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Mention the words “electric baritone guitar” to aficionados of the downtuned 6-string, and it instantly conjures a wealth of images—Clint Eastwood’s steely gaze staring out from behind his cigarillo, the misty-mountain montage from Twin Peaks, Duane Eddy playing any number of his hit songs.
Though many players associate the baritone with twangy tones—it’s iconic in surf, rockabilly, and country—that’s certainly not all it can do. It’s a staple for many metal and alt-rock guitarists who play in nonstandard tunings, and it’s been featured in recordings by artists as diverse as Dave Matthews, Allan Holdsworth, the B-52’s, Kaki King, System of a Down, Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Metallica, and even Britney Spears.
There are countless examples of standard guitars being used to emulate the effect of a baritone, too—from the James Bond theme to the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” and the Posies’ “Coming Right Along.” But there’s a lot more to a baritone than its tuning—a baritone is not just a standard guitar tuned way down. A baritone has taut low end that’s much more muscular and powerful than a standard-tuned guitar, but also far more articulate and cutting than a bass. That’s why it’s great for everything from fattening up rhythm tracks to playing bass lines, soloing in standard-guitar note ranges, or standing as the sole 6-string in a song. A baritone’s distinctive timbre is about a scale length that facilitates proper intonation and optimal string tension.
Mystery Train: Who Built the First Baritone?
There is some dispute as to who first mass-produced a guitar that could truly be considered an electric baritone. Some point to Jerry Jones as having led the way with his production models, but others say Danelectro’s 6-string bass design qualifies as the first.
A Danelectro Longhorn 6-string Bass. Photo courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.
“A hundred years ago, the Germans produced baritone guitars,” says guitar historian George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, “but I don’t know much about them. Those were acoustic instruments, of course. They were experimenting with all voices.”
In that group of early baritone-range instruments, I’d also add the mandocello (such as the K series instruments built by Gibson between 1905 and 1920), and maybe even go way back to the 1400s to the viola da gamba—a cello-like instrument with between five and seven strings for lower range, as well as frets (old strings tied around the neck) for better chord intonation. These instruments were the baritones of the mandolin and bowed-instrument families, respectively.
But as far as solidbodies go, Gruhn says, “The true electric baritone is a more recent thing. Until fairly recently, it had hardly been used at all. Gibson and Martin and Fender didn’t do them. Danelectro had the 6-string bass and some others they considered to be baritones.”
Nathan Daniel founded Danelectro in 1947, and his outfit made amplifiers for Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward throughout the late ’40s. In 1954, Danelectro started producing electric guitars and amps under its own name, though it was simultaneously making guitars and amplifiers under other brand names, most notably Silvertone and Airline. In 1956, Danelectro introduced the 6-string baritone guitar—a design that was soon noticed by other companies.
The Fender VI—later dubbed the Bass VI—debuted in 1961 and was originally available until 1975, though a few reissues and custom models have been available over the years. (Currently, Fender offers the Pawn Shop Bass VI, which features a bridge humbucker and two single-coils, while its Squier subsidiary offers the Vintage Modified Bass VI with the more traditional three-single-coil setup.)
About three years after Fender came out with the VI, Japanese instrument manufacturer Teisco started making baritone guitars such as the TB-64/ET-320. Teisco and various other Japanese instrument manufacturers also made longer-scale guitars under various brands, including Kingston, Demian, and Lindell throughout the ’60s.
During the ’60s, electric baritone guitars were widely used in the studio to create the “tic-tac” bass lines popularized in country music and other genres of the period. (Essentially, the tic-tac sound is created by doubling a bass line with a baritone guitar—or sometimes a guitar tuned down as low as possible. This adds extra depth and richness to low parts without ignoring the higher registers—something like putting beefier strings on a Tele tuned down to B or A.)