What’s a Tenor Guitar?
A tenor guitar is a guitar, electric or acoustic, with four strings instead of the usual six. It is larger than a ukulele, with a typical scale length of 23 inches. The baritone ukulele typically has a scale length of 19 inches, so most 4-string guitars with scale lengths between 20 and 25 inches are referred to as tenors. There is a more specialized four string guitar called a Plectrum Guitar with a scale length of 26 inches, that is also sometimes referred to as a tenor guitar.
Tenor guitars were originally designed to allow banjo players to easily transition to guitar. Over time the tenor guitar has evolved into a unique musical instrument, with a host of different tunings. Unlike traditional six string guitars, with their typical E A D G B E tuning, it is hard to pin down any single tuning that could be called “standard”, though some tunings are much more common than others. The bottom of this page has links to more information about tenor guitars.
Tenor Guitar Tunings
The three most common tunings:
- C G D A – Tuning in fifths. (also common on mandolin family instruments)
- D G B E – “Chicago” (same as a baritone ukulele and the top four strings of a standard guitar)
- G D A E – Octave mandolin
Tunings and String Gauges
All string gauges are listed in Imperial measures, 36 = .036″
NOTE: The string gauges listed below are for electric tenor guitars with a maximum 23″ scale. Strings that are too light will feel “floppy”. Strings that are two heavy will feel stiff. Over tightened strings can snap and cause injury. No two instruments are exactly alike. Gauges that are fine on one instrument may be unsuitable for another. Pay close attention to octaves!
Vintage guitars and plectrum guitars should use lighter gauge strings than those listed here.
Use these recommendations at your own risk!
CAUTION: Strings that are too tight can destroy your instrument.
- C G D A – 36 – 24 – 14 – 9
- C G C G – 36 – 24 – 16 – 10 (C Cross tuning, sometimes called “sawmill C”)
- C G C E – 36 – 24 – 16 – 10 (Open C – OK to use highest 4 strings from guitar standard set)
- D A D F♯ – 32 – 18 – 14 – 11 (Open D)
- D F♯ A D – 32 – 24 – 18 – 14 (Open D)
- A D F♯ D – 42 – 32 – 24 – 14 (Open D)
- A D A D – 42 – 32 – 18 – 14 (D Cross)
- D A D A – 32 – 18 – 14 – 9 (D Cross)
- D G B E – 32 – 24 – 16 – 12 (Baritone ukulele G6, Use highest 4 strings from guitar standard set)
- D G B D – 32 – 24 – 16 – 14 (Open G)
- E G♯ B E – 32 – 22 – 16 – 12 (Open E)
- E A D G – 48 – 38 – 32 – 24 (Bottom 4 of standard guitar)
- G D A E – 42 – 32 – 18 – 12
- G D G B – 42 – 32- 24 – 14 (Open G)
- G D G D – 42 – 32- 24 – 14 (G Cross / sawmill)
- G C E A – 28 – 18 – 12 – 9 (tenor ukulele tuning)
- g C E A – 10 -18 -12 – 9 (soprano ukulele)
- A D G B – 42 – 32 – 24 – 16 (Middle 4 of standard guitar – OK to use middle 4 strings of standard 6 string guitar)
- A D G C – 42 – 32 – 24 – 16 (4ths Tuning – OK to use middle 4 strings of standard 6 string guitar)
- A E A E – 42 – 32 – 18 – 12 (A Cross tuning, sometimes called sawmill)
- A E A C♯ – 42 – 32 – 18 – 14 (Open A)
- A C♯ E A – 42 – 34 – 30 – 18 (Open A – LOW! – OK to use middle 4 strings of standard 6 string guitar)
Papa Dafoe’s Favourite Tunings
- D F♯ A D (open D)
- D G B E (Chicago)
- G D G B D (Keith Richards 5-string)
Justin Johnson Talks About Tenor Tunings
More Tenor Guitar Information
- Tenor guitars on Wikipedia
- Mandolin Cafe Tenor Guitar Forum
- Eastwood Guitars tenor guitar guide
- Riverboat Guitars
- Wildwood Tenor Tunings and String Gauges
What About Ukuleles?
Alternate Tunings for Ukulele
Alternate tunings are not common for the ukulele but are sometimes used by blues musicians and slide players. Because nylon strings can take more than a week to stretch into stable tuning, and because ukuleles are generally more delicate than bigger instruments, alternate tunings typically involve only incremental retuning of existing strings.
Learn to walk before you start running. Before investigating the world of alternate and open tunings, you should be able to consistently and easily tune and string your ukuleles without assistance.
Let’s take a minute to listen to, and learn from Manitoba Hal
CAUTION: Too much string tension can destroy a ukulele!
The Open Tunings Below Should be Safe on Most Soprano, Concert, and Tenor Ukuleles
Slack Tunings – Always Safe
- Open G – G B D G
- Open C – G C E G
- Open F – F C F A
Slightly Raised Tunings – Safe on Most Instruments
- Open D – A D F# A
- Open A – A C# E A
- Open A7 – A C# E G or g C# E A
Standard Ukulele Tuning Reference
Lower case letters indicate a re-entrant string, tuned to a higher pitch than the next string.
Soprano Ukuleles, 13 Inch Scale Length
Nearly all soprano ukuleles are tuned g C E A (C6/Am7)
Occasionally they will be tuned up to a D F# B (D6/Bm7)
Tenor Ukuleles, 17 Inch Scale Length
Tenor ukuleles are usually tuned to the same notes as most soprano ukuleles, but are usually “linear” tuned, rather than re-entrant. G C E A
Concert Scale Ukuleles, 15 Inch Scale Length
Concert ukuleles are sometimes tuned re-entrant, and sometimes tuned linear. Like their large and small cousins, they are nearly always tuned G C E A (or g C E A).
Baritone Ukuleles, 19 Inch Scale Length
Baritone ukuleles are almost always tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, D G B E. They require special strings to tune like their smaller cousins. Many of the tunings used on tenor guitars can also be used on baritone ukuleles, but due to the nylon strings and more delicate construction, alternate tunings should be limited to no more than two semitones per string if using standard baritone strings.