The lowdown on baritones…

55. Tim Aves 28”-scale Telemaster Baritone

THERE was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed wherever you looked, you would see baritone guitars. The increased visibility of these instruments – like ordinary six-strings, but with a longer-than-usual scale, more heavily strung and tuned a good bit lower – is down to two things, I reckon.

Over the past 20 years or so, an increasing number of dropped and lowered tunings have been used in rock music. When run through brutally-overdriven amps, this creates a huge, fat sound wall of sound for chording. Some players use seven-string guitars with an extra, low B-string, while others simply put heavier strings on their ordinary guitars and tune them down a tone or two. Using a baritone is an obvious, logical next step. The other reason for this rash of long-scale guitars relates, I suspect, to the popularity of roots-Americana music, which, in turn, often harks back to the rock’n’roll and country of the 1950s and 60s. The original Danelectro, Gretsch and Fender baritone guitars of the time can be heard all over those old records – from Duane Eddy and Shadows instrumentals, to classic mainstream country hits.

Early version – the 30″ baritone version of the Danelecro U2

I remember loving that unmistakable twangy “rubber band” sound on Steve Earle’s early work. The wonderful “Guitartown” – the song and the whole album – is a case in point. Meanwhile, across the aisle in the blues section, Jimmie Vaughan can be heard playing a Dano baritone on several Fabulous Thunderbirds recordings, as well as the live version of little brother Stevie Ray’s Lovestruck Baby”.

Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on a magazine cover with a Danelectro twin-neck. You can clearly the the bottom baritone neck is a lot longer than the standard scale length.

The drawback of simply tuning down a standard 24¾” or 25½”-scale Gibson or Fender is that the lower the note, the slacker the strings and the more they rattle and bang on the frets. The obvious answer is heavier string gauges and a longer scale-length – the distance between the top nut on at the pointy end and the bridge saddles on the body.

Jimmie Vaughan playing a vintage Danelectro baritone in the video for the Fabulous Thundetbirds’ Hit, Tuff Enuff.

Baritone scale-lengths vary from the 27” of Fender and Squier’s recent Telecaster and Telemaster renditions and many of the more rock-oriented baris, to the generous 30” scale of the original Fender Bass VI and the older Danelectros.

An original early 60s Fender Bass VI

Fender fanatic that I am, I’d long been intrigued by the Fender Bass VI, a peculiar, vaguely Jazzmaster-shaped instrument, with a tremolo bridge and a neck roughly the same width as a standard guitar, cramming those thick strings rather too close together for comfort. It was first launched in 1961 and remained in limited production until 1975. Plenty of famous players used the Bass VI, including actual bass players, such as the Shadows’ Jet Harris and Cream’s Jack Bruce, as well as many a guitarist looking for a bit of low-pitched twang. The Bass VI made a comeback in 2013, via Fender’s budget brand, Squier, which started making a more affordable version of the Bass VI in China. Squier has been towards the front of the field, releasing a number of affordable baritones in varying scale lengths. A couple of them were 30”-scale Jazzmasters, put out as part of the limited-edition “Vintage Modified” series, which have gone on to become hugely collectible and incredibly expensive for Indonesian-made Squiers. Prices are now well in excess of the £1,000 mark.

I’m always on the lookout for instruments to add to the equipment list at our recording studio, Rooks Yard www.rooksyard.co.uk – especially things musicians might not routinely own, but which come in handy to add an extra, unusual texture to tracks recorded with us. On that basis, I’ve acquired a boxful of percussion instruments, a bass guitar, and accordion, plus the acoustic and electric 12-strings featured earlier in this series of blogs. I’d often considered adding a baritone guitar – all the more so after I almost built an electric 12-string last year for the studio. I’d already bought a neck and a very nice unfinished alder Telemaster body (made by the excellent, British Guitarbuild company) when I found a really good used Revelation electric 12 for sale at a price I couldn’t refuse. (No 54 in this blog.)

The unfinished Guitarbuild body. with the hardware temporarilty attached.

I’d gone for a Telemaster body – a Jazzmaster-shaped body, routed to accept a Telecaster neck, bridge and hardware – for the 12-string, because it was roughly what Fender had used for its own Electric Xl. It would also balance the extra heft of a long 12-string headstock, l thought. Equally, what better body also to use for a baritone guitar with a longer neck?

Key components – the unfinished Guitarbuild body with the baritone neck. To my relief, the neck was a perfect fit!

I was lucky to find my baritone neck secondhand, via a very helpful chap on a Facebook guitar forum. For a quite reasonable sum, I got an unbranded 24-fret rosewood-board neck, complete with a decent set of Gotoh tuners. The seller told me he’d originally paid a luthier to fit and set up the neck on a Telecaster body, but ended up putting the original neck back on, since he wasn’t using the baritone enough.

