The archtop is a more nuanced instrument than the flat-top, fashioned—in its acoustic form—not so much for belting out an accompaniment (or projecting punchy lead work well into the back rows), as for purring richly, and caressing a rhythm part or chord/melody. Attach a magnetic pickup in the neck position, however, and you translate those acoustic subtleties into a gutsy, full-throated voice that rivals any lead instrument on the bandstand, and, as we all know, totally defines the sound of jazz guitar as it is most widely known.
In this issue, we evaluate four acoustic-electric archtop guitars priced from approximately $950 to $1,200: the Epiphone Emperor Regent, Ibanez AF105F-NT, Samick/Greg Bennett LaSalle JZ4, and Stromberg Newport. The leap from a pressed-arch laminated top to a carved solid-wood top denotes both a tonal demarcation in archtop guitars as a whole, and a considerable leap in price (and note that these all have parallel-braced rather than X-braced tops). Solid tops just aren’t accessible at our price point, but makers in this range are putting considerable care and attention to detail into building acoustic instruments with laminated woods. As each of these models carries a “floating” pickup attached at the neck end or pickguard only—and not in contact with the vibrating top of the guitar itself—with controls mounted in the pickguard rather than in the wood of the guitar’s top, it’s a group of instruments designed and built primarily as acoustic guitars, but with magnetic pickups attached to enable easy amplification. In short, the archetypal jazz box. I sampled each guitar both acoustically and through a Victoria 45410 tweed-style tube amp.
Talk about heritage! Epiphone rivaled Gibson in the archtop market back in the heyday of the jazz guitar, and, through the years, has put earlier versions of the Emperor into the hands of greats such as Joe Pass and Grant Green. After Gibson took over production in 1957, Epiphone guitars displayed characteristics heavily influenced by Kalamazoo, although this Korean-made guitar exhibits a happy marriage of Epi and Gibson traditions.
This single-Venetian-cutaway archtop has a 31/8"-deep body with a 17"-wide lower bout—not quite the girth of the 181/2" Emperors of old, but enough airspace to get some acoustic energy going. The Emperor Regent employs the 251/2" scale length that is traditional with larger archtops, rather than the more common 243/4" scale of the majority of Gibsonesque guitars, which should encourage clarity and definition in its performance. To warm things up a tad, however, the guitar’s parallel-braced top has been made from laminated spruce—another nod to the great solid-topped archtops of old, and a refreshing change from the maple-lam standard. The rather plain maple of the back and sides is also refreshing in a way, and perfectly appealing to my eyes, versus the highly figured maple laminations so many manufacturers feel obliged to use.
The maple neck carries a rosewood fretboard with a 12" radius and 20 medium-jumbo frets. Its full-C profile and 111/16" width at the nut adhere to contemporary jazz box standards—not a particularly distinctive playing feel, but it’s an entirely comfortable ride, with room enough for swift solo work. Neck, headstock, pickguard and body all wear a dressy five-ply binding with a creamy white, aged-looking outer purfling—which completes the classic look of the dark-chocolate-to-amber antique sunburst finish. The spiffy Epiphone block-V position markers of yesteryear make an encore here to further dress up the package, as does the mother-of-pearl floral headstock inlay. Gold Grover tuners and a gold “Frequensator” tailpiece (with shorter trapeze section for the three bass strings and a longer for the three treble, another Epi ingredient with its roots in the late 1930s) cover hardware duties head to tail, with a two-piece floating bridge of “ebonized” rosewood. As with all of these guitars, the Emperor Regent’s single floating mini-humbucker, mounted at the neck end, runs to the output jack via single volume and tone controls mounted in the pickguard. From what I can see through the single-ply-bound f-holes, tidy workmanship is apparent both outside and in. Whereas few “serious” jazz players would consider walking onstage with a Korean-made guitar just ten years ago, this Epiphone looks and feels very much like the genuine article, and it inspires confidence right out of the case.
