Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

Tenor Guitar (4-string)


Having been immersed the mandolin world for the past 16 years, we've been largely removed from fretted instruments outside the realm of 5ths tuning. The rise and popularity of ukuleles has been on our radar, admittedly not quite compelling enough to explore personally, though their current explosive allure in pop culture is undeniable.

So many things about the instrument make sense, their portability, ease in learning and play (low tension nylon 4-strings), and you can acquire a fairly decent instrument (albeit arguably novelty) for well under $50. Many uke aficionados own several-- multiple colors, let alone the different ranges of soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone, as well as contemporary incarnations of 8-string, 5-string, and solid-body electric.

We've also been a fan of the tenor guitar, it's CGDA tuning right in line not only with the mandola, but the lower 4 strings of our obsession with the 5-string mandolin. The trade-off of course is the mandolin family equivalent instruments will range from the smaller 14 to 17", not the 21 to 25" of the tenor, where you end up sacrificing a bit of tone for the fret span friendliness of the shorter scale.

KalaTG_Soundhole.jpg . KalaTG_Heel.jpg
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Still, it's a challenge to find decent tenors guitars today, outside of the occasional eBay Kay "project," or the quality compromise of a Gold Tone, Blueridge, or Ozark import. There are options out there in high end (Martin, Breedlove, pre-war vintage) and custom builds, but many mandolinists don't want to scratch that itch paying several thousand for what amounts to an auxiliary instrument.

We were delighted at the recent Summer NAMM to see a prototype tenor guitar at the Kala booth. This world renown ukulele company has been taking the consumer market by storm the last few years, one of the most popular brands on the scene especially for the serious hobbyist. Incredible bang for buck, these instruments are well made and have been smartly merchandised. It was our pleasure to receive one of their tenors for a hands-on review, and frankly, we plan to personally purchase one of our own next month when they are available to the public.

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The neck on this model betrays any radical departure from its ukulele origins. Narrow to accommodate four strings, it's extremely easy on the left hand and the fret edges feel smooth to grip, but as we've already mentioned, the longer scale will take some adjustment, especially maintaining the one finger/two fret approach home to the mandolin. You can do the FFcP system we preach here at JazzMando pedagody, but be prepared to stretch. The action was optimally low, and with the single course, you aren't prone to the cramping you might experience on mandocello or octave mandolin. All in all, this becomes a very easy, intuitive instrument to adapt and play.

KalaTG_Side1.jpg . KalaTG_Back.jpg

Next to its playability and comfort, the best feature of the instrument is its rich, pleasant tone. Familiar spruce top and rosewood back and sides, the tenor packed both satisfying warmth and definition. It's capable of a rhythm guitar punch for jazz chord comping, and projects clear volume for soloing. We weren't expecting it to be this loud.

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The cosmetics are understated and traditional; its ivoroid binding contrasts the darker rosewood beautifully. The dark rosewood fingerboard is Spartan with small white dot fret markers (beware the 9th fret instead of 10th marker, mandolinists!), but the sound hole is dressed up with a tasteful rosette.

About the only visual breakout is the slotted headstock, a feature common in many of the higher end Kala ukes. We had a bit of a struggle with getting the new G string to tune, but it eventually settled in. The body balances nicely on the lap, but sans strap button on the end or heel, we'd suggest playing with a footstool while seated.

The instrument comes with recommended conventional CGDA tuning but if you opt for octave mandolin tuning (GDAE), expect to do some minor altering of the nut. We're biased in that we feel a tenor should be just that, CGDA, tenor range, but to each his/her own.

This instrument is a logical one in the journey from mandolin to the guitar world. The narrow neck is easy to embrace, and it's easy to get a rich guitar sound even with the KA-GTR's shorter scale (21.375 vs 24+"). Also, this kind of quality is hard to beat at this exceptional street price.

4-string tuned C-G-D-A (fifths)
Solid Spruce Top
Rosewood Back and Sides
Ivoroid Binding
Rosewood Fingerboard
Slotted Headstock
Grover tuners
Satin Finish
Kala KA-GTR - $469.99 MSRP

More information: Kala KA-GTR Tenor Guitar

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