Welcome to Vintage Tenor Guitars and My Tenor Guitar Collection!
The main purposes
of this web site are to showcase the interesting, rare and unusual tenor guitars that I have been able to collect over the past ten years or so and to provide useful information and reference material about tenor guitars. I think I have examples of almost every type of tenor guitar that it is possible to find, including some that are almost certainly one-off custom made models. It is hoped that the instruments shown here will help to inspire interest in this wonderful and, often, neglected instrument.
Whilst this is not meant to be a commercial on-line vintage instrument web site and prices have not been attached to any of the instruments, I have now reluctantly decided that the time has finally come for me to start parting with these endlessly fascinating instruments with which I am still very strongly infatuated. Accordingly, if there is any interest in purchasing any of these instruments, please use the appropriate buttons on the web site to make contact with me and we can discuss mutually agreeable terms of sale.
Where Did My Interest in Tenor Guitars Come From?
I originally came to tenor guitars through playing the tenor banjo within the context of 1920s/30s classic jazz, blues and hot dance music. I was a relative latecomer to listening to and playing these styles of music, although I had always liked them from a distance. I gradually became aware that four string guitars actually existed and that they were usually tuned like the tenor banjo and the concept of such an instrument immediately fascinated me for some strange reason and this fascination continues unabated to this day.
I guess it was a guitar that I could perhaps make more sense of than the six string guitar, at which I had never been able to make much progress, but it was also just the idea of a guitar that tenor (or plectrum) banjo players could double on in a jazz or dance band to broaden their range of sounds. An excellent lead banjo player,
Lance Maguire, who had helped me with learning the tenor banjo, was also aware of tenor guitars and had even owned some, including a very nice looking solid bodied electric one, which fascinated me when I once saw him playing it in a band.
I decided I would like a tenor guitar but in the days before the Internet, I had no real idea of where to find one, and particularly not where I lived in Brisbane, Australia. I thought the only way to get one was to have one made. I was aware that
Martin Guitars still made an 0-18T flat top tenor guitar model as a custom-built instrument but it seemed to be an extremely expensive proposition. I had previously visited a fretted instrument dealer in Melbourne who had vintage banjos but no tenor guitars.
I somehow became aware of a local guitar builder in Brisbane called Doug Foster (now sadly deceased) who was very interested in building the Selmer Maccaferri style of six string guitar. I got in touch with him and went to see him. He was an extremely interesting man with a wide range of interests and hobbies.
As an experiment for his own interest, he told me that he had already actually built a four-string guitar in the Selmer Maccaferri style, which he said was based on something called an ‘Eddie Freeman Special’, which, at the time, was a complete mystery to me.
I had no idea what this ‘Eddie Freeman Special’ was (the wonderful
R. F. Charle book on Selmer Maccaferri Guitars had not yet been published) and I’m not sure that Doug fully knew what it was or how it was tuned, at that time, either. The problem with it was that it had a six string guitar scale length and he thought it should be tuned DGBE, like the top four strings of a six string guitar, whereas I wanted an instrument I could tune to CGDA like a tenor banjo.
I realised that this instrument could also be tuned CGBD like a plectrum guitar but, unfortunately, I was not interested in this or the DGBE tuning and I could not see a way of tuning it to CGDA because of its scale length so I did not want to buy it. Doug was a bit disappointed by this as he probably now thought he was never going to sell it, and unfortunately, he never did. It was only later that I discovered all the mysteries and beauty of the original re-entrant CGDA tuning for the
Selmer Maccaferri Eddie Freeman Special.
I finally got Doug to build me a Selmer Maccaferri style tenor guitar with dimensions and scale length based on the Martin 0-18T tenor guitar, for which he had the relevant information. It was a beautiful little guitar with a gorgeous sound to which I had an under-saddle Fishman pick up fitted for amplification. I still have this guitar today and it is very special to me, particularly since Doug has now passed on. Even at his advanced age, he was a fascinating, enthusiastic, lively, fit and energetic man with a very wide range of interests and I was very sad when he passed away in his early 80s.
