The History of Baritone Acoustic Guitars

Baritone Acoustic Guitar History

Baritone guitars are some of the most misunderstood instruments in the guitar world, especially acoustic baritones. Most players just think of them as a regular guitar, but bigger, deeper, and lower. While that isn’t wrong, it also doesn’t tell the full story. 

Baritone acoustic guitars are incredible instruments that have been tragically under utilized in music. They provide a deep and powerful sound that can be great for jazz, country, folk, classical, rock, metal, and much more. 

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at baritone acoustic guitars. We’ll look at what they are, how they came about, how they’ve developed over the years, and how they’re used. 

Photo Credit: Willie’s Guitars

What are Baritone Guitars?

First, let’s go over the basics of what baritone guitars actually are. Since they aren’t that common, lots of folks don’t even really know what makes a baritone a baritone—other than the fact they’re bigger than a regular guitar. 

The main difference between baritones and regular guitars is scale length. Standard guitars typically have a scale length ranging from 24.75” to 25.5”. Baritone guitars on the other hand are typically between 27” and 30.5”, so a full 3”-5” longer than a standard guitar. For reference, bass guitars typically have a scale length of 34”.

As expected, this has a big impact on the sound. Because the strings are longer, they’re tuned lower and create a deeper sound. Baritones are most commonly tuned a perfect fourth lower than a standard guitar (B-b), though some tune a third (C-c) or a fifth (A-a) lower. 

Because of their scale length and lower tuning, baritones are strung with heavier strings. For acoustic baritones, 15/70 is probably the most common choice. This can vary based on the instrument though. Baritone resonators for example tend to use different strings, like a set of 16/56s.

Speaking of resonators, it’s worth noting that baritones can be just as varied as regular guitars. You can get baritone acoustics, electrics, resonators, as well as any combination of electronics you can think of. There are even 8-string baritones that have octave D and G strings, requiring a special set of strings. The scale length is the only real differentiator between a regular guitar and a baritone guitar. 

That said, baritone acoustics typically have a bigger body than regular acoustics. This makes sense given the longer strings and lower tuning, as the bigger body will help those lower notes resonate and project better. 

Common Misconceptions

Before moving on to the history, let’s quickly clear up a few common misconceptions about baritone guitars. 

  1. They’re just basses. 

Baritone guitars are not basses. They are their own thing entirely, but they are much more close to a regular guitar than a bass. They play just like a regular guitar, but longer and lower. 

They also aren’t really used to replace the sonic space of a bass. They are often used alongside bass guitars, not as a replacement for them. They can help add depth and deeper sound to your songs, but they aren’t really a replacement for a bass. 

  1. They’re only for specific genres.

People tend to associate baritones with one or two specific genres. Some people think of them as a surf rock instrument, other country, and others metal. But the reality is that baritones can be used in just about anything. They’ve just been more commonly used in those genres. Don’t let that make you think you can only use a baritone if you’re playing one of those genres.

  1. Baritone guitars are hard to play.

Baritone guitars are admittedly harder to play than a regular guitar due to their scale length, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play fast licks and difficult parts on them. 

Plenty of players, such as Brain Setzer, prove that you can be just as agile on a baritone than a standard guitar. It just takes a little bit of time to get used to the heavier strings and longer neck. 

Photo Credit: Chords of Orion

Origins and Inspirations

Now that you know what baritone guitars are, let’s take a look at their origins. 

Baritone acoustic guitars go all the way back to the 1800s. Instrument makers in Europe were experimenting with all different types of instruments, and baritone guitars were invented as a result. However, those baritone guitars never really caught on for some reason, and the guitar world continued with their standard sized guitars. 

The idea of baritone instruments was still alive though. Many cite Gibson’s mandocello (from the early 1900s) as an inspiration for modern baritone acoustic guitars, and they are a continuation of the baritone tradition from the 1800s Europe. The mandocello is essentially the mandolin version of a baritone guitar; they are much bigger, longer, and deeper than standard mandolins. 