The Emperor Regent offers a slightly choked, but not unpleasant acoustic sound. Despite the deeper, wider body, there’s not a whole lot more volume here than offered by the Ibanez Artcore—although the sound is a tad fuller. Early on in playing this guitar, I detected a slight buzz when strumming hard or hitting particular frequencies. I eventually tracked this down to the controls under the pickguard, which were rattling against the top of the guitar, and cured it by wedging in a square of thin padding. No biggie.
Plugged in, there’s decent definition, balance, and sustain—although the tonality speaks more of amplified flat-top acoustic than classic jazz box, which is not a bad thing per se, just a little unexpected. The Emperor Regent’s low end is certainly tighter than the Ibanez’s and, partnered with clear highs and a scooped midrange response, it contributes to a sound that cuts through a dense tune admirably. Fretted A notes at the first octave elicit a pretty major howl, but there are no major feedback problems for a guitar of this type.
As the first brand from the Pacific Rim to make serious inroads into the jazz guitar market—and one of the most innovative makers of archtop acoustic-electrics at that—Ibanez’s affordable Artcore series operates in the wake of a considerable legacy in this market. When America’s most commercially successful jazz guitarist, George Benson, signed an endorsement deal with Ibanez in the late 1970s, it went a long way toward establishing the Japanese company’s credibility as a maker of serious guitars. The compact-bodied, dual-pickup GB10 and large-bodied, single-pickup GB20 that debuted in 1977, used the archetypal Gibson jazzer as a starting point, but significantly redrew the blueprints to create highly efficient, great-sounding amplified instruments for the working musician.
This Chinese-made AF105F-NT treads in some of the GB10’s footsteps, with a compact body for an archtop (153/4" wide, 23/4" deep), and a 243/4" scale length, and seeks similarly to downsize many of the bulky characteristics of the big standards such as the Gibson Super 400 or L-5, while retaining the very identifiable sonic signature of the “hollowbody jazz box with floating pickup.” Its body is made from highly figured laminated maple—top, back and sides—and even the pickguard is cut from a flat piece of the same stock. The gloss natural finish gives the top in particular a very three-dimensional, almost silvery appearance. Striking stuff—although perhaps also a little pale looking to some eyes compared to an aged, vintage-blonde-style finish.
The control knobs and trapeze tailpiece further adhere to many contemporary makers’ disposition toward employing as much organic material as possible on their archtops, as both are fashioned from rosewood (although the tailpiece does carry a metal insert for anchoring the strings, visible only from the underside). The f-holes are also of the shorter, wider variety that you find on some more modernistic archtops. The trend halts there, however. A traditional, synthetic five-ply binding surrounds the top, back, and pickguard—echoed in three-ply along the fingerboard and headstock—and, rather unusually for this type of instrument, the bridge atop the floating rosewood base is a metal Tune-o-matic type that’s plated gold to match the (pearloid-buttoned) Ibanez tuners, pickup, and strap buttons.
Figured maple leads the way up the neck, too, although here as the central core only of a three-piece construction joined by larger portions of bubinga, with thin filets of rosewood between them for contrast. The rosewood fretboard carries 22 jumbo frets (although I wouldn’t expect anyone to get past the 20th, and even that’s a serious stretch), and extremely dressy position marker inlays comprised of diagonally split blocks of abalone within mother-of-pearl frames. Fancy! The rounded C has generally been the preferred profile for the jazz guitar neck, and the AF105F-NT follows suit with a very comfortable example of the type. It also has the 111/16" width at the nut that is standard in this range, although bigger, high-end jazzers often wear a wider 13/4" neck. Finally, it’s noteworthy that the AF105F-NT’s single neck-mounted Ibanez Custom F mini-humbucker is placed right under the node at the position of the imaginary 24th fret—a technique used by many makers to elicit a rich, full neck-position sound from their guitars, hollow- and solid-bodied alike. Overall, the guitar exhibits impressive attention to detail for its class, and no serious minuses jump out from the in-hand inspection.
Played acoustically, the AF105F-NT sounds tight, boxy, and nasal—a sound easily surpassed by any budget flat-top from a decent maker priced at less than half of this guitar’s sticker. But to be fair, more than any other guitar in this roundup, the AF105F-NT—like the groundbreaking yet significantly more upscale GB10 before it—was designed to look only a little like a shrunken jazz box, but to sound very much like one when plugged in. Plugged in, this guitar does the “Jazz Tone” with surprisingly decent conviction. There’s a percussive “plink” with a little trebly zing to it, but also a rather rubbery attack. Bass notes are woolly and somewhat ill-defined, but there’s decent articulation otherwise.
