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Thread: just starting out - what are my string options?

  1. #1

    Default just starting out - what are my string options?

    Hello all --

    I've got a couple of old archtop tenors (Kay all-mahogany, Harmony "Monterey") and I'd like to learn how to play. I've never been able to satisfactorily play any kind of fretted string instrument, and I'm hoping that the tenor will be less of a challenge for me than a 6-string.

    With that in mind, I would like to re-string them, and I would appreciate any advice on what kind of strings would be most suitable. I'm thinking of replacing the steel strings on the Harmony with new ones, but putting nylon (or some other polymer) strings on the Kay (which is presently un-strung), for the sake of variety in tone.

    It's my understanding that tenors are more delicately built than 6-strings, so it's preferable to keep string tension on the low side, which (again, I've heard) would suggest using smaller-gauge strings. I've also heard that smaller-gauge, lower-tension strings are easier for beginners. (And I would prefer both guitars to be quieter, rather than have more projection; no need to subject the neighbors to my practicing.)

    There don't seem to be many string sets out there specific to tenors, so is it the standard practice to buy a 6-string set, and then simply not use the two bass strings?

    Has anyone used so-called carbon fiber strings on a tenor? Is there any reason to not try them?

    Is there anything I should bear in mind when choosing, other than the aforementioned?

    If it makes any difference, I'm hoping to be able to play some simplified jazz on the tenors, once I can adequately play.

    Thanks in advance for any advice!

  2. #2
    Registered User Seonachan's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    How do you want to tune it? That will guide your choice of string gauges. DGBE, CGDA, GDAE, other?

  3. #3

    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Quote Originally Posted by Seonachan View Post
    How do you want to tune it? That will guide your choice of string gauges. DGBE, CGDA, GDAE, other?
    Well, that's part of my confusion. Since I'm coming to this without already being that familiar with 6-string tuning, I'm a blank slate and I could learn whatever tuning I choose. I was hoping that by mentioning jazz being my preferred genre that might be a clue as to what tuning would make the most sense. I'm guessing that say, ukulele tuning probably wouldn't be best in that case; perhaps not the tuning used by fiddles and mandolins, likewise. So would standard top-4 guitar tuning (GDBE) make as much sense as anything? That way, if I should miraculously become capable of playing the tenor well enough to add the 6-string to my diet, it won't be such a difficult stretch. Of course I could be completely mistaken on all of this. That's why I'm asking you people who know what you're talking about!

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    Registered User fox's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Ok from the beginning ... tenor guitars are quite sensitive to string choice but that only applies if you really want to get the best from them.
    If you choose to use nylon strings, you may achieve the sound you like but the guitar is unlikely to be performing at its best because is was designed to work with steel strings. The string spacing, the nut and saddle slots will be cut for steel and the soundboard will be designed to work with steel string tension. So yes you will get a sound but not the sound the guitar was designed to offer.

    However that is not to say you cant use nylon.

    There is a basic rule that will help with string choice than can be used as a safe starting point for the majority of tenor guitars .... 20lb per string for a total of 80lb will always give a good starting point.
    As long as you stay below that tension you will be safe to experiment The possible exceptions will be old, damaged or custom built guitars.

    Anyway in order to more specifically answer your questions about string choice we would really need to know the tuning and the exact make and model of your tenor guitar?
    They come in two common scale lengths of 21 or 23 and some will perform better with heavy or light strings!
    As regards the actual tuning ... any of the above mentioned tunings will play jazz or any other style and they all have their plus and minuses!
    CGDA and GDAE can offer some really easy two finger chords to get started but also some big stretch chord shapes that can take years to master!

    DGBE is becoming more and more popular as ukulele players seem to be adopting Tenors guitars as a steel string alternative. There is also plenty of helpful information and learning videos for DGBE although it will be more strumming based.
    I like GDAE on 23 scale and CGDA on 21 scales but that is just a personal choice but i dont strum very much sticking more to single note melody.
    I absolutely love DGBE but only with an additional E & A strings!

