Baritone Guitar, Anyone?

Any baritone guitar fans in the house? Let’s talk LOW!

I’ve been obsessed with baritone and other low-tuned guitars for decades, but I’ve never really found a perfect method for setting up a lower-than-standard guitar, so I’m interested to hear about other players’ experiences.

My main issue is pretty straightforward: I can get great tones by simply lowering the pitch on a standard-scale guitar, but the intonation is a nightmare, especially on the fifth and sixth strings. And when I use a longer-scale instrument, I get huge bass tones and solid intonation, but the middle and upper registers feel too thin stiff and stiff — I have difficulty making them sing.

With standard-scale guitars, it seems to help if there’s a length of straight string-pull — like on a Telecaster — between the nut and the tuners. I used a standard Tele tuned down to BEADF#B (like standard tuning, but a fourth lower) on the Tom Waits albums I worked on in the ’90s. Fortunately, the sketchy intonation were a plus in that clangorous context. (His song “Goin’ Out West” is a pretty good example of a cool, but screamingly out of tune, guitar tone. It was played on an old Tele dropped down to B.)

Later I bought a crappy plywood Baldwin Virginian for $100 — also standard scale, but with a long, straight string-pull — and used it on many albums and tours. When I played with PJ Harvey, it was dropped to the “Gary Glitter” tuning she loved at the time. It’s the tuning from Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2”: AAAAAA. That’s standard stringing, but with each string raised or lowered to the nearest A. I’d heard that song for many years, never realizing that the iconic riff is simply barred across all six strings. It sounds wicked, but only if you don’t mind an extremely wobbly intonation experience. That lowered first and sixth strings flap like sails in a hurricane. A lot of times I just used it as a noisemaker, as demonstrated in this Clinton-era clip:



What about the Danelectro six-string basses and Fender Bass VI? Love ’em! But to my ear, they’re best for single-note lines, like Robert Smith plays on all those great Cure singles, or like Glen Campbell’s epic solos to “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” (Smith and Campbell both used the Bass VI.)

If you see one of these mid-’60s Baldwin Virginians for $100, buy it — then email me.

But often, I’m looking for something that feels and responds like a regular guitar, just lower. I want powerful, ringing low notes and a nice, warm sound throughout all its registers, and the long-scale solidbodies always sound dry and stiff once you get out of the bottom octave. I’ve used long-scale guitars when playing with Tracy Chapman (including a Yamaha Drop 6) when we’ve toured without a bass player. She has such a full, pretty acoustic tone that the inherent long-scale stiffness isn’t too obvious — I can get nice bass sounds and add some shading in the higher registers. But I’ve never loved the sound as the sole guitar.

Here’s a good example of what I mean, using an Gretsch Jet Baritone that a kindly friend gave me on long-term loan. (Thanks, Xander!) It’s a cool , 29.75″-scale guitar that looks and feels a lot more expensive than it is. But it’s got that characteristic thin, tight quality when played fingerstyle. I recently added the clean boost circuit we made in Tonefiend DIY Club, mounting it inside the guitar via a push/pull pot. (Don’t tell Xander I messed with his pretty guitar.) IMHO, it helps a lot. Have a listen:



Standard-scale Steelcaster + CGCFAD tuning = fairly wicked baritone guitar tones

But for the last year or so I’ve been using a new formula: a James Trussart Steelcaster — my favorite guitar — tuned CGCFAD (like dropped-D, but down a whole-step). I don’t know why it took me so long to try splitting the difference between B and E tunings, but it’s a pleasing compromise between the aforementioned approaches. The alto register really sings, and I can get massive lows, especially with a bit of digital assistance. I’ve been using that scheme exclusively in my new guitar/drum duo band, Mental 99, and recorded our first album using only that guitar and tuning — the first time I’ve ever done a project with a single instrument.

The audio clips here are a fair demo of how the instrument performs in varying registers. (Like all Mental 99 tracks, they were recorded live-to-drive by layering parts with a Boomerang III looper pedal.)

Has anyone else grappled with the stuff? Any advice?

