Going from ukulele to tenor guitar

emba

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I am thinking about getting a tenor guitar. I am thinking about getting a tenor guitar. I think I’d want to play it tuned traditionally, not Chicago tuning. But I’m also not so sure I shouldn’t just stick with the ukulele, since I’m not terrifically musically talented.

Is it just a matter of learning new chord shapes? Are the chord shapes generally any harder than ukulele shapes?

Also, can anyone tell me about the Kala tenor guitar, if you’ve used or owned one?
 

merlin666

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Tenor guitar is usually tuned in fifths so is quite different from uke. I often play with fiddlers and mandolin players who use these tunings and wanted to learn more about how they play, so when I got a new uke I had that strung in fifths and learned a few basic chords and pickings. There is a huge amount of resources on fifth playing, much more than for ukes. But in the end I stick more with the uke and related guitar tuning
 

Three Tenors

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I've played Guitar forever, Uke for a few years. Recently though, I acquired both a Tenor Banjo and a Mandola. They're both normally tuned in 5ths like a Viola - C G D A, as is a Tenor Guitar. The chord shapes are different than Guitar/Uke. C, Am, F, Dm, G, Em, and A are all pretty accessible fingerings, though it's an interesting mental exercise since they are also all different from Guitar/Uke fingering. And of course melody playing requires a conceptual adjustment. The beauty of it is that the chords sound quite different from Guitar/Uke voicings. A C Major chord spans 2 full octaves on just 4 strings (C G E C). Nevertheless, if you decide to bail, you can always revert to Chicago tuning with the right string gauges. I'm not yet very good in 5ths tuning, but I'm having a lot of fun with it.
 

Mike $

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If you're going to get a tenor guitar, tune it to 5ths. Don't be a mook and use chicago tuning, that's just a cop out. Better just get a baritone. As to how hard it is to play in 5ths, think back to when you first started learning chords on your first instrument. It will be just a little easier, because, you have experience, and a bit harder because you will be tempted to revert to the shapes you know. Scales and licks will be different as well. Remember, don't be a mook.
 

Jim Yates

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Both standard CGDA and Chicago tuning are now legitimate tunings and there are probably about equal numbers of players of each tuning.

A tenor guitar in Chicago tuning will not sound like a baritone uke, since it has steel strings, but it will be easier to convert for a ukulele or guitar player.

Tiny Grimes did some great playing on a Chicago tuned tenor.
Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio also used Chicago tuning on his 4 and 8 string tenor guitars.

Nick and his 8 string tenor - I think that's his son with the 4 string tenor.
Nick with 8 string.jpg

Tiny and his electric tenor in Chicago tuning:
 

vonbiber

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I bought a tenor guitar (HB) last month and I am quite happy with it.
It's tuned CGDA.
I am learning to play tunes (with a flat pick), mostly Irish or Scottish.
Coming from the guitar and ukulele, it's easier to play in some ways and more difficult
in other ways. Compared to the uke, you'll have to stretch more your fingers, but on the other
hand the fretboard is less cramped.
You can use the same chords as the tenor banjo (not the Irish tenor banjo,
which is tuned the same as the mandolin---GDAE, nor the plectrum, but the other kind---tuned CGDA)
as it's easier to find a book for tenor banjo than for tenor guitar.
As a matter of fact, you can play the mandolin chords.
It will sound like you transposed the tune 7 steps.
So you have at your disposal all the tabs/scores for the fiddle or the mandolin.

Speaking of tunings, some people tune it GDAE (but you need different strings for that)
or DGBE (same as the highest four strings of a guitar).and even more:
GDAD, GDGD, GDGC ... (kind of similar to the DADGAD tuning for the guitar,
often used for Celtic music).

But CGDA is considered the standard tuning for the tenor guitar.
 

emba

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Thanks for all the thoughts. I’m still waffling back and forth. I covet the steel string sound sometimes, but learning a whole new instrument seems intimidating, especially when I know I still have so much to learn on ukulele. And i do really like the size and sound of ukulele. It may come down to whether I happen across a good deal on a tenor guitar.
 

