Fender put bass into the guitar world in earnest with the 1951 introduction of its Precision Bass guitar, typified by the modern ’50s-style Road Worn series model seen here.
In the guitar world, it’s not at all uncommon to run across instrument names and descriptive terms based on formal musical ranges. You’ll occasionally hear mention of a baritone or tenor guitar, or perhaps a soprano ukulele. And of course there’s always the low-end foundation of popular music, the bass guitar.
From lowest in pitch to highest, these formal musical terms are bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano. We’ll skip one that falls between alto and soprano—mezzo-soprano—because Tech Talk has yet to hear of such a creature in guitardom.
Technically, these terms primarily apply to specific human vocal ranges and are generally organized into male and female designations. Their use, however, has filtered down through the ages to also denote (both formally and informally) certain types of instrumentation, including guitars and related instruments.
Here’s a quick look at each, from low to high.
Bass is derived from the Latin bassus, meaning “low” or “thick,” and technically denotes the lowest-pitched part of any musical work. In its original vocal context, it further denotes the lowest range of the male voice; extending approximately from the low E or F an octave and a half below middle C to middle C.
The term is also frequently applied to a wide variety of instrumentation; i.e., bass clarinet, bass drum, bass trombone, etc. The oft-interchangeable terms bass violin (or bass viol) and bass fiddle are technically a misnomer; the largest member of the violin family is more accurately termed a double bass because its strings are tuned two octaves below those of a violin.
For our purposes, the term finds its most popular usage in bass guitar, the instrument that has provided so much of the bedrock for modern popular music since the 1950s and on which so much of Fender’s legacy is based (no pun intended). Standard bass guitar tuning is, low to high, EADG; one octave lower than the first four strings of a traditional guitar.
A Fender Jaguar Baritone Special HH of the mid-2000s.
Next up—literally—is baritone, which classically denotes a male voice ranging from the second F below middle C to the first F above middle C, although it can also range slightly higher in operatic music. The male baritone voice is determined not only by its somewhat flexible range, but also by its timbre, which can be noticeably dark and heavy; even ragged.
Baritone is the most common male voice range. Outside the classical world, there are a ton of them in popular music. Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Neil Diamond, for example. Also David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Al Green, Rob Halford, Jimi Hendrix, Morrissey, Jim Morrison, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, David Lee Roth, Michael Stipe, Joe Strummer and Eddie Vedder, among a great many others.
Guitar-wise, baritone finds use in the baritone guitar; a variation on the standard guitar with a slightly longer scale and lower tuning that impart a highly distinctive sound. Baritone guitars became pretty popular in the 1950s and were a mainstay of 1960s-era country music (listen to the solo on 1964 George Jones hit “The Race Is On”). Whereas standard guitar tuning is EADGBE, baritone guitars are tuned a perfect fifth lower (ADGCEA), a perfect fourth lower (BEADF#B) and even a major third lower (CFB♭E♭GC). Fender introduced its own baritone guitars in the 1960s, and they’ve remained in the family off and on ever since. Further, the largest member of the ukulele family is the baritone ukulele.
Fender’s Ukulele Nohea is a tenor ukulele.
In the classical world, tenor denotes the highest non-falsetto male voice in a choir, or a musical instrument that naturally plays in the same range, such as a tenor saxophone. The typical tenor voice reaches from the C one octave below middle C up to the first A above middle C, although it can range higher in other classical forms. You’d probably recognize the names of several of classical music’s most famous tenor heavy hitters; these include Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. Several of rock’s most famous and acclaimed singers are tenors; these include Bono, Elton John, Geddy Lee (who even approached alto in older Rush stuff), Robert Plant, Sting, Steven Tyler, Steve Winwood and Thom Yorke.
You don’t run across the term tenor all that often in the guitar world, although the four-string tenor guitar is a form that dates back at least to the 1920s and has been offered by most major acoustic guitar makers. Also, one of the largest of the four common ukulele sizes is the tenor ukulele; Fender introduced a handful of tenor ukulele models in the late 2000s.
Classically, the term alto—Italian for “high”—describes the lowest pitch range of the female voice. It reaches from the F or G just below middle C up more than an octave to the D above high C. In liturgical music hundreds of years ago, alto was a high male voice (above tenor) often sung by boys, but females assumed this range as they were eventually included, at which point the males were still altos and the women were called contraltos, a distinction that survives today in modern classical music and opera.
Other than Jon Anderson, not too many guys sing alto, period, but many notable non-classical female singers are considered contraltos. They include Adele, Patsy Cline, Fergie, Lady Gaga, Chrissie Hynde, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Annie Lennox, Shirley Manson, Stevie Nicks, Katy Perry, Pink, Carly Simon, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick and Amy Winehouse, among many others.
The term applies to a small number of instruments, too—as in alto flute and alto saxophone, but almost never in the guitar world. Tech Talk googled “alto guitar” and did find such a thing, but we’re talking seldom seen and extremely esoteric instrumentation.
Fender’s tiny Ukulele U’Uku is a soprano instrument.
At the top end we have the highest pitch range of the human voice, soprano. And we are talking really up there now; generally from middle C on up, usually a full octave to high C, but as far as a singer’s vocal chords can take him (or her, more often), really. After that, pretty much only dogs can hear you. As opera grew in popularity during the 1600s, female sopranos took over from the boys (literally) and became the world’s first female pop stars (figuratively). Far more recently, non-classical sopranos include Christina Aguilera, Julie Andrews, Joan Baez, Björk, Kate Bush, Celine Dion, Elizabeth Fraser, Emmylou Harris, Olivia Newton-John and Dolly Parton.
As far as instrumentation goes, the name soprano really only appears in soprano saxophone, but the clarinet is actually a soprano instrument (as distinguished from its bass and alto versions). You don’t really run into it in guitar land, but the smallest of the four common ukulele sized is the soprano ukulele, a model of which Fender introduced in 2011.