And has anyone tried one of those Fender Jaguar baritones, like the one pictured in the stylized photo at the top of this post? Looks like a Bass VI, minus some of the eccentricities. I’ve got a ’90s Japanese-made Bass VI, a lovely guitar that I’ve never been able to successfully use for anything other than deep, clean single-note lines.

36 comments to Baritone Guitar, Anyone?

  • Acid

    What about the PRS SE Mike Mushok?
    It seems like a good alternative!

  • Andy Heslin

    I started tuning my all guitars CGDGBE about half a year ago, and I love it even on my Gibson-scale acoustics.

  • My standard tuning is dropped D across the board but every so often I decide to wrap myself around something really low. The best baritone guitar I’ve ever used was the Michael Kelly Patriot Loboy. It’s a Les Paul variation with a 3×3 headstock. However, it has a string-through Fender style fixed bridge. The string-through helped with sustain but obviously, the string pull was no where near straight. 

    When I pick up a new baritone guitar, I swap out the pickups with actives (EMG…sorry!) EMGs have that compressed mid-range and somewhat shrill highs. They seem to work perfect for lower tuned guitars. I’ve used the Dave Mustaine before and they seemed to have a very similar sound to the EMG 81/85 set. I’d bet, if you swapped those in, you’d see a marked improvement in tonal response…it’s worth an hour or two to find out.  

    I also have noticed that Baritones with a maple top and/or ebony fret board seem to have better mid-range and highs. 

    Personally, I use the Line 6 Bogner head with a cab full of greenbacks so it’s easy to dial in the changes I need.

    • joe

      Thanks for the tip — cool to know there seem to be a number of sensibly priced baritones these days! The 28″ scale on the Kelly sounds intriguing. Not sure the EMGs would work for me — I don’t play much distorted baritone, and I had a lot more luck with that Yamaha Drop 6 once I replaced the stock actives with passives. But heck, I’ll try anything once. :beer:

      That’s just me — I’m usually going for something with a lot of clarity, where I can play contrapuntally, with clear bass lines. As opposed to a low-ass über-chunk machine. Not that there anything wrong with that…

  • dan

    LOVE BARI’S. i make  baritone lap steel that sounds amazing. i use the D-TAR Sadducer with a 28.75″ fret scale. once i started playing that guitar i may never go back. BARITONE ON THE LEFT IN THIS PICTURE

    • joe

      Ooh, pretty! Got any audio or video? I’d love to hear that thing!

      Anyone ever hear that Ry Cooder/Jon Hassell Trespass soundtrack from ’92? Cooder built these huge “slide guitars” — piano wires stretched over long distances, played with jars, I think. I did a record with Hassell around that time, and I remember him talking about how incredible they sounded in person.

      • That is a cool album. I remember reading an interview where he said he struck the strings with a 2X4 rather than a pick. I’ve always wanted to do something with very long strings since reading the Ry Cooder article.
        There is a woman that does music using very long strings live I read about recently but I can’t find the link. It apparently takes several days to set up the installation for a performance and she actually bolts stuff to the floor to hold the strings. I remember that she required a structural engineer had to look at the building an ok it before a contract was signed. I believe the strings were 27 feet long and she would slide a device along them to both excite and tune to a note. 
        On Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers cover there was a bunch of fake newspaper articles one of which talked about using the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge as bass strings for a performance. 

  • dan

    yes i have video of all my guitars. my youtube channel is called duva7000. go there of all kinds of steel fun. here is a link to one of my bari’s in action. copy and paste it into the search bar, thanx.

  • guitarboy

    You might want to try some of 666 series from Dragonfly guitars(Japan made).
    666s are little bit longer than other fender-scale guitars, but 26.2 inch scale.
    Those guitars might be answers to you.

  • Elliott

    I’ve been doing some theory-crafting for the Warmoth Bass VI I plan on building.  One of the conclusions I’ve come to, for why the Bass VIs muddy up when trying to play multiple notes, is simply that the factory pickups, and most normal pickups, aren’t suitable.  Even though the instrument has vintage roots, vintage style pickups aren’t as powerful as the should be.  I’ll be trying out Seymour Duncan quarter pound flat first, if they don’t hold out, i feel high output humbuckers might, like the hot rails, invader, or even taking it up to active with some duncan blackouts, or EMGs.

