A history of the six string bass and the evolution of the baritone guitar

A history of the six string bass and the evolution of the baritone guitar

Baritone guitars have been around for almost 50 years, but they still remain a mystery to many players. Here’s the low-down on guitars that go that bit deeper than normal by British guitarist and collector Paul Day (May 2006)

First off, what does the term ‘baritone guitar’ actually mean? The dictionary defines baritone as being a male voice between bass and tenor. Substitute standard six-string for the latter title and the phrase then becomes an equally accurate definition of the actual instrument. Simply put, a baritone six-string sits halfway between a bass and a guitar, at least in terms of tuning and practical playability. The former aspect is commonly A (a 5th) or B (a 4th) under concert pitch, while scale length is usually extended sufficiently to better cope with the slacker string tension that results from tuning down such distances.

However the situation isn’t quite as simple as it may seem, because the term baritone has also been (and still is) applied to instruments that are tuned a full octave below; what were originally known as six-string basses in fact. Of course, from the beginning, these could have been employed even more effectively as proper baritones, a change easily achieved by fitting appropriate strings and tuning accordingly. But it seems most manufacturers instead opted to offer their all-new creations simply as bass guitars with the bonus of two extra strings up top. Be aware that this old-style approach bears no resemblance to the modern interpretation of a six-string bass, which is a very different animal indeed, especially in terms of tuning and construction.

The fact that the original six-string basses can be strung and tuned as fully fledged baritones means they do play a major, very important part in the history of this particular breed. Makers and musicians alike initially ignored or missed out on the opportunities offered by such simple mods, but most of these early instruments actually perform far better in their revised role. Who knows, had these early efforts been used in this alternative way, the baritone guitar might now enjoy much more than niche market popularity.

The first production electric example appeared in 1957, courtesy of Danelectro, an American brand already associated with originality at affordable prices. Employing a clever combination of innovative design ideas and cheap but effective construction, Nathan Daniel’s company was well placed to put new all-new creations into production practice. The UB-2 six-string bass was no exception, although essentially this was the brand’s standard U-2 electric guitar, but equipped with a longer scale neck (30“ rather than 25“). All else stayed the same, including the usual hardboard on pine, single-cutaway body sporting twin ‘lipstick’ pickups and wood saddle bridge.

This all-new model soon found favour among studio musicians and achieved greater fame in the hands of guitarist Duane Eddy, who used it on some of his hit recordings, including Because They’re Young. In 1958 the UB-2 was superseded by the twin-cutaway 3612 and this was soon joined by a much more exotic looking mate, the 4623, which was the six-string equipped version of the ultra-distinctive and aptly-named 4423 Long Horn bass. The company also supplied an even more affordable six-string bass to the mail order catalogue giant, Sears Roebuck, as part of the latter’s Silvertone-branded selection.

Somewhat surprisingly, Danelectro had the six-string bass field all to themselves during the Fifties, but the next decade saw other makers finally exploring the idea. Fender launched the VI (commonly called the Bass VI) in 1961 and in typical fashion, this expanded on the established theme. A Jazzmaster-derived, contoured body boasted three single-coil pickups, chromed control panels, triple (later four) slide selector switches and a Jazzmaster vibrato tailpiece. Despite such luxury, the VI proved far from popular, as most players found the 30” scale neck overly thin and the six strings too closely packed for comfort, while the vibrato unit was viewed as an undesirable gimmick. Despite hanging around for a further 14 years, it’s viewed as one of Fender’s more notable failures, but maybe if it had been marketed as a proper baritone the response would have been warmer.

Gibson fared no better with their six-string bass, the EB-6. Introduced in 1960, this was initially offered in twin-cutaway semi guise, but two years later it was replaced by a short-horned solid employing the same model designation and this ran for a further four years. Its Epiphone equivalent was the Newport, which lasted about as long and attracted equal disinterest. Always keen to exploit anything quirky, Rickenbacker came up with the somewhat confusingly titled 4005/6 hollow body in 1965, but this too found few takers, despite staying in the range until 1977. Danelectro continued to champion the cause however, adding suitably low strung equivalents of the Dane D and Coral Wasp guitars in the company‘s last gasp era of the late Sixties, but the idea attracted little interest from any other US makers.

Across the Atlantic and elsewhere, the six-string bass situation during the Sixties was more encouraging. German makers gave it a go via the 5/166 Strato Deluxe Star from Framus and Klira‘s 366 Saturn, while Hofner chipped in with the equally switch-ridden 188 solid and the 500/10 semi-acoustic. French guitarists had their own Major Ohio model and the Italian Welson company exported an example to America bearing the mighty Wurlitzer logo. A Down Under offering came in the form of Maton’s Vampyr, while somewhat surprisingly, Japan’s seemingly sole source of supply was the TB-64 from Teisco.