Despite all this, it took quite a while for baritone guitars to get modernized and become popular. It wasn’t until guitar went electric that baritones finally started to catch on. 

Birth of the Modern Baritone

The story of modern baritones starts (sort of) with Danelectro and Fender. Many claim that Danelectro made the first production baritone guitar in the late 50s. While Danelectro did release a long scale length six stringed instrument at the time, it wasn’t quite a proper baritone. 

Danelectro’s “baritone guitars” were more akin to six string basses. They had a 30” scale length (which is on the upper end for modern baritones), and they were tuned down a whole octave (E-e). This makes them much more like a six string bass tuned like a guitar than a proper baritone guitar. 

However, those Danelectros were still an important part of the baritone’s history. A few years later, Fender decided to release their own version of the Danelectro baritone—the now iconic Bass VI. Like the Danelectros, the Bass VI is basically just a six string bass. 

These instruments caught on fairly quickly. Country star Duane Eddy used the Danelectro Bass VI style guitar on countless recordings, giving his songs an unmistakable and deep twang. His hit Kommotion is a great example of how baritones can be used in country music. 

They were also used by surf rock artists, in spaghetti western scores, and more. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was another artist who commonly used a baritone guitar, and his use inspired countless others to experiment with them. 

After this, the modern baritone was slowly pioneered. Joe Veillette and Harvey Citron were luthiers who made guitars for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastion, and these guitars were likely the first proper baritone guitars. 

Modern Acoustic Baritones

Though baritone acoustics existed long before the electrics did, they sort of disappeared between their first creation in the 1800s until the 60s/70s. As electric baritones became popular though, some folks started wanting acoustic baritones. 

Surprisingly, there isn’t much known about the modern resurgence of baritone acoustic guitars. They just started appearing on the scene as manufacturers began making them. In the 70s and 80s though, acoustic baritones started getting made and people started using them. 

Though they’ve never been as popular as their electric counterparts, acoustic baritones have enjoyed a steady degree of popularity over the years. A wide range of artists use them, from metal to country to jazz to classical. Manufacturers like Guild, Alvarez, Taylor, and more are still making baritone acoustics. 

They have gotten more popular in recent years too, partially due to social media. Content creators are always looking for new and interesting video ideas, and baritone guitars are an interesting subject. For example, Mary Spender put out a video last year experimenting with a baritone acoustic, and it got nearly 100,000 views. 

Videos like that from her and other creators are bringing more awareness to baritone acoustic guitars, and there are sure to be countless musicians inspired to go out get baritone acoustics for themselves. 

Why Should You Use One?

So why use a baritone acoustic? The answer is pretty simple; they sound great. Baritone acoustics have such a deep and rich tone that you simply cannot get from a regular acoustic. You can play them solo and create a bigger, deeper sound all by yourself, or you can play them with a group and use it to add more depth. They work great whether solo, paired with a regular acoustic, other string instruments, and more. 

They can also be a source of inspiration. It’s easy to get stuck in a creative rut, and sometimes you just need some interesting gear to get you inspired. Picking up a baritone acoustic might just inspire you to play more and write new songs/pieces. And even if it doesn’t, you still have a unique new sound to add to your sonic arsenal.

Go Deeper With a Baritone Acoustic

Baritone acoustics have been around since the early 1800s, but they weren’t readily available and in production until the past 50 or so years. Still, these instruments have gone from electric six string basses to proper baritone acoustics. 
These instruments provide a unique and impressive sound that can be utilized in almost any genre. They may take a little bit of getting used to, but you’re bound to fall in love with what baritone acoustics have to offer. So pick up a set of our baritone acoustic strings and get playing!

One Response

  1. 100% agree with everything and the other great advantage to take in account is the key range in case of a male/female duet. You can easily find a key that match both ranges without playing with a capo above the 7th fret. I personally experimented it when singing with a friend and most of the time, we ended up playing with the baritone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *