Seven Baritone Electrics

March 26, 2008

Baritones aren’t just for twangy honky-tonk ballads, spy movie themes, Nashville-style “tic-tac bass” overdubs, or cover versions of “Rock Lobster.” These big guitars are, in fact, increasingly prominent in jazz, rock, metal, funk, and other styles, and especially in recording studios.

Baritones aren’t much harder to play than standard guitars. Once your fingers have adjusted to the thicker strings and wider fret spacing, you’ll be ready to rage.

Baritones aren’t tuned “weird,” just lower. (They’re typically tuned a fourth below standard—B, E, A, D, F#, B, low to high—though some are tuned down a fifth or even a full octave.) The notes are different, but the interval set is the same as standard, and all your fingerings remain the same.

Baritones aren’t only available in cowboy or surf models. As one glance at this spread proves, baritones come in an ever-widening range of brands, body types, pickup configurations, shapes, and sizes, making them suitable for just about any genre or playing style.

So, why might you want one of these low-tuned 6-strings in your arsenal? Well, as Pat Metheny (he plays Manzer acoustic baritones), John Petrucci (his new Ernie Ball Music Man signature bari may already be in stores as you read this), Duane Eddy (the guy practically invented rock and roll guitar), and countless other guitar heroes can attest, picking up a baritone can be an entrancing experience for anyone who has primarily only played standard guitar. There’s something very inspiring about having all your licks suddenly come out sounding lower, bigger, and more powerful than they did before. Like a capo in reverse, a baritone, in effect, moves the nut backwards, creating new chord voicings and open-string timbres most guitarists have never experimented with. This is exactly why baritones are so useful when it’s time to stack guitar parts in the studio—they provide tonal contrast in the form of re-voiced chords and complementary textures. (Want to add a track of strummed D that’s twice as huge sounding as any standard guitar could deliver? Pick up a bari and strum what would be a standard open G chord on a regular guitar. Done!)

Baritones are also nice for bringing cover tunes with ultra-high vocal parts (think AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”) down into ranges that won’t give your lead singer a hernia—without requiring any fingering changes on your part. Finally, being halfway between bass and standard guitar pitch-wise—and usually having a wound third string (which has the wondrous snap funk bassists love)—baritones are great for percussive, slap/pop Marcus-Miller-meets-Van Halen riffs, as they unite some of the low end of a bass with much of the harmonic complexity of a regular guitar.

Danelectro Dano ’63 Baritone

Any manufacturer who would pioneer a pickup housed in two surplus lipstick tubes—as Danelectro did soon after they started making guitars back in the mid ’50s—clearly has equally developed senses of resourcefulness, innovation, and humor. Founded by Nathan Daniel in 1947, the company also had a bold sense of adventure, as it was the first to offer a production model baritone. Dano endorsee and rock-guitar founding father Duane Eddy would help popularize long-scale guitars with his chart-topping theme to the 1960 film Because They’re Young and other hit instrumentals.

The Dano ’63 baritone is based on Danelectro’s classic 1963 model, the 1449. The zero-gloss nickel-plated hardware, Danelectro Lipstick pickups, and subtle “age” staining on the guitar’s pressboard pickguard and side vinyl further enhance the ’63’s retro appeal of this highly playable 6-string hunk of Americana. If this Dano is any indication, big strings, a mostly hollow body, and revamped Lipsticks (Dano reengineered these pickups in 2007 to more accurately replicate the totally, ahem, tubular tone of the originals) make a winning combination. The ’63 produces colorful highs and plenty of full-spectrum snap in all three pickup settings. Plugged through a Bad Cat Lil 15 head set clean through a 1x12 cabinet, I swear I could hear my individual fingerprints as my fretting hand slid across the strings. If clarity is your goal, the ’63’s tones are hard to beat, even with distortion. If you don’t dig ’em, you’re probably the type who prefers your baritones with humbuckers, because dual coils will mask some frequencies and present less string noise.