Mike $

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I think it might be the perfect time to learn a new instrument. The uke habits you have won't hold you back so much since you are relatively new at it. I've been playing guitar for 45 years and 5 string banjo for about 10 years now, but never any instruments tuned in 5ths before a few years ago when I borrowed a friend's mandolin. It was confusing at first, but pretty easy to figure out. The shapes are different, but they are repeating, and once you get the hang of where the notes are on the chords, extending and substituting them is pretty basic. Now I have my 6 string with only 4 strings on it tuned to 5ths. I am practicing to learn tenor banjo, tenor guitar and mando like vonbiber says. You get so much more out of it if you don't take the easy way out and go with chicago tuning.
 
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bunnyf

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Not particularly musically talented either, so I’m faced with a similar dilemma. I think perhaps I’d be best focusing my limited talents on just one instrument. But unfortunately, my curiosity was such that I wanted to try a few others and I did. So, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades master of none kinda player and that’s ok by me. I do focus primarily on mandolin as the instrument that I’m attempting to be most technically proficient. The rest are fun diversions that suit different purposes.

I’ve had an old Harmony and an old Kalamazoo tenor guitar and with them experienced some of the woes that can come with vintage instruments. I now have a new Recording King tenor guitar. Is it a cheap guitar? Yes ($179). Is it a bad guitar? No. It sound fine and is very playable. It is a pretty conventional TG, good size body, reg scale and narrow neck. Playing a lot of mando, I like the narrow neck and close string spacing but like with the reg guitar, I find the longer scale fret distance to be a challenge. You might like the Kala TG better with its short scale and wider neck. Either way though, it’s quite the leap.

As for tuning, I say do as you like. Many great players have used all kinds of tuning. It’s not a cheat. I don’t consider the original tuning of tenor guitar to be sacrosanct. After all, TG was developed for professional banjo players to transition to as banjo fell out of favor and was replaced by guitar. They put a banjo neck on a guitar body and kept the CGDA banjo tuning so they wouldn’t have to learn a new fingerings. Was that cheating? Yes. Is it ok? I think so. If you’d like to use gcea or dgbe that you already know, you should. It’ll give you nice close harmonies and familiar chord shapes and is good for accompaniment to singing. I use GDAE, generally, if I’m using the TG in a group because it fills a different sonic space and doesn’t get lost amongst the guitars. It’s also good for Celtic or blues. CGDA is nice for old time or fingerstyle, or jazzier stuff. I’d think a little about what you want to use the TG for. If I wanted to accompany myself singing solo, and wanted something easier than quitar, I’d probably tune it DGBE. If you go with a more “conventional” tuning, I don’t think you will find that the chord shapes are any more challenging. But with the longer scale, you will often want to use partial chords or double stops, not playing all the strings, as you move up the fretboard. That’s where it can get jazzier.
 
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Down Up Dick

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I have both a Kala Tenor Guitar and a Blueridge BR6 Tenor Guitar. I started with the Kala in CGDA and liked it so much that I bought the more expensive Blueridge. The Kala is more ukulele-like. I tuned it to DGBE to make it more guitarish, and because I also play baritone Uke. I really prefer CGDA though, so that’s where it is now. I fingerpick a lot, and I’m more comfortable with fifths tuning. The Kala is much smaller than the Blueridge, and its neck is shorter. However, I think it’s more fun to play than the Blueridge which is huge in comparison. I’m usin’ the BR, tuned to DGBD, to learn slide and, tuned to CGBD, with my Plectrum Banjo books.

If one is just starting out with Tenor Guitar, I think the Kala would be a really good choice. I really like mine.
 

emba

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Not particularly musically talented either, so I’m faced with a similar dilemma. I think perhaps I’d be best focusing my limited talents on just one instrument. But unfortunately, my curiosity was such that I wanted to try a few others and I did. So, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades master of none kinda player and that’s ok by me. I do focus primarily on mandolin as the instrument that I’m attempting to be most technically proficient. The rest are fun diversions that suit different purposes.

