What is a Baritone Guitar?
Baritone guitars often get a hard wrap from a lot of players, calling them out for their niche role, impractical scale length and size. But all these points work in their favour too, and prove exactly why you need one! Let's start off - what is a baritone and why is it different to a “normal” guitar? Here's a handy reference:
- Baritone guitars have a long 26.5 to 30.5-inch scale length
- They are tuned to a major third, perfect fourth or perfect fifth lower than standard E-A-D-G-B-E
- They usually feature larger bodies and bigger gaps in between frets
- They're often used in metal music in a modern day playing
- Acoustic baritones are made with large jumbo style bodies
Baritone Guitar Origins
You might be mistaken in thinking that the baritone guitar is a new invention. It's not an unreasonable assumption, as nowadays their primary use lies in chuggy, drop-tuned modern metal. But they actually became commonplace way back in the 1950s and were popularised by vintage guitar builders Danelectro.
Both the surf music scene and curiously, Hollywood (more specifically Glen Campbell), adopted the instrument. You'll hear their deep, almost bassline-type tones sprawled throughout The Beach Boys' and Duane Eddy's discography, as well and numerous Spaghetti Western scores. Those catchy twangy melodies? Yep, they're baritone guitars.
What are the benefits of a baritone guitar?
Baritone guitars have seen use in numerous musical genres such as jazz, rock and most recently extreme types of prog metal. They're perfectly suited to the role, too, as they keep the strings taut in A, B and C standard tunings. Simply put, if you need some seriously heavy riffing in low tunings, a baritone is the one for you. But as we'll get to later, it's not just rock guitar brands making baritone guitars.
The reason why baritone guitars handle low tunings so well is their longer-than-standard scale length (the distance between the guitar's bridge and nut). A Strat or Tele has a 25.5-inch scale length, while a baritone guitar has a length of anything between 26.5 and 30.5 inches. The downside is that the neck is extended slightly longer with more space in between frets. Some players will find it a bit trickier to navigate the fretboard, especially those with smaller hands.
What does a baritone guitar sound like?
Much like what the viola is to the violin, a baritone occupies lower frequencies than a regular guitar. Most guitarists would agree it doesn't suit every style of music - but it does sound great when used with the specific aim of occuppying a bass-heavy range. In particular with metal, it provides you with access to fatter, punchier alternate tunings without losing out on the string tension of a standard tuning guitar. Performance-wise, a modern metal baritone gives you little in the way of Strat-esque dynamics and more of a precise, direct feel.
What's the difference between a 7-string guitar and a baritone?
While a baritone guitar lets you tune down across all strings and retain the same solid tension tension, a 7 or 8-string guitar simply adds one or two strings to the standard scale length (or fractionally longer) setup. The extra low string on a 7-string is usually tuned to B or A while keeping the rest of the strings in standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. It would be fair say a baritone is better at ensuring lower tuning string tension – but you can still achieve good results tuning down a 7-string as many a player does. The baritone has its own place and function within music.
Who plays baritone guitars?
There's a surprisingly long list of famous guitarists known for wielding baritone guitars. As expected, most are metal players: Stephen Carpenter (Deftones), John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Devin Townsend, Brian Welch (Korn) and Robb Flynn (Machine Head) just name a few.
Looking over to rock, jazz and acoustic players, the likes of Pat Smear (Foo Fighters), Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), Brian Setzer, Pat Methen, Ani DiFranco and Sungha Jung all utilize the long scale-length guitar in unique ways to achieve deep, filling tones.
Acoustic baritone guitars
Baritones also come in the form of acoustic guitars. The aim here is the same: to allow guitarists to fill a lower frequency range than the run-of-the-mill acoustic. The issue facing an acoustic baritone is that sound becomes quieter to the human ear as it gets lower in pitch. To compensate, you have to push more air to stay at the same volume as before. The body of a baritone acoustic therefore needs to be large enough to project its sound adequately, and that's exactly why baritone acoustics look very similar in shape to the classic jumbo.
Alvarez are a great choice for those looking to buy their first acoustic baritone guitar. They're extremely well-priced and are made to a high standard using quality tonewoods such as mahogany, spruce and pau ferro. Alvarez acoustics also come equipped with great preamps, allowing you to plug into a PA system, just when the jumbo size can't cut it at louder volumes.
Who makes baritone guitars?
Some of the biggest guitar brands in the world cater to baritone players. Even Fender and offshoot company Squier make the occasional baritone model. The biggest hitters, however, are ESP, Chapman, Gretsch, Reverend and Alvarez in the acoustic department. You'll find a great mix of specs suited to players after a contemporary pleaying experience, from midrange prices right up to boutique custom shop models.
Chapman have certainly followed the modern route with their baritone collection. Here you'll find an exceptional range of contemporary styles in S and T shapes, kitted out in the latest hardware and bearing high-gain pickups. A great pick for the metal musician after a pro level guitar without busting the bank.
Our Andertons friend Rabea Massaad is a signature Chapman artist with a handful of baritones under his belt. His ML3 models are dressed up in incredible finishes with flame maple and burl wood tops. You get rolled fretboard edges as standard and either Chapman's exceptional Henchman Humbucker or Rabea's signature Bare Knuckle Silo humbuckers to dish out the dirt.
ESP is where most guitarists will first check when on the hunt for a metal baritone, and we certainly agree it's a great shout. The American company were some of the first to pioneer modern baritone guitars with the likes of Stephen Carpenter's signature models. Better yet, they make 7-string baritones, too! Just so you can get those real brown notes.
Among the line-up are a wide selection of single cuts, S-shapes T-shapes and their original Viper double cut. ESP are synonymous with EMG active pickups – one of their most common pairings alongside Seymour Duncan and Bare Knuckle. They're absolutely perfect for the aggressive, sharp and direct style you'll be playing on these guitar, specifically fine-tuned for metal. ESP will serve you well, just as long as you're after a black guitar.
Gretsch are one of the rare brands to serve you up a quality baritone suited to anything but metal. The famous guitar builders are usually associated with larger body semi-hollow and hollow instruments, but their baritone range is just as enviable. They're one of the few who will make you a Bigsby-equipped baritone guitar.
The Gretsch baritone selection is exclusive to the midrange Electromatic range, which means they're accessible to most players. G5260 models are stripped back yet still have an air of vintage class about them. They're equipped with Gretsch's thunderous mini humbuckers to roll out some old school rock and roll tones. Gretsch guitars are great to play and benefit from a thun “U” neck and 12-inch radius laurel fingerboard.
Want To Learn More?
For more information on the topics mentioned in this guide, check out our related articles:
- Ultimate guide to the best guitar gear for metal
- Ultimate guide to 7, 8 and 9 string guitars
- Ultimate guide to Gretsch guitars
- Ultimate guide to the best amps for humbucker pickups