Learning music can open an exciting new world of possibilities.
As you’re getting started on the guitar, you’re bound to have many realizations as well as questions.
I remember when I first got started. The instrument positively fascinated me, and as I saw my heroes playing on TV, I began wondering all kinds of things.
In your hunting and searching around, it’s entirely possible you’ve come across what are known as “baritone guitars” and wondered what they were.
So, what’s the deal with these, anyway? Let’s get into it.
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What Is A Baritone Guitar? – Quick Answer
A baritone guitar is a guitar with a different tuning, a heavier gauge of strings, a longer neck, and oftentimes a bigger body. Compared to a standard guitar, its tuning can be a fourth or a fifth lower.
What Is A Baritone Guitar Used For?
Baritone electric guitars have been around since the 50s, and baritone acoustics were around even before that (we don’t know their exact date of origin).
They grew in popularity with the (at the time) rebellious 50s surf rock genre.
No surprise, then, that the instrument was adopted by the likes of Duane Eddy, Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later by bands like Metallica, Harem Scarem, and Dream Theater.
So, does that mean baritone guitars are designed specifically with surf in mind?
As you can probably tell by the types of guitarists and bands that came to utilize them, the answer is “no.” Maybe at first they were thought of as “surf guitars,” the electric baritones anyway, but they certainly didn’t stay that way.
Music continued to evolve. And though heavier genres existed in the 50s and 60s, metal’s forefathers were yet to come with bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple.
Baritone guitars can be used for just about any genre. They can be heard in heavy metal (Cannibal Corpse, Machine Head, Coheed and Cambria, etc.), rock (Van Halen, The Cure, Foo Fighters, etc.), and even jazz (Pat Metheny, Ani DiFranco, Snarky Puppy, etc.).
Where especially skilled jazz guitarists are perhaps more likely to utilize a hybrid guitar-bass, most players in other genres stick to the simplicity of a standard detuned guitar, or depending on the situation, a baritone guitar.
Yes, you can use a baritone guitar to get a twangy, punch tone. But imagine the possibilities with some high output humbuckers. You can achieve some insanely heavy tones, if done right.
I say “if done right” because even bands like Metallica have gone “overkill” mode at times with detuned and baritone guitars plus five-string basses and double kicks (Q: how much bass can this thing take? A: yes.).
A baritone guitar can sound perfect in certain musical situations if not overdone. That isn’t to say baritone guitars are just for effect, but they do serve that role well (they can bring heaviness to a riff or add a bit of color in a song).
A baritone guitar isn’t meant to be a substitute for a bass. Sure, it can be a decent stand-in, and it can even tread on the bass player’s “territory” if done wrong, but in general it’s good to think of it as a slightly different instrument than a standard guitar and use it accordingly.
Baritone guitars are also often used to “thicken up” a mix.
Matching up a standard guitar with a baritone guitar part can fill out the track and add some interest to it.
It’s become rather common recording technique to layer guitars at different octaves (even higher octaves), which is exactly what a baritone guitar allows you to do.
What Is The Difference Between Baritone Guitars And Regular Guitars?
The main difference, of course, is the tuning.
Standard tuning, from low to high, is E – A – D – G – B – E.
But a baritone guitar is either tuned to “B standard” (B – E – A – D – F# – B), or “A standard” (A – D – G – C – E – A).
These tunings might seem exotic upon first brush, but B standard tuning is just a fourth lower, and A standard tuning is just a fifth lower than standard tuning (for reference, look at a guitar fretboard diagram – you’ll see the notes line up exactly with the seventh and fifth frets).
Because of the tuning difference, unsurprisingly, baritone guitars generally use a heavier gauge of string. 13 gauge is most common, but 12 and 14 gauge are also popular.
That’s a significant difference compared to standard guitars, which mostly come with 9 gauge and sometimes 10! But not a surprise, considering the difference in tuning.
Another important difference is the neck. A baritone guitar generally has a longer neck (27” scale). Its design requires this, so that the lower notes stay in tune and intonate properly.
One other difference is that the body on a baritone guitar can be bigger.
But when it comes to baritone guitars, there is quite a bit of choice. There are acoustics as well as electrics, and both single-coil “twangy” versions as well as high-output, heavy metal humbucking versions are available.
What Does A Baritone Guitar Sound Like?
We could talk about what it sounds like, and in general, if you were to imagine a “deeper” guitar, you would basically get the idea.
But of course, it’s better to hear a few examples than to talk about them.
The first is a personal favorite. If you’re not crazy about it, don’t worry. I will have some more popular examples for you in a minute.
This is Harem Scarem’s “Afterglow.” The presence of the baritone guitar can be heard and felt throughout, but have a listen specifically to the chorus, where in between the vocals, the guitar goes into a double-time feel riff. It’s easy to hear the baritone rhythm guitar in the solo section as well.
The next example is Van Halen’s “Spanked.” To be honest, I rather enjoy this song as well. While the riff itself sounds kind of serious, as per usual, the subject matter of the song isn’t.
This is another example of a song that uses the baritone guitar tastefully, without stepping on anyone’s toes. It helps that Van Halen was basically a power trio plus a singer.
One final example is Dream Theater’s “These Walls.” This song features an especially heavy sounding riff, which is more characteristic of modern metal guitar. Dream Theater, though, is basically progressive rock/metal.