I’ve had an old Harmony and an old Kalamazoo tenor guitar and with them experienced some of the woes that can come with vintage instruments. I now have a new Recording King tenor guitar. Is it a cheap guitar? Yes ($179). Is it a bad guitar? No. It sound fine and is very playable. It is a pretty conventional TG, good size body, reg scale and narrow neck. Playing a lot of mando, I like the narrow neck and close string spacing but like with the reg guitar, I find the longer scale fret distance to be a challenge. You might like the Kala TG better with its short scale and wider neck. Either way though, it’s quite the leap.

As for tuning, I say do as you like. Many great players have used all kinds of tuning. It’s not a cheat. I don’t consider the original tuning of tenor guitar to be sacrosanct. After all, TG was developed for professional banjo players to transition to as banjo fell out of favor and was replaced by guitar. They put a banjo neck on a guitar body and kept the CGDA tuning so they would have to learn a new instrument. Was that cheating? Yes. Is it ok? I think so. If you’d like to use gcea or dgbe that you already know, you should. It’ll give you nice close harmonies and familiar chord shapes and is good for accompaniment to singing. I use GDAE, generally, if I’m using the TG in a group because it fills a different sonic space and doesn’t get lost amongst the guitars. It’s also good for Celtic or blues. CGDA is nice for old time or fingerstyle, or jazzier stuff. I’d think a little about what you want to use the TG for. If I wanted to accompany myself singing solo, and wanted something easier than quitar, I’d probably tune it DGBE. If you go with a more “conventional” tuning, I don’t think you will find that the chord shapes are any more challenging. But with the longer scale, you will often want to use partial chords or double stops, not playing all the strings, as you move up the fretboard. That’s where it can get jazzier.

Jack of all trades master of none is me with pretty much everything. As for tuning, I’m at this point leaning to traditional CGDA because we’ve got three guitar players in the house and I want something different. Plus I play at a weekly oldtime/bluegrass picking and would like something that can be picked and be heard. And the Chicago tuning would sound just like the other guitars, or which we have plenty.
 

bunnyf

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Have you considered mandolin? Same scale as uke and great for bluegrass breaks or old time, playing melody or fills. The scale is just perfect for melody line, no big stretches like on the tenor. And sonically it cuts thru everything, even banjos. Usually there aren’t as many mandos as guitars in a lot of BG jams. Once you get the fifths tuning down, it’s easier then to move to the TG, where you need to make bigger jumps when playing the melody line, w/o really having an anchor.
 

emba

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I have both a Kala Tenor Guitar and a Blueridge BR6 Tenor Guitar. I started with the Kala in CGDA and liked it so much that I bought the more expensive Blueridge. The Kala is more ukulele-like. I tuned it to DGBE to make it more guitarish, and because I also play baritone Uke. I really prefer CGDA though, so that’s where it is now. I fingerpick a lot, and I’m more comfortable with fifths tuning. The Kala is much smaller than the Blueridge, and its neck is shorter. However, I think it’s more fun to play than the Blueridge which is huge in comparison. I’m usin’ the BR, tuned to DGBD, to learn slide and, tuned to CGBD, with my Plectrum Banjo books.

If one is just starting out with Tenor Guitar, I think the Kala would be a really good choice. I really like mine.

Thanks for the thoughts on the Kala. Does it have a truss rod? The local music store is pretty much only able to do setups on things with truss rods, and I’ve not been able to find that in the specs for the Kala tenor guitar.
 
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emba

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Have you considered mandolin? Same scale as uke and great for bluegrass breaks or old time, playing melody or fills. The scale is just perfect for melody line, no big stretches like on the tenor. And sonically it cuts thru everything, even banjos. Usually there aren’t as many mandos as guitars in a lot of BG jams. Once you get the fifths tuning down, it’s easier then to move to the TG, where you need to make bigger jumps when playing the melody line, w/o really having an anchor.