  5. #5
    Registered User Seonachan's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Any of the common tenor tunings are amenable to jazz. If you're looking for learning materials, there isn't a ton of stuff in any tuning, but you can find chord books, beginner lessons, etc. in CGDA and DBGE easily enough. I'm not as sure about GDAE, other than chord books. There are mandolin resources aplenty, of course, but you'd need to alter some of the chords and whatnot to account for the longer scale which will make some mandolin fingerings beyond a normal human's stretch point. There are octave mando & bouzouki resources, but not many that touch on jazz.

    Not to push you in the direction of DGBE (I'm a 5ths fellow myself), but if you google Glen Rose Jazzy Ukulele he has a website and a bunch of youtube videos for playing simplified jazz chords on uke, and tailors some of it to baritone (though all of it would apply to DGBE, it's the same as uke tuning, only lower). It's pretty easy to follow and and the time-to-satisfaction ratio is favorable.

  6. #6

    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Quote Originally Posted by RCH View Post
    I was hoping that by mentioning jazz being my preferred genre that might be a clue as to what tuning would make the most sense. I'm guessing that say, ukulele tuning probably wouldn't be best in that case; perhaps not the tuning used by fiddles and mandolins, likewise. So would standard top-4 guitar tuning (GDBE) make as much sense as anything? That way, if I should miraculously become capable of playing the tenor well enough to add the 6-string to my diet, it won't be such a difficult stretch.
    Tiny Grimes famously played jazz in Chicago tuning (D3 G3 B3 E4) which is the same as the four highest strings of a guitar and the same as a baritone ukulele (barring high D and re-entrant) tuning. There are some YouTube tutorials on his playing.

    If your ultimate goal is to learn a 6-string, perhaps you should start there.

    Look at Hal Leonard's Ukulele Method - "Baritone Ukulele" by Lil' Rev for a good introduction - $8.

    As far as DGBE strings, you'll need something a little beefier than what comes in a standard guitar set as tenor guitar scale lengths are shorter. As fox said, post your scale length(s) and I'm sure someone will recommend string gauges. I posted some string gauge recommendations in a past post that you can reference as well.

    Best of luck,
    Huck

  7. #7

    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    I wanted to add - I too have a Monterey archhtop ('57). It is tuned OM/Irish tuning - GDAE.

    A mix-up at the guitar shop set it up as such, instead of standard tenor tuning - CGDA. Well at least I have wider nut slots, but I digress. I haven't been impressed with GDAE tuning. I personally don't care for the feel of the thicker strings. Just not for me personally.

    Haven't changed the strings yet. so I can't offer a comparison in tuning.

  8. #8

    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Quote Originally Posted by fox View Post
    ...20lb per string for a total of 80lb will always give a good starting point. As long as you stay below that tension you will be safe to experiment The possible exceptions will be old, damaged or custom built guitars.
    That's great information! I hadn't seen that anywhere else. Uh...how am I supposed to measure the tension?

    Quote Originally Posted by fox View Post
    ...we would really need to know the tuning and the exact make and model of your tenor guitar? They come in two common scale lengths of 21 or 23
    The Harmony is their H950T "Monterey".
    As near as I can make out the crude rubber-stamp inside the body of the Kay, it appears to be a model K35. According to The Amateur Luthier's page on identifying Kay guitars, my tenor has the "3 point top" on the headstock, which should date it to "1940s-1965", but the insignia is a gold decal, rather than the metal script. The tuner buttons appear to be solid brass, which the same source puts in the '38-'44 range, so I'm guessing that would make it from the early-1940s. And if indeed they are solid brass, probably the very early '40s, since brass became a strategic material in 1942.

    The scale length of the Kay is 23" and the Harmony is 22-5/8", for some reason.

    Quote Originally Posted by fox View Post
    I absolutely love DGBE but only with an additional E & A strings!
    Heh! Yeah, if only I could hope to play 6 strings at once...

    Are there anything like tabs out there for the different tunings so I could get a sense of how difficult it might be to do, say, major 7ths in all of the different tunings?

