Tenor Guitar (1920s Banjo Headstock Type) Set Up for Irish Traditional Music
The 4-string tenor guitar, cousin of the tenor banjo, were introduced in America in the 1920s, Both were primarily used as chord instruments in jazz-swing bands. Somewhere along the way, Irish Traditional Musicians adopted the tenor banjo as a melody instrument. In the late 1950s, the standard tuning for Irish tenor banjo playing changed from the original curiously (i.e. just wrong for the string length) high-pitched viola range C D G A to a lower (octave lower than a fiddle) G D A E.
In America, many Irish Traditional banjo players started using tenor guitars as well when a more of a guitar voice seemed appropriate, tuning in the same octave tuning as the banjo. When I was performing Irish Trad in the Baltimore-Washington DC area (where a huge Irish-American community exists) almost 40 years ago, every tenor banjo player I knew also had a tenor guitar. My little brother, Bob (Bobby to his family) Rickert, who studied tenor banjo under the famous Dr, Mick Maloney (a household name among Irish style tenor banjoists), was a master on tenor banjo, tenor guitar and a four string cello-tuned version (kind of a mandocello) he made from a regular guitar. The tenor guitar has never seen much usage outside of the U.S. This is one aspect that differentiates Irish Traditional Music as played in the U.S. and Ireland.
We have written extensively on the use of the tenor banjo in Irish Traditional Music. We will do the same for the tenor guitar in the near future.
Our custom tenor guitar is based on a nice tenor guitar with a parlor type body by a well-known Japanese maker
The base instrument is highly modified by D. Rickert Musical Instruments specifically to be used as a lower-pitched (octave lower than a fiddle or mandolin…G D A E…same as an “Irish tuned" tenor banjo) melody instrument for Irish Traditional Music. Its use as a melody instrument in Irish Trad. Is very different than for chord playing in 1920s style jazz-swing (the original use of tenor guitars and tenor banjos).
What it replicates
A plausible parlor-bodied tenor guitar of the 1920s with a nicely shaped headstock and high-quality Grover banjo type friction pegs, which can be upgraded to top of the line 5-Star or Waverly planetary-geared banjo type tuning pegs.
As illustrated in the accompanying images at the end, there really was not a “standard” tenor guitar design or body shape. Our creation sort of replicates a 1920s Martin tenor guitar. The actual Martin tenor guitar of the period had a somewhat larger body and typical plain trapezoidal headstock with regular geared guitar pegs. While this guitar does have Martin 19th Century type parlor body, were after something much cooler looking than a Martin.
Generally, the best you are going to do for a small parlor sized guitar like this one is a cloth gig bag. The manufacturer of the base instrument does not even offer a proper hard shell case for this or similarly sized instruments.
It was not easy, but we found a source for the right case.
- X bracing
- Solid Sitka Spruce top
- Solid mahogany back and sies
- Mahogany neck
- Rosewood fingerboard
- Rosewood bridge
- Bone nut and saddle
- Tuning pegs:
- Grover Champion™ banjo type friction (non-geared) pegs
- Peg upgrades (highly recommended): 5-Star ($140 - $160) or Waverly ($175 - $210) planetary-geared banjo pegs; either in either chrome or gold with choice of button types (see illustrations below)
- Tuner Knobs
- Frets: 20
- Scale: 22.8”
- Strings: Custom set of strings for Irish octave tuning
- You will be asked to specify your preference in string composition
- Please specify whether you will be tuning a whole step lower, per common practice among Irish tenor banjo players, and then capoing on the 2nd fret to bring back to a G D A E tuning, but with about a 21” scale.
- Scale 580mm (22.8”)
- Width at Nut 30mm
- Width at 14th Fret 36mm
- Thickness at 1st 22mm
- Thickness at 7th 23mm
- Radius 400mmR
- Length 18 1/4"
- Lower Bout Width 12"
- Max Depth 3 1/2"