The guitar has a long history of luthiers and artists trying to extend the range of the instrument: after all, the guitar started out as a 4 or 5 string instrument. (Take that Keith Richards!)
The Black Dan Electro Baritone has a 30″ scale. The Telecaster has a 25.5″ scale, which still works for a baritone with the right guages of strings.
Back in 1956 the Dan Electro Company released a six-string bass guitar. Unlike most of the “coffee table” six string bassists are fond of today, these instruments are more like guitars…only sounding an octave lower. Typically they were used along with a standard upright or electric bass, either doubling the bass line or playing twangy melodies and fills.
Somewhere along the line, most likely because the instrument was played by a guitarist rather than a bassist, the idea of tuning the six-string in between a bass and a guitar came about. That left the lower notes solely to the bassist, and the guitarist was no longer trending on his territory and muddying things up; and the instrument had higher notes on the top end in the conventional guitar realm. But the best part is it still had the gutsy twang on the low end.
And the baritone guitar was born.
Obviously, there are several stopping points between the low E of a bass and the low E of a guitar, a few make more sense than others. Typically, rather than being tuned E to E a baritone is tuned A to A (a fifth below the guitar) or B to B (a fourth below the guitar). C tot C is another option, but those people are communists.
By trickily playing with the gauges of the strings, the longer 30” scale of the six string bass could be tuned (and sound) higher without snapping the neck off the body.
And, the reverse is also true!
By trickily playing with the gauges of the strings, the shorter 25.5” scale of the six string guitar can be tuned (and sound) lower without have the strings flap uselessly against the body.
By simply throwing away the high E on a standard light gauge .010 to .046 set of guitar stings and adding a .056 as the lowest string, your once conventional set becomes a baritone set for a standard scale-length guitar.
You use the B string in place of the E string, but instead of trying to tune up to E…you just tune it to B – just as you would if it was laying in it the second string groove. But now, that B is your first string.
What would have been the G string is strung in the second position.
However, this time is it not tuned to G.
The object with the baritone conversion is to keep the relative pitch between the strings exactly the same (even though their pitch isn’t). So this string in now tuned to F#.
And so it is with the rest of the stringing takes place with the shift of the conventional set: The second in place of the first, the third in place of the second, the fourth in place of the third, the fifth in place of the fourth, the sixth in place of the fifth…and finally, the extra .056” in place of the missing sixth string.
And then those strings are tuned:
B E A D F# B from low to high.
Some guitarists may be concerned about the additional tension of using these thicker strings, however, since the all the strings are being tuned at or close to their standard pitch the pull is nearly the same. No truss rod adjustment was needed on my guitar with this string/tuning arrangement.
The one mod that might be necessary is widening the grooves in the nut to accept the bigger string. However, luckily for me, my well-worn nut worked fine as is.
Now, for the coolest part: the strings that make up that baritone tuning described above is available in a complete set. The only thing is, is that it is labeled as a conventional E to E set of guitar strings.
D’Addario’s EJ22 Jazz Medium Gauge strings is a 6 string set that starts with a .013 for the highest string and a .056 for the lowest. And, of course, for the purpose of a baritone guitar, they won’t be tuned up to the standard tuning, but rather to our B E A D F# B tuning. And, of course, with the lower tuning the tension is about 1/3 lower than if it was tuned to standard pitch.
– Jake Kelly