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Eddie Condon's name inscribed on the bridge of his custom 1965 Gibson Plectrum Guitar. Photo credit: Heather Darnell.

Playing Tenor: Eddie Condon’s Journey to the Guitar

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It’s the summer of 2018, and I’ve once again found myself at the Marina in Corpus Christi, TX, sitting with my father on his sailboat. Guitars in hand, we are playing a special concert for the seagulls and pelicans, our only true fans. The vibrations of our strings loft into the air in perfect harmony until—PLUNK-PLUNK-THUNK!—I hit another F chord. I throw my hands down in frustration as a gull lets out a loud laugh. Even after years of practicing, I still can’t quite get my small hands to stretch enough to play even basic things.

Dad takes a sip of beer. “Hey man–you should play tenor!”

“Ten—or eleven miles away from here?” I repeat his oft-told joke with an eye roll, thumbing through the chord again.

“No—the tenor guitar!”

I wasn’t getting it.

He tells me that he still remembers this odd little guitar his childhood music teacher showed his class. It only had four strings and a much slimmer neck. He was pretty sure it was called a “tenor guitar.”

 


Referring both officially and unofficially to a variety of four-string guitars that hit their peak in the 1930s, almost no one comes to the tenor guitar as a first choice. Indie rocker Neko Case is an example of another musician who made the switch due to her small hands, while Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit came to four strings after years of experimentation (whether his custom low-tuned guitar fits the definition is up for debate, though I’m sure my father would have happily said he could “play tenor”). The instrument also came late for forefather of Chicago jazz, Eddie Condon (1905—1973), whose custom 1965 Gibson L-7 Plectrum tenor guitar was recently gifted to the Library by his daughter, Maggie Condon.

According to his memoir,   Condon played the tenor banjo then plectrum banjo in his early days as a professional a jazz musician in the 1920s. Derived from the five-string banjo, both were four-stringed instruments that came about as American social dance and jazz were gaining popularity in the early twentieth century. With their bright, percussive sounds, banjos were ideal for leading rhythm sections. These banjos, in particular, lacked a fifth drone string found on traditional banjos, which made it easier to strum through chord changes with a plectrum, or pick.

Method books from 1927 and 1919 for plectrum and tenor banjos. Music Division.

Though it is a rarely seen in modern jazz, the banjo was actually a popular part of jazz bands of the 1920s. It was especially prevalent in New Orleans jazz, which ignited Chicago’s Jazz Age when Black southerners moved to northern cities during the first wave of the Great Migration. Musicians in Chicago, such as Condon, imitated and drew inspiration from southern jazz musicians to create what is sometimes referred to as the “Chicago-style,” a variation of New Orleans jazz with a higher emphasis on soloing and virtuosity. Condon recalls being deeply inspired by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, which included the great New Orleans jazz banjoist Johnny St. Cyr:

It was hypnosis at first hearing. Everyone was playing what he wanted to play, and it was mixed together as if someone had planned it with a set of micrometer calipers…the music poured into us like daylight running down a dark hole.

Lawrence Marrero plays four-string banjo in George Lewis’ jazz orchestra in New Orleans, LA. Stanley Kubrick for Look Magazine, March 3, 1950. Prints and Photographs Division.

After moving to New York in the 1930s, Condon discovered the tenor guitar. According to Karen Lynn, at this time, the guitar was quickly overcoming the banjo in jazz due to its technical innovations and changing trends in the sounds of jazz orchestras. Tenor guitars, tuned like tenor and plectrum banjos, made it easy for jazz banjoists to make the switch. Knowing the banjo was on its way out, Condon experimented with several instruments before an encounter with his bandmate’s tenor guitar seemed to strike the right chord:

Experimenting with Paul [Barbarin]’s four-string guitar tuned like a banjo, I had discovered resources which intrigued me. I decided to get a full-sized guitar, use four strings, and stick to banjo tuning.

Eddie Condon plays a tenor guitar. William P. Gottlieb, ca. October 1946. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Music Division.

Condon released his first album on guitar with Bud Freeman’s Windy City Five in 1935. Thirty years later, Gibson built his customized tenor guitar, which remained his primary instrument until his death in 1973 and now resides at the Library of Congress. Eddie Condon’s expert rhythm playing, founded on his early days of banjo, made him one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the twentieth century.

 


 

Today I’m a long way from Texas, sitting in the Library of Congress Musical Instrument Vault in Washington, DC. In my hands is Eddie Condon’s custom 1965 Gibson L-7 Plectrum tenor guitar. With its carved spruce top and unblemished sunburst finish, I am terrified to play it, as if the slightest touch might shatter the whole thing into a million pieces. Still, I convince myself I know what I’m doing—I have been playing tenor for years now in various styles. I carefully place my fingers on the frets, which are meant to fit Condon’s hands and tuning, not mine. With a bit of courage, I press my fingers down on the strings and guess at my first chord, striking a sound that would make Condon roll in his grave.

As it echoes through the room, I can hear my father say, “Hey man—you should play tenor!”

Music Reference Specialist Heather Darnell plays Eddie Condon’s Gibson L-7 Plectrum Guitar in the Library of Congress Instrument Vault. Photo Credit: Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford.

 

Resources

Condon, Eddie, and Richard Gehman, eds. “Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz.” London: P. Davies, 1957.

Condon, Eddie. “We Called it Music: A Generation of Jazz.” Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Dubois, Laurent. “The Banjo: America’s African Instrument.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Kenney, Wiliam Howland. “Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904—1930.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kenney, William Howland. “Eddie Condon.” Oxford Music Online, 2001.

Linn, Karen. “That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture.” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Robinson, J. Bradford. “Chicago Jazz.” Oxford Music Online, 2001.

Comments

  1. That was so interesting. I love how you incorporate your personal experiences into your blogs!
    Great Job Heather.

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