Westerns and West Coast: The Beginnings of the Baritone Guitar

Few things bring cowboys and surfers together like a good soundtrack. To accomplish this, however, you’ll need the right gear designed on the very principle of worlds colliding. That’s where baritone guitars come in. They’re definitely longer, certainly lower, and often either underutilized or misunderstood.

Some would track the history of the baritone guitar back a few hundred years to Europe. When guitars were beginning to look something like what we recognize as modern acoustics, designers were still experimenting with ranges, sizes, tunings, and string gauges. However, as those variables began to solidify in the modern history of guitar building, the concept of a lower-voiced six string instrument faded away…for a time.

As with any point of origins question, there’s some debate about where lightning struck first. But it seems that the first solid-body, electric, six string baritone guitar was developed by Nathan Daniel, founder and pioneer of Danelectro. As the company rounded out its first decade of guitar and gear productions and sales—with items storefront in Sears and supplying other now famous brands like Supro and Airline—they released something of a hybrid. The baritone was born.

The design was one that remains iconic and instantly reminiscent of that Danelectro 1950s swagger. The Longhorn 6-String bass achieved exactly what it’s name suggested. Playability of a six string, yet at a lower frequency and larger scale akin to a bass.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s when Fender was literally making history with what remain the standards of guitar designs today, they took note of Danelectro’s odd yet innovative concept and threw their hats into the ring. By 1961, they launched the Fender VI, later renamed the Bass VI, which hints at exactly the sort of identity crisis and marketing challenge this instrument met in its early years. By 1975, the Bass VI was pulled from the catalogue and lied fallow for decades until it was resurrected by Squier for a new generation.

With Danelectro, Fender, and a few other makers venturing into the unknown of baritones in decades past, the sounds they produced became associated with some central genres, both on screen and on vinyl. The baritone’s most natural home is arguably on soundtracks of spaghetti westerns or riding the waves of lead lines in surf rock. For example, when you hit about forty-seven seconds into the theme of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), just after a young Clint Eastwood holsters his pistol, the famous guitar that riff rings in was played on a baritone. While the baritone first hit it’s stride in the musical scene with surf rock, down through the decades it enjoyed a cult following with key appearances in bands such as The Cure, System of a Down, and Dream Theater, which, in many ways, contributed to the resurgence of interest and development of contemporary baritone from several builders.

So if you’re in the mood for something totally different, give a baritone a go. Who knows, that low timbre and tic-tac tone just might have you scoring for a western flick!

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