As you would expect from Dream Theater, there’s lots of cool stuff going on in this song.
How Is A Baritone Guitar Played?
There’s basically no difference between how you would play a standard guitar and a baritone guitar. The same techniques transfer over nicely.
The main thing to keep in mind is key signature. So, if you played in the key of E on a standard B baritone guitar, you would be playing in the key of B (because of the tuning difference).
In a band situation, this can affect a several things, even if it doesn’t affect you.
The first thing is the band you’re playing with. So, if you told them you were playing in E, but you were playing in E relative to the baritone guitar, you would be playing in B, and the band might have trouble sorting that out (especially since the two keys are kind of like relatives and contain some of the same notes and chords!).
The next thing is vocals. If a song were originally in E, and suddenly in B, the vocalist would have to find their place again, and in some cases, might not be able to sing in that key or be as confident in it.
The last thing is that if you wanted to play in E on your baritone guitar, you would either need to capo up, barre, or adjust your technique.
So, that’s why it’s a good idea to study up on theory and playing technique before busting out your baritone guitar at the next jam session or band rehearsal!
Can You Play Leads On Baritone Guitar?
Of course, you can. You can even hear Eddie Van Halen throw a few fills in the above mentioned “Spanked.”
Perhaps the best example is someone like Brian Setzer, who basically led the rockabilly revival of the 80s and 90s. He plays some awesome leads on the baritone guitar.
It makes sense, though. If you access the higher frets, you can easily get some of those higher notes like you would on a standard guitar, even if not quite as high.
You would just need to get used to the string gauge. Because of the longer neck, the tension might not be too bad, but the gauge itself might take a little getting used to.
Is A Baritone Guitar A Bass Guitar?
No. And in general, it’s not meant to replace the bass or rhythm section in the band, either.
A baritone guitar is usually played a lot like a standard guitar.
In some cases, a guitarist will opt for simpler riffs, simply because it leaves space for other things to happen in the song. Also, because overplaying on a baritone can sound a bit “crunchy.”
Ever notice how chords on a bass guitar don’t sound as they would on a standard guitar? They can sound good higher up on the fretboard when fewer notes are played together, but generally not lower.
That would be one thing to look out for as you’re adjusting your technique for the baritone guitar.
Of course, you should experiment yourself to see what works and what sounds good to you. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you otherwise.
Are Baritone Guitars Worth It?
For guitarists who enjoy playing and love music in general, the next guitar is always the “last one.”
Their collection will only be complete once they get that next axe. But that need will never truly be satisfied. There will always be another guitar.
For a guitarist who doesn’t have at least two decent axes (one main, one backup), a baritone guitar is going to seem excessive and unnecessary.
But for someone who’s already got a Strat, Tele, Les Paul, SG, Silver Sky… it might be a serious consideration.
Any guitarist who’s looking for some added inspiration, a new way of approaching their instrument, or wants to explore new tonal possibilities, is also going to benefit from a baritone guitar. If you’re going to be doing some home recording, you might like having the option too.
It’s kind of a strange thing, because the tuning difference between a standard guitar and a baritone guitar isn’t that different, but that subtle change in tone can easily take your playing to new places.
At the end of the day, whether it’s worth it is mostly going to be up to you. You may feel it’s worth it. You may not. But once the inspiration hits, no substitute will do.
Can A Baritone Guitar Be Tuned To Drop C?
You could, I suppose, but you probably wouldn’t.
So, think of it this way. When using a standard guitar, you’re tuned to E, right? So, tuning down to D (drop D) would be normal and expected.
If your guitar is set up for it, then you could even tune down to a C (two steps down from E). You’d want to tune your other strings down a step too, though, or else just your sixth string is tuned down, while others remain the same (which is John Mayer’s “Neon” tuning).
What’s my point? My point is that B is lower than C, and your baritone guitar is already tuned to B or A standard. Yes, baritone guitars go lower than drop C tuned axes.
So, more likely, you would “drop A” if you were in B standard, and “drop G” if you were in A standard. That would basically achieve the same effect (i.e., you could play one-finger power chords like you would with drop D tuning). Not just that, but you would get an even deeper, heavier sound!
It can seem a little inconvenient, if only because lots of songs are in drop C, and it would be nice to be able to play them and even have a guitar for that purpose, but on a baritone guitar you would have to tune up, and I can’t see that working out for you (e.g., you’re going to break some strings probably).
What Brands Make Baritone Guitars?
There’s a chance your favorite maker already makes baritone guitars, and it’s worth checking with them to see if they have a model that’s to your liking.
That said, the following companies (and others) are known to produce baritone guitars:
- ESP Guitars
- PRS Guitars
- Music Man
- Jerry Jones Guitars
- Burns London
Baritone Guitar For Beginners, Final Thoughts
If you’re a beginner, you might not be ready for a baritone guitar just yet. You should probably continue to explore the depths of a standard six string, as well as alternate tunings, before you even worry about trying a new instrument.
The baritone guitar will make a lot more sense once you’ve spent some time learning how a standard guitar works, and it can take several years before you even feel comfortable with it.
But as you continue to improve and expand your guitar collection, there may come a time when you add a baritone to your collection and that will be an exciting day!
Keep learning and have fun!