THE TENOR GUITAR
In the beginning, Gibson was for the most part a manufacturer of mandolins, banjos, only turning to guitars later in its history. Furthermore, those that were designed and manufactured from 1894 to the beginning of the 1920s were considered as accompaniment instruments for mandolin orchestras. However as things typically happen, trends come and go and so went the infatuation of the American public for the mandolin and the banjo, making way for the guitar craze of the 1920s. Many instrumentalists had little choice but to comply with this new state of things, or were all too eager to embrace the fashionable sound of guitar. Some, steeped in their old habits and dexterity on their instrument tuned in fifths, refused to convert to the enamelled fourths and thirds of the guitar.
Thus, aside from the occasional European four-string guitars from the middle of the 19th century, the tenor guitar tuned like a tenor banjo with the same intervals as the mandolin was born in the Americas in the 1920s. One only had to have this idea!
All the big companies will pay their tribute to this atypical little guitar, despite its – indeed we know this retrospectively – uncertain future. Gibson, National, Martin, Epiphone, Gretsch, Guild, Fender, the modest yet abundant industrial productions of Harmony, Stella, Regal. Even the legendary New York luthier John D’Angelico undertook the exercise himself, as well as the Selmer company in France under the direction of Mario Maccaferri (1890-1993).
If we had to remember a few names of renowned musicians who have flown the colors of the tenor guitar high, we will mention those of Roy Smeck (1900-1994), an absolute wizard of strings indeed, Eddie Condon (1905-1973) in the form of a Dixieland conductor, Eddy Freeman (1909-1937) on Selmer instruments, Tiny Grimes (1916-1989) in the electric jazz style, Nick Reynolds (1933-2008) on a Martin tenor in the folk style within the Kingston Trio, and more recently even in the hands of an Elvis Costello (1977- ). We will add to this non-exhaustive list the names of Lucien Belliard (1903-1960) – our very own French Roy Smeck ! -, one of the « As du Musette » who perfectly mastered this instrument – one of the guitars he used consisted of a Chevin tenor banjo neck mounted on a guitar body built by a now long forgotten maker. Although tenor guitar may also have moved out of fashion, rediscovering it is very much fun, exploring new tunings – it is certainly very revitalizing for musical creativity!