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Tenor Guitar Vs Octave Mandolin: How These Instruments Differ [2021 Guide]

If you’re curious about the tenor guitar vs octave mandolin, you’ve come to the right post.

And if you’re curious about how the tenor guitar relates to other instruments, check out my tenor guitar vs baritone ukulele post.

If you’re reading this post, you are probably wondering, “how do these unusual instruments compare to each other?”

I’m going to try to do a side-by-side comparison in this post to hopefully answer this question.

What’s the difference between a tenor guitar and an octave mandolin?

The tenor guitar is a stringed, fretted instrument with four strings with the same standard tuning as a banjo. And the octave mandolin is a stringed fretted instrument with eight strings tuned in identical pairs with the same standard tuning as a mandolin but one octave lower.

Gibson Guitar originally built the tenor guitar as an accompaniment instrument to the tenor voice. The tenor guitar is tuned in fourths, C-G-D-A from lowest to highest. Its scale length is similar to that of standard guitars.

Mandolins range from soprano to tenor sizes, but tenors are extremely rare due to the decline in the popularity of tenors since their peak in the early 1920s. An octave mandolin is tuned like a violin—GDAE but one octave down with each course tuned exactly the same.

History and Influences

The tenor guitar serves as a bridge instrument between tenor banjos and six-string guitars. It started to replace the tenor banjo in popularity around the end of the 1920s.

This trend quickened when famous banjo players of the period switched from banjo to six-string guitars. The first tenor guitars had a very simple design – acoustic guitars fitted with a tenor banjo neck.

Originally these were marketed as an easy way for tenor banjo players to double on guitar. However, the tenor guitar’s appeal has continued to this day. They come as flat-tops, archtops, resonators, solid bodies, and semi-hollows.

A plucked string instrument historically called the mandola evolved as an offshoot of the lute family in Italy in the 15th Century. These early “modern” mandolins were tuned in fifths and played with a plectrum.

Modern octave mandolin-sized instruments are often called citterns, especially when they have 5 courses of strings. The octave mandolin belongs to a family of instruments consisting of the bouzouki and the Renaissance/Baroque cittern.

Until recently, the instruments we now know as “octave mandolins” were classified as bouzoukis, citterns, and even mandolas.

Size

Tenor guitars typically have a scale length similar to the octave mandolin and tenor banjo, between 21 and 23 inches. On the other hand, octave mandolins usually have a scale length of 23 inches.

The tenor guitar is larger than the tenor banjo, and octave mandolin in terms of its body size, making it more suitable to low tenor male vocals.

Tenor guitars come in both flat tops and archtops. The standard tenor guitar has 4 strings.

However, there are 6 string tenors as well, which resemble a 12-string guitar.

See below for the scale length of various members of the octave mandolin family.

Octave Mandolin
Scale length 23” or shorter
Cittern (tenor)
Scale length 23” or shorter
Irish Bouzouki
Scale length 23” or longer
Mandocello
Scale length 24.5” – 25.5”
5-Course Mandocello (aka Baritone Cittern)
Scale length 24.5” – 25.5”

Tuning

Traditional tenor guitars are also based on tenor banjos, but some contemporary tenor strings can be shorter than normal guitar strings. The tenor guitar has four strings and is tuned in fifths, usually C3−G3−D4−A4, from lowest to highest.

It has a scale length similar to that of standard guitars and its string tension isn’t particularly high, so it can be played with the same dynamic range used for other tenor instruments such as the saxophone.

Other common tunings on the tenor guitar include:

●       ‘Chicago tuning’ – D3−G3−B3−E4, identical to the top four strings of a guitar and baritone ukulele.

●      Irish or octave mandolin tuning – G2−D3−A3−E4. This is like a tenor violin, one octave below the usual violin tuning. This is great for ‘slide’ playing.

●      Parallel Octave tuning – G3-C4-E4-A4. This is great for soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele, and you can use various versions of it.

On the other hand, the octave mandolin has four sets of two strings each. The two strings in each set are tuned in unison.

The standard octave mandolin tuning is G2G2−D3D3−A3A3−E4E4. In this, the lowest open strings are tuned to the lowest G, and the highest strings are tuned to the same E as the highest string of a normal guitar.

Check out the table below for different tunings of the octave mandolin family:

Octave Mandolin:
Four courses, tuned to G2/G2, D3/D3, A3/A3, and E4/E4
Cittern (tenor):
Five courses, tuned to G2/G2, D3/D3, A3/A3, E4/E, and A4/A4 or B4/B4
Irish Bouzouki:
Four courses, tuned to G3/G2, D3/D2, A3/A3, and D4/D4 or E4/E4
Mandocello:
Four courses, tuned to C2/C2, G2/G2, D3/D3, and A3/A3
5-Course Mandocello (aka Baritone Cittern):
Five courses, tuned to C2/C2, G2/G2, D3/D3, A3/A3, and E4/E4.

Sound Comparison

The tenor guitar has a tenor banjo-type sound in that it lacks the bottom end of a standard guitar. That is, its overall pitch range (including overtones and sympathetic resonance) doesn’t extend much lower than the G below middle C on a standard tuned guitar.

Its tone is comparable to tenor banjos; clean with bright trebles, and easy to amplify because of lower string tension and larger body volume than tenor guitars.

The tenor guitar sounds quite a bit like a banjo in this video.

It comes across as a cultural collision between the traditional tenor banjo and the guitar. The timbre of the instrument is reminiscent of folk music and local pub ballads.

The distinct mandolin sound rings through but we also get hints of a richer baritone sound. This would allow standard mandolin players to switch between playing the lead melody and taking more backseat playing chords and supporting. It adds a bit of versatility to the classical mandolin and a deeper sound.

Tenor guitar Vs Octave Mandolin: Learning Materials

As these instruments are non-standard, they do not have a lot of learning materials available.

That said, the tenor guitar is an offshoot and closely related to the banjo, and can be easily picked up if you’re well versed in the banjo.

An alternative to learning this instrument is to tune the tenor guitar like a mandolin and play mandolin chords. It can be a good starting point, and as you grow and mature on the instrument, you can venture into other seldom-used tunings.

With the popularity of the tenor guitar as used by Warren Ellis, Nick Cave, the Bad Seeds, and other players, more dedicated learning materials for this instrument may come in the future.

And although there also aren’t many dedicated learning materials for the octave mandolin, you can use all the same learning materials you would use for the mandolin because the octave mandolin is simply one octave below standard.

Price

Both tenor guitars and octave mandolins are going to be more expensive than standard banjos and mandolins.

There’s just no getting around that fact because these are niche market instruments.

That said, you can still find inexpensive tenor guitars like this one.

Unfortunately, octave mandolins seem to be pricier than tenor guitars.

For instance, Gold Tone’s is one of the few octave mandolins I know of on the open market today, and it’s pricier than many tenor guitar models.

Which instrument should you pursue?

The instrument you pursue depends on your background and what you want to do with your instrument. Tenor guitars are great for tenor banjo players who want to explore a guitar sound with a tuning and string number they can already play on.

On the other hand, octave mandolins are great for those who already play the mandolin and want to be able to play all the same licks and chords they already know but in a lower tonal range.

Tenor Guitar Vs Octave Mandolin: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you understand the tenor guitar vs octave mandolin, how they differ, and which might be a better instrument for you!

And if you have any further questions, please leave a comment and let me know!

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