    Higher output, larger poles or thicker rails, should help clean up a Bass VI, making it more responsive, and chord friendly than the ones I’ve heard.

    Also, there’s the Music Man Silhouette Bass Guitar, comes with some pretty crispy humbuckers, but even those are a bit lackluster than what the instrument could be with better pickups.

  • Jason

    There are Gibson Les Paul studio baritones available, and Epiphone used to make a nice Les Paul standard baritone. I got one for $300, put an alt 8 and full shred neck in it,  great for dropped C and lower.  Its 27.75″ scale so it needs a touch thicker strings.  Also i saw some Agile Les paul copies in a baritone scale awhile back.

  • el reclusa

    Hey Joe, is the “Gary Glitter” tuning the one used on PJH’s “Goodnight”?  Sounds like it might be.  I remember another clip, I believe also from Glastonbury that year, of you playing that song on the Virginian with what looks like a steak knife as a slide.  Just thinking about it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck!
    Anyway, my experience with baritones in general has been mixed.  I played briefly in a noisy rock band in the late ’90s with a fella who played a reissue Bass VI, and it worked very well in that context.  I owned a Danelectro Hodad baritone for a long time, one of the sorta Mosrite-shaped ones with three lipsticks, and kept it in E-to-E tuning, but honestly, that thing never felt or sounded like much more than a toy.  It was kinda fun, but never lived up to my expectations so I sold it.
    A couple of friends own the cheaper Gretsch Electromatic baris.  Most of them never really use ’em, but one pal has two, and they’re very prominent in his band’s very, very sexy Noir-inflected music.  In the context of that band….whoooooa momma!  Wagging that Bigsby arm in that tuning isn’t quite like anything else.
    I’ve always just tuned down, for the most part.  None of the oddballs from the Mutant Beauty pageant submissions I sent in are tuned higher than a low B as far as I can remember, and I’ve always just kinda made the wonky intonation work for me- in context, it’s kinda charming.  I still really, really, REALLY want a workable “real” baritone, though- I dig having alternate registers to work in.  Tenor guitars and Nashville tuning are great for that too.  I’ve been contemplating a Tele-style bari for a while now, but want to make it like an old Dano- pine frame, masonite top and back.  I’ve had a couple of sheets of Masonite stashed for years…maybe 2012 will be the year I finally DO it!

    • joe

      Good ear! Yep, “Goodnight” uses that tuning. Don’t tell, but that knife I used is TOTALLY filed down, with less edge than a butter knife. Looks wicked, though, 

      One thing I’ve noticed about the Dano reissues is, the pickups are really the weak link, and I’m not just saying that ’cause of my Seymour Duncan connections. Swapping them out is a huge upgrade.

      I want to do some more work with the Gretsch bari — it feels nice to play, and I have a hunch some modding would bring it to life even more.

      I agree that the a slightly longer-than-normal scaled masonite Tele sounds like a real solid bet for making a cool baritone….

      • The pickups are definitely the weak link on Dano reissues I have a fretless Guitarlin reissue (my luthier buddy did the defretting). It was pretty lifeless until I took out the lipstick pickups and replaced them with a set of SD Jaguar Quarter Pounders that I once had in my 1968 Jaguar (the originals sounded better with the Jaguar electronics). The Quarter Pounders really made the fretless Guitarlin come alive. Now it responds nicely all the way up to the 30+ fret area on the fretless neck. I also hate the Dano bridges and routinely replace them with a surface mount Schaller bridge that has adjustments for string spacing as well as height and intonation (plus it increases sustain dramatically). The stock electronics work fine with the SD pickups which sort of surprised me. It also has a Roland GK2A for synth playing. I usually tune this guitar to an open D or C Modal chord and use D’Addario flatwound Chromes 12-52. The fretless triggers the synth very cleanly BTW and also works well with an Ebow.

