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Thread: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

  1. #1
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    Default Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Howdy!

    As a mandola, bouzouki, octave mando, and cittern player (as well as guitar), I'm usually hanging around the CBOM section of the café. However, I got delivery of a slightly-used tenor guitar yesterday and now have a bit of a quandary.

    The guitar is Korean-built instrument, made under the "Lark in the Morning" brand name, which I understand is both a California importer and instrument shop. I got what I think was a pretty good deal on this guitar (< $400 with a nice hardshell case) and it's in almost perfect shape. I didn't know the exact specs of the instrument beforehand, which was a bit of a "flyer" on my part - and that is where my questions originate from.

    When initially researching tenor guitars - which I think I can easily play after working with very similar instruments in the past - I learned that they're typically tuned in 5ths: ADGC. When I received the instrument, which its sender had slackened the strings of, I began to tune it up to the prescribed notes. When my A string was still two semitones flat (i.e. G) the string snapped. Prior to putting a new set on - which I ordered in anticipation of receiving the instrument - I did a bit more research and actually measured the string length. I now know that my instrument has a nut-to-saddle distance of 25 1/4 to 25 3/8 inches (641 to 645mm), which I understand is longer than a typical tenor guitar. Oops.

    Using the La Bella tenor guitar strings I ordered (which are 009, 013, 020W, and 027W) I can get it tuned up to EADG - which is fine, as I'm used to this tuning with my octave mandolin. But, the strings would seem to be a bit slack.

    So, here are my questions (now that you know my long-winded story!):
    1. Tuning - Am I ever going to achieve the "true" tenor guitar tuning of ADGC? If so, what string gauges would I have to use?
    2. Strings - If I have to settle for EADG tuning (which I can live with), what string gauges would you suggest?

    Fortunately, the guitar uses standard ball-end strings, so I plan on using typical guitar strings - unless someone out there would suggest otherwise.

    Any other counsel or information would be greatly appreciated.

    Cheers!

    Ian

  2. #2
    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Can you return it? I sounds like it was mis represented. A tenor guitar should have a vibrating string length of 22-7/8 ( approx ) inches. It sounds like some one at the factory got the six string finger boards mixed up with the tenor ones and they sent them out any way. At that length you will never get it to standard ( CGDA ) tenor tuning.
    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    I agree with Charles - what Lark in the Morning is selling as a tenor guitar is basically a normal scale guitar with 4 strings.

    On the other hand, it could and should make for a pretty good OM tuned GDAE (low to high) with heavier strings. The GHS tenor set *way* too light for GDAE, and imo it's on the light side even for a "standard" tenor tuning on a shorter-scale tenor. You might try something in the range of 0.048/0.032/0.020/0.012 for GDAE tuning. In any case, choose string gauges near what you would use for the same tones on a standard guitar.

    You might well be able to work your GHS strings up to a full tone below CGDA (ie, to BbFCG), then you can capo up 2 frets to shorten up the scale.
    Jeff Rohrbough
    "Listen louder, play softer"

  4. #4

    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Put Bouzouki Strings on it and tune it GDAE. Suggested gauges: 11, 13, 23, 32 (if these are sloppy try 14, 16, 32, 40. If they are still sloppy - or even begin with this - see what the heaviest guage string you can tune to G without it being sloppy ( 40, 48, 52, 57) and scale the other strings off of it. Use an online string-tension calculator.

  5. #5

    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Quote Originally Posted by IanBowden View Post
    When initially researching tenor guitars - which I think I can easily play after working with very similar instruments in the past - I learned that they're typically tuned in 5ths: ADGC. When I received the instrument, which its sender had slackened the strings of, I began to tune it up to the prescribed notes. When my A string was still two semitones flat (i.e. G) the string snapped. Prior to putting a new set on - which I ordered in anticipation of receiving the instrument - I did a bit more research and actually measured the string length. I now know that my instrument has a nut-to-saddle distance of 25 1/4 to 25 3/8 inches (641 to 645mm), which I understand is longer than a typical tenor guitar. Oops.
    Normally it would be impossible to tune a string beyond G4-G#4 at a 25.5" scale length. However, there has been an advance in string technology.

    Quote Originally Posted by IanBowden View Post
    Tuning - Am I ever going to achieve the "true" tenor guitar tuning of ADGC? If so, what string gauges would I have to use?
    Yes, you will be able to achieve the "true" tenor guitar tuning of ADGC. You can get that top string tuned up to the standard A4 pitch of a tenor guitar, if you use strings from Octave 4 Plus. Here would be the string gauges I'd recommend to you, using normal light-gauge guitar string tensions as a guideline for ideal tensions.

    A4 - .007 Octave 4 Plus plain string
    D4 - .011 plain steel
    G3 - .018 plain steel or PB wound (PB wound available in bulk from Just Strings)
    C3 - .027 PB wound

    My own 25.5" six-string and 12-string mandophones have the high courses tuned to B4, with the other courses tuned in descending fifths, thanks to Octave 4 Plus.