Despite a steel output jack plate that could have been cut wider to entirely cover the lone seam in the guitar’s vinyl side taping (a seam that was coming loose slightly on our test model) and a continuation of Danelectro’s low-rent one-screw backplate assembly method (the plate is fully functional when attached, but relies on a clunky strip of loose metal to reinstall), this guitar’s charms are numerous enough that I found hating on it virtually impossible. Plus, if you were turned off by the fixed rosewood-strip bridges on recent and classic Dano baritone guitars, you’ll welcome the fully adjustable metal bridge on the Dano ’63.

As proven by the high prices antique Danelectro, Silvertone, and Coral guitars (all built by Danelectro) fetch at guitar auctions, no one made low prices cooler than Dano. Now, thanks to Evets Corporation (who resuscitated the Dano line in the ’90s), the Dano ’63 series, and, of course, overseas labor, this is as true as ever.

Eastwood Sidejack Baritone STD

Talented guitar luthier Semie Moseley—the “Mos” in Mosrite guitars—died in 1992, but his influential guitar designs are so cool they’re nearly immortal. Moseley’s most successful offering, the Ventures model (released as a production model around 1963, about three years after Ventures lead guitarist Nokie Edwards fell in love with Mosrite instruments and became an endorsee) has found new life as the direct inspiration for Eastwood’s Sidejack series guitars. Though Eastwood doesn’t (and couldn’t legally) use the name “Ventures” on the instrument, they do use a name based on the original Mosrite’s nickname, “side jack.” (Yes, it described the output jack’s placement.) And, as you see here, the Sidejack is available in a long-scale version, the Baritone STD. (A Burns tremolo can be added for an extra $60 retail.)

There was a certain playful radicalism in ’60s guitar luthiery of which the Ventures model is a superb example. When you’re a designer, sometimes the easiest way to create something “edgy” is to break those rules that people subconsciously abide by, but aren’t actually law. Why would Moseley build a double cutaway with the upper cut deeper than the lower? The better question is why not? It may not make ergonomic sense, but hey, it eschews convention and makes for a groovy “lopsided” look. And besides, in the case of the Sidejack Baritone, the cutaways
are primarily cosmetic, because most guitarists don’t buy a baritone for its high notes. Really, the main Sidejack quirk guitarists will wonder about is the wacky angle of the neck pickup.

Moseley’s atypical (but later oft-imitated) practice of angling the neck P-90’s treble end towards the fretboard certainly goes against the grain of traditional electric guitar design, but it makes for interesting tones. By itself, the Sidejack’s neck pickup sounds quite dimensional, though that angle diminishes some of the high strings’ treble flutiness. And while biting treble tones aren’t this guitar’s forte (perhaps because the bridge pickup is located fairly far from the string saddles), the bridge P-90 has beautiful mids. It’s when you run both pickups at once that things start sounding really prismatic. Like a Telecaster mixed with a Les Paul Jr., the two tones together have a rich frequency blend.

Aside from the Gretsch C Melody, the Sidejack is bigger than all the other baritones in this Roundup, which is nice if you like your baritone to have an imposing visual presence to match its buffed-out tones. The quickest way to get people not to notice the Sidejack is a bari is to take advantage of the guitar’s low, even action and generous cutaways to solo up in the high range. Keep the riffs low and mean, use those open strings, and your audience will feel the rumble of this big machine.

Fender Jaguar Baritone Special HH

Though Stratocasters and Telecasters have evolved to become Fender’s flagship instruments, another guitar that visually conveys the company’s legacy equally well is the Jaguar, which was first produced in 1962. Though Fender’s new Jaguar Baritone Special HH doesn’t have the slide switches, knurled inset knobs, or tremolo system of early Jags, its flying-amoeba-shaped body certainly evokes its forebears, which include everything from the original Jaguar to the Jazzmaster to the Musicmaster.