What Do I Like About the Tenor Guitar?
The sound of the tenor guitar is quite sharp with its high A string and it is clearly very different from the sound of a six string guitar. I think it is particularly suited to playing rhythm for jazz and blues, the forms of music that now really interest me the most.
A particularly interesting type of tenor guitar with a unique sound is the resonator tenor guitar originally produced commercially in quite large numbers by National Instruments in the 20s, 30s and 40s.
The raw sound of the resonator tenor guitar is obviously very suited to the blues and Hawaiian music but I think it also really suits traditional jazz. It is documented that well known tenor banjo players from the 20s and 30s also doubled on National resonator tenor or plectrum guitars.
I had also developed a strong interest in early jug band music of the 20s and 30s and the resonator tenor is very much suited to that style of music. A well known Australian jug band called
The National Junk Band features their leader, Mic Conway
(formerly of Captain Matchbox), on a very rare National Style 97 tenor guitar, which may well be the only such model in existence.
The CGDA Tuning of the Tenor Guitar
I know that the CGDA tuning of the tenor guitar can be a controversial issue amongst tenor guitar players who range in preference from DGBE guitar/baritone ukelele tuning to GDAE Irish/octave mandolin tuning, as well as CGBD plectrum guitar tuning and even GCEA ukelele tuning, depending on their interests and musical background. Indeed, almost any tuning is possible on tenor guitars.
I immediately felt very comfortable with the regular CGDA tuning from the point of view of its sound and logic when learning to play the tenor banjo and I have always stuck with it with my tenor guitars, including the slightly different sounding re-entrant form of CGDA tuning on the
Eddie Freeman Special with its longer scale length.
Open tunings on the six-string guitar for blues slide playing, such as dropped D, have always greatly interested me, and these types of open tunings are also possible on tenor guitars. They also interest me but I have never really been able to develop the use of them to my full satisfaction.
How Easy Is It to Acquire Tenor Guitars in Australia?
The Doug Foster Selmer Maccaferri-style tenor guitar was initially what sparked the obsession of looking out for commercially manufactured tenor guitars. I was aware that
Martin had commercially produced the 0-18T flat top tenor guitar up until the 1980s and that they were still available as a custom shop instrument. I had considered ordering one but the price and apparent waiting list was somewhat prohibitive.
I was also aware of the 1997 limited edition 40th Anniversary Kingston Trio three-instrument set put out by Martin Guitars that included the beautiful
Martin 0-18KT tenor to celebrate Nick Reynolds’ instrument in the group. I had even seen one in the flesh in a Perth music store when I was over there for an Australian Jazz Convention, although it did not appear to be for sale.
This was almost a relief at the time because I was wondering what its price might be and I did not want to be embarrassed to have to refuse it if it were too expensive. I tried to buy it later by mail but there was no reply. I have since been very lucky enough to acquire one of these commemorative Kingston Trio tenor guitars from an instrument dealer in Japan and it has to be the most beautiful looking and sounding flat top acoustic tenor guitar ever built.
My interest in tenor guitars largely coincided with the rise of the Internet and the greater accessibility to the many on-line vintage instrument dealers and auction sites, such as eBay, which made the acquisition of tenor guitars much easier.
I also became fascinated by the history of the tenor guitar, which appeared to be rather unclear, particularly its origins. It was very interesting to see the range of styles of tenor guitars that have been produced commercially, as well as the occasional fascinating one-off rarity or custom instrument.
Acquiring Commercially Produced Tenor Guitar Models
I initially acquired examples of the more commonly available commercial tenor guitar production models – the
Martin 0-18T and the Gibson ETG-150. I also acquired a couple of
Harmony tenor models – a H1215TG Tenor Sovereign archtop and a
H1201T flat top.
I discovered the Tenor Guitar Registry discussion group around this time, which had been recently founded by another tenor guitar enthusiast
Mark Josephs who lived in California. This eventually led to the group of five of us tenor guitar enthusiasts,
Mark Josephs, Tom Molyneaux (also in the U.S), Tom Vincent
(in Japan), Pat Reinhart (also in the U.S) and myself in Australia (‘The Five Tenors’) collaboratively forming the non-commercial
www.tenorguitar.com web site, with my main contribution to it being to provide photos of my tenor guitar collection.