I have considered it briefly. Maybe I should consider it harder. Someone I know has one I might borrow. Comments y mandolin players about the cheese slicer strings put me off, plus there are eight of them, which seems very complicated.
 

mds725

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If you're going to get a tenor guitar, tune it to 5ths. Don't be a mook and use chicago tuning, that's just a cop out. Better just get a baritone. As to how hard it is to play in 5ths, think back to when you first started learning chords on your first instrument. It will be just a little easier, because, you have experience, and a bit harder because you will be tempted to revert to the shapes you know. Scales and licks will be different as well. Remember, don't be a mook.

"Don't be a mook"? Seriously?

Tenor guitars were developed for tenor banjo players at a time when the Big Band Era was beginning and banjo was falling out of favor as the guitar sound became more popular. Tenor guitars allowed tenor banjo players to get gigs as musicians who played instruments that sounded like guitars, while still using the banjo chord shapes they knew so well and without having to learn new (i.e., guitar) chord shapes. I wonder if anyone back then said to those banjo players "Don't be a mook and use banjo tuning. Learn DGBE tuning like the guitarists." Who knows? Maybe some people did.

The tenor guitar became so popular that regular guitarists started playing them, but instead of learning tenor banjo tuning, they tuned their tenor guitars like the top four strings of their guitars so that they wouldn't have to learn new chord shapes. That's how Chicago tuning was born. See a pattern here? (Spoiler alert: tenor banjo players and guitarists both found a way to play tenor guitar without having to learn a tuning other than the one they already knew.)

Because CGDA and DGBE tunings produce different chord inversions, tenor guitars tuned CGDA and DGBE will have different voices. Choosing how to tune a tenor guitar based on whether you prefer the CGDA voice or the DGBE voice is perfectly legitimate. But suggesting that a person is a mook for choosing Chicago tuning when coming to tenor guitar from guitar or ukulele is just arbitrary and kind of mean. It's also inconsistent with the reason the tenor guitar was invented in the first place -- to permit banjo players to make sounds like a different instrument (a guitar) without having to learn the new instrument's different tuning and chord shapes.

I also agree that a steel string tenor guitar in Chicago tuning won't sound exactly like a nylon string baritone ukulele because the materials the strings are made of affect the sound the strings make. Builders are now making steel string baritone ukuleles (I have a couple) that are, in essence, shorter scale tenor guitars tuned DGBE, and even they sound different than full scale tenor guitars because the length of the strings (i.e., scale) and the size of the body affect the sound.
 
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bunnyf

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I have considered it briefly. Maybe I should consider it harder. Someone I know has one I might borrow. Comments y mandolin players about the cheese slicer strings put me off, plus there are eight of them, which seems very complicated.

The double courses cut down a lot on the cheese slicer effect, kinda forming a flat plane to push down instead of a single point of contact and it takes a lot of pressure off. The double courses are just unison pairs and don’t add any complexity and while it may seem that it would be hard to fret them together, it’s really not. The action on my mandolin is very low and it doesn’t take much pressure to fret a note. It’ll be easier to work on your chords and getting comfortable with finding your melody line on the shorter scale instrument. Then when you want to expand to tenor guitar, you’ll have it all pretty much down and you can just work on dealing with the long scale. By then you will have enough familiarity with the fifths tuning that you will be able to make the adjustment needed to slim down your chords to effective double stops (since forming full chords is often not easy due to TG scale). I keep a soprano uke in GDAE for quiet “mando” practice.

If that borrowed mando doesn’t work out, many folks have found cheap Rogue mandos ($50+range) and using the free setup guide from Rob M. available on Mandolin Cafe, were able to make a playable instrument so that they could try out mando w/o a big investment.
 
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Down Up Dick

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Thanks for the thoughts on the Kala. Does it have a truss rod? The local music store is pretty much only able to do setups on things with truss rods, and I’ve not been able to find that in the specs for the Kala tenor guitar.

Yeah, I think it does, but one has to adjust it through the sound hole. It comes with an wrench for doing it, and one can see where it fits by looking through the hole.
 
