Tenor Guitar aka Plectrum Guitar

1925 Lyon & Healy Tenor Lute
1948 Martin
Ashbury Spruce Top Acoustic Tenor Guitar
2014 Ashbury T14
The Tenor Guitar is an often misunderstood hybrid chordophone usually assumed to be a member of the Guitar family but actually derived from the Tenor Banjo and nothing to do with Guitars. It was invented sometime around the beginning of the 20th century and Lyon and Healy claimed to, (and possibly did), invent it. Certainly they must have been around in 1910 because of the existence of published and dated instructional books referencing the Tenor Guitar as well as Tenor Banjo from this period.

The reasons for its invention are also unclear and largely a matter of conjecture. My best guess is - the Mandolin family of instruments were possibly the most popular chordophones in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century; helped in part by Orville Gibson and his ideas of Mandolin Orchestras, (all playing Gibson made Mandolin variants). It was also the case that, before the age of electric amplification, the use of a banjo resonator on instruments was common to increase the volume, particularly when chordophones were played alongside brass and wind instruments, thus you got the Banjo Mandolins and the rise of the 4 string Tenor Banjo tuned in fifths like a Mandolin/Violin and not in fourths like a Guitar. At the start of the Jazz age the Tenor Banjo became popular as the main rhythm instrument in this new style of lively music played by small groups, and started to take over as the most popular chordophone from the Mandolins. The down side of the rise of the Tenor Banjo though is, in small groups partly the volume if not competing against brass, and partly the tone; the strident Banjo sound is not to everyone's taste. The answer, the Tenor Guitar. (The theories of the Tenor Guitar coming as a result of the way Tenor Banjo players could continue to play without having to learn a new instrument at the time of the rise of electric amplification and Guitars may have some validity for the continued popularity of the Tenor Guitar but doesn't explain the early origins) Whether it was invented by Lyon and Healy or not it certainly featured in their catalogue and in most of the other U.S. chordophone manufacturers of the time.

As I have said the Tenor Guitar is officially tuned in fifths, C3 G3 D4 A4, similar to the Mandola or Viola but other popular tunings include the "Irish" G2 D3 A3 E4, like an Octave Mandolin (or a Violin one octave lower) and the "Chicago" tuned in fourths, D3 G3 B3 E4, like a Baritone Ukulele or the first four strings of a Guitar. Beyond this there are slack or open tunings, i.e. tuned to a chord, often used for playing with a slide.

Possibly because of its obscure origins the size and scale of one is fairly fluid. generally they have a scale length of greater than 22 inches (570cm) and quite often as much as a full size Guitar so 25½ inches, (650mm) with the possibility of being even longer. The bigger one are often called Plectrum Guitars but again there is no hard and fast rule for this. Body shapes are as varied as the Guitar with flat top and archtop models being made. Like the Guitar too, the neck can join the body anywhere from the 12th fret up to the 15th or 16th fret. the neck itself though is quite narrow, much more so than a smaller Ukulele and this often leads to a slightly out of proportion, distinctive look. The body shape is generally the traditional figure 8 waisted Guitar shape though one fairly common variant has always been a teardrop or more accurately pear shaped body that is also known as the Tenor Lute

The Tenor Guitar has always been at the forefront of chordophone technology too, with early resonator models by both National and Dobro, (John Dopyera even invented a special round bodied variant he called the Tenortrope) and early electric models from most of the U.S makers (Gibson did, and I believe still do, offer a Tenor Guitar variant on all of their standard Guitar models). It inception also led to a lot, if not all of the "Multi" Instruments of the late 20's and early 30's; things like Regals Octophone and Kays KeyKords, things that with the Tenor Guitar itself were also the precursors to the Baritone Ukulele.

Though still not an especially popular instrument the Tenor Guitar has since the beginning of the 21st century seen a bit of an upsurge, once again appearing in a number of distributors catalogues, there are even manufacturers like Soares'y who specialise in them. Possibly this is due to the upsurge in Ukulele popularity and people treating them as large Baritone Ukuleles, but possibly as something in their own right?

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