Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Lowell “Banana” Levinger & Others Are Finding a Place for Tenor Guitars in Their Music

The contemporary pop-music scene boasts a small, but enthusiastic, cadre of tenor fans seeking to add color to their stage and studio sound.
Lowell Levinger seated playing a tenor guitar in front of a wall of other guitars.

“I certainly am a tenor-guitar proponent. It’s tuned in fifths [CGDA] and playing in fifths just kind of gives you different voicings—it has a rich, dark sound, like a viola, but with cello-like tones. I became enamored of it,” says Lowell “Banana” Levinger, a member of the 1960s band the Youngbloods, roots-music performer, and avid guitar collector.

While the diminutive tenor rests in the shadow of the more popular acoustic six-string classical, flattop, and archtop models, and even the 12-string market, the contemporary pop-music scene boasts a small, but enthusiastic, cadre of tenor fans. Those include Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Chris Thile, Ani DiFranco, Josh Rouse, and Carrie Rodriguez. The tenor—along with the baritone guitar, the harp guitar, the ukulele, the mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, the five-string banjo, and the lap-steel guitar—ranks among the fretted instruments that are gaining favor with acoustic guitarists seeking to add color to their stage and studio sound. (Of all those, the uke market has reached a fever pitch; in 2015 the sale of ukes outpaced the unit sales of electric guitars, according to the latest Music Trades music-industry retail census.)

Last year, Levinger’s dedication to the tenor earned him a place in the Tenor Guitar Foundation Hall of Fame. That Oregon-based nonprofit was founded by Mark Josephs to celebrate the tenor’s historic role in popular music, educate musicians about the instrument, and advance its use on the contemporary music scene.

The reason for Levinger’s induction? He’s a collector and one of the instrument’s true innovators.

“I fell in love with it about ten years ago, but what I play on my records and at my gigs is a five-string tenor guitar, because four years or so after I started playing a tenor, I decided I wanted to be a folk singer when I grow up,” says the 70-year-old, tousle-haired musician, noting that mandolinist David Grisman, also a tenor-guitar fan, introduced him to the instrument about 15 years ago. “If you want to sing the folk canon, all those great old songs mostly are in G and A and Bb and B, but on a four-string tenor, C is your lowest note—that’s the boom for your boom-chick, boom-chick. I just added another fifth down, which is an F. So my [five-string] tenor guitar is tuned FCGDA and that gives me access to the root-tonic note in the keys of G and A and Bb and B.

“So that’s what I’ve done to the tenor guitar for my own purposes, and I don’t know anyone else who’s doing that really. It makes such perfect sense to me that I’m sure everyone else will be jumping on that bandwagon, just as soon as I’ve played another thousand gigs,” he adds with a sly smile.

A collection of tenor guitars in open guitar cases.

The Roots of the Tenor

Washburn Guitars introduced the four-string tenor in 1925. It proved popular with dance bands of the swing era, and soon replaced the metallic-sounding tenor banjo, as reported in the 2002 AG article “Tenor Tenure”. Its status rose when Gibson and Martin followed Washburn’s lead with tenor-guitar models of their own. (Those are no longer in their catalog; Ibanez and Kala are two major manufacturers offering new tenors, and the collector’s market is considered undervalued.) In the 1930s, artists found that the bright tone of the tenor guitar cut through the rudimentary recording equipment of the day—Leroy Hurte of the Four Blackbirds, John Mills of the Mills Brothers, William Hartley of the Five Jones Boys, and Clyde Townes of the Lewis Bronzeville Five all recorded sweet-sounding solos on tenor guitar during that decade.


In 1933, the tenor guitar also entered country music in a big way when the Delmore Brothers joined the Grand Ole Opry. Alton and Rabon Delmore mixed down-home harmony singing with a hard-driving instrumental sound. Rabon’s inventive single-note solos were a huge influence on the country and bluegrass guitarists who followed him—Doc Watson cited such Delmore Brothers songs as “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” “Blues Stay Away from Me,” and “Hillbilly Boogie” as sources of inspiration.

