Great Ukes: The Birth of The Baritone

From the Spring 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY

Quick quiz: Among the four common sizes of ukuleles—soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone—which one is tuned differently? Answer: the baritone. While the first three are tuned in standard “C” tuning: G C E A, the baritone (or “bari”) is usually tuned like the top four strings of a guitar: D G B E. So, where did this variant of the ukulele universe come from? As with so many other popular inventions, it turns out that the answer isn’t entirely clear.

Baritone Headstocks Favilla Vega Vintage Ukulele

The two names most closely associated with the origin of the baritone uke are Arthur Godfrey and Herk Favilla. Godfrey was an avid musician, radio personality, and early television star of several programs including Arthur Godfrey and His Friends and Arthur Godfrey and His Ukulele. Hercules “Herk” Favilla was a third-generation luthier and the son of John Favilla, who co-founded the Favilla Brothers stringed instrument company in New York City with his brother Joseph in 1890. Herk took over the family business in 1959 and continued to build ukuleles, mandolins, banjos, and guitars until he retired in 1980. As to which man is the true father of the baritone uke, we must rely on a pair of oft-repeated stories with only a handful of facts to support either one.

Ukulele Baritone Vega
A baritone by any other name strums just as sweet. The Vega Arthur Godfrey De Luxe Solo-Lute. Photo by the author.
Arthur Godfrey w Vega Baritone
Arthur Godfrey with his Vega Baritone

Godfrey and Vega

Godfrey’s tale begins with a banjo player named Eddie Connors, a musician at CBS (Godfrey’s network) who had recorded with such big-band greats as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The story goes that Godfrey asked Connors to design a larger-bodied, lower-pitched ukulele. That first instrument is likely the cutaway baritone Godfrey regularly played on his TV shows, as well as in the 1966 movie The Glass Bottom Boat. Connor’s basic bari design (sans cutaway) was subsequently put into production by the Vega Company of Boston, Massachusetts, sometime around 1950. Primarily a guitar, mandolin, and banjo manufacturer, Vega made three different baritone models: the Standard, the De Luxe, and the oddly named “Solo-Lute,” their fanciest model, made from solid mahogany with a sunburst finish and a long neck with a rosewood fretboard adorned with pearl inlays and a 21-inch scale with 16 frets clear of the body. Some De Luxe models had paper labels inside that read: “…created and designed by Eddie Connors…” and nearly all the baris bore Godfrey’s signature decal on the headstock, no doubt part of his endorsement deal with Vega.


Ukulele Baritone Favilla
Favilla B-2 Baritone Ukulele. Photo by author.

Favilla’s Side

Herk Favilla’s story takes a different tack. Being an accomplished guitar player and teacher, Herk said that he designed the baritone “with the thought in mind of simplifying guitar study for the beginner.” Thus, he created a four-stringed instrument tuned to match the first four strings of a guitar. He likely chose to marry his baritone to the ukulele family both to distinguish it from the 4-stringed tenor guitar (which used a different tuning) and because of Favilla’s long history of manufacturing ukes. Herk’s son Tom recollects that the first Favilla baritones were built in the late 1940s by grandfather John, but no records exist to substantiate this. (Intriguingly, Tom also claims that Arthur Godfrey’s first baritones were actually built by Favilla, but when Godfrey had a dispute with them, he switched to a “Vinci” baritone—a Favilla without a label—then later to a Vega.) All Favilla baritones sported solid mahogany bodies and necks and rosewood fretboards with a 19-inch scale. (For comparison’s sake, Martin baritones, which didn’t appear until 1960, have 20 1/8-inch scales.) Around 1950, Herk was the first to author a series of instructional booklets specifically for the baritone ukulele player.

Herk Favilla Baritone Book

Since no known patents exist for the baritone ukulele and Arthur, Herk, and Eddie have all long passed, we’ll probably never know for sure which birth of the baritone story is true. Perhaps, as with so many inventions, both Godfrey/Connors and Favilla independently developed similar instruments. As the old saying goes, “Proof is often simply finding enough people who agree with you.”