What is a Baritone Guitar? A Comprehensive Guide to Its Players, Tuning, and Genres

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Last updatedLast updated: April 24, 2024
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n the grand symphony of musical instruments, each carries a unique melody, tone, and character. Among them, baritone guitars echo a sound distinctive for its rich, deep tones. But what is a baritone guitar? What makes it unique from its other six-stringed counterparts? As a comprehensive guide, this article will delve into the intricacies of the baritone guitar, its history, its notable players, and its relevance in different genres of music.

Defining the Baritone Guitar

Baritone guitars, defined by their longer necks, are generally tuned to either B Standard (B-E-A-D-F#-B, colloquially known as ‘Baritone tuning‘) or A Standard (A-D-G-C-E-A), a tone lower. This tuning renders the baritone guitar 4th or 5th lower than the standard tuning.

The elongated neck of the baritone guitar accommodates a 27” scale length necessary to intonate lower notes properly while maintaining their tautness to stay in tune. Beyond the neck, baritone guitars often have slightly larger bodies. Nevertheless, in terms of design, they are as diverse as standard electric guitars.

Pickups: Traditional vs. Contemporary

Traditionally, baritone guitars incorporated single coil pickups to highlight the distinct twang. Modern designs, however, lean towards high-output humbuckers and aggressive styling, catering to heavy rock genres.

A Look Back in Time: The History of Baritone Guitars

Baritone guitars made their debut in the music scene in the 1950s. However, our exploration unearthed the presence of acoustic baritones, particularly in classical styles, long before that.

Determining an exact origin date for baritone guitars is challenging due to their lineage tracing back to a blend of early stringed instruments from Europe and Mesopotamia. However, it’s indisputable that baritone guitars secured their first significant foothold in the music world within the surf genre of 1950s instrumental Rock.

Iconic Sounds from the 50s: Baritone Guitars and Surf Rock

The baritone guitar’s thick presence and unique low twang perfectly fit the new era of rock ‘n’ roll attitude, teenage rebellion, and ostentatious cars. The baritone guitar added a touch of character to the new age music and became iconic in instrumental rock.

One notable instance is Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’, a tune often synonymous with the Blues Brothers’ theme. The compelling baritone swagger is intrinsic to the song’s efficacy. Similarly, the Beach Boys, quintessential surf culture ambassadors, frequently incorporated baritone riffs into their song intros, creating timeless tunes like ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’.

The distinct sound of baritone guitars was not confined to pop music. In the 1960s, Hollywood recognized the potential of the low-tuned instrument, incorporating it into scores for spy films and spaghetti westerns. The twangy riffs of the baritone guitar became synonymous with these genres, giving birth to iconic, unforgettable soundtracks.

Spotlight on Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell, an acclaimed country musician, recognized the potential of the baritone guitar, using it in his hits like ‘Galveston’ and ‘Wichita Lineman‘. The instrument’s versatility extended beyond providing rhythm support—it was a formidable lead instrument too.

The Modern Era: From Twang to Growl

Angelo Badalamenti’s theme for the TV show Twin Peaks introduced the moody tone of a baritone guitar to millions of viewers. The theme centered around a slow-paced baritone riff drenched in vintage amp-style tremolo and reverb. This beautiful and evocative tune showcased that baritones could create soothing melodies and edgy ones.

Despite its iconic sound, the baritone guitar is not a one-trick pony—it serves as a secret weapon for music producers. It often adds depth and sonic richness to a recording, creating a fuller, more enveloping sound. A notable technique is the ‘tic tac’ bass sound, a method popularized by Nashville producers in the classic era. The technique involves playing a muted baritone part that doubles exactly what the bass is doing, note for note, creating a cohesive and captivating sound.

Baritone Guitars in the Metal Universe

The metal genre saw the evolution of the baritone guitar into a beast of heavy tunes. As Nu Metal emerged in the 90s and Djent and Prog Metal followed suit, the baritone guitar became a mainstay. Extended range guitars, especially those from brands like Ibanez, ESP Guitars, and Schecter Guitars, are often baritone guitars in disguise. As long as they feature a 27” scale and are factory-set for a lower tuning, they qualify as baritone guitars. This category includes 7-string, 8-string, and 6-string electric guitars.

Metal musicians like Machine Head’s Rob Flynn, Devin Townsend, Head from Korn, and Stephen Carpenter from the Deftones have adopted baritone guitars for their massive crunch tones. Metallica’s iconic 1991 release, ‘Metallica‘ (informally known as the Black Album), included the Jerry Jones baritone guitar on ‘Sad But True’. The baritone was used alongside James Hetfield’s ESP guitars (tuned down to D standard) to provide extra crunch to their impressive riffs.

Making Waves in Acoustic Music

The baritone guitar has also found its voice in the realm of acoustic music. Acclaimed musicians like Andy McKee, Martin Simpson, and Stu Thomas have extensively used an acoustic baritone guitar, with the Alvarez ABT60-CE being a popular choice.

