Converting to Baritone? Read This!

This week a customer came in wanting to have his Telecaster set up for baritone strings and tuned to A. He had bought a few sets of D’addario strings for baritone guitar .and was hoping all it needed was a restring. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that simple and I’ve been mulling over our conversation ever since.

I felt bad about our initial conversation; I hate being the bearer of bad news, and when a job isn’t as cut-and-dry as the customer thinks, I often feel regret that things aren’t so straightforward. Ultimately he chose not to go through the process, saying he might try just throwing the strings on himself. I didn’t intend to discourage him from having fun, but I thought it important to let him know the ins and outs of doing this change properly. So, what gives?

He then added, "Why so serious?"

Well, there are a few things to consider when experimenting with the baritone alternative lifestyle (not that there’s anything wrong with that):

The Fender Bass VI

First, when we say baritone there might be a couple of different definitions at play. To my mind, the word immediately conjures the sound, look and feel of old Fender and Danelectro guitars, such as the Danelectro Longhorn and U2 models and the venerable Fender Bass VI. These instruments were proper baritones, yielding an extended scale length (27″ to 30″ are most frequently seen) and much thicker strings. Both of the aforementioned instruments were ubiquitous within the realms of Country, Surf and Spaghetti Western themes, enjoying a spate of renewed interest in the 80s and 90s thanks to fuzzed-out Shoegaze bands and Surf revivalists.

Danelectro U2 Baritone

In more modern terms, a Baritone guitar might also refer to down-tuned metal guitars, either made with heavier strings in mind or offering a longer scale and hot pickups. 7- or 8-string guitars also fall under this category, and companies such as Ibanez, Gibson, ESP and PRS have made models like this finding success in the newer Metal market. It seems as though some bands are taking the challenge seriously, finding out just how many strings they can put on a guitar and how low they can tune them.

Why does this matter?

Obviously, these guitars have vastly different tones, and chances are if you’re looking for a spanky, slinky tic-tac tone to fill in the gaps on your next drenched-in-verb Surf tune you’ll not find what you’re looking for with an Ibanez Marten Hagstrom 8-string. Vice versa, Metal players might not appreciate the jangly voice of Danelectro lipstick pickups as their main sound, especially at high, feedback-inducing volumes. To be frank, it’s your purpose that dictates the kind of instrument or strings you’ll choose, and your tonal end goal has a lot to do with which route you take.

Ibanez Marten Hagstrom 8 string guitar

As for the second point of interest, you may want to ask yourself, “What tuning will I use?”  If you’re going down to D or C standard (D isn’t technically a baritone tuning, but it is lower than standard so I think this applies) there may not be too much of a difference in terms of set up on an standard-scale instrument. For instance, I’ve had great success tuning my Les Paul Standard down to C standard for chunky riffage with nary a tweak of the truss rod. If you’re going as low as B, A or even E, you may need to think about not only a thicker gauge of string, which I’d say is necessary for retaining a similar feel at such tunings, but a longer neck as well. Such low tunings require an extended scale length for proper intonation, fret placement, and to accommodate the added girth and tension of  baritone guitar strings. If you stick with a standard scale length, you’re going to have to drastically change the set up of your guitar.

In the above customer service story, the strings he chose were D’addario Baritone strings gauged 013-.062″, meant for a scale length of 29 3/4″. Trouble is, standard scale for a Telecaster is 25 1/2″ and the guitar was set up for the .010-.046″. That’s a big difference, and not easily overcome without some modification. This means that, had we used those strings, the nut would need to have its slots widened for the strings to seat properly. Of course action and neck relief would have been addressed, but there was little chance that the guitar would even play in tune with such low notes on slackened strings. Honestly, I couldn’t see the point in charging for a job I wasn’t convinced would work out.

I talked to him about different strings but altering the nut was the sticking point. One can easily cut deeper or wider slots in a nut, but it’s not as easy (or cheap) to cut a brand new one. If you’re looking to go back and forth between baritone and standard tuning, why not spend a modest sum on a second guitar? Of course, not everyone has cash to drop on guitars right now, but the going prices on Craigslist Seattle for low-end baritone guitars is between $150-$400. For a player looking to not do a lot of damage to a favorite axe, that’s a paltry sum! Plus, it’s never hard to move a bari; guitarists are always looking for a cool new tone, and once you play some root-position chords at A standard, it’s hard not to throw down money on the spot!


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