The Lowdown on Baritone Guitars
November 9, 2007
|The Fender Jaguar Baritone Special HH is an affordable but high-quality baritone guitar.|
Since first gazing upon a blue Danelectro Longhorn hanging on the wall of the local guitar shop, my curiousity has been piqued by the unusual instrument that is the baritone guitar. When thinking about baritone guitar, some questions might come to mind such as, “Don’t we already have a bass player?” “Who on earth plays a baritone guitar?” or, “Why should I care, it’s just a detuned guitar?” The answer is there’s much more to these strange musical beasts than you might imagine.
The ancestors to the baritone guitar include not only the electric guitar and bass, but also the guitarr—n, most commonly found in mariachi groups. Danelectro was the first company to manufacture a baritone electric model in the 1950s, but it was by no means an overnight success (although the instrument later found its way into surf music and movie soundtracks). Duane Eddy was probably the first well-known performer to regularly use the baritone guitar; you can hear him play baritone on “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “Twang Thang,” and “Bonnie Come Back.” Eddy’s use of the baritone helped add to its blossoming popularity and several other companies – Gretsch, Guild, Gibson, etc. – began producing their own models.
The next big proponent of baritones was Jack Bruce of Cream. His weapon of choice was the legendary Fender Bass VI. Bass players like John Entwhistle followed suit, picking up the Fender baritone as well as legendary guitarists such as George Harrison, John Lennon, Joe Perry and the Cure’s Robert Smith. Believe it or not, even Spinal Tap got into the act, using the Bass VI as Nigel’s “special” guitar in the infamous “don’t touch it” scene.
So why have artists as diverse as Merle Haggard, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Johnny Cash, Dino Cazares of Fear Factory, Pat Metheny and Stevie Ray Vaughan found a kinship with the baritone guitar? Some musicians use it as a replacement for bass instruments, while others make use of the baritone by adding new dimensions to their guitar tones. However you use it, bear in mind a few words gleaned from experience – be careful how you mix and match your guitar instruments. Unless the music is superbly arranged, a bass, standard guitar and baritone guitar all playing together can thicken things up as much as a milkshake. Used in the wrong context, this could cause more harm than good, but when a baritone is featured properly, there’s absolutely nothing that will replace its tone.
When looking for a baritone guitar to add to your arsenal, be conscious of the different scale lengths manufacturers use. Some companies make baritones that are about the same scale length as a standard electric, which tend to result in a more pronounced midrange. Other baritones feature longer scales – some as extreme as 30.5” – falling midway between electric guitar and electric bass.
String sets used with baritones usually fall in the range of .012-.054 up to .017-.080. String size and scale length have a big impact on the tone and playability of the instrument, so experiment to find what works best for you.
Another issue to be aware of is its tuning. Some instruments are designed to be tuned a forth or fifth lower than standard guitar tuning, others an octave below. Alternate tunings are encouraged, including open chord tunings for thick, round chords. The normal guitar considerations also need to be considered here: tremolo or stoptail, pickup configurations, neck radius, etc.
A quick search will reveal a number of companies making baritone guitars. Most of the big names are there, including Ibanez, Gibson, and Fender. There are also luthiers who produce handmade “boutique” instruments, both in electric and acoustic-electric varieties. A good, affordable starting point to consider is the Fender Jaguar Baritone Special HH, a 27” scale instrument with specially designed Dragster pickups.
In the end, it’s all about having fun, exploring new musical territory, and revitalizing the role you play as a guitarist. A baritone guitar can take your sound and your playing in competely new directions, open new vistas for your music and potentially change your approach to playing conventional guitar or bass – it’s definitely worth checking out.
Art Hill is a Sweetwater Sales Engineer and Pro Toolscertified recording engineer. He works and plays hard to support his wife and two children. Contact him at 800-222-4700 x1344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.