So You Wanna Play A Baritone?
Players like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Nuno Bettencourt tuned down a half-step to Eb, giving their riffs a slightly darker feel. Grunge guitarists popularized Drop D, a tuning occasionally used by blues players, to keep the guitar in standard while making it possible to also play power chords two semitones lower than usual.
Tony Iommi tuned pretty darn low, in part to make it easier to play with the leather thimbles that he uses in place of the fingertips that were sheered off in an industrial accident.
But all of those players explored their lowered tunings on guitars with conventional scale lengths like 24 3/4” or 25.5”. Now that lower tunings are firmly planted in the musical landscape, players demand guitars that are designed for the specific needs of those crunchy, chunky subsonic riffs.
Enter the baritone. Built with longer scale lengths like 27” and 28” for a punchier tone with fatter strings at lower tunings compared to standard, baritone guitars have been around in one form or another for a long, long time but there’s more need for them now than ever. Let’s look at a few recent Gibson baritones, and a few ways to maximize your ‘bari-tone.’
Gibson USA SG Baritone
Gibson’s latest baritone is based on the SG, and the warm, strong midrange of its all-mahogany body is perfectly suited to the lower tunings required of a baritone guitar. The scale length is 27” and the guitar comes tuned B-E-A-D-F#-B, although of course you can use any tuning you like. It has a pair of Gibson humbucking pickups (a 496R and 500T in the neck and bridge positions respectively), each of which is wired to its own push-pull coil split for single coil tones, which really helps to open up the tonal flexibility of a baritone.
Gibson USA Explorer Baritone
It’s scientifically proven by science that guitars painted in Silverburst are 50% more metal than guitars with any other finish. And the Explorer Baritone goes even metal-er than its SG sibling by adding an extra inch to its scale length, coming in at a punchy-sounding 28”. Again the pickups are high-output ceramic-loaded 496R and 500T humbuckers.
Gibson USA Les Paul Studio Baritone
Of course we couldn’t let the Les Paul go un-baritoned. The Les Paul Studio Baritone is available in Honeyburst finish, with the 496R/500T pickup combo and 28” scale length.
Here are a few baritone tunings to try.
C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C - A major third lower than standard: sounds dark on a 24.3/4 scale guitar but tight and crunchy on a baritone)
B-E-A-D-F#-B - (A perfect fourth below standard tuning. Generally considered ‘standard’ baritone tuning in metal.
A-D-G-C-E-A 0 (A perfect fifth lower than a conventional guitar, and particularly great with 28” scale baritones)
A-E-A-D-F#-B - (Like a ‘Drop D’ version of B-E-A-D-F#-B, great for super-low power chords.
C-G-C-G-C-E - (Informally called the ‘Devin Townsend tuning,’ more officially ‘Open C.’)
When dialling in a tone for a baritone guitar it can often be tricky to find the right blend of distortion and clarity. Personally I like to either go for a moderate output pickup and a high-gain amp/pedal sound, or a high-powered pickup with a medium level of amp distortion. The former gives you great note articulation as a basis for your mega-distorted sound (and you can always add more gain), whereas the latter is a great way to get a little bit of extra muscle and fatness out of a chunky, crunchy tone - almost like those great distorted Tool bass sounds except with the option of hitting much higher notes too.
If you’re rocking a clean tone, a little compression will help you to even out the dynamic range should you wish, although part of the fun of a baritone is in being able to fingerpick lower basslines beneath higher melodies and chords, and compression could take some of the detail away if that’s how you like to play.
And one thing you may notice when playing a baritone is that the expanded scale length gives you a wider range of tones to explore when you vary where you pick the string. Get right up on the bridge and you’ll get a very bright, punchy, twangy attack. Get right down near the neck joint and you’ll get a much more bass-like tone. In fact, this is one of the great secrets to unlocking the power of the baritone; experiment with riffs that jump around between low bass notes and higher chord stabs, picking the low notes closer to the neck and the high ones closer to the bridge.
The contrast is quite noticeable and it’s the sort of effect that you simply can’t achieve with effects: it’s only possible by playing a certain way.