Rolling down the tone control in search of a smoother, vintage-jazz voice, I find that not much happens until the last eighth of the pot’s travel, at which point all high end goes south. A muted, bassy tone is more satisfactorily achieved by rolling off the volume just slightly, which also cuts the highs a tad. This guitar makes you sound like a jazzer, certainly, if not a highly refined one by absolute standards. It is also remarkably (if not totally) feedback resistant, and it packs a good overall performance in its range.
We revisit big-bodied jazz boat territory with the Samick LaSalle JZ4, designed in the U.S. by Greg Bennett, and manufactured in Korea. This guitar takes us back to the tradition mined by the Epiphone Emperor Regent above, although the LaSalle is generally more Gibson-like. It’s a 17" wide, 31/2" deep, parallel-braced archtop with a single Venetian cutaway, a laminated spruce top, and quilted laminated maple back and sides. The proffered 251/2" scale length of the bigger archtop returns here, too, coupled to a thin maple neck with flattish back and spliced-on headstock section. At around 7.5 lbs, this is also the heaviest guitar of the bunch, followed—in order—by the Ibanez, the Epiphone, and the Stromberg.
This instrument displays a number of elements that hint at an effort to achieve a somewhat upscale product, including the fancy gold-plated lyre-style trapeze tailpiece, seven-ply body binding (echoed in five-ply at the fingerboard, headstock, and pickguard), Duncan-designed mini-humbucker, bone nut, and gold-plated Grover tuners. To top off the high-toned looks, a honey-blond natural finish displays the top’s tight, straight grain beautifully, and really harkens back to those big, blonde Gibson Super 400s that thumped out everything from swing to bop for countless jazz greats of the 1940s and ’50s. The LaSalle’s rosewood fretboard carries 20 jumbo frets—de rigueur for contemporary jazz guitars, it seems—and simple, but attractive mother-of-pearl block position markers. We also have the 111/16" nut width that has proven standard in this roundup (although the LaSalle’s string spacing within that breadth is a little tighter than that of the others here), and the two-piece floating rosewood bridge, stained black much like the bridge on the Ephiphone (although—bonus alert!—the accessory pocket in the LaSalle’s case carries a gold-plated tune-o-matic type bridge on a rosewood base, should you prefer a more contemporary alternative).
With more than 40 years experience supplying instruments for some of the world’s biggest import brands, Samick certainly knows how to put together a guitar. The LaSalle makes a fine example of what experienced Asian manufacturing coupled with clever U.S. design can achieve. It’s an extremely tight and tidy piece of work, with only a little 1/4" long black smudge beneath the clear finish on the back of the guitar to besmirch what could otherwise be called a flawless piece of work—relative to its price range, at least.
The LaSalle has good acoustic volume, and a pleasing, balanced voice that, if not quite a rival to your favorite flat-top, could at least pinch hit for it on occasions. Amped up, it’s big, bold and booming, with good sizzle in the highs and a firm, swift attack. It’s a little too aggressive in the lows at times, with an over-pronounced bass at the lower frets, and a propensity to howl with feedback on the E and A in the first two octaves. A tweak of the amp’s EQ helps to cure both minor ills, however, and reveals the most muscular big-box electric performance of the bunch.
That said, it’s a powerful, but not overly rich or elegant tone. Good stuff for the price range, even so, but not as harmonically rich or as warm as the smaller-bodied Stromberg, for example. Still, the LaSalle packs all the archetypal moves, and it could please many a hard-gigging jazzer.
It’s fun to see the Stromberg name back with us on archtops such as this Newport that are designed in the U.S., manufactured in Korea, and distributed by WD Music. The new line is intended not to reproduce vintage examples precisely, but to provide high-quality archtops at affordable prices. The original Strombergs—Swedish-born father Charles and his son, Elmer—built only around 650 of their big archtop guitars in Boston between the mid 1930s and 1955, but they established a major name in the jazz world during that period.
