This 1958 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 four-string tenor guitar is a very rare variation of the model.
Gretsch built other tenors, including the Duo Jet, archtop acoustic, and archtop electric tenors of various other models. Gretsch was not alone in making tenors. Martin, Gibson, and Epiphone all produced tenor versions of many of their standard models.
Tenor guitars were popular in the 1930s and continued to be made into the ’70s, though very few were made after the early ’60s. The heyday of the tenor banjo was the 1920s Dixieland era. At that time, they were more popular than guitars in the U.S., as Dixieland music took the nation by storm. The tenor banjo (and to a lesser extent its cousin, the four-string plectrum banjo) were the dominant fretted instruments of the genre.
The tenor banjo has tremendous volume and projection. One can be heard very clearly through a 12-piece brass band. After 1929, Dixieland music declined dramatically in popularity and was replaced by the crooners such as Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, who ruled the music scene from 1929 through 1933. From 1934 through World War II, the big-band era was dominant. The tenor banjo had too strident and piercing a voice to suit either the crooners or the Big Band era.
So the guitar became the dominant fretted instrument, with its lower pitch, more mellow voice, and greater sustain. Thousands of tenor banjo players were faced with either being out of work or switching to guitar. Since the banjo has a different tuning, different scale length, and quite different playing technique, it was a big adjustment. For those who wanted an easier transition, the tenor guitar was an alternative.
By putting the equivalent of a tenor banjo neck on a standard guitar body, the tenor banjo player could adapt virtually immediately. But the tenor guitar sounds very different from a tenor banjo. These instruments have a unique voice, combining the voicing of tenor tuning with the greater depth, mellowness, and sustain of a guitar.
While we frequently encounter people playing a tenor guitar tuned the same as the first four strings of a standard guitar, it should be noted that this is not the way the instrument was intended to be used, nor is it the best way to bring out the sound of these instruments. Tuned in standard guitar manner, a tenor guitar simply is a less complete and weaker instrument. The shorter tenor scale (221⁄2″ to 23″ depending upon the manufacturer) is ideally suited to tenor tuning, but does not give sufficient tension to bring out the best in standard guitar tuning.
Four-string tenors are tuned and played in the same manner as a tenor banjo, in fifths, C, G, D, A (low to high). The instrument extends from a low C to a high A (first-string equivalent to the first string on a standard guitar at the fifth fret). The instrument has a far greater pitch range than the first four strings of a guitar, and the chord voicings are far more versatile. Tuned in fifths in the correct tenor manner, the voicings are the same as bowed instruments such as violin and viola or mandolin family instruments (tenor tuning – C,G,D,A – is the same as viola or mandola).
While the tenor guitar has a unique voice, and well-made tenor instruments of this sort sound very fine, they did not fill a niche in the big bands, and never achieved the popularity of a standard guitar. Tenor banjo players who wanted to make the transition to guitar generally found that simply switching to a tenor instrument with a guitar body was not going to assure them of continued employment.
By the 1950s, tenor guitars were made in relatively small quantities and were more of a curiosity than a mainstream instrument. The tenor received a brief boost in the early ’60s due to being featured in the folk group The Kingston Trio, but most folk players never truly understood tenor voicing, and simply tuned them like the first four strings of a standard guitar.
Today, tenor guitars are most popular among players who back up Texas-style fiddling. While the majority of guitarists backing Western Swing and Texas-style fiddlers perform on six-string guitars playing chord rhythm, a minority use tenor guitars and have found them ideally suited to the chord rhythm played in this style of music.
The tenor Gretsch featured here has a body of the same dimensions and construction as the standard 6120 of the period. The tailpiece is a typical Gretsch “G” logo type set up to hold four strings. The Filtertron pickups are built with the same construction as the six-string version, but are set up with only four sets of pole screws. The neck dimensions are essentially the same as a tenor banjo. The peghead is a smaller tenor size, set up for four strings, but features the same Gretsch name logo and horseshoe inlay as the standard 6120 model of the period. When this guitar was made, a typical six-string 6120 would have had “thumbprint” inlays on the bass side of the fingerboard. This has dot inlays, but on an instrument which, in all probability, is a one-of-a-kind custom-order piece, variations are always possible.
This guitar came with a typical Gretsch 6120-style hardshell case with white covering and tooled leather edge trim. While the neck is shorter than a standard guitar, Gretsch did not have a special design tenor case made with a shorter neck. Had Gretsch tooled up to make large numbers of tenor guitars, they might have had special tenor cases made, but for a custom instrument such as this, they made do with the standard case.
This guitar is in exceptionally fine condition showing virtually no wear. Today, it is owned by Elvis Costello, who has been performing with it onstage. While the tenor guitar will never overcome the standard six-string in popularity, they have a valid voice, deserving of greater recognition.
This article originally appeared in Vintage Guitar magazine’s August 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.