Tenorguitar.com and the
Tenor Guitar Registry
have since become important focal points for the development of
an international on-line tenor guitar community whose membership
continues to increase by leaps and bounds.
We receive many enquiries and requests for assistance and information.
After initially wanting to collect an example of every tenor guitar ever made, I eventually decided to specialise mostly in the resonator tenor guitars and electric models, rather than the much more numerous acoustic tenor guitars. I ended up acquiring a wide range of interesting
Gibson electric tenors, a couple of Gretsch electric tenor guitar models and, more recently, a
Guild electric tenor guitar model. It really all arose out of the fascination of the range of unusual models of tenor guitar that had been produced, including that never-ending hunt for the really rare, or possibly unique, tenor guitar model.
I also became very interested in National resonator tenor guitars and started acquiring these. Again, my original ambition was to try to acquire an example of every production resonator tenor made by National but I think I may now have reached my limit! They have an incredible sound and look, and, as the National period catalogues rightly state, they look like jewels, particularly the ones with the very intricate engraving. They particularly have that classic art deco look and represent their musical period perfectly.
The fascination for me with tenor guitars has become the variety of styles produced and the design and look of instruments themselves, as well as the sounds they can make.
Acquiring Custom-Made Tenor Guitar Models
In addition to acquiring vintage tenor guitars, I have also had a number of custom instruments made by some excellent luthiers who specialise in building four stringed instruments. The first of these was the
Earnest Instruments ‘Tenorcaster’, a solid-bodied electric tenor guitar whose design was inspired by the Fender Telecaster. I then asked
Joel Eckhaus of Earnest Instruments to build me one of his ‘Veronica’ cutaway electric archtop models, which is an absolutely beautiful instrument in the classic mould of a
John D’Angelico jazz archtop guitar.
I have also had custom instruments built by David Hodson in the UK who specialises in building
Selmer Maccaferri style guitars of all types, but who had also developed a special interest in the four string models made by Selmer in the 1930s and 40s. These included the
Eddie Freeman Special, with its six-string guitar scale length, and the standard
Selmer tenor guitar with its 23-inch scale length.
Through a meeting with the great Bob Brozman, the aficionado and master of National resonator guitars, I became aware of
Greg Beeton, a luthier in Australia who specialised in building resonator guitars and, who had also built four stringed resonator guitars, such as tenor guitars, for musicians in both Australia and the U.S. I contacted him in his home in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, and together we cooked up a very special project whereby he would create a ‘National Style 4’ tenor guitar with the ‘chrysanthemum’ style engraving.
National only ever produced their four stringed tenor or plectrum guitars as Style #1 (plain, no engraving), Style #2 (Wild Roses engraving) or Style #3 (Lily of the Valley engraving) so to have a National Style #4 tenor guitar was very special indeed.
I became aware that Amistar Resophonic Instruments in the Czech Republic have re-started the tradition of building resonator instruments in the style of the U.S.
Dopyera Brothers, also of Czech heritage, who established National Guitars and
Dobro Guitars in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s.
The owner of Amistar is Franta Javurek and he is actually a tenor guitar enthusiast himself and, accordingly, he has included several metal-bodied and wood-bodied tenor guitars in Amistar’s production line-up. Amistar build a wonderful cutaway acoustic/electric single cone resonator guitar called
The Stager, as both a six-string model and a tenor guitar model. The very first of these
Stager tenor models became Franta’s own personal instrument and, when I ordered one from Amistar, the second one was effectively a custom instrument built for me.
I also have a range of interesting and unusual tenors that were
produced by Mike Soares’y of Soares’y Guitars, some of which were purchased and some of which were given to me as samples. Mike has an unusual system of production whereby he uses overseas shops to produce small custom batches of tenor guitars that conform to his particular design specifications.