  • Though I’m currently between baritones I’ve had great success with baritone conversion necked stratocasters from both Warmoth and Allparts, The last one I had was an all parts neck on an old chandler body that i recently gave to my music collaborator Erdem Helvacioglu.  I prefered the All parts necks at 27.78 rather than the 28 5/8 scale warmoth but that is just personal preference of hand comfort, they both do the job well, with the warmoth perhaps getting the nod for lower tuning possibilities. The reason I like the strat conversion style bari  is because the tremolo bridge is wonderful for those big twangy spaghetti western tones, and using something like a tremol-no device allows for fixed bridge tuning options.  Also since the Strat is such a modular guitar its easy to try different pickups, I’ve used lip stick tubes which are cool but preferred noise kinman strat pickups because of the amount of signal processing I do.  For the the 27.78 neck, I found that a 13-58 set of  GHS pure nickel roller wound strings were the best choice for me. cool site Joe.

  • PS I was in error on my last post, the pickups I was using on the last baritone guitar I had where actually Duncan classic stack pickups not Kinmans. The classic stacks are  excellent choice for those wishing for a big tight twangy baritone experience.

  • Eugene

    I’ve tried two baritone guitars – Washburn (can’t remember the exact model, but it was cheap) and Ibanez MMM1. Neither of them satisfied me… So I decided to avoid baritones. Now I’m playing Greco EG-700 (Les Paul Standard) tuned to BF#BEG#C# using .013-.060 strings and I’m completely happy:-) I replaced the bridge pickup with SD Invader, it sounds pretty wicked – great for me, because I play death metal.

  • Low-B

    how about SH-8’s or EMTY’s on a PRS SE Mushok? Is their bass response deep enough?

  • Dan

    Joe, kind of off-topic, but I didn’t know where else to ask the question and since you referenced ‘Goin’ Out West’ in this post, I figured it was as good a place as any. So, I’ve always been curious about the guitar solo sound on ‘Black Wings’ where it sounds like a fuzz pedal is being turned on and off, especially those two particularly splatty-sounding notes. Sorry to be so specific, I’ve just always wondered about that sound ever since that album came out. Thanks!

    • joe

      Hehe — if memory serves, it’s just that low-tuned Tele, into a silver face Super Reverb. I don’t think I used a fuzz pedal — I believe it’s just that the amp is set at a point where it’s ready to distort. I’m playing lightly throughout, but I guess I whacked those low notes real hard, and if farted out. But I’m still obsessed with the whole notion of shaping distortion from the guitar, and of any sort of tone setting that perches you on the brink of disaster. 🙂

  • el reclusa

    I’d say that notion is valid- not to kiss too much ass here, but in all honesty, that solo is tied with Ribot’s on “Cold Water” for my favorite solo of all time.  Also, this post/thread pretty much rules!

  • You can hear David Phillips playing a baritone lap steel on one of my tunes. David is, of course, a monster player. I am going to get him on a recording soon.

  • WB

    This is a clip of my band on a TV Show, we were “house band” on a Belgian talkshow for a week, and backed up the musical guests the show had – in this case Luc Van Acker (someone you probably heard of with your musical tastes, no?) singing his 1983 tune “Zanna”.   I’m playing my Baritone-parts-o-telecaster on this, in tandem with a Baritone Sax :

  • joe

    Thank you so much for that! I love it. Wow — the bari sax plus bari guitar double sounds awesome! :thumbup:

  • WB

    Thanks Joe, I appreciate that!
    The guitar itself is somewhat of a compromise – it’s a 27-something inch scale, which is really a little too short for the A tuning I have it in.   I works because I use very heavy strings, but it’s not the easiest guitar in the world to play. (I have something like a .72 low A on there IIRC)
    But for me, it’s a step up from the Dano reissue I’d been using – sounded killer, but lacked some punch on stage, and I’m not exactly a giant, so the guitar felt too big for me, like I was playing a Fender bass or something.     The tele baritone has a lot more sustain than the Dano too, which is good for some things, not as good for others.
    I also have a Jerry Jones longhorn that I keep in low E tuning, that I use for more traditional Country tic-tac bass, and the odd *really* low part.   Easier to play than the U-body baritones because of short body, I’m getting the first nicely priced longhorn bass reissue I can get locally, and converting that to six-string for a cheap longer-scale A-tuned bari.