Over in Sweden, Hagstrom contributed the unusually styled Coronado solid and this appeared here in the mid-60s under the Futurama banner of importers, Selmer. Home-grown contemporary competition came from Vox, via the super-rare Cougar solid, as well as the UK’s prime exponent of individuality, Jim Burns, who in 1962 converted his Split Sonic six-string to the Split Sound bass simply by switching bridge and badge! This shortlived model’s 24.75” scale length meant easy playability, but special strings were required to suit the octave under tuning, otherwise things became far too floppy! The company apparently had plans for a true baritone too, the Wild Dog, but unfortunately this never made it past the prototype stage in 1964.

After this comparative glut, things quietened down considerably during the 1970s. Eccentric American maker Micro-Frets got in on the act somewhat belatedly via the Signature and Stage Baritones. Despite the company’s description, it’s debatable if these were indeed proper examples of their kind or merely more six-string basses. Very few other examples continued to be produced in the US or elsewhere and here Shergold took over as the only UK company contributing to the cause. This maker’s typically no-nonsense Marathon and Modulator models proved to be very effective and affordable six-string basses, as confirmed by New Order’s Peter Hook.

Times might have been tougher, but what was to be the first purpose-built baritone appeared at the end of this decade, originating back across the Big Pond, in the Big Apple to be more precise. Based in New York, Joe Veillette and Harvey Citron had been producing instruments together under the Veillette-Citron (VC) name since 1976. Specially designed and built to be tuned to A below normal tuning, the Shark Baritone was the result of a collaboration with John Sebastian. The body shape was borrowed from the distinctive Guild Thunderbird, used during the Sixties by Sebastian’s band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, while the through-neck employed a 28.75” scale. Pickups and hardware were equally specific hardware and the end result was a seriously impressive instrument that out-gunned anything that had gone before. Jeff Baxter and Earl Slick were two more Shark fanciers, but around 15 examples only were built before the two partners went their separate ways in 1983. Despite this promising (if limited) start, the 1980s proved to be exceedingly lean times for the baritone breed, with no new true examples following the Shark’s lead appearing anywhere. However, things would improve considerably during the next decade onwards.

Fender’s custom shop came up with the Bajo Sexto, which was basically a Tele toting a baritone neck and the VI re-appeared, this time as an authentic revival from Fender Japan. Upmarket maker Alembic decided to add the Orion baritone, while the decidedly leftfield Lindert company offered baritone versions of all their oddball two-tone instruments.

Over here Burns introduced the Barracuda baritone, although this was actually an old school-style six-string bass, as was the short staying Hohner Hollywood, which revived the Burns idea of simply converting the standard scale equivalent. The Silhouette Bass from Music Man was even more compact but employed a more sensible scale length and this on-going example can be strung either way with equally successful results. The same versatility in enjoyed by the recently reviewed Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom, but the company now offers specific, slightly different six-string bass and baritone versions.

American maker Jerry Jones had helped keep the Danelectro flag flying by producing updated interpretations of the brand’s best-known creations, and the 90s catalogue included a selection of six-string basses and baritones. However, in 1998 the wheel finally turned full circle for the real thing, when this famous name re-emerged after almost 30 years, adorning Korean-made reissues and all-new interpretations. The line soon included a re-creation of the original UB-2, still tuned an octave under as standard, but now confusingly called the Baritone. Fortunately, Danelectro subsequently switched to the correct stringing to correspond with the new model designation. Options increased via the addition of the Mosrite-flavoured Hodad, followed by the similarly shaped, effect-laden Innuendo, and the company also even offered a baritone/six-string double-neck until all instrument production ceased once more, before recently recommencing yet again.

Chandler is another US brand that likes to be seen on something different, so baritones have been available since the 1990s, as they have from Joe Veillette, who continues the tradition he started, while erstwhile partner Harvey Citron has also got in on the baritone act in recent years. De Armond was another oldie American name that enjoyed a Nineties’ reincarnation, again via Korean production. A line of classy but affordable, Guild-derived designs included the Bajo Jet, which imitated the Veillette-Citron Shark by revisiting the weirdo 60s Thunderbird.

Most of these models tend to look to the past for design inspiration and also in terms of playing application, but the baritone has also found a new role in modern music. De-tuning electrics have become popular for creating heavy riffs and rhythms, but low slung strings can prove problematical regarding intonation and feel. A longer-scaled and heavier strung baritone is much better suited to such use and companies such as ESP, Fender, Fernandes, Ibanez, Jackson, Schecter, Washburn and Yamaha accordingly now offer appropriate examples that specifically target the heavy rock market.

All this has undoubtedly increased the appeal of the baritone and hopefully such interest will be maintained, as there’s nothing quite like the low end growl of the instrument, especially when it’s also equally possible to wail away up on the high frets. This combination is what makes a real baritone guitar so hard to resist.

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