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Three Tenors

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A couple of extra points:
1) My Tenor Ukes have a 17" scale; my Mandola has a 16" scale (some are a bit longer), so pretty much the same.
2) The Mandola has pretty heavy strings for such a small instrument. (I have D'Addario EJ-72 light gauge strings on it @ 014p/.014p, .023w/.023w, .034w/.034w, .049w/.049w.) So, action can and should be set quite low - the high tension will keep it from buzzing unless you really pound on it with your right hand. I assume this applies to other members of the Mandolin family as well.
 

Mike $

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"Don't be a mook"? Seriously?

Yes. Thanks for all the unnecessary information...If you want to learn a new instrument, learn it. Don't take the easy way out and change the instrument to be like some other instrument you already know because you're too lazy to learn something new. It's like playing the 5 string banjo with a flat pick (there's no need to write 3 or 4 paragraphs about plectrum banjos, I already know) or tuning the mandolin to guitar tuning because it's easy. Why not tune a violin like a ukulele? You can do all these things, but encouraging people to take the easy way out is a disservice to them. That is why people who take the easy way out are mooks.

Also, I didn't say baritone ukes sound like tenor guitars. But they play like them if you tune them the same.
 
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mds725

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Yes. Thanks for all the unnecessary information...If you want to learn a new instrument, learn it. Don't take the easy way out and change the instrument to be like some other instrument you already know because you're too lazy to learn something new. It's like playing the 5 string banjo with a flat pick (there's no need to write 3 or 4 paragraphs about plectrum banjos, I already know) or tuning the mandolin to guitar tuning because it's easy. Why not tune a violin like a ukulele? You can do all these things, but encouraging people to take the easy way out is a disservice to them. That is why people who take the easy way out are mooks.

So I guess you would object to all those banjo players in the early 20th century who took up a new instrument (guitar, with only four strings) but imported their own tuning instead of learning the tuning of the top four strings of a guitar. I just find it odd that you would chastise as being lazy someone who tuned in a certain way an instrument that was specifically designed to allow banjo players to be lazy by not having to learn a tuning other than the one they already knew. That's why, to me at least, understanding how and why the tenor guitar was developed isn't "unnecessary information."

One of my steel string baritones was built by Rick Turner. When I joked that it was basically a short scale tenor guitar tuned in Chicago tuning, he objected. There are so many "hybrid" instruments these days, he said, that he defined a stringed instrument by the way it was tuned, not by other characteristics like scale or the type of strings it had on it. To him, because the instrument was tuned DGBE, it was a baritone ukulele, regardless of its scale length or the fact that it had steel strings. I thought about this later, when I bought an 8-string Pono Octave Mandola, which is basically a tenor guitar scale instrument with four courses of strings. Tune it like a mandolin, and it IS an octave mandola, but tune it DGBE, like mine is, and, according to Rick Turner, it's an 8-string steel string long-scale baritone ukulele.

Taking a page from the way the tenor guitar was developed, one could think of a tenor guitar tuned DGBE as a long scale steel string baritone ukulele, for which learning a new tuning is unnecessary because baritone ukuleles are tuned DGBE. That's exactly how the banjo players who developed the tenor guitar thought of that instrument -- a banjo (according to Rick Turner, because of its banjo tuning) with other characteristics that made it sound like a guitar. When viewed that way, those banjo players weren't being lazy, they were merely playing a banjo that sounded like a guitar. To some people, a tenor guitar IS a new instrument: a steel string long scale baritone ukulele. So I give people who play a tenor guitar with DGBE tuning the benefit of the doubt that they're not being lazy; they're instead just playing a different instrument with baritone ukulele tuning. And because the two tunings result in different chord inversions, they DO sound different. People who have tried both tunings on the same instrument will tell you that. And I'm generous enough to think that there's room for both without getting all judgmental by assuming that people who happen to prefer one tuning over another must be lazy.

Also, I didn't say baritone ukes sound like tenor guitars. But they play like them if you tune them the same.

I know you didn't say that baritone ukes sound like tenor guitars. My comments comparing the sound of baritone ukuleles to tenor guitars were not directed at you. They were made in response to another post on this thread.