• OVERVIEW •
‘Baritone’ guitars – around 10-20% longer than normal – take correspondingly deepened tunings, typically set 4 to 9 semitones below Standard. Among the most popular is this ‘low B‘ layout, which drops everything down 5 frets (a perfect 4th): thus extending the bass by an ‘extra string’s worth’ (while subtracting the same from the top end).
Although similar concepts turn up throughout string instrument history, dedicated ‘baritone guitars’ are a relatively recent invention, first going on general sale in the 1970s. Later associated with death metal groups (particularly Scandinavian ‘ragnarok-ers’), who – in accordance with heavy rock’s long-term ‘ever lower‘ trends – were dropping down to B Standard and beyond by the early 1990s: stringing ultra-heavy or adding a 7th to thicken the deep chug (e.g. BEADGBE).
Harmony: Bm7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Mike Freeman’s Baritone Guitar: Clearing up a Murky History summarises the electric bari’s origins: “There are at least three stories circulating…Danelectro, Jerry Jones, and Joe Veillette – working with guitarist John Sebastian – have all been credited”. While Wikipedia confidently proclaims that “the Danelectro Company introduced an electric baritone guitar in the late 1950s”, this instrument was in fact far closer to a 6-string bass (typically tuned as ‘EADGBE minus 1 octave’: as on Duane Eddy’s big-selling 1960 album The Twang’s the Thang). Jerry Jones, a key luthier of this early era, is unequivocal: “[Danelectro] never made a baritone…When I offered my first [models], I was unaware that Joe Veillette and Harvey Citron had [already] made a few baritone guitars for…John Sebastian“.
Sebastian – an eclectic folk-rocker who famously played an impromptu solo set at Woodstock in 1969 (after being pulled from the crowd, post-acid-drop, to help fill a rain-delayed slot by…well, I kid you not, nobody can definitively remember: various sources suggest Santana, Richie Havens, and Country Joe McDonald were on either before or after) – had long been experimenting with deep-strung axes. His 1971 live album Cheapo-Cheapo Productions featured a precursor ‘guitar-bass‘ built by Dan Armstrong (“bass strings on [6-5str]…tune [4-3str] an octave up…[like] Nashville…and then [2-1str] back to normal” [=’EA-DG-BE’ as ‘lowered-raised-unchanged’]) – and he also describes how, on Jug Band Music, recorded five years earlier in 1966, “We used 6-string basses to get this ‘blatty’ sound…capoing it to 5fr. That became a kind of a start to this baritone thing…”.
Joe Veillette expands on his creation of Sebastian’s bari: “I soon lost interest in architecture, and moved to New York City, where I…co-founded Veillette-Citron Guitars…In 1978, John Sebastian asked us to build a baritone guitar, resulting in the VC Shark…we had the first one…then the Danelectro people [tried] to copyright the name ‘baritone’, which was ridiculous!“. Thankfully, he persevered, eventually constructing a plethora of bari designs – Sebastian has recorded on various Veillette-crafted electrics, acoustics, and 12-strings in the decades since. Watch him take visible satisfaction from one below (and also check out Ariel Posen’s electric slide improv on a Jerry Jones ‘Longhorn’ bari).
- Bari Jam @ Joe Veillette’s – John Sebastian (2011):
“Sebastian…has always been a lover of guitars, and of being around shops that produce them…He’d been playing Fender 6-string basses [gauged] from .016 to .080 – the sound was amazing and enchanting. He used to capo at [2fr] to make the reach a little bit more manageable. We built him a 28 3/4″ scale baritone that worked very well…” (Harvey Citron)
Before long, the instrument had made its way into much heavier territory. As per Chris Dondoros’ History of the Baritone Guitar in Metal: “Death metal’s downtuned descent would fully begin in 1989, on albums such as [Bolt Thrower’s] Realm of Chaos [on which Barry Thompson & Gavin Ward play normal-scale guitars in A Standard: ADGCEA]…while others, such as Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth, would popularize the 7-string guitar” (e.g. on the 1993 Covenant album). He also cites Sevendust’s Clint Lowry (who often tunes to B or Bb), At The Gates’ Martin Larsson (who plays melodic metal on a 27″ bari), Machine Head’s Robb Flynn (who tunes to ‘B + 40 cents‘, and released a signature ‘Love/Death Baritone Flying V’), and Metallica’s James Hetfield (Invisible Kid in Ab Standard) – as well as Staind’s Mike Mushok and Chevelle’s Pete Loeffler (“giving 2000s radio-rock a distinctive sound”).
Others from neighbouring subgenres have also set up deep over the years – including Bloodbath (Hades Rising), Edge of Sanity (Twilight), Arcturus (The Sham Mirrors), and Amon Amarth (Twilight of the Thunder God). And from elsewhere in the guitarosphere – Eddie Van Halen (Spanked: on a double-neck guitar-bass), Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat (in his duo The Evens: e.g. Cut From the Cloth), and Ricky Wilson of the B-52’s (who set his uber-weird tunings on partially-strung Mosrite long-necks).
- None But My Own – Machine Head (2019):
“The main reason for having the slightly shorter 27″ baritone scale is when you tune down to B, it just makes the low definition really tight, especially for palm muting and chunking…it opens up the sound a lot” (Robb Flynn)
For a haphazard highlight reel of other notable users, check out Dave Matthews (including his ‘Bari Raised-B‘ songs), Alex Turner (most of the Arctic Monkeys album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino), Hozier (Take Me To Church, Jackie & Wilson), Sungha Jung (Flaming), Tim Lerch (Grez Mendocino), Emma Ruth Rundle (Darkhorse/Control), Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (12-string bari on the Vampires soundtrack), and Ariel Posen (e.g. Angeline, Tremolo, Funk Improv in B Standard: “it’s hard to go back now”).
