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If you have more than a passing interest in guitars, chances are you are aware of baritone guitars. You might also be wondering if baritone guitars are available as guitar kits (the answer is YES) and what’s different about them, both from a musical and assembly perspective compared to a standard electric guitar.
In the following article we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of baritone guitars and explain what makes them different to standard electric guitars, why they are worthy of your consideration and what you should know if planning on purchasing one with regard to their assembly.
A baritone guitar is essentially a guitar with an extended scale length, generally between 27 and 30 1/2 inches, compared to a typical standard electric guitar scale length (25.5" Fender®, 24.75" Gibson®).
The chart below shows comparative scale lengths for standard size Gibson® and Fender® guitars compared to a baritone guitar.
In a practical sense this means it is a guitar with a longer neck than standard that can be tuned to lower frequencies without requiring ultra heavy gauge strings, or having the strings feel loose, impacting on string action, amongst other potential issues.
Baritone guitars tend to be more stable in lower tunings as the extended scale length prevents the loss of tension on the strings otherwise experienced on standard scale length guitar when using low tunings. Because of this they tend to offer up a thicker, more articulate and occasionally percussive tone, especially when played on the first three frets.
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Essentially string tension is reduced, the shorter the scale of the guitar. This is why some guitarists find Fender® guitars more difficult to bend notes on compared to Gibson’s® shorter scale length. However, a longer scale length tends to offer more reliable tuning stability, which is important when using heavier gauge strings and tuning to lower than standard tuning. And, unlike 7 and 8 string regular scale guitars, you can use lighter gauge strings in lower tunings due to the extended range.
For example, a standard guitar is tuned to concert pitch E-A-D-G-B-E. Baritone guitars on the other hand are often tuned a major third lower to C-F-B-E-G-C or a fourth lower than standard e.g. to B-E-A-D-F-B, although it should also be noted there isn’t a standardised tuning for baritone guitars.
Many consider a baritone guitar a harmonic bridge between a standard guitar and a bass, or as an instrument solely used in metal as an alternative to 7 and 8 string guitars due to the lower tuning capacity.
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While there is some truth to both points, baritone guitars have been around for some time, far longer than nu-metal for example. And, although they first really came to prominence during the mid 1950’s thanks to Danelectro, the exact origins are unknown but are thought to be extend much further into the past, most likely dating back to the 17th century baroque era.
Baritone guitars are a highly versatile instrument and probably appear on more of your favorite music than you might realize. And, while it’s a reasonable assumption to assume baritone guitars are exclusively used in metal genres due to modern players experimenting with ultra-low tunings such as Drop C, B, and A (and beyond), the reason a recording studio may have a baritone guitar lying around is mostly due to the versatility the instrument offers.
Artists as diverse as Eddie Van Halen, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard have used them, along with modern artists such as Dream Theatre’s John Petrucci, Stephen Carpenter of the Deftones, Pat Smear of the Foo Fighters, and Devin Townshend amongst many others.
Because of their stability in low tunings, they tend to hold their own a little better in genres that demand a cleaner sound in a lower tuning, such as jazz, rockabilly, and even country. In fact, if you enjoy spaghetti westerns, chances are baritone guitars have been used on movie soundtracks such as ‘A Fistfull of Dollars’, and ‘The Good, Bad and the Ugly’.
Because of their ability to handle lower tunings, they are also often used to double bass lines, thickening up the original track, while offering an additional sonic flavour to a piece of music.
Building your own baritone guitar kit can be a good alternative to buying a ready made baritone guitar as they can be expensive, difficult to come by, and under normal circumstances are used less often than a standard electric guitar.
While some guitarists have opted to merely replace the neck on an otherwise standard electric guitar, this kind of approach needs to be considered carefully with regard to neck stability. Not to mention sourcing a replacement neck that matches the existing neck pocket and neck profile taking into account overall thickness and neck radius.
If building from a DIY kit, there really isn’t a lot of difference with regard to assembly. If you have experience building your own DIY guitar kit you won't need to change your process or use additional tools however, there are some practicalities to keep in mind:
Many DIY guitar kit builders prefer working on projects that are a little different to the guitars they might otherwise consider buying assembled, due to the low price point and availability of something a little more unique to work on as a project.
Many guitarists who have made tentative steps in the direction of baritone guitars come to love their baritone guitars due to the advantages they offer in terms of unique tones and stability in lower tunings, regardless of the genre. So, if you are looking for something a little different while still being a practical and useful instrument, a baritone guitar kit is worth your consideration.