When I unboxed the guitar, I was surprised  to find that despite this Jag’s mammoth scale, the hunky baritone came tuned up to standard pitch. This mistake is semi-forgivable, because the Jag’s factory strings are the thinnest-gauged of any bari in our roundup, and the wires didn’t seem to mind being stretched to A 440 on a 27"-scale neck. Luckily, when I retuned the guitar down a fourth, the intonation was solid and the action even and buzz-free throughout, as if the instrument had indeed been set up for bari range. Less forgivable was the fact that the Jag’s nut was cut too shallow for the fourth string, allowing it to pop out of its slot during bends at the 2nd and 3rd frets. Also, the bridge humbucker, mysteriously, was permanently tilted toward the neck. It turned out that this pickup’s main wire had been cut a tad too short, so that when everything was soldered in place, the wire was taut enough to permanently pull one side of the pickup down.

Jag faithful may wonder why this new bari breaks with the Jaguar’s single-coil tradition. Well, as the double-H in its title might imply, this guitar is a celebration of dual-humbucking sounds. I got to know the HH by running it into everything from a Cornford Carrera combo to a beta version of Digidesign’s new Eleven amp-modeling software. I found that while the HH’s Fender Dragster humbuckers create timbres that are slightly darker than what you might associate with the Jaguar’s already dark-leaning tonal legacy, they have a distinctly soulful and, if you will, wooden sound. Plus, in every combination, these pickups deliver a balanced, unified tone—very helpful when you push your sound into overdrive. If you like classic Jags, Jazzmasters, or even Gibson Firefird and Firebird Studio Models—all instruments that, by virtue of their large bodies, have deeper “speaking” voices—you’ll be quite at home with this big, black cat on your lap. Sonically speaking, it growls as well as it purrs.

Gretsch G6144 Spectra Sonic C Melody Baritone

The Gretsch Spectra Sonic C Melody Baritone—despite having a longer scale than any guitar in this roundup except the Danelectro—is actually intended to be tuned C to C, a half-step higher than typical baritones. This raised tonality makes the guitar “horn friendly,” which is why if you pick up the Spectra Sonic and play shapes that would be in E major on a standard guitar, your licks will come out in the sax- and trumpet-friendly key of concert C. Guitarist-friendly fingerings in horn keys—hip!

If you want that gargantuan “piano wire” sound on the low notes, the Spectra Sonic may be the bari for you. The wound strings on this bound and chambered behemoth move some serious air and produce hugely satisfying timbres that seem to have more in common with the low notes on a Steinway than those on, say, a Duo Jet. With help of the TV Jones alnico pickups, the rich, unplugged acoustic tone of this guitar translates beautifully into the electric realm. Add some Bigsby vibrato, and your tone gets really tough.

Of the seven baritones in this review, though, the Gretsch is actually the least suited for aggressive playing. First of all, any time a guitar’s pickup selector is located on the upper bout—a time-honored placement, to be sure—it’s pretty much in the way if you do any sort of modern two-hands-on-the-neck playing. Of course, most guitarists don’t engage in many fretboard spankings or slap-funk guitar beat-downs, but everyone likes to strum hard or occasionally “snap” a string by pulling it away from the body to hear the satisfying clang it makes against the frets. Unfortunately, doing either of these things on a Spectra Sonic—at least on our test model—often causes strings (especially the low B) to be jostled out of their bridge saddles. (D’oh! Flat tire!) This is mostly due to the fact that when the strings cross the bridge and head toward the Bigsby trem, they hardly angle down at all, so there’s little tension against the bridge. On our test model, this lack of string pull was made all the more unfortunate by the fact that the bridge actually needed further lowering, because while the neck was nice and straight, the action was more than twice as high at the 12th fret as it was at the 3rd. The quick fix for all these set-up glitches? Deepen the slot in each saddle to hold each string in place, and adjust the bridge height and intonation as needed.