    As for your original “questions” – I’ve been running into the same thing, as have most baritone-obsessed folks, I guess.  There’s always the string/scale length/playability thing with Baritones, and I don’t think there’s an easy fix for it either.
    Shorter scale ones like the Fender Baritone Jaguar or my own tele were really designed to tune down to C, and anything lower is going to need *really* big strings, or feel too floppy.    And the longer scale sounds killer for single notes, not too great on chords, and feels stiff, like you said.
    I’d love to find something like a 30″ scale conversion neck for a tele, but nobody seems to offer an affordable ready-made one that bolts right on.
    Two PS’s :
    -That Gretsch you’re using is NOT a cheap guitar, but the discontinued TV-Jones designed Spectrasonic – not the cheapo Jet Baritone!  Think twice before you take a dremel to it, haha!
    -Check out some youtube clips of Dave Gonzalez (of “The Paladins” fame)  band’s “the Stone River Boys”, and “The Hacienda Brothers” – Dave plays a LOT of Baritone guitar these days, and either plays a U style Dano, or the very hip one off custom Baritone with a Jazzmaster body and vintage Fender VI neck that Chris Fleming built for him.     He doesn’t seem to have any trouble “getting guitar-y” on a long-scale Baritone either!

  • Dav

    I use an old Takamine GZ-100 that my tech-friend has modified with huge strings (85-17) a filed nut and drilled string posts to be tuned GDGCEA.  This guitar is just a regular Gibson scale I think (there’s no info readily available on this model) and it just WORKS.  Not just as a low-ass chunk machine but even up high everything’s great, even on big jazz chords.  The guy is a miracle worker, I swear.

  • I know this thread is awful cold now, but I just did a demo and review of the stylin’ and affordable Eastwood Sidejack Baritone Deluxe, a Mosrite inspired B-to-B bari with dual P90’s and a Jazzmaster style vibrato. This is a very hip axe that can be had for under five hundred bucks. It does suffer from some of the ailments Joe refers to, but it does the classic bari sounds with aplomb.

  • Oinkus

    That is very neat ! I miss my High Flyer !(also one of my fave UFO songs of ultimate cheesiness!) first guitar I ever owned gave it to my best friend before he was put into a mental institution.He played it for 15 or 20 years.That thing has a great vibe just oozes fun too !I don’t own anything with P 90’s and really would like to have something that’s a baritone too . Thanks a ton new stuff to add to the list of things I can’t have, shucks. :what: Great article and video !

    • The same beautiful cat that lent me the Eastwood mentioned above, went out and bought me a Dano ’63-style bari. He gave it to me last night, so naturally I played it for 99% of the gig. It sounds fantastic – a lot like the Eastwood, believe it or not. I’m going to redo the demo I did of the Eastwood with the Dano to compare and contrast!
      And for the record, the more recent Dano pickups don’t seem to suffer from the same drawbacks as the first reissue series. I now have two ’63-type guitars and wouldn’t dream of changing out the p/u’s.

      • The exceptionally cool Mike Robertson of Eastwood Guitars just sent me his Sidejack Bass VI. I had to tweak the factory set-up a bit to tame some buzzies, but so far I’m having all kinds of fun with it. And it’s the first time I ever arrived at home post gig to find a brand new axe in a box in my front room. Neat!
        The Bass VI is nearly identical to its Baritone brother, armed with a Jazzmaster-style trem bridge and dual P90s. I’ve been getting my Jet Harris on with much glee, as well as setting up some of those awesome Mickey-Baker-the-Wildest-Guitar bass grooves (essential listening if you haven’t heard it yet. A Dano six string bass handles the low end on the whole album, as far as my tired ears can tell). I’m debating the taking the Eastwood out to the gig tonight, but the bandleader already put up with me using a Fuzz Factory as my sole gain device at a few road gigs a couple of weeks ago (pretty trad roots band) and I don’t know how far I can push his good graces. I’ll be writing an article and producing a few demos that should be happening in a couple of weeks.

  • Oinkus

    That is so wonderful ! Got to love some good friends that give you neat things!Put up a link I soon.I have so many guitars in my house now I just found 2 more hiding in the eaves of a friends house when I was looking for a broken switch (Squire and a Mex Strat) so I am up to 6 of his guitars that I am cleaning,stringing and setting up.Not to mention the Ampeg VH 140c SS monster that has issues(some kind of deathmetal cult following too) pots and whatnot.

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