Minimal – the headstock

I’ve no idea if the neck’s minimal, stripped-down headstock – there’s barely room for the six tuners – was originally that shape; whether it was a re-shaped Tele head; or had started life as one of those blank canvass “paddle” headstocks, but it does the job rather stylishly. The less wood you have up that end, the better the guitar balances. Whatever is the case, it has a bit of a back-angle to it, obviating the need for string trees. The other great thing was the width at the nut was perfect. On the face of it, at 45mm it’s considerably wider that your average Tele’s 40mm nut, but in this context, not only very comfortable, but perfect for a baritone. You can play chords on it like a regular guitar, but you can also fret individual strings without feeling cramped. It wasn’t perfect – a couple of rather sharp fret-ends needed filing down and smoothing off and the truss-rod cover opening on the headstock was crude and unattractive – but it was more than good enough. Better still, the square Tele-style heel fitted snugly into the neck pocket on the Telemaster body. It’s always a relief when you’re marrying up an unrelated neck and body and that happens without the need for any adjustment!
There are practically no pickups specifically designed for six-string bass, but after a bit of thought, I took the easy option. The body was already routed for a Telecaster bridge and pickups, so that was what I went with – a Wilkinson traditional Fender-style “ashtray” three-saddle bridge, but with staggered brass saddles for improved intonation. I had an old Seymour Duncan Tele bridge pickup in the bits box, so in that went. Not a clue what model it is – it’s a bit gutless and may well end up getting replaced at some stage, though the prevailing view seems to be that you don’t really need “hot” pickups in a baritone; presumably that’s because there’s so much metal vibrating over them in those big old strings.
I almost went for a stock Tele pickup for the neck position, but had a yen for a Danelectro-style lipstick-tube. These days, you can buy Lippies scaled down to fit a Strat pickup cavity – only a shade wider than that for a Tele neck pickup anyway. I managed to find a rather attractive chromed surround in which to mount it, so there was no need to find or make what would have been a decidedly non-standard pickguard.

Getting there – the body with about eight coats of Tu-Oil on it.

The body itself was sanded to a decent standard – these Guitarbuild bodies are truly excellent and I would heartily recommend them to anyone building their own Fender-style guitar. My original plan had been to have a go at a traditional Fender-style nitrocellulose finish, probably Sonic or Daphne blue. A couple of specialist retailers, notably Northwest Guitars (I use them quite a lot for supplies these days) sell Fender-correct custom colour nitro paint in handy spray cans, so that seemed a way to go. Just one snag: Nitro is pretty difficult (not to mention moderately evil) to spray successfully if you don’t have a warm, dry, dust-free and well-ventilated indoor space. I have sprayed the odd bit outdoors in the garden in the past, but in mid-January during the coldest UK winter in ten years? Nope!
Instead, I turned to the brown bottle of pure magic that is Tru-Oil, a choice which turned out to be something of a revelation. Tru-Oil is a polymerized Linseed oil, specially formulated to dry fast to a tough finish. It’s marketed primarily to the shooting fraternity to protect the finish of their precious gun stocks, but plenty of guitar builders swear by it. I did a LOT of reading and watched even more Youtube videos before decided to go with Tru-Oil. Now, having done it once, I have absolutely no regrets.

Sheen – the body about halfway through the finishing process.

It took a long time – more than a fortnight – to finish the body, rubbing on one coat a day, then rubbing down with fine wire wool every two or three coats. That, I had read was the way to build up a really deep, lustrous shine. It was a tedious slog, but as you can see from the pics, well worth the effort – not least because it was all done in my nice, heated conservatory without killing myself with noxious fumes!

Glossy – the finished body after 14 coats of Tru-Oil

It slightly darkened the three-piece alder body to a rather nice, slightly orangey hue and brought out the grain a treat. Result! I’ll DEFINITELY be using Tru-Oil again. In fact, my next project will involve an experiment with Tru-Oil over a stain to colour the wood. Watch this space!

The untidy truss-rod access channel – and the cover I made for it.

After something like 14 or 15 daily coats, I let the finish harden for a couple of days. While I was waiting, I made up a nice little truss-rod cover from black plastic card – the stuff I originally used for the pickup rings, pickguard and trust-rod cover on my fake Gretsch (No 53 in this blog).

It was then finally time to bolt the thing together, wire up the electrics and string it up. I’ve said it before, it’s always an exciting time when you finally bring all the elements together and turn them into an actual instrument…will the result live up to expectations? This time, I’m happy to report that it worked out really well. Strung up with a beefy set of D’Adario 14-86 strings and tuned B-B (in other words, like a standard guitar, but a fourth down) it took surprisingly little setting up to make my baritone playable. (All credit to the luthier who originally cut the nut and set up the truss rod – necks seldom go on so easily straight out of the box.) The pickups needed winding out closer to the strings than I’d expected, but ended up sounding pretty good, though I still might replace the bridge unit at some stage. It’s a bit on the weak side, but it’ll do for now.

Next question: What to play on it? Well, you can play chords, but they tend to be a bit muddy and indistinct with all those low frequencies clattering around. Partial chords higher up the neck are fine and those twangy reverb and tremolo-laden “rubber-band” sounds from the Nashville classics sound tremendous. I ended up dropping the tuning down to A – that’s a full fifth down from a standard tuned guitar – for a song I had been working on and concluded it felt and sounded even better down there. You can hear my baritone on the Garageband demo of that song here…

Demo suite…using the baritone on my Train Song demo.

Once the latest lockdown is finally over and the guitar is in residence at the studio – we’ll soon be able to start having musicians in to record again – it’ll be interesting to see and hear what other players do with it. Every one of them, I expect, will have a slightly different take on it – and that’s part of the fun!

Published by 43guitarsandcounting

I'm a musician, studio owner, writer and former specialist broadcaster of far too many years experience. I started writing and posting this daily blog on Facebook at the beginning of the Lockdown for something to do and it took me something like 19 days to run out of guitars to talk about!

2 thoughts on “The lowdown on baritones…

    1. Thank you Jonathon. I’m really super-pleased with the finish and have just completed another guitar – an Esquire – with a Tru-Oil finish. I’ll be putting up a blog post with pics shortly. 🙂

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