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Tenor Guitars: More Common Than You Realize

Sep 17, 2008
At first glance, a tenor guitar does not appear to differ greatly from a standard classical acoustic or electric guitar. The tenor's shape is (usually) similar to the more standard models, and so is its size. Upon closer inspection, however, a careful observer will note that this instrument has only four strings, as opposed to the six usually sported by guitars. Such an observer will also notice that the tenor guitar is slightly smaller than its relatives. However, it is usually the musical genre that makes a tenor guitar easy to identify. These instruments are most commonly used as rhythm instruments in jazz and blues music

Although it is now quite hard to pinpoint when the very first tenor guitar was built, they appear to have been used by musicians for at least 100 years. Certainly tenor guitars have been around since first decade of the twentieth century, because published and dated instructional books for the tenor guitar from that era that still exist today. The roots of the tenor guitar may be traced to the tenor banjo, an instrument popular in the early 20th century for its suitability to the new style of music we now know as jazz. Accordingly, some of the earliest tenor guitars seem to have been produced by banjo manufacturers.

Companies began to produce tenor guitars in earnest toward the end of the 1920s, a trend that compliments popularity timeline of jazz music. Some such companies, such as National, Martin and Gibson, still exist today, but many have gone out of business or discontinued their tenor guitar lines. Although the six-string guitar eventually became the common instrument of choice for most guitarists, the tenor guitar has maintained a place in jazz and blues and can sometimes be heard in country, western swing and even pop music.

Tenor guitars can be either acoustic or electric. They are, as mentioned, are generally shaped like a standard guitar. However, the bodies of some instruments are pear-shaped, like a lute, or round, like a banjo. Both body types are probably throwbacks to the instrument's roots. A tenor guitar is about 23 inches in length, approximately 3 inches shorter than the average six-string guitar. As for other guitar characteristics, the variety is broad: these instruments can be flat top, arch top, wooden, metal, hollow body or solid body. A true tenor guitar, however, always has four strings.

Today, the six-string guitar is still the most popular version of the instrument. However, tenor guitars have experienced a slight revival in recent years. Today, of course, they rather rare and can be difficult to acquire. Some companies still manufacture tenor guitars, such as Amistar in the Czech Republic, but private luthiers actually create many of the new tenor guitars. Such specialized guitars are made-to-order to the musician's specifications. The other option, of course, is to hunt down a vintage tenor guitar. Up until the recent revival, such instruments were regarded as having little value. This situation, however, has now changed. Vintage tenor guitars, especially those in good condition, are now considered very valuable to both artists and collectors.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for guitars, tenor guitars, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio.
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