His system produces low cost/good value instruments that are very playable and are very well suited to players who just want to find out if they want to learn to play the tenor guitar but they can vary in quality and finish. However, Mike offers his instruments at great special prices, particularly to members of the
Tenor Guitar Registry, and he is very generous to his customers and helpful with his advice and knowledge about guitar building.
Mike’s particular hallmark is that he can produce a wide variety of conformations of instruments in terms of body type, electric/acoustic, scale length and numbers of strings, which barely exist elsewhere in the world. Some particular batches of instruments produced by Mike actually have a very high standard of build quality and they can be worth much more than he normally charges for them. However, one of the problems with Mike’s system is that he doesn’t maintain standard production runs with the same shop, particularly when he has a good line of instruments, and most of his instruments can become instant ‘limited editions’.
Which of the Tenors Guitars in the Collection are Unique and the Most Interesting?
Several of the Gibson electric models are either very rare or even unique – particularly the
J-160E, the ETG-350, the ES-5T, the ES-175, the
ES-330TDN, the ES-345, the Les Paul Special and the
SG Standard. The Gretsch models are unusual but were production models for short times. The
Guild M75 electric model is unusual but not unique. The Martin 0-18KT Kingston Trio commemorative model is not unique but it is certainly a limited edition and it is a very interesting.
The National tenors, though unusual and possibly rare, were all production instruments at some stage but they are simply fascinating. The
Rickenbacker Banjoline is not unique or really rare but it is very interesting and unusual. Most of the custom-made models can be considered rare and/or unique but by definition, any of them could be reproduced by the same maker. The
Beeton ‘National Style #4’ stands out as a unique rarity. Since David Hodson has now passed away, his Selmer Maccaferri instruments have effectively become rarities, just like the original Selmer Maccaferri instruments he was trying to emulate.
Which Are My Favourite Guitars and Why?
This is a very difficult question to answer because I really love each and every one of them in their own special way. I love the look and sound of all the metal-bodied resonator instruments – vintage and custom built – but I have a special liking for the
Beeton National Style 4 guitar-shaped tenor. I really love the classic look and sound of the
Earnest Veronica as a rhythm guitar for jazz and the unusual sound of the
Hodson Eddie Freeman Special with its unusual tuning.
I also really like the concept of the rare tenor versions of well-known electric models, such as all of the Gibsons I have, and I wonder who ordered them and what they played on them in the 50s and 60s. I particularly appreciate the tenor models that do not compromise by using six string guitar parts.
What About Solid Body Tenor Guitars and their Appropriateness?
Lead playing in the manner of the blues or rock and roll is not a style I can actually play myself but I think the solid body electric tenor guitar definitely has a place in rock and blues music. Although not many players use this instrument for this style at the moment, my tenor guitar co-conspirator,
Tom Molyneaux, certainly plays a very mean rock and blues electric tenor guitar.
For me, just the existence of these solid bodied tenor guitars is fascinating in itself. I do not really know what style of playing they were originally intended for playing in the late 50s and early 60s, when they were mostly produced. The main commercially produced example was the
Gretsch DuoJet but the market was not big and not very many were produced.
Future Plans – Guitar Acquisition Plans,
I think I have probably now reached the limit for my collection. Collecting rare, interesting and unusual tenor guitars has now become an expensive process and I have a lot of financial resources tied up in the collection. I think I would still like to own an original Maccaferri Selmer ‘Eddie Freeman Special’ or an original Selmer tenor guitar, if I could find either one of them, but they are fast becoming very rare and expensive. Many of the Eddie Freeman Specials have been converted to six string models and this has made them correspondingly out of reach in price.
I have been commissioned to produce a book on tenor guitars with my fellow www.tenorguitar.com co-conspirator,
Tom Molyneaux, who owns some interesting tenor guitars of his own. We have been struggling to get ourselves fully organised to achieve this, with him being in California, and me being in Australia but we will be taking definite steps to complete this project in 2008/9. I also think a calendar of interesting and unusual tenor guitars would be a great idea and I would love to use some of my guitars for such a calendar.