18 April 2009

Octavating a Tenor Guitar (Martin LXM "Little Martin" Tenor)

In the last year or so I've started spending more of my spare time playing music again. For quite a long time my only instrument were the tin whistle and Irish flute (a keyless, wooden flute which is fingered the same as the tin whiste). Then I made a little stretch, and got a mandolin, which I played for years, again mostly Irish, some Scottish stuff, and any random other thing that grabbed my attention, such as the medieval Lamento di Tristano, so often played at absurdly slow speeds. Somewhere along the way I got myself an old 20s Gibson Oriole tenor banjo, which I've always treated as an unusually noisy mandolin, including tuning it down to GDAE from the usual tenor CGDA.

Unfortunately, neither the tenor banjo nor the mandolin have much sustain. There is only one way to fake out sustain on these instruments — tremolo. After years of playing the mandolin, however, I must now admit that I have a really serious hang-up about tremolo. It doesn't matter what you're playing — bluegrass, jazz, celtic folk, whatever — once the tremolo starts I have a spaghetti sauce ad in my brain. Also, playing the high course on a mandolin (two very small wires tuned in unison to E) is not unlike playing a tuned cheese slicer.

So, a few weeks ago, I finally gave in and ordered a tenor guitar. This instrument was invented around the 20s when the guitar fad overtook the banjo fad (which in turn had replaced a mandolin fad), so that musicians used to the 5ths tuning of the tenor banjo could just pick up a guitar and go. This is perfect for my needs — I don't have to learn yet another fingering system, and I get more sustain out of the deal. It's normal for people coming from an Irish music background to tune both tenor banjos and tenor guitars down like an octave mandolin, GDAE an octave below a normal mandolin. So I got some heavier strings put them on my new Martin (.012, .022w, .032w, .042w). There were a few problems.

First, a .042 wound string will not fit in the nut on these guitars. Neither will the 0.032w. Second, these big, fat strings flop around, even at correct tension, and were buzzing... a lot. Finally, these new Martins are, as they say, modest instruments. Some unevenness in the frets was exposed by the patterns of buzz. Fortunately, I'm on a first name basis with a local luthier, who handed my Martin over to an apprentice to (1) widen the grooves in the nut for the lowest two strings, (2) file the frets into evenness and (3) raise the action a bit with a new saddle. This has improved things quite a bit. If I'm lazy about my finger placement and land too far behind a fret I still risk some buzz, but nothing like before.

So, any celto-mandolin or celto-tenor players wanting to venture into tenor guitar will find the LXM Tenor an affordable option, but you'll need a little extra work done to it to make it work best down in GDAE. If you're prepared to sand down a new saddle for yourself and aren't scared of a file, you could perhaps do the adjustments yourself, but I doubt any repair shop will charge too much to do them.