Setup issues aside, the Spectra is a powerful and iconic instrument that blooms with organic tones and visually radiates the widely prized Gretsch aesthetic. But, just to be on the safe side—and because this offering from Gretsch streets for about twice as much as any other import in the roundup—make sure this hot-rod is fully road-ready before you drive it off the lot. With the right setup, you’ll head off into the sunset as happy as Brian Setzer heading onstage to front his big band—which he’s been known to do with this very guitar.

MJ Guitars Roadster Baritone

There are many small guitar companies building stellar double-cutaway solidbody electric guitars. Unfortunately a large number of them are, to one degree or another, content to simply build Strat copies. If you’re open to more inspired takes on Fender’s classic double- cutaway form, you might want to consider the imaginative designs of Montana guitar luthier Mark Johnson, founder of MJ Guitars. Johnson started building guitars and basses at Alembic in 1975. In 1996, the veteran builder launched his own design, the MJ Mirage—a sculpted and chambered set-neck double-cutaway. The Roadster, a streamlined, solidbody version of the Mirage, came later, and is available in the baritone version you see here.

The Roadster’s body has a unique cut in the upper midriff that gives its silhouette distinctive, “womanly” hips. (Wrap a live python around this instrument, and it might gain a hint of Nastassja Kinski.) Other modern aesthetics include pleasing vertical-line fret marker inlays and chrome pickup rings. But long before people notice the Roadster’s unique body contours and modern accoutrements, they’ll probably ask you to explain the guitar’s wild looking open headstock. You might think that, as an owner of three MJ guitars, I’d be able to field such queries with ease, but as interesting as these headstocks are, they’re still a bit of a mystery to me.

Mostly, explains Mark Johnson, the headstocks (which people liken to everything from tuning forks to tennis racquets to salad tongs) are forked the way they are simply for artistic and brand-recognition purposes. Plus, they provide an ergonomic benefit: They comfortably angle the pegs of the Gotoh tuning machines right at your tuning hand. One thing’s for sure: With a graphite/carbon-fiber-reinforced top surface, an aluminum reinforcement bracket, and one-piece construction (it’s part of the Roadster’s maple neck), the headstock is tough.

The Roadster’s most appealing attribute is its zippy playability. With a perfectly straight neck and even string height throughout, this guitar begs to be played at every position. This is handy, because if you need to cover parts in a more “normal” guitar range, you can hop up to the higher half of the two-octave neck and the guitar’s intonation and action won’t give you any headaches. A Megaswitch working in conjunction with two splittable Seymour Duncan pickups allows for five distinct and useful sounds. If baritone guitar is going to be a huge part of your show—and if that act involves navigating adventurous riffs in multiple pitch ranges—the highly maneuverable MJ Roadster can handle all the curves.

Schecter Black Jack C1EX Baritone

It’s no coincidence that many baritones—five of the seven in this roundup, for example—come finished in black. After all, if you’re a manufacturer building a specialty product (and to most guitarists, a baritone is exactly that), you don’t want to produce too many of it any color that might jeopardize already limited sales. (When was the last time you saw a yellow Lincoln Town Car?) The coolest thing about black is that it’s the ninja-approved color of stealth and discretion. For that reason, the sleuthful hue suits no guitar in this roundup more perfectly than it does Schecter’s Black Jack C1EX Baritone. Why? Because more so than the other six offerings, the C1EX seems designed, at least in part, for those players who want all the sonic advantages of baritone guitar but don’t particularly want to wear a freakishly huge instrument onstage.

The first thing Schecter did to keep the C1EX baritone “on the under” was deliver it in their sleekest, most popular and familiar body/neck configuration, the heavily contoured and mercury-smooth C-series shape. Next, they kept the guitar’s overall length down to a minimum by building the bound-rosewood fretboard to about the minimum scale length baritone strings will allow before they start going flabby—26 1/2". (The string-through-body construction helps keep the string tension high.) The result is a slick and dangerous looking guitar that, end to end, is a mere half-inch longer than a Fender Stratocaster, but delivers the girthful tone, low notes, giant chords, and other sonic beef that can only be achieved by going long scale and tuning down to B. In this Roundup, only the headless Steinberger is shorter in overall length.