By the end of the ’30s, the tenor guitar’s role in popular music had waned. But before it disappeared, a band called the Cats and the Fiddle emerged to give the tenor a new lease on life. The Cats were a vocal quartet that included the unusual instrumental lineup of two tenor guitars, a tiple, and a stand-up bass, the “fiddle” in the band’s name. The band changed personnel often, but in its ten-plus years of performing, it featured some of the finest tenor guitarists in the business, including Austin Powell, Ernie Price, and the influential Tiny Grimes, who left the band to pursue a solo career. Grimes went on to play with some of the best jazz players of the ’40s and ’50s, including Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, and Slam Stewart. The Cats and the Fiddle bridged the gap between the smooth, jazzy sounds of bands like the Mills Brothers and the more raucous sounds of early rhythm and blues bands like Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.

When the Cats and the Fiddle split in the early ’50s, the tenor guitar lost its most musically credible last champion. But it didn’t disappear entirely. Throughout the ’50s, the most visible tenor guitarist could be found on flickering black-and-white TVs in the guise of Jimmie Dodd, chief Mouseketeer on Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Though Dodd’s tenor guitar looked like a toy, with its large Mickey Mouse ears, Dodd was an excellent musician who wrote much of the music on the popular television show.

Then, in 1958, Nick Reynolds supplanted Dodd’s place as the most famous tenor guitarist in America. The folk-revival was in full swing on college campuses, in coffeehouses, and church basements. And Reynolds hit on the idea of taking a small-bodied Martin 2-18T and tuning its steel strings like a baritone uke [DGBE]. The crisp, ringing tone balanced well with Bob Shane’s Martin D-28 and Dave Guard’s Vega Pete Seeger model banjo, but Reynolds discovered that the small guitar didn’t have enough volume. After an unsuccessful experiment setting up his 2-18T with eight strings, he finally settled on a larger-bodied Martin 0-18T. The commercial success of such folk-revival hits as “Tom Dooley,” “Scotch and Soda,” and “Tijuana Jail” catapulted the Kingston Trio into the limelight and made the model de rigueur for budding folksingers. Soon, rival bands like the Brothers Four were strumming their own tenor guitars.

‘. . . the tenor guitar is a gateway to helping people around the world learn how to sing and play music.’

—Josh Reynolds

Carrying on the Tradition

The tenor guitar strikes a deep chord in Josh Reynolds, the son of Kingston trio member Nick Reynolds, a founding member of the Grammy-winning trio that helped launch the folk revival. “Whenever I play my dad’s songs, I can feel his spirit go through me,” says Reynolds, the president of the Tenor Guitar Foundation.

Others have caught the tenor bug as well. In addition to the aforementioned players, the four-string instrument has been played by everyone from Terry Bohner of the film mockumentary A Mighty Wind (played by John Michael Higgins) to Limp Bizkit fright-rock guitarist Wes Borland.

Josh Reynolds looks like his dad and sounds a bit like him, too. But for decades, he shied away from the guitar, instead becoming a successful producer of TV commercials. “Music was what my dad did, and I wanted to do my own thing,” Reynolds says.

But when his father died in 2008, something changed. Reynolds, then 48, took up the guitar and started attending an annual Kingston Trio fantasy camp. He also connected with Mark Josephs, the indefatigable musician who launched both the nonprofit Tenor Guitar Foundation—which provides tenor guitars to young students—and an annual gathering for tenor players in Astoria, Oregon.

“We were very, very good friends,” Reynolds says. “And Mark helped me realize that the tenor guitar is a gateway to helping people around the world learn how to sing and play music. It’s such a great entry-level instrument.”

When cancer claimed Josephs’ life last year, Reynolds stepped up. He found himself spearheading the seventh year of the Tenor Guitar Gathering, which offers three days of workshops on the tenor, the ukulele, and the mandolin. “It was a challenge,” Reynolds says. “Mark lived for the tenor guitar. He devoted all of his extra time to answering questions and helping artists. There is no way to fill his shoes emotionally and also time-wise.”

But the 2016 event was a success—Reynolds says the highlight was the instrument giveaway. “We gave two guitars to a 16-year-old girl and her mother, so she also could learn how to play,” he says.

Reynolds is planning the next gathering, scheduled for May.

“The whole idea is to keep going with Mark’s dream of fostering musicianship four strings at a time,” Reynolds says.