    Thank you again for all of the useful information!

  9. #9
    Registered User fox's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Well you can have hours of innocent fun getting to grips with a string tension calculator Like this one http://www.mcdonaldstrings.com/stringxxiii.html

  10. #10

    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Quote Originally Posted by Huck View Post
    Tiny Grimes famously played jazz in Chicago tuning (D3 G3 B3 E4) which is the same as the four highest strings of a guitar and the same as a baritone ukulele (barring high D and re-entrant) tuning. There are some YouTube tutorials on his playing.
    Thanks for the advice, Huck! I've just spent a couple of hours watching Tiny Grimes videos, and his music and his playing style are really growing on me!

    Quote Originally Posted by Huck View Post
    If your ultimate goal is to learn a 6-string, perhaps you should start there.
    Nah -- I've tried that, and just got frustrated. I think it's better for me to make this project as idiot-proof as possible. (Do they make a 3-string guitar? )

    Quote Originally Posted by Huck View Post
    Look at Hal Leonard's Ukulele Method - "Baritone Ukulele" by Lil' Rev for a good introduction - $8. As far as DGBE strings, you'll need something a little beefier than what comes in a standard guitar set as tenor guitar scale lengths are shorter. As fox said, post your scale length(s) and I'm sure someone will recommend string gauges. I posted some string gauge recommendations in a past post that you can reference as well.
    Speaking of which: I just went to pick up a copy of that book on Amazon and found a slew of books specifically for the baritone uke, including what appear to be some fairly sophisticated ones, full of "jazz chords" and the like (such as this one: https://www.amazon.com/Baritone-Ukul.../dp/1906207313 ). I wonder if it wouldn't make sense for me to go with DGBE, and be able to learn the chords from these books, rather than using a tuning that doesn't have similar material dedicated to it, and having to try to pick up the chords in some less user-friendly way. What do you think?

  11. #11
    Registered User fox's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    You have two guitars tune one in 5ths and one in 4ths.
    Strings are cheap enough, buy sets or buy guitar singles.
    There are also plenty of books and videos for mandolin .. maybe more than baritone ukulele.

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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Quote Originally Posted by RCH View Post
    I wonder if it wouldn't make sense for me to go with DGBE, and be able to learn the chords from these books, rather than using a tuning that doesn't have similar material dedicated to it, and having to try to pick up the chords in some less user-friendly way. What do you think?
    I would worry that the difference between a 19" baritone uke and a 23" tenor guitar might complicate some chord shapes. Were I interested in jazz, I'd probably lean toward CGDA and appropriate material for the tenor banjo.
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  13. #13
    Registered User Seonachan's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    That Chord Bible series has editions for CGDA & GDAE among many others.

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    I'll take it! JGWoods's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    If 6 string guitar is a main interest then tune DGBE so it has some crossover. If the mandolin world is your other interest then go with GDAE.
    Be yourself, everyone else is taken.
    Favorite Mandolin of the week: 2013 Collings MF Gloss top.

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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    If one tunes to GDAE I think he can also capo up 4 to CGDA. Isn’t that correct?

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    Registered User mreidsma's Avatar
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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    pheffernan has the best option for Jazz: tune to "standard" tenor tuning, CGDA, and get yourself some tenor banjo books. Mostly the tenor banjo books have Jazz repertoire in them. You don't have to tell them you are playing on a tenor guitar. It'll be your little secret.

    I think I picked up the Mel Bay Riverboat banjo book and the Tenor Banjo method book when I was starting on tenor, and I found them helpful. If you wait 15 minutes there will probably be a 30% sale at Mel Bay. There is usually a big banner on the Cafe home page letting you know about the current sale.

    Welcome to tenor land!

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    Default Re: just starting out - what are my string options?

    Well, yesterday, I changed the strings on my Blueridge BR 70BR tenor guitar, and played it some this morning. I like it lots better than CGDA or DGBE. It sounds more to me Like a “real” guitar. I’m probably gonna keep it in the new tuning.

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