Understanding Baritone Guitars: Players, Tuning, and Genres

When we explore the domain of baritone guitars, it’s essential to recognize the influential players who brought these instruments into the limelight and understand how they fit into various music genres.

Prominent Baritone Guitar Players

Glen Campbell, an esteemed artist, used the baritone guitar considerably. His riveting solos on hits like “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” brought a fresh dimension to the music scene. His usage of the baritone guitar introduced this unique instrument to a wider audience.

Djent and Prog Metal, emerging genres of the late 90s, saw guitarists adopting the baritone guitar as a fundamental weapon in their arsenal. Notable metal artists like Rob Flynn from Machine Head, Devin Townsend, Head from Korn, and Stephen Carpenter from Deftones wielded baritone guitars to craft chunky, pulsating tones that formed the backbone of their music.

While discussing baritone guitar players, one cannot overlook the significant contribution of Metallica, particularly on their 1991 release ‘Metallica’ (also known as the ‘Black Album’). Their iconic track ‘Sad But True’ featured the exceptional sound of the baritone guitar, an addition that producer Bob Rock recommended. This innovative usage of the baritone guitar, combined with James Hetfield’s ESP guitars (tuned down a whole step to D standard), resulted in one of their most memorable riffs.

Baritone Guitar Tuning: The Sonic Difference

Tuning a baritone guitar to B standard (B-E-A-D-F#-B), also known as ‘Baritone tuning’, or A Standard (A-D-G-C-E-A) results in a guitar that is a 4th or a 5th lower than Standard tuning. The extended scale length of 27” in baritone guitars is necessary to facilitate these lower notes, enabling them to intonate correctly and remain sufficiently taut to stay in tune.

A baritone guitar’s distinct tone and range give it an edge over standard guitars, especially in genres requiring a deeper, resonant sound. The tuning also offers a larger harmonic spectrum for musicians to explore, providing more room for creative expression.

Impact of Baritone Guitars Across Musical Genres

A study of the baritone guitar’s journey through the years reveals its adaptability across various musical styles. Originating in the surf genre of 1950s instrumental Rock, the baritone guitar’s distinct low twang became synonymous with the era of teenage rebellion, rock ‘n’ roll attitude, and cars with gigantic tailfins.

The film industry of the 60s recognized the unique sound of the baritone guitar and used it extensively in numerous spy films and spaghetti westerns. No scene of a cowboy gunslinger would be complete without the sound of a low, twanging riff echoing in the background.

In the domain of television, the iconic theme tune for the cult TV show Twin Peaks prominently featured a baritone guitar, further demonstrating the instrument’s versatility. The melancholic baritone riff, accentuated by the vintage amp-style tremolo and reverb, added depth and emotion to the show’s mysterious atmosphere.

In contemporary music production, baritone guitars are often the secret ingredient that can turn a good recording into a great one. The baritone guitar tracks can double up in the mix alongside regular guitars to create a richer, more sonically complex sound without necessarily dominating the mix.

Delving Deeper into Baritone Guitars

Baritone Guitars: The Technicalities

The design of a baritone guitar often includes a larger body than standard guitars. Still, they can be as varied as electric guitars, ranging from traditional models with single-coil pickups emphasizing the twang to contemporary ones with high-output humbuckers and aggressive styling for heavy rock.

Extended range guitars from popular manufacturers like Ibanez, ESP Guitars, and Schecter Guitars often have a 27” scale and are factory-set for a lower tuning. Despite these characteristics fitting the definition of a baritone guitar, some players tend to categorize them differently based on their context and appearance.

Making an Informed Choice: Baritone or Not?

The Cure’s Robert Smith, known for his groundbreaking work on records like Disintegration, mainly used a Fender Bass VI. Although technically an extended range instrument with a lower pitch, Fender classifies it as a bass because it is lower than a baritone guitar, even possessing a low E string like a standard bass guitar. This differentiation helps potential buyers understand the nuanced differences between these types of guitars.

The Future of Baritone Guitars

The current trend in guitar music reflects an inclination towards lower tunings. Baritone guitars’ extended range and unique tuning cater perfectly to this evolving preference. The baritone guitar presents a fascinating opportunity for the player to tap into a broader sonic palette without having to re-learn their skill set. It’s as simple as plugging it into your usual rig, playing the riffs and chords you already know, and experiencing a whole new world of sound.

A Final Note

Despite its unique tuning and construction, the baritone guitar requires no special skills to master. Plug it into your regular rig, play the riffs and chords you already know, and you will unlock a whole new universe of sound.

We hope this comprehensive guide has shed light on the captivating world of baritone guitars. As music evolves, we anticipate the baritone guitar’s unique sound will continue to enrich various genres.

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