The Tenor Guitar

A tenor guitar is a fretted four stringed instrument, most commonly shaped like a guitar, sometimes smaller than a normal guitar, which usually has a scale length of 23 inches and which is tuned in fifths to C, G, D, A.

It has been around for 100 years or more, built by some of the most famous companies and played by several well-known musicians in a wide variety of musical styles. For those of you that would like learn the basic chords for the tenor guitar this file is for you.


The tenor guitar is tuned exactly like a tenor banjo, and one of the major roles of the tenor guitar has been to allow tenor banjo players, and possibly mandolin family players, because of their similar tunings, to instantly double on the guitar without having to learn the scales and chord shapes for the entirely different tuning of a six string guitar.

In music there is the diatonic scale, or (do re mi fa so la ti do). In musical letters this scale would be (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C). It is an eight note scale where the first note and eighth note are one octave apart. If you start with the first note, C, and count up five notes (C d e f G) you arrive at G. If you start at G and count up five notes (G a b c D) you arrive at D. If you then start at D and count up five notes (D e f g A) you finally arrive at A.

The tenor guitar (and the tenor banjo) are thus tuned C, G, D, A which is in (fifths), where the C is the note one octave below middle C and the A is referenced as an A440 because it has a frequency of 440 Hertz (Hz) where 1 Hz is one cycle per second.

Because it is tuned in fifths, chord voicings are much more spread out than they are on a top acoustic guitar. This is why if a C chord played on the six string and a C chord played on the four string tenor guitar, the tenor guitar C will sound much more ‘open’.

It is also possible to tune a tenor banjo or guitar to another tuning in fifths using GDAE. This type of tuning is commonly associated with Irish music and the tuning is used because it involves playing with fiddles and mandolins, instruments that are also tuned to G, D, A, E. The use of this tuning, however, is not restricted to this style of music.

Below are the keys of C, F, G and Bb, they are not the most popular keys, but because of how one chord easily connects to another you will start to see the pattern of things work. So try them out, practice them, strum them or finger pick them, add to them, and best of all have fun!


The tenor guitar can be considered to be a transition instrument between Dixieland banjo and the six string electric guitar ( click here for the best rated electric guitars), particularly as it started to out pace the tenor banjo in popularity, towards end of the 1920s. This trend quickened when important players of the period like Eddie Lang and Carl Kress, switched from banjo to six string guitars. Clearly though the tenor guitar has a distinctive sound and style of its own, and there is literally no limit to the many styles of music that can be made from this unique instrument which can be heard in country music, western swing, and jazz, as well as contemporary folk and pop music.

As the six string became more standard, in later years some musicians acquired tenor guitars and would string them up and tune them like the top four strings on a six string guitar, DGBE. They were playing tenor guitars, but they were not playing them in true tenor tuning. One of the most notable jazz guitarists to do this was Tiny Grimes who was strongly influenced by the six string jazz guitar pioneer, Charlie Christian. Tiny played his electric four string tenor guitar in this style right through from the forties until the seventies when his musical career ended.

Nick Reynolds, of the Kingston Trio, played a Martin 0-18T tenor guitar. The C.F. Martin Company has recently released a special 25th anniversary edition of the instruments used by the Kingston Trio – a Vega long neck five string banjo, a Martin Dreadnought six string guitar and this tenor guitar. Many people bought tenor guitars after seeing Nick Reynolds play it with that famous folk group.

Today, the tenor guitar is also finding a place in contemporary folk and pop music, as well as Celtic and other ethnic styles. Among the contemporary players, Ani di Franco plays a tenor guitar on a few of her songs, using various tunings that include one (ADAD) based on GDAE that through the root D and the fifth note of the D scale A, makes a partial open D chord, comparable to the ‘DADGAD’ open D tuning on a six string guitar used for slide playing.

Have Fun!

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