Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Castles Made of Sand

I was trying to find a final song with tenor guitar to finish out this week’s special and I stumbled upon Reggie Witty’s interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” Not only does Witty sing and play rhythm tenor guitar, but he plays lead tenor and upright bass. The cut was recorded at Austin’s Sotogrande Sound Lab.


Witty plays a Martin O-18T tenor guitar for both the rhythm and the lead parts. I can’t tell what he has in his right hand while he is playing the lead, but it looks like an E-Bow. Unfortunately, I’m not sure, as I believe an E-Bow needs a magnetic pickup to add its violin bow effect to a guitar lead. Having never used one, I really couldn’t say for sure.

As for the tuning, it took me a while to figure it out and I nearly drove my oldest daughter crazy in my attempt. It appears that he has tuned his tenor a fifth lower than standard tuning as F-C-G-D and a step below Chicago tuning (G-D-A-E). I hadn’t heard this particular tuning before, but it really gives the guitar a different sound. Very nice.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Behind the House

It was during the Thanksgiving break of 2005 that I decided that I’d restring my tenor guitar and fool with it some. I hadn’t had it out of the case in years and it was time to get interested once again in this four-stringed marvel. I had been tuning the guitar like a tenor ukulele (G-C-E-A), as I thought this was not only the popular but proper tuning of the instrument.


During some of my free time that weekend, I started searching the web for information regarding the instrument and found TenorGuitar.com as well as the tenor guitar list. I joined it that weekend and am still a member. I also learned that since the tenor guitar was originally devised for tenor banjoists, that the original tuning (but certainly not the only tuning) was C-G-D-A).

Since I played mandolin, also tuned in fifths, the transition to this tuning was easy; however, I tend to think that I am playing the mandolin chords by name rather than the actual chord names. For instance, when I played what I knew as a G chord it really was fifth lower as a C on the tenor guitar.

This still messes with my mind and I suppose I could tune it like an octave mandolin and be done with it – but I have a bouzouki and an octave mandolin – so I need something with a slightly different sound – and I really like how the C-G-D-A tuning rings.

During that weekend, I immersed myself in tenor guitar logic, lore, and the legends of the instrument. One of those modern day TG legends is Neko Case. Unfortunately, I had never heard her music before that fateful weekend, and I really missed an opportunity to fully experience this redheaded Siren.

Her hypnotic voice would lure the most experienced mariners to her island of song. Although influenced by many genres of music, Neko’s penchant for folk and country shines brightly like a searchlight across the dark murky waters of oblivion.

Today’s feature, “Behind the House,” has Case playing her 1960s folk-era vintage Gibson TG-0 – which was her first tenor. She was drawn to the instrument because she has small hands and the tenor was easier for her to play than a standard six string guitar – but she plays it as well. As for tuning preference, it appears from this recording that Neko tunes it like a baritone ukulele/guitar as D-G-B-E.

Besides the TG-0, she has a plethora of tenor guitars that include a Martin, a Gretsch, Nationals, and several Gibson electrics in a variety of configurations. Back in 2005, there was a photo online with her tenor and vintage amp collection at that time. I wish I could find it, so I could post it here. “Behind the House” was performed live in Austin, Texas in 2006.





Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Did it in a Minute

During the 70s and 80s, Daryl Hall and John Oates were hitting it big on the national charts with a plethora of hits. The early 80s were especially good for the “blue-eyed soul” duo. The 1981 album “Private Eyes” produced a number of hits including two number one singles: “Private Eyes” and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”



These two chart topping singles were followed by “Did it in a Minute” at #9 and finally “Your Imagination” which peaked at #33. While “Did it in a Minute” wasn’t the biggest song from the album, this 1982 Top 10 hit utilized our feature instrument – the tenor guitar.

From listening to the studio version, you might not realize that a tenor guitar is present on the recording, but if you saw the video or saw Hall & Oates live, you would have seen Daryl Hall playing a Gibson ES-345T (I believe) tenor guitar. From a distance it is difficult to determine the model, as the ES-335 and ES-345 guitars have much in common. While I know Gibson had a 345 tenor in production, I am not sure about a 335; but, it could have been a custom model. I haven’t seen any documentation on this particular guitar.

Daryl Hall, John Oates, & Ray Harrah
the author & Will Shumate


As you can tell from the video, the guitar is a thin line semi-acoustic electric with two Humbucking pickups and a cherry red finish. If I remember correctly, Hall (or maybe Oates or both) had a Les Paul TV Special tenor from the 1950s as well. When I met the band in 1982, I asked Hall about his tenor guitars; however, after 32 years it escapes me what he said about these elusive instruments.

As far as tuning is concerned, I would venture to say that he is using standard guitar tuning on the four strings as (D-G-B-E). I have no way of confirming this. Hall uses a six-string on this number these days.

Although it charted at the same position as Rick Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou,” I would consider that “Did it in a Minute” is the second most popular tune to utilize a tenor guitar. I surmise this because “Hello Mary Lou” was backed with a number one song – making the single more accessible to a wider audience. In Hall & Oates defense, they did it in a minute; how marvelous is that?





Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Delivery Man

Day Four of our look at the tenor guitar features a song by Elvis Costello: the title cut of his “Delivery Man” album from 2004. The song is about three women: Vivian, Geraldine, and Ivy and their encounter with a certain delivery man named Abel.


To get the full effect of Costello’s electric tenor guitar, I have decided to use a live version that was recorded in 2004 in Memphis. I guess Elvis made it to the home of Elvis singing about a man who in a certain light looks a lot like Elvis.

The guitar that Costello is using is an orange Gretsch Chet Atkins tenor guitar. On the several live versions available on YouTube, his guitar with the MegaTron pickups really screams. I cannot be certain, but I think the tenor is tuned like a guitar/baritone ukulele (D-G-B-E).


