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Thursday, May 9, 2013


Six-string guitars dominate music these days, so four-string tenor guitars and the musicians who play them don't get the attention they deserve. Mark Josephs, an accomplished musician himself, on both guitar and harmonica, wanted to change that. His love of the instrument and his awareness of some outstanding players inspired him to launch an annual four-day weekend event called the Tenor Guitar Gathering. It will take place in Astoria, Oregon, May 30 – June 2, 2013, for the fourth time, using the acronym TGG4.
Mark Josephs, founder of the Tenor Guitar Gathering
“What we try to do is have a really fun event that is extremely inexpensive,” Josephs said, “and this year we have so many tenor guitar players that we couldn’t put them all in one night.”

If you’ve never heard of a tenor guitar you’re about to meet a special member of the stringed instrument family, a member with a small but fiercely loyal fan base. Tenors are nothing new; they’ve been around for about a century. Like tenor banjos—widely used in traditional 1920s and ‘30s jazz—tenor guitars have only four strings, instead of the usual six. They are tuned in fifths, using the notes C-G-D-A. But if you think that means they’re two strings short of being a real guitar, or only two-thirds as musical, think again. Listen to John Lawlor as he shows how great a tenor guitar can sound.

In 2010, Josephs and his wife, Karen, bought a home in this historic town, located in Oregon’s extreme northwest corner, where natural forces of the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean meet. It seemed the perfect setting for the birthplace of his idea.  
“Walking around the quaint town of Astoria, pop 10,000, I thought it would be a great place to have the world's first tenor guitar gathering,” Josephs told me. “No one else seemed to be able to get one off the ground, so I decided to throw a party and see who would attend.”

Fortunately for him, he’d landed in a town that embraced his quirky idea and radiated plenty of positive energy that kept him going. One individual, in particular, proved to be a great supporter. Gordon ‘Gordo’Styler owned a local business called the Astoria Guitar Company. When approached with the idea of hosting the gathering there, Styler enthusiastically agreed. “He was also a beloved volunteer programmer on local radio station KMUN,” Josephs said. Without his help, the first three gatherings (TGG1, TGG2, and TGG3) never would have happened. Sadly, shortly after TGG3, Styler died. This year’s event is dedicated to him.

Josephs said, "Gordo's brother, Bill Styler, a guitar builder, has caught the bug and has built some of the most unique tenor guitars in the world, due to hearing about TGG1 and attending TGG2. Bill will be at TGG4 and is a very strong supporter of the annual event." Here's video of Josephs playing Bill Styler's unique double-neck electric tenor guitar, the first in the world.

Gordo Styler would have loved TGG4, because each gathering ends up bigger and better than the one before. Attendees enjoy features like no-cover lunch concerts at Clemente’s Restaurant and TheBridgewater Bistro, jam sessions (one of which is on a trolley), workshops taught by some of the world’s best tenor players, an all-day tenor guitar luthier exhibit in the banquet room of the Rogue Ales Public House, two outstanding evening concerts, and much more. And anyone who attends will see more tenor guitars than they’ve ever seen in their life.
EZ Marc Poschman with his National
The Astor Street Opry Company, a non-profit community performing arts organization, offers their theater for AN EVENING OF TENOR GUITARS, which turned into two evenings this year. Different artists will perform on each night, from 7 p.m. until around 10 p.m. both Friday and Saturday. Tickets are only $15 for one night or $25 for both. That’s truly a bargain price for a total of 13 acts. Part of the proceeds will go to local radio station KMUN and the Astor Street Opry Company.
“I’m excited to have John Lawlor flying out from the East Coast,” he said. “I haven’t seen him in about 30 years, and I consider him to be one of the greatest jazz tenor guitar players.” Josephs grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey and met Lawlor there. He shared his memories with me:
“Around 1970 or so I met up with John Lawlor, from Philly, who came to the shore to play with his brother Jim, a drummer. They called themselves The Lawlor Brothers, and John played a four string tenor guitar tuned CGDA. I was maybe 23 and John was maybe 20. I had never seen a tenor guitar, or heard of one. John was my first introduction to the instrument, and I was curious (still am) about all musical instruments. What impressed me about John's playing was that he could play anything—old time, swing, Cream, Hendrix. And I heard the voicing, so different from my six string guitar.”
Lowell “Banana” Levenger of the band The Youngbloods is another amazing musician who plays tenor guitar. (Read an interview here.)Josephs called him “an incredible musician’s musician.” Levenger plays piano, six string guitar, and an Italian-made five-string tenor guitar with an extra string tuned a fifth below. “In fact,” Josephs said, “on their big hit song Get Together he actually played guitar, not Jesse Cullum Young.

In addition to Lawlor and Levenger, the lineup includes Josh Reynolds (son of NickReynolds of the Kingston Trio) with a band called The Lion Sons, plus The Renegade Stringband, Myshkin, Jean Mann, The Quiet American, Professor Douglas Fraser, EZ Marc Poschman,  Jack Ponting (friend of Nick Reynolds), Tom Molyneaux, Carl Allen, Mark Josephs, and others.
The Lion Sons - Mike Marvin, Josh Reynolds, Tim Gorelangton - keeping the spirit of Nick Reynolds, The Kingston Trio and the tenor guitar alive and well!
The Tenor Guitar Gathering isn’t even five years old yet, but it has quickly grown from the low-key event Josephs first created to the point of needing more structure. In 2012, he formed the Tenor Guitar Foundation, a non-profit organization with a six member board of directors and the slogan “Fostering Musicianship Four Strings at a Time.” Josephs is president. They also started a Tenor Guitar Hall of Fame.
My advice? Order your tickets for TGG4 now. I have a feeling they will go quickly, and by next year the word will have spread so far you might be lucky to get tickets at all. Don’t miss the chance to experience part of guitar history and meet some of the people who helped write it. Someday, when this event is famous, you can say, “I was there back in the years when it all began.”

Now, for your enjoyment, I've included more videos demonstrating why tenor guitars deserve a special gathering to honor them.

And here are interesting posts about tenor guitar from Michael Steinman's "Jazz Lives" blog, loaded with videos.

HANNA, PHIL, AND STEFAN: “TENOR MADNESS” (Feb. 2010)    Hanna Richardson's generous donation to the Tenor Guitar Foundation helped make TGG4 possible.


TENOR MADNESS (Nov. 9, 2009)



Candace Brown - Writer and Musician


Mark Josephs said...

Thanks, Candace, for writing such a heartfelt, comprehensive article about the tenor guitar gatherings in Astoria, Oregon that truly captures the spirit of what the whole musical event is all about!

Vikas Gupta said...

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Allen Gold said...

Thank you Mark Josephs. What a wonderful event and cause. Your dedication and love for the tenor guitar is an inspiration and a joy

jean, musicook said...

What a wonderful, informative article. I am so excited to participate in my very first Tenor Guitar Garhering!

Candace Brown said...

Thank you so much for the nice compliment. I hope you have a wonderful time there!