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Deep 6: A Brief History of the Tragically Underused Electric Baritone Guitar


Kaki King performing with her choice baritone.

Scale and Tuning: 6-String Bass vs. Baritone Guitar
One thing I noticed early on was that some guitars being termed “baritones” were simply 6-string basses—they were made to be tuned from E to E, an octave below a standard-scale guitar. The problem with that scenario is that open-position chords sound muddy and don’t have enough midrange bite to cut through. Further, in order to achieve optimal string tension and intonation, a bass should have a longer scale—typically 34" or 35".

Because of this, my definition of a baritone is a long-scale guitar tuned below standard E tuning but not as far down as a full octave. Most baritone scale lengths are between 26" and 30".

The longer the scale, the greater the string tension and, generally, the more accurate intonation is all the way up the fretboard. Conversely, tuning a regular guitar down a fourth (B-B) or fifth (A-A) from standard will cause the 6th string to flop all over the place and result in more pitch problems the further you travel up the neck.

Besides providing more string tension and better intonation, a baritone’s longer scale yields a quicker onset and longer decay when a note is picked. That’s why baritones seem to have such explosive attack and endless sustain in comparison to a downtuned guitar with a 25 1/2" or 24 3/4" scale.

“Most of the baritones I build are based on my Glide series, and I lean towards 27 3/4" or 28" scale lengths,” says Saul Koll of Koll Guitar Company in Portland, Oregon. “ It’s a functional decision because most guys are coming from a standard guitar and want something just a little bit longer and more familiar. Tuning is usually B to B. With a Bigsby and a good rig, being tuned down that low is magical—that middle area between bass and guitar is just so cool!”

Although a lot of baritone players prefer B-to-B tuning, there isn’t as much of a consensus on a standard baritone tuning as there is with regular-scale guitar. Most players prefer something that allows them to use the same fingerings they use in standard tuning, but some prefer turning the pegs in a way that lets them play open chords. The lower you go, the more rumble you’ll achieve. The most common baritone tunings are A-D-G-C-E-A and B-E-A-D-F#-B, though some aficionados use the horn-friendly C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C. The latter automatically converts chimey open-string chord grips, such as G, D, and C into concert Eb, Bb, and Ab—chords that require a barre in standard tuning.

Baritone Boss: Luthier Joe Veillette

The one builder who probably has more invested in the electric baritone than any other is luthier Joe Veillette of Veillette Guitars. His experience goes back 35 years and includes partnerships with other innovative builders.

Based in Woodstock, New York, Veillette contends that the first true electric baritone was a model called the Shark, which he conceived around 1980, during the years he was in a partnership with luthier Harvey Citron. The Veillette-Citron Shark was developed with input from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, and was later sought out by such luminaries as Eddie Van Halen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers), and Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna).

Like George Gruhn, Veillette contends that the first Danelectros were just 6-string basses. “Same with the Fender VI,” he says. “Sebastian came to us wanting a shorter scale—because 30" is a lot of neck!

“We had the first one that was conceived and sold as a baritone,” Veillette continues. “Then the Danelectro people came in trying to copyright the name ‘baritone,’ which was ridiculous. What stopped them was our magazine ad from 1980. We had to do something … It cost me real money to keep making baritones for a while as we fought that. Other people were making what they called baritones, but two-thirds of my line was baritones—we’ve been more dependent on it than any other manufacturer.”

From 1991 to 1994, Veillette partnered with famed bass builder Stuart Spector, and his instruments were sought out by even more top-tier players, including Billy Gibbons, bass legend Billy Sheehan, Earl Slick, Journey’s Neal Schon, James Taylor, and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. “Dave Matthews bought his first baritone from us, and Eddie [Van Halen] eventually bought two 12-string baritones, too,” he adds. Veillette also partnered with another esteemed bass builder, Michael Tobias, to develop Avante baritone acoustics for Alvarez.

Given his history with baritones, it’s no surprise Veillette has seen the instrument evolve through a series of changes. His first Veillette-Citrons were solidbodies with piezo pickups but “for Eddie and Sheehan I added magnetics,” he says. For the past 10 years, he’s moved toward acoustic instruments with a piezo pickup under the saddle. These can be heard on Kaki King’s latest recordings, among others.

“Recently, I’m doing an equal number of 6- and 12-strings,” Veillette explains. “All this has put me in a place to experiment with different tunings and scale lengths—my specialty is in tuning ranges and string tension.”

Because of baritones’ previously mentioned tendency toward muddiness, I’d add that your choice of pickups is of critical importance. I recommend units that provide a clearer response and don’t mask harmonics. This will give you a more defined low end—which is, after all, what the baritone is all about.

Another Flavor, or the Main Attraction?
In addition to the previously mentioned perks of baritone guitar—girthy, articulate low end with sparkling mids and highs—there are additional benefits to a baritone. So many, in fact, that once you acquire one you may be tempted to make it your go-to instrument rather than an axe for switching things up once in a while. I like to tell people it’s similar to using a capo on a guitar—except in the opposite direction.

If you’re a singer, you’ll also discover very interesting new things about your voice as you apply it to keys you can’t reach with a standard guitar. If you stick with standard-tuning intervals, you don’t have to alter fingerings or relearn anything. Experiment with your library of songs in different keys and listen to how they take on a new life. (It reminds me a bit of how, nearly 300 years ago, Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier with two pieces in each key—and each one had its own mood.) Or, get adventurous with different tunings. Either way, adventurous players are bound to discover new sonic realms that just aren’t possible with a shorter-scale instrument. The timbres and thick, piano-like responsiveness of a baritone will drag you into new musical territory, no matter how you apply it. In fact, that’s why I personally believe the electric baritone is one of the most versatile fretted stringed instruments around.

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