Baris have also been employed by jazz fingerstylers such as Axel Hagen (Blue Baritone) and Stefano Mirandola (The Chicken), as well as electric fusion legend Allan Holdsworth – who occasionally recorded on massive 34”, 36”, and 38” models tuned to C, Bb, and A Standard (e.g. Sphere of Innocence). Jim Hall also tuned ‘down a 4th‘ on occasion (e.g. the 1963 Girl and a Guitar album, and in the bass-less Brookmeyer/Giuffrè ‘overdub trio‘) – while Bob Lanzetti and Mark Lettieri of Snarky Puppy have also delved far into the baritone zone (e.g. Lanzetti’s Whose Feet are These That are Walking, and Lettieri’s Deep: Baritone Sessions Vol. 1 & 2).
Normal-scale guitars tuned to bari territory have also left a mark on many famous tunes – e.g. The Pixies’ Here Comes Your Man, The Posies’ Coming Right Along, Aerosmith’s Back in the Saddle, and (possibly) some film incarnations of Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme [itself reworked from Bad Sign, Good Sign: a bizarre comic number Norman had previously penned for a theatre adaption of V.S. Naipaul’s novel A House For Mr Biswas – about an aspirational Indo-Trinidadian man beset with uncontrollable fits of magic sneezing (“Hindus and Chinese, Africans and Portuguese, everybody worries about my sneeze…”). Watch Norman tell the tale to the BBC, including a Hindustani recreation of the Bond Theme featuring sitarist Jonathan Mayer (who is currently reviewing my ensemble score of Raag Vachaspati – itself an incidental scale-match for Danny Elfman’s Simpsons Theme).]
- Jerry Jones Longhorn Demo – Ariel Posen (2017):
“I’ve always liked a slightly higher action – most people who play my guitars have a difficult time. They feel like it’s a bit of a fight…But that’s just what I like: I play hard, I dig in…I like the fight, it’s a balancing act. That’s why I struggle playing other people’s guitars.” (Ariel Posen)
Inevitably, creating bassier versions of existing string instruments is nothing new. Historian-luthier George Gruhn cites bari-style guitars made in Germany around 100 years ago – while the huge, booming chiterra sarda (‘Sardinian guitar’, or in Italy, ‘chitarra gigante’) has been used in the island’s traditional vocal-guitar duets for generations (“the guitar plays a delicate role….to fathom its peculiarities, innumerable dimensions are revealed”). [n.b. Also check out Paolo Angeli’s self-designed ‘prepared Sardinian guitar‘: an astonishing amalgamation of the chiterra, cello, and drums, featuring drone strings, pedal-operated hammers, and electrical components from an old mobile phone…]
Other European lute-style instruments also have bassier variants. For example, the ‘mandocello‘ (baritone mandolin: CGDA) dates back to 18th-century Italy, where it likely descended from Baroque ‘mandalones‘ (even deeper: ADGC). And, even further back, the 15th-century ‘viola da gamba‘ (baritone viol: see below) – tuned to layouts such as DGCEAD (the same ‘5>5>4>5>5′ sequence as the Renaissance Lute, a 4th lower), and featuring a ‘partially fretted‘ neck (…they only go up to the 8fr).
- Allegro (Karl Friedrich Abel) – Johanna Rose (2013):
“The versatility of the bass viol led to its playing different styles of music, aided by the proliferation of basses in a range of sizes…The term ‘lyra viol’ refers to the English practice of playing from tablature rather than pitch notation, and employing a wide range of different tunings…In Italy, ‘viola bastarda’ referred to a virtuosic style, [a] highly decorated version of madrigal.” (VDGSA)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- C Standard (this +1): everything a little further up
- Carnatic Drone: another deepened, B-rooted layout
- Funky Avocado: like a ‘Drop B + DADGAD’ mashup
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Baritone zones: see StringJoy’s summary, Chords of Orion’s ambient baritone demo, Ariel Posen’s ‘Stratomule’ bari, and Rob Scallon’s Down-Tuning Experiment (‘does tuning lower make things heavier?’: featuring the mysteries of ‘drop-Q’ tuning) – as well as early-era insights from Duane Eddy (“in 1959 in Hollywood, I saw [a] Danelectro 6-string bass…Well, it was hard to play: you couldn’t play chords [or] bend the strings very easily”) and pioneering bari luthier Jerry Jones (“the 30”-scale Dano [6-string bass] had a floppy low-E string. The idea for the baritone was to…shorten the scale to 28″, retune to a 4th or 5th [higher], and replace the wound [1-2str] with plain strings, the way an acoustic guitar is configured…the advantages would be a more chord-friendly instrument with bendable strings…”)
- Bassier inventions: given we have baritone guitars, why not also check out deeper variants of other instruments – most famously the baritone sax (e.g. in classical, jazz, funk, Afrobeat, and ‘brass house’: plus, it’s Lisa Simpson‘s instrument of choice), but also the baritone horn, baritone dulcimer, baritone ukulele, and baritone concertina – the latter of which seems to be the first instrument associated with the term (which is itself derived from the “Italian baritono, via the Greek barytonos, via barys [‘heavy, deep’], from the posited Proto-Indo-European gwere [‘heavy’] + tonos [‘tone’], from the P.I.E. root ten [‘to stretch’]…As an adjective, it dates to 1729 in reference to the voice, and 1854 in reference to musical instruments”)
Header image: Phoebe Bridgers with her Danelectro Bari
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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