    Welcome to the 25.5" A4/B4 club, incidentally. There's a few of us lurking around...

  6. #6
    Registered User SincereCorgi's Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Just curious- is there any reason that tenor players, when describing their tuning, tend to describe the pitches from high-to-low? It threw me the first time a tenor player told me he used EBGD- I thought, man, that must be a real custom tuning with that giant sixth in the middle.

    -Trevor

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    Certified! Bernie Daniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    SincereCorgi: Just curious- is there any reason that tenor players, when describing their tuning, tend to describe the pitches from high-to-low?
    My thoughts exactly Sincere! I have a Gibson TG-00 that I tune to CGDA

    BTW my scale length is almost exatly 23 inchs (584 mm) on that guitar and I use the D'Addario J-66 set (0.032; 0.022; 0.014; and 0.010 inches).

    Note to Ian:

    But the strange thing is to report the tenson data D'Addario uses a 25.5" (648 mm) scale -- which is certainly very long for a tenor guitar. But at that length none of them exceed 24 lbs so if they are right you should be able to use this set on your Lark in the Morning guitar?
    Bernie
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    Due to current budgetary restrictions the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off -- sorry about the inconvenience.

  8. #8

    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    At a 25.5" scale length, the highest pitch one can achieve is G#4. A thinner string isn't strong enough to withstand the higher tension, and a thicker string is stronger... but requires more tension to get to the pitch.

    If you look at the D'Addario string tension chart, the highest pitch given for the 25.5" scale length is G4. There are numerous threads about the G4 pitch limitation of a 25.5" string on numerous forums. I suggest anyone interested to do some reading and research online, rather than spend money on breaking string after string. I was doubtful of what I had been told back in the '80s, regarding the pitch limit, and so I took the experimental approach in the '80s, as did many others before the advent of the internet. I finally gave up after a year and after a whole lot of strings (many different gauges and manufacturers) at wholesale prices.

    It took the Octave 4 Plus strings to allow tuning above that pitch at 25.5". If there had been any other way, a lot of musicians wouldn't be spending US$5 a string to get to A4 and B4. Go to the metal guitar forums to see how they get up to A4 and B4, and there is only one way that's been found so far....

  9. #9
    Certified! Bernie Daniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    TJ:If you look at the D'Addario string tension chart, the highest pitch given for the 25.5" scale length is G4. There are numerous threads about the G4 pitch limitation of a 25.5" string on numerous forums. I suggest anyone interested to do some reading and research online, rather than spend money on breaking string after string.
    You must be reading from some more detailed tension chart? The data I was giving above is a small table on the back of the package for the J-66 tenor guitar strings.

    It reads as follows:

    Note......diameter (in)............Lbs
    A ..........0.010....................23.5
    D...........0.014....................20.5
    G...........0.022....................20.2
    C...........0.032....................19.1
    scale length used for tension measurements = 25.5 inches.

    It took this to mean that D'Addario was able to test them without breaking. OTOH I have no idea why they apparently used a dreadnought guitar instead of a tenor?

    At any rate they work great on my Gibson with a 23 inch scale.
    Bernie
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Thanks for all of the feedback and info on this, friends. It's been a bit of a lesson realizing that a tenor guitar really isn't a true tenor guitar if it's got strings that are 25+ inches long!

    What I've done is bought a pack of PB medium gauge guitar strings (I would've used a set of my octave mando strings, Eddie, but they've got loop ends on 'em and I need ball ends!) and strung it up with .045, .035, .017, and .013 and it seems to have decent tension and a good sound. If I want it to sound almost like a tenor guitar, I know I can capo at the 5th fret!

    In the future, I might try out one of those seemingly-amazing Octave 4 Plus strings on the top and get 'er up to an A to actually make a true tenor guitar tuning, but for the time being I'm gonna leave her as is.

    Ian

  11. #11

    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    My TG is just on a 23" scale. I think I'll try a J66 in CGDA next...

  12. #12
    Certified! Bernie Daniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    Ian: In the future, I might try out one of those seemingly-amazing Octave 4 Plus strings on the top and get 'er up to an A to actually make a true tenor guitar tuning, but for the time being I'm gonna leave her as is.
    Interesting -- be great to see a picture if you have one handy!
    Bernie
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    I think - judging from the scale length, you have a Plectrum guitar - which was originally designed for plectrum banjo players. This is normally tuned like the four higher strings on a standard guitar.

    I like to think of it as a huge ukulele.
    Mandola fever is permanent.

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    Registered User argonewt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Best String Gauges and Tuning for a Tenor Guitar

    First post!
    I've been using this chart at Ry Cooder's site to get gauges for my Harmony tenor.
    Been using Open G for slide, but .12 and .15 are plain steel and I like the sound of the wound bronze on .20 and .30. Any way I can beef this up without killing the neck on this tired old guitar and get 4 wound strings?

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