It’s always exciting when an unusual
project lands on my bench. Recently, a
client brought in a Tele Thinline he wanted
to convert into a baritone, and I saw this as
a great opportunity to turn an off-the-shelf
guitar into a customized instrument.
Having done baritone conversions in the past, I knew it’d be easy for things to go wrong, so I suggested we document the process to help others avoid a train wreck if they were to make their own bari. Before we dive into the details, let’s review what we’re dealing with here.
What’s a Baritone?
A baritone guitar has a longer scale length
and uses heavier strings to enable you to
a great opportunity to turn an off-the-shelf
if they were to make their own bari. Before
tune lower—usually a fourth (B-B) or fifth
(A-A)—than a standard guitar. Because the
intervals remain the same between the strings,
fingerings for all your favorite chord forms,
scale patterns, and licks remain the same—
everything simply sounds lower. Pitch-wise,
a baritone sits between a guitar and a bass.
(Some people refer to a guitar tuned an
octave below standard as a “baritone,” but
technically a sub-octave guitar is a “bass VI,”
which takes its name from the long-scale
Fender instrument introduced in 1961.)
On a baritone, the scale length—the
distance from the string nut to the bridge
saddles—typically falls between 27" and
29". String gauges range from .012 for the
1st string up to .072 for the 6th string.
Several string manufacturers, including
D’Addario, Ernie Ball, GHS, Elixir, and La
Bella make baritone sets.
In the late 1950s, Danelectro unveiled
the world’s first long-scale electric guitar
and it quickly found a home in popular
music. Once film and television composers
heard Duane Eddy’s 1959 “Rebel Walk,”
the Dano’s gnarly twang spread like wildfire.
Even Wes Montgomery got into the act
playing bass VI on his 1960 album Movin’
Along (check out “Sandu” and “Tune-Up” to
hear some ripping drop-tuned bebop). The
Beach Boys used the instrument to fatten up
“Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Caroline, No”
and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”
and “Galveston” featured gorgeous long-scale
guitar solos. At the time, the available instruments
were tuned an octave below guitar,
but it wouldn’t be long before the baritone
evolved as a unique 6-string pitched between
the bass VI and standard guitar.
Over the years, the baritone’s popularity
has grown from initially being considered a
“color” instrument for studio musicians to
now having a significant presence in country,
jazz, metal, and—thanks to the Cure—alternative
and indie rock. In fact, some contemporary
guitarists consider the baritone’s growl
essential to their sonic palette—and a few
even make it their primary instrument.
Currently a number of manufacturers—
such as Schecter, Music Man, Gibson,
Taylor, Alvarez, PRS, Gretsch, Eastwood, and
Fender—make baritone electric or acoustic
guitars. But the project we’re about to undertake
is appealing because the number of available
off-the-shelf baritone guitars is miniscule
relative to the number of standard-scale
instruments on the market. What we’re about
to show you can open up a world of tonal
possibilities not currently available on production
guitars, because this how-to reveals
the crucial steps to follow in converting virtually
any bolt-on electric into a baritone. That
means you can now bring the taut snarl of
baritone frequencies to guitars with the body
styles, woods, pickup configurations, control
schemes, and aesthetics of your choice.
Overview and Caveats
We began this project with a 2011 Fender
American Vintage ’69 Tele Thinline. The
owner had selected this specific model
because he wanted a Thinline with a 4-bolt
neck, and most Fender Thinlines (such as
the American Vintage ’72) have a 3-bolt
configuration. He’d also ordered a Warmoth
baritone neck (WD Music Products and
USA Custom Guitars also make bari necks),
and my job was to create a viable instrument
from these parts without making any
irreversible modifications. This meant he
could always take his Tele back to its original
form without devaluing it.
Be aware that this is not always possible
with a baritone conversion. When installing
a replacement neck, the most critical
element is how well (or even if ) it fits the
neck pocket. When retrofitting a neck, the
two most common problems are the neck
pocket being too loose or too tight, or the
neck screws not lining up with the holes in
the new neck. Solving either of these issues
requires irreversible modifications to the
neck or body—or both.
Without the proper tools and skills, this
type of project can quickly turn into an absolute
nightmare. If you’re thinking of doing
a bari conversion on your own, I urge you
to read this article from beginning to end so
you understand the process and potential pitfalls,
and can make a better judgment about
whether you feel up to the task. When in
doubt, consult a qualified luthier.
Before I do any mods or repair work, I carefully
interrogate my clients about their playing
style, and take detailed measurements
to document how the guitar is currently set
up. This information establishes where we
are compared to where we are going, and
allows me to identify anything that may
be out of adjustment or unusual about the
guitar. It also helps me correctly set up the
guitar after I’m done with any mods.
Tip: Save yourself time and possible
grief by carefully measuring pickup
height, action, and neck relief before
you begin modifying your guitar.
Prior to installing a new neck, I look it
over and take note of all its features. For
example, our maple, 28 5/8"-scale Warmoth
neck had a rosewood fretboard. Warmoth
offers many sizes of fretwire, and the owner
had opted for 6230 vintage-style frets. He
also specified a satin nitrocellulose finish.
Tools You Need for this Baritone Conversion Project
To replace the neck
and do a setup:
• Large and small Phillips screwdrivers
• Electric drill and small drill bits
• 6" precision metal ruler
• Rubber- or nylon-tipped hammer
• Soldering iron tip or round, sharp
• Gauged nut slotting files
• Allen wrench set
• Truss rod wrench
• String action gauge
• String radius gauges
• String winder and cutter
• Small towel or protective cloth
To cut a bone string nut
• Bone saddle blank
• Precision shaping file
• Machinist rule
• Mechanical pencil
• Radius block
• 600-grit paper
• Super glue
Warmoth bari necks sport 24 frets, come
standard with a 10"-16" compound radius,
and have a dual-action truss rod that’s
accessed at the heel and requires a 7/32"
hex wrench. Because Warmoth necks are
licensed by Fender, their headstocks have
legit Fender profiles and the neck-screw
holes are pre-drilled to Fender specs.
Before shipping a replacement neck,
most makers ream the headstock for a
buyer’s preferred tuners. Different tuner
types (such as Kluson, Grover, Sperzel, and
Planet Waves) require different size holes.
In our case, the headstock was drilled for
vintage-style Gotoh tuners. The owner had
already tested these tuners to make sure
they’d accommodate a .072" string—the
size of the 6th string in an Ernie Ball
Baritone Slinky set, which is what he uses.
Incidentally, .072" is a tight fit. Anything
thicker probably won’t fit in the shaft of a
6-on-a-side, Kluson-style tuner post.
Tip: Before having the tuner holes
reamed, do your homework. Always
check that the baritone 6th string
will fit into the set of machines
you plan to install.
Warmoth necks are available with preinstalled
synthetic nuts, but the owner
wanted me to install a bone nut, so he
ordered the neck without a nut.
Tip: Shaping and fitting a nut is
a tricky job. If you want to save
yourself time and effort, consider
ordering a bari neck with the nut
already installed. Some companies—
including Warmoth—offer synthetic
nuts that are not only shaped, but
pre-slotted at the factory to match
your fretwire and fretboard radius.