Of all the guitars in this roundup, the Newport is in all but a few minor ways the most thorough throwback to the glory days of the archtop. It’s the most austere of our participants, and strays from tradition only in that it has a shallower body—213/16" maximum—and a flatter C-shaped neck profile than you would find on many guitars from the 1930s or ’40s. Of course, the jumbo frets and mini-humbucker are other modern touches. In other ways—the non-cutaway body, the subtly pointed fingerboard end, the flatwound strings, the rich antique sunburst finish and simple trapeze tailpiece—it looks and feels much like a mid-priced, medium-bodied archtop straight out of the jazz age.
We have another parallel-braced top here (there aren’t many X-braced archtops to be had outside the solid-topped market), this time, one made of laminated spruce with laminated maple back and sides. This guitar has a 16" wide body, and a scale length of 243/4". Window dressing includes five-ply binding around the body top and back, fingerboard, and headstock, with a brighter-white version of the same around the pickguard. The traditional f-holes are lined with a single layer of the aged-white binding element. The maple neck has a spliced-in headstock section, and wears a rosewood fretboard with a 14" radius and a width of 111/16" at the nut.
Simple, but classy stuff—and all very nicely put together, too. No major glitches jump out at me—other than the fact the strings haven’t yet seated very well in the two-piece floating rosewood bridge, and the low E sometimes hops out of position when you pluck vigorously. This guitar also differs from the others in that its Kent Armstrong Slimbucker pickup is mounted on the pickguard, and the single volume control is a trim-pot type, neatly hidden under the lower-rear edge of the ’guard. Note that this is another pickup positioned right under the node at the two-octave harmonic.
Given its relatively shallow body, the Newport doesn’t have a whole lot of acoustic volume when played au naturel, but it does exhibit a surprisingly rich, fluid tone. It’s a pleasing acoustic voice that makes the guitar not only appealing for bedroom playing, but also offers the possibility of miking up for acoustic recording as a mellower alternative to your habitual strummer. Through the amp, it remains round, warm, and oboe-like, with a pleasing openness in the mids, and just enough crispness in the highs—even with the flatwound strings—to give it some bite. This little Stromberg easily taps a smooth, velvety pre-War jazz tone that is utterly addictive to play, and the smooth strings help with the authenticity of both feel and tone. Its low end is pretty loose—it’s another 243/4" like the Ibanez, so a soft bass is no surprise—but, overall, cutaway or no, it’s an authoritative and authentic performer.
Speaking of which, the lack of a cutaway didn’t prove a major detractor during testing. It’s still pretty easy to reach the 17th or 18th frets on the high E and B strings, and the sort of playing you’re likely to do on an instrument like this doesn’t usually require a whole lot more. It’s also worth noting that the Newport required just a little boost at the amp to compete volume-wise with the other three guitars, and that there’s a very slight ground-related hum in the guitar. Neither of these is a big problem.
Each of these instruments gives you the feel, and, to a great extent, the sound of the archetypal jazz box at a price that most hard-working musicians can stretch to. The Samick/Greg Bennett LaSalle JZ4 has the boldest voice of the bunch, and, with the
Epiphone Emperor Regent just behind it, takes us most deeply into the aura of the big acoustic-electric archtops of the genre’s glory days, echoing guitars from makers like Gibson, Epiphone, and possibly even D’Angelico. Each of these two, however, has an ever-so-slight clunkiness at the heart of its voice.
The austere, non-cutaway Stromberg Newport is the big surprise tonally—both when played acoustically and amplified—and it bags the smooth, mellow vintage jazz tone most effortlessly. The Ibanez Artcore AF105F-NT is an extremely affordable electric archtop that doesn’t offer much in acoustic performance, but is a very playable and totally decent sounding jazzer when amped up.
On the whole, these are all well built instruments for the price range, and they’re a lot of fun to play as alternatives to the electro-acoustic flat-top. Twenty years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find many self-respecting jazz players taking the stage with a Korean or Chinese instrument, but I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing each of these archtops in the hands of plenty of noteworthy up-and-coming artists.
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