Jake Wildwood's site that sounds awesome. And one for sale on Reverb around $800 (though without a case and pretty dinged up). Still, given my varying musical interests, an arch top might not be the route I go.
    2016 Martin TEN515 Tenor Guitar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Another option, depending on how you feel about double courses, would be a flattop octave mandolin. Now, the Northfield one is way out of budget, but Pono has a line of guitar bodied octave mandolins that really look like tenors with pairs of strings:



    Their lowest price model, the M20, is currently on sale for $959 at The Mandolin Store:

    https://themandolinstore.com/product...tave-mahogany/

    But there’s a used one on Reverb asking $850:

    https://reverb.com/item/24103223-pon...ctave-mandolin

    And the seller might conceivably accept an offer in your price range.
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    There's also a nice looking Pono 4-string UL4-10 at Boyd's, that they have an ad for on the Cafe:
    https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/139430#139430

    I am happy with the Pono octave tuned GDAE with the same 21.4" scale length, so with the right string selection that UL4-10 could be a good choice as well. I prefer these shorter scale smaller instruments myself.

    Regarding the Blueridge BR-40T, I will second Stevo on that, as there's a used one in a local store that is set up GDAE, sounds good, plays well, and is quite temptingly priced. They also have a vintage Epiphone archtop tenor that's kind of cool. They don't have it on their web site but I'll try to get a photo of it tomorrow.

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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    @pheffernan. Thanks for posting that video! It was cool to see those in action.
    From my experience playing OM's, I definitely prefer the single course tenor guitars, probably just because I feel that the TG lends itself more to some of the things that interested me (I imagine fingerstyle would be quite hard an on OM). Still, I do love to play octave mandolins when I get the chance, just probably not what I'm in the market for at the moment.

    @Alfons. Thanks for the suggestion! I'll do some more research about Ponos, they haven't much caught my eye before, but it's cool to see that they have a 4 string tenor available. And funnily enough, Boyd's is actually in my hometown (Missoula, MT). I'll be there in a few months, so I'll definitely stop by and see what they've got then.
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    This is the Epiphone tenor I mentioned previously. It's a 1938 Blackstone archtop.
    It's currently living at Guitar Works Ltd in Evanston IL (NFI)
    As you can see, someone played it a lot, and vigorously. That bare wood makes me cringe every time I see it, but it sounds great and plays well.

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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Regarding the Pono UL4-10, it's the same scale length as the octave mando, so I'm guessing that they come in the same kind of really fine archtop case. Since you mentioned traveling, unless you were thinking lightweight gig bag, this might be a great benefit. It's not a lightweight case, but it's not big enough to be terribly heavy, and it's great protection. This is the octave case, which is 36"long:
    Click image for larger version. 

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    Registered User MoreThanQuinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Ohh, that's good to know. And speaking of instrument/case size, do any of you have experience traveling with a tenor guitar or an OM? How does this usually get treated by the airlines? Are you able to bring it aboard?
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    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    It probably depends a lot on the individual instrument as far as which one will give you the sound you want in octave versus tenor tuning. Here's a video link to a Gibson TG-00 tuned down to an A (in between C and G tuning). Also a link to Vega cylinder back tenor in standard C tuning. Very different but both are full sounding. I'm tempted to say that bigger boxes work better for lower tunings but again the individual instrument makes a big difference. It's always better to try first, but I realize it's hard to get the chance to play a bunch of tenors.

    Playing starts at 2:26 on the first video and 3:04 on the second video.



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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    Gotta love the background props in those videos !

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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I play in GDAE, never CGDA. When I got my first Herb Taylor hybrid archtop, flat back tenor guitar I stopped playing the other tenors I owned and soon sold them. I love their punchy, clear sound for melody playing, Irish trad and any fiddle tunes I happen to like. I also really like the design of his instruments, particularly the bolt on neck design. My two archtop tenors are very stable and solid. One has a western red cedar top and the other sitka spruce. #174 and #205. I slightly prefer 205, the spruce topped one and have considered selling 174 and then getting Herb to make me a custom one. I don’t need a third one.

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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I've been down the rabbit hole and starting to come back out of it. I just don't find the tenor holding my musical interests. Thinking of thinning the herd a bit.

  33. #25
    Registered User SincereCorgi's Avatar
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    Default Re: Down the Tenor Rabbit Hole... (Help)

    I would buy a cheap used Gold Tone or Blueridge just to make sure you actually like playing a tenor guitar all that much before putting up the money for a vintage instrument. It's a cool instrument but it's kind of weird and often quiet and might not do all you want- there's a reason that 5ths tunings aren't common on longer scaled rhythm instruments.

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