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Musical Instruments

Do You REALLY Need a Baritone Guitar?

Maybe it is the algorithms, but this past week when I logged onto YouTube, I was blasted with dozens of videos from the guitar bloggers (including Casino Guitars) about baritone guitars. The good, the bad, the prices, the uses, the history, and more. Why all of a sudden this interest in the baritone guitar, especially the electric ones?

While I don’t follow today’s harder rock music, from what I learned, a lot of these punk, death metal, and other hardcore sounding bands are using the baritone guitar to get that deep grungy sound to go with the bowels-of-hell vocals. Where 7-string electrics were the thing a decade or two ago (with a low B string), these bands want even lower sounds to quake the stage and eardrums.

A little history. The baritone guitar began to gain interest with popular music back in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Danelectro was the main manufacturer. Guitarslinger Duane Eddy used one on a number of his songs, and they were also used in Nashville to copy the bass lines of songs by artists such as Pasty Cline and Jim Reeves (where it was commonly referred to as a “tic-tac” bass).

As for rock music, its use was sporadic to say the least. Two classic rock songs that have a prominent baritone guitar sound are The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” and Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle.” These two songs featured the Fender Bass VI, which was also occasionally used by Cream’s Jack Bruce.

Baritone guitars made a slight comeback in the 1980s with a few of the neo-traditional country artists. A great example is Pete Anderson taking a lead on one with Dwight Yoakam’s “Little Ways.” During this time, Jerry Jones Guitars was producing replicas of the Danelectro baritone guitars, as well as a few original styles. Alt-country bands in the 1990s and 2000s were also implementing the baritone into some of their music, such as Dave Alvin with the reunion of The Knitters.

However, it never achieved a common guitar status. This is probably because of the specifications of the guitar. The neck scale is anywhere form 26 to 30 inches, and the string configuration is usually tuned down a fourth from B-to-B or a fifth from A-to-A. Picking a note on one of these with normal guitar pickups gives a springy, clunky sound that is somewhere between the regular guitar and a bass guitar. It has its unique sound, but playing a chord on one of these sounds horrible (at least to many).

Then we have today, where those metal-style bands WANT that earth-shaking low-end sound of distorted chords from a baritone guitar. To each his/her own, but I value my hearing, as well as my sanity.

This leads to the modern production of baritone guitars. Fender stopped producing the Bass VI years ago, but has now come out with the Squier Paranormal Carbonita Telecaster Baritone Guitar. Other manufacturers include ESP, Jackson, Reverend, and still Danelectro. Other than the Dan-o models, these are definitely geared to that metal crowd. They also range in price from $450 to $2,100 (on the Sweetwater website).
So would you consider paying at least $450 for a guitar that is not much more than a novelty? I guess if you have money to burn, then burn away. However, even when I was playing in roots-rock and alt-country bands 20+ years ago, I can only think of a few times when I wished that I had a baritone guitar. Fortunately for me, I was able to find an alternative.

About 20 or so years ago, Guitar Player put out an issue highlighting baritone guitars. This was about the time Jerry Jones started putting out its Dan-o copies, and they were getting great reviews for a short time. One article in that issue, however, caught my attention. It discussed creating your own baritone guitar from a regular electric guitar.

I went out and bought a cheap used Squier Telecaster, which has a 25.5-inch scale (just an inch or so less than a regular baritone) for about $100, and got to work. Work entailed filing the nut slots a bit as well as filing a little larger string hole at the tailpiece where the low E string resides. I used medium-gauge electric guitar strings but only used the thicker five strings. For the sixth string, I used a D string for a short-scale electric bass (this was why I filed a larger hole in the tailpiece). After re-setting the intonation, I had a decent baritone guitar! The Tele pickups gave it a bit of the old-school Dan-o sound.

I used it on a few recordings for other bands, and a few more people had borrowed it for use on their recordings. Basically, I saved hundreds of dollars. I still have that thing buried in my closet, and I doubt that it will ever be used again except to plunk around with at home.

The thing is, these guitars are not going to be used all of the time. I am not sure that even the metal bands will continue to use them as a rhythm guitar alternative for a long time. As for the original use in country music, they are a once-in-a-while flavor. Even use live with a country or Americana band would mean a one- or two-song change or perhaps a third guitarist (along with the rhythm and lead guitars).

My advice: don’t go out and buy one unless you have the money to spare, or are really serious about using it regularly in the studio or on stage. If you want to try a novel guitar project, convert one like I did for a lot less money.

Chew on it and comment.

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By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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