Studio Version



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Blacksmith's Prayer

When Seth Lakeman began performing his song “Blacksmith’s Prayer,” he used a small bodied Martin tenor guitar that appears to be a model 5-15T. It is the same guitar that appears on the cover of his 2011 album “Tales from the Barrel House.” It’s not my favorite tenor guitar, as it looks like a baritone ukulele; but be that as it may, it still sounds great – like many Martin guitars do and always have.


I am not sure if he used the Martin on the studio track, as later live performances of “Blacksmith’s Prayer” and the song’s video show Seth playing an Irish bouzouki. In fact, whether he is playing the tenor or the Irish bouzouki, Seth tunes both instruments to the modal bouzouki tuning of G-D-A-D.

However, you will notice that it appears higher in pitch than either instrument’s typical open string range. Sounding slightly lower than a mandolin, this was accomplished by Seth using a capo on both instruments at the ninth fret. In essence, the “Blacksmith Prayer’s” tuning became E-B-F#-E.

This particular cut was captured live at St. Pancras International Railway Station in London in 2011 and is part of The Station Sessions series of recordings. It gives the full effect of Seth and his Martin tenor guitar as well as his great stage presence.




Monday, October 13, 2014

Tenor Guitar: For You Blue

For our second installment regarding the tenor guitar we turn to George Harrison’s son Dhani and his rendition of his father’s composition from The Beatles’ “Let it Be” album. The Gap utilized this 12-bar blues for one of its 2013 commercials.


Dhani plays a Gibson EST-150 electric archtop tenor guitar on this cut. From the pickup and the headstock decal, it appears that this particular guitar was manufactured in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Dhani uses an open “D” tuning (D-F#-A-D) on this cut and it lends itself quite well to the feeling on this song.

Additionally, there is a slide guitar on this tune playing similar to the lap guitar that John Lennon played on the original. Aaron Embry, who also plays tenor guitar and piano, plays on this cut but I am not sure which instrument(s) he is playing. I would venture that he is emulating Paul McCartney’s piano track. McCartney put paper in the strings to get the honky-tonk sound.

Dhani doesn’t typically play his father’s tunes because of the automatic comparison. The unmistakable resemblance in looks and sound to his dad makes you wonder if he inherited any DNA from his mother.


Gap Commercial





Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Hello Mary Lou

It’s the second week of the month and for the next seven days I’ll be featuring music that uses the tenor guitar. A four string instrument that was devised probably in the 1920s, the tenor guitar was introduced so that tenor banjo players could have a second instrument on which to double. Its height of popularity was probably in the 1930s and this somewhat waned over the following decades until the 2000s when more manufacturers began to offer tenors again.


There are acoustic tenors, electric tenors, 8-string tenors, and resonator tenor guitars. Most major manufacturers at one time or another have had tenor guitars as production models. It is a neat little instrument that I got acquainted with as a child, as my dad had a Domino tenor guitar. It later became my brother’s first instrument equipped with an Olson Electronics’ pickup.

I got my first tenor guitar in 1986 when I got a call from the late Alan Martin who said a couple was driving through town and had a Gibson tenor for sale for $80. He wondered if I would be interested in the instrument, so I drove quickly to the mall, made a cash withdrawal, and bought it on the spot. It is a 1931 Gibson TG-1 and I play it every so often. It needs a little work – with a neck resetting job being the primary repair that would make it play even better.

The author and his Gibson Tenor, 1987
How do you tune a tenor guitar? Well according to the Tenor Guitar list, that can be hotly contested topic. Since tenor guitars were made as a second instrument for tenor banjo players, the logical tuning might be C-G-D-A; however, not every tenor player uses that tuning. Other tunings mimic an octave mandolin (G-D-A-E), an Irish bouzouki (G-D-A-D), a guitar/baritone ukulele (D-G-B-E), tenor ukulele (G-C-E-A), Greek bouzouki (C-F-A-D), open G (D-G-B-D), and open D (D-F#-A-D) to name a few. I think I’ve used most of these, but I personally prefer C-G-D-A.

For our first look at the tenor guitar, we feature the biggest hit to my knowledge that used the instrument. Gunnar Nelson tells the story of how the tenor guitar became the rhythm instrument for one of Rick Nelson’s biggest hits: “Hello Mary Lou.”

“Did you know that our dad's iconic #1 song 'Hello Mary Lou' has no drums on it? Guess what's the only thing keeping that great rhythm throughout the song? You guessed it. Ozzie Nelson on his tenor guitar!

The legend has it that they were in the studio one night listening to demos, and they happened upon Hello Mary Lou. In the studio was our father, James Burton [lead guitarist], Joe Osborne [bassist], the engineer, and Ozzie. Our grandfather was always busting our dad’s chops- because Ozzie was a band leader from decades earlier . . . And our dad just through a ribbing said ‘too bad you don't have your tenor guitar here Pop . . . You could play on this one.’

The conversation continued in the studio. No one really noticing that Ozzie had disappeared. Ten minutes later, he shows up at the studio, tenor guitar in hand, having gone back to the house to get it. The recording session commenced without the drummer present . . . And the rest is rock and roll history.”

Well if you listen to the song, it appears that there are drums and a cowbell on this tune, but it is obvious that the rhythm is being carried by the tenor guitar. Other sources list Richie Frost on drums and Ray Johnson on piano in addition to Burton and Osborne. Written by Gene Pitney, “Hello Mary Lou” is a perfect start to our Second Week series on the tenor guitar. Although a B-Side, “Hello Mary Lou” charted at #9 in 1961. Its A-Side was the #1 hit “Travelin’ Man.”