Other Voices: A 7-String, Baritones, & the Final Word on Tenors

Roger McGuinn holding a custom Martin 7-string guitar

Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds
A Martin custom seven-string guitar 

“It came about because Air France had broken one of my 12-string acoustics [a Martin D12-42RM signature model] on the Concorde—it was some years ago; they were still flying at the time. I always carried a six-string and a 12-string on a plane and I thought, well, what if I could combine the two? So I went to [Martin Guitar historian] Dick Boak and he and I had lunch and [sketched out a design] on a paper napkin. He took it to the custom shop and they made me a prototype of what became the HD-7. It’s based on the Herringbone dreadnought, and they put an extra string on the G string—the high string.

“To me, the best part of the 12-string is the combination of the high and low strings on the G pair, because I play leads up and down the neck on it [a trick he learned from George Harrison]. It just has that good ring. So, they made one of these, but before Dick could give it to me, a couple of other guitar players came in and played it and said, ‘Hey, I want one of those, too, so he made a signature edition called the Roger McGuinn HD-7. A couple of years later, the European market asked if they could have one with less ornamentation, so they could sell it for a lower price, and they came out with the D-7.

“The advantage is that it’s like a six-string in that you can bend the strings and play a little bluegrass on the bottom strings. I like it better because it’s got more bass response than a 12-string, since it doesn’t have the octave string on the low E. I end up playing most of my show on it, although I also carry my 12-string, a five-string banjo, and my Rickenbacker electric 12. But I play most of my songs on the HD-7.

“Boak brought to my attention that [Neko Case] was playing one, and I got to talking with her on Twitter, and we’ve been kind of Twitter buddies ever since.  She plays it basically as a rhythm guitar. Aside from her, I don’t know anyone else who plays the seven-string model.

“I did find out that [folk legend] Spider John Koerner had made one up by himself back in the ’60s and it was even on one of his album covers, but I was not aware of that when we came up with the idea, so it was just a coincidence.” 

John Sebastian onstage playing a Harvey Citron baritone guitar with a mandolinist.

John Sebastian, pop artist, jug-band pioneer
A Harvey Citron baritone   

“The instrument is very useful for a One Guy, One Guitar act, which is frequently what I’m doing. Trying to replicate multiple instruments in a pop recording, rather than playing a folk song, that’s where the big voice really helps. It’s also an ally when trying to play in original guitar keys when your voice drops!


 “I find it essential as a studio tool as well, frequently allowing me to play in different ‘keys’ for a fuller effect on record. There are now some pretty interesting options for players seeking baritones. Heavy metal has been really helpful as guitarists seek those low, dangerous sounding tones. Taylor has made acoustic electrics that are very interesting . . . Santa Cruz [Guitars] makes a gorgeous-sounding acoustic baritone, and, of course, Danelectro is always ready when you are! Let’s not forget TV Jones “C” baritones . . . although that’s a little longer neck. My preference is B to B with a 27-inch fingerboard. I’m also a fan of [baritone innovator] Joe Veillette, who has provided me with half a dozen acoustic and electric baritones over the years [including the Veillette-Citron VC Shark].

“Even if you don’t use it regularly, this instrument is the cello of the guitar family . . . it always has its moment.”

Ani DiFranco standing in front of a microphone playing a Cromwell tenor guitar.

Ani DiFranco, singer-songwriter, label chief
A 1930s Cromwell tenor, made by Gibson   

“I got it when I was 19 and I’ve just always loved the way it sounds. I love the simplicity and limitation of four strings. Sometimes I write a song on my tenor, maybe one-eighth of the time, and so there will be at least a few songs a night that the tenor will come out onstage. It makes a nice foil for the six-string guitars and usually needs less EQ-ing than the other acoustic guitars. The narrower sound of the tenor seems to translate better through a magnetic pickup. No scratchy high-end or troublesome low-end. It’s aces onstage. I use a DI with no microphone, but then I split to two different send-pedals to two different guitar amps that I can color the sound with. 


“Tenor guitars are the best. I’ve rarely met one I didn’t like.”

Mark Kemp, Patrick Sullivan, and Michael Simmons contributed to this article.


This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Greg Cahill
Greg Cahill

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