As its dangerous curves and sharp cutaways imply, the C1EX is right at home in heavy music, and consistently low action across its monolith-straight neck makes it a great guitar for faster riffs and fills—especially if you facilitate matters further by dialing in the forgiving distortion and natural compression of a high-gain amp. Like the other two humbucking solidbody baritones in this revew, the C1EX can sound a tad dark on some clean settings, but, thanks to coil-tappable Seymour Duncans and a Megaswitch 5-way pickup selector, this guitar, like MJ’s baritone, offers some cool thinned-out sounds (think middle-position Telecaster, but bigger and meaner). The Schecter’s specialties, though, are clean neck and neck/bridge tones as well as, of course, the tone it was born for: a Duncan JB wailing in the bridge position.

The only cosmetic flaw I noticed on this guitar was that the black paint on the back of the neck ever so slightly leaked over onto the neck binding on the low side of the fretboard. Honestly, though, that’s just a guitar reviewer trying to find a visual flaw in a guitar that, cosmetically speaking, is damn near flawless. Any rocker who loves huge riffs but doesn’t necessarily love huge instruments will find the C1EX experience hugely satisfying.

Steinberger Synapse TranScale ST-2FPA

Don’t let the visual simplicity of Steinbergers fool you: Though minimalist in appearance, these diminutive instruments spring from a design philosophy that’s maximalist to the core. It has long been the goal of company founder Ned Steinberger to pack each of his guitars and basses with as many sonic, ergonomic, and logistical innovations as possible, even when the cost is parting with tradition. Although the Synapse Transcale ST-2FPA baritone doesn’t come with Steinberger’s uber-evolved TransTrem vibrato, it still packs more high-tech features than a James Bond car.

By virtue of its headless nature, the TranScale delivers full baritone scale (28 5/8") while remaining shorter in overall length than standard guitars. This travel-friendly size is handy—especially because the TranScale’s onboard roller capo effectively erases the need for a standard guitar. Any time you need to raise the guitar’s tuning to standard, simply roll the capo up the neck to the 5th fret. (This musical rolling pin stops at any of the first ten positions.) Sometimes this process causes the highest string to get lodged between the edge of the capo’s rubber roller piece and its adjacent support beam, but no biggie—you quickly learn how to prevent this by resting a finger against the rogue string when the capo is in motion. When you’re playing, you can definitely feel the smooth guide trenches that are routed into the neck to hold the capo in place, but the more you play, the more you forget they’re there.

Other slick ST-2FPA features include an updated nut assembly that can clamp down on standard strings (so you’re not out of luck if you run out of double-balls), a recessed hex wrench holder, an extended strap hook for better balance, internal trimpots for magnetic pickup level adjustment, a gut-hugging comfort cut to facilitate a natural playing angle, and, last but not least, my favorite bonus feature: a piezo-equipped bridge.

Not typically one who gets excited about piezo “acoustic” tones, I have to admit I quickly became enraptured with the uniquely funky timbres that arise when you blend signal from the ST-2FPA’s piezo pickup and EMG magnetic humbuckers and play some mammoth low notes. Running these blended tones through the clean channel of an EVH 5150 III half-stack (yep, we get into some weird gear combinations here at GP headquarters) while snapping the strings yielded a gloriously irreverent snarl that one might not normally associate with Steinberger guitars. I admit it: I was one of those who used to find Steinbergers a bit nerdy, but this thing is dangerous. Throw in a glowing, flame-maple-topped matte-finished body, and I’m digging this mean sounding guitar. Traditionalists beware: Picking up this instrument will tempt you to become a modernist and enjoy all the innovations Ned Steinberger has so passionately pioneered.

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