Since it first entered popular consciousness in the mid-1950s, the baritone guitar has proved itself to be an indispensable part of any guitarist’s arsenal. With its longer than usual neck and deep, twangy punch — the baritone guitar is prized for its incredible versatility, both in the songwriting and in the studio recording process. Today, we’ll be talking about the origins of the baritone guitar and its unique influence in the musical world.
Origin of the Baritone Guitar
No one knows for sure when the baritone guitar was first created. Most music scholars believe that it first appeared in the 17th century baroque era alongside the mandocello (the baritone instrument of the mandolin family).
Since its inception, the baritone guitar was largely forgotten. It did not see any popular use until 1956, when the Danelectro company brought to market the first ever electric Danelectro baritone guitar.
Baritone Guitar Strings and Tuning
A baritone guitar neck is typically 27 to 30 inches in length — about 2 to 4 inches longer than a typical guitar neck. Because of this long neck, baritone guitar strings are typically .012 to .014 gauge — but can go even heavier depending on style. This makes using a baritone much more preferable than tuning down a regular guitar to reach lower notes. With a baritone guitar, there is no risk of loose, floppy strings complicating fretwork.
While there is no commonly accepted standard tuning, baritones are typically tuned either a perfect fourth below standard tuning (B-E-A-D-F#-B), a perfect fifth below standard tuning (A-D-G-C-E-A), or a major third below standard tuning (C-F-A#-D#-G-C). This allows the same open chord guitar shapes to be played, simply with a lower voice.
What makes the baritone guitar unique is that it sits harmonically between the guitar and bass guitar — giving it a high degree of versatility. Higher up on the neck, guitarists will find the same barre chord shapes and scale patterns they are familiar with. Here, they will be able to emulate a tone similar to that of a regular guitar, but with more depth.
Meanwhile, the bottom end allows for innovative bassline work. When songwriting, the baritone guitar’s unique tone and versatility can help guitarists break away from their usual tricks to experiment with more uncommon ideas. When recording in the studio, baritone guitars can be used to double basslines or guitar riffs. Their mid-range timbre allows them to work in perfect unison, while still providing a fresh element to the overall sound.
Rise of Popularity in the 1950s and 60s
Since they first arrived on the music scene in the 1950s, baritone guitars have been featured in a variety of genres. Perhaps the earliest and most prominent purveyor was rockabilly artist Duane Eddy. Known for his low-end guitar riffs, Eddy used the baritone almost exclusively on his 1960 album The Twang’s the Thang.
Another example is Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Wilson used them frequently for the fat, bass heavy riffs that became a signature in early 1960s Southern Californian surf style of music.
Country artists also enjoyed the baritone guitar for its deep, twangy sound. Baritone guitars were frequently used in country music to double basslines — adding extra depth to low parts without ignoring higher registers. This technique became known as the “tic-tac” sound and was popular on many 1960s tunes such as Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
Perhaps most notably, baritone guitars became an iconic part of the film soundtracks of the mega-popular spaghetti westerns of the mid-twentieth century. Movies such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars featured the baritone guitar’s deep, reverb-filled tones in their scores — reminiscent of the rhythmic gallop of horses through the dusty backwaters of the wild west, or the strong clack of cowboy boots on a saloon’s wooden floor.
In Modern Culture
From their original surf, rockabilly, and country roots — today’s baritone guitars have found strong popularity in the funk, metal, and ambient music communities. All three genres appreciate the baritone guitar for its heavier tones. This is especially highlighted in metal, which is typically played in a far deeper register than most traditional genres.
Since the 1980s, popular metal groups such as Cannibal Corpse, Metallica, and Coheed and Cambria have all used the baritone in some capacity. Just add a little fuzz or overdrive and these puppies can rock.
Ambient music also uses the baritone frequently as they sound fantastic with reverb and delay. Once again, the longer neck allows for more options when playing — they can be used to double important basslines and guitar riffs that often form the backbone of the entire ambient track.
Finally, modern funk guitarists such as Mark Lettieri have taken a liking to the baritone guitar for its versatility. Lettieri has used a baritone in super group Vulfpeck, as well as his side project The Fearless Flyers. Just this year, Lettieri came out with a new album —Deep: The Baritone Sessions which is designed specifically around his baritone work.
More Specific Examples
Whether you’re looking to imitate the deep, twangy tones of a spaghetti western, slay a thick heavy metal guitar solo, or just looking for musical inspiration — the baritone guitar is a versatile instrument with a wealth of possibilities.
If you’re interested in learning more about the baritone guitar and its many uses, here are some popular songs that feature the baritone in all its glory:
Peter Gunn by Duane Eddy
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Theme by Ennio Morricone
Crazy by Patsy Cline
Blue Liquid by Andy Mckee
Tight Trite Night by Don Ross
Twin Peaks Theme by Angelo Badalamenti
Rock Lobster by The B-52’s
Sad But True by Metallica
Key Entity Extraction II: Hollywood The Cracked by Coheed and Cambria
The Space Between by Dave Matthews Band
Ace of Aces by The Fearless Flyers (Corey Wong on baritone guitar in the middle)
We already know — you got halfway through this article, and somehow there’s a baritone guitar being shipped to your door in 2-3 business days . Make sure to set it up for optimal sound with Stringjoy baritone guitar strings.
Am I right that “A-D-G-C-E-A” is not “a perfect fifth lower”, but yet another fourth tuning just one step lower than the original “B-E-A-D-F#-B”?
Tuning to ADGCEA is – fun fact – the same tuning as a Guitalele or Guitarron Mexicano 😉 Fifths would be eg “F C G D A E” or “G D A E B F#” – I haven’t seen any six string instrument tuned like that. Four string instrument like mandolin or violin is tuned “G D A E”. And viola (and mandola) is tuned “C G D A”. You can see the pattern.
Yep, that’s correct. We do talk about fifths tuning on 6 string guitar a bit in this article: New Standard Tuning: Robert Fripp’s Alternate Tuning Explained
Wow, thanks for the info! Haven’t heard about this one before. Interesting and great learn tonight 😉
I was only dimly aware of this part of music / instrument background. Should have been: a friend of mine built an acoustic baritone guitar for Emmy LouHarris! Thank you so much for it.
Faith by The Cure. Another great example ofa a Fender Bass VI.