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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.
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.