SWEET AND SULTRY, MORE PURR THAN ROAR, the archtop acoustic is a flavor that relatively few contemporary pop and rock guitarists have sampled. If you were a serious, high-minded player in the ’20s, ’30s, and early ’40s, chances are you played an archtop acoustic rather than a flat-top, but the charms of these nuanced instruments have been rendered arcane by their scarcity over more recent years. While some musicians outside the jazz world have been rediscovering the warm, rich pleasures that a good archtop acoustic can offer, few understand the significant differences between these guitars and their otherwise similarly shaped flat-top cousins. Let’s see where these classic instruments came from, then we’ll probe beneath that eponymous arched top and see what’s going on inside.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Orville Gibson single-handedly invented the archtop guitar in the 1890s, working in his back-room shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, patterning it on existing archtop instruments such as the cello, mandocello, and violin. Several makers of flat-top guitars were already working in the U.S.—C.F. Martin and Washburn perhaps most notable among them—but these instruments were poor relations to the more popular mandolins, violins, and banjos, which retained their top-dog status through the first quarter of the following century. Throughout the 1930s, however, guitars were replacing banjos as a preferred rhythm instrument on the bandstand, thanks in part to Gibson’s development of pivotal models such as the Lloyd Loar-designed L-5 in 1922 and the massive Super 400 in 1934 (the latter’s 18"-wide body helping to further assault the tenor banjo in the volume wars). By this time, Gibson also faced significant rivals from the likes of Epiphone and Gretsch, which were soon to be joined by D’Angelico and, later, Guild, while companies such as Harmony and Kay dominated the lower end of the market.
It’s worth noting that up until this time, all archtop guitars of any quality were manufactured with solid tops, usually made from spruce that was carved into an arched shape. Parallel to the rise of the guitar itself, however, advances in pickups and amplification simultaneously helped to bring guitarists out of the rhythm section and into the spotlight, and to make the laborious building process of the solid-topped archtop somewhat redundant, for amplified purposes at least. Some manufacturers and players alike reasoned that if a guitar was mainly going to be heard through an amp, then the tonal nuances provided by a carved solid top were less important.
Guitars made with pressed-arch laminated tops—most notably Gibson’s groundbreaking ES-175 of 1949—may not have offered the tonal splendor of their solid-topped predecessors, but they performed extremely well as amplified instruments. Meanwhile, if you wanted a purely acoustic sound for rhythm work or solo performance, the flat-top guitar had advanced considerably by this time, and was perceived by many as being a louder and livelier instrument. Many jazz players still appreciated the top-shelf tones established by carved-top archtops such as the Gibson L-5 and Super 400, Epiphone Emperor, D’Angelico New Yorker, and the Stromberg Deluxe, but for most of the rest of the guitar world, “archtop” was synonymous with “electric” from the ’50s onward.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
While archtop and flat-top acoustic guitars do share some constructional techniques and material components, they are really very different instruments. The thing they have most in common are their fretted necks, and even those are angled very differently. As mentioned above, the top (a.k.a. soundboard, face, top plate) of a quality archtop acoustic is laboriously hand-carved into its arched shape, usually out of spruce, although cedar, redwood, and other light but strong woods are sometimes used. This requires not only the skill to undertake the carving itself, but the ability to “tap tune” the top in the process. In tap tuning a top, the luthier holds the top wood at a null (non resonant) position and gently taps it at different points along its surface, listening for sympathetic resonances that will enhance rather than hinder the guitar’s overall tone. And since no two pieces of spruce will sound exactly alike—or can be carved exactly alike—due to the differences in grain, density, rigidity, and so forth, the carving process balances the wood’s resonance as required, until the desired tap tone is achieved.
Rather than vibrating under the force of strings anchored within a bridge mounted to the top itself, as with a flat-top acoustic, the archtop receives its acoustic energy from strings mounted in a trapeze tailpiece and exerting their downward pressure on a “floating” bridge positioned toward the center of the guitar’s lower bout. (A floating bridge is one that is laid on the top and held in place by the strings’ downward pressure alone, not by any pins, screws, or glue.) These different arrangements quite clearly result in different vibration patterns and, hence, different structural requirements. X-bracing is far and away the most popular bracing technique for flat-top acoustics, and is also used in many archtops, where the braces have to be carved to fit the profile of the underside of the curved top. Many makers and players alike believe X-bracing to be better suited to solo, lead, and chord-melody playing, while parallel braces (tone bars) are advantageous to rhythm playing. In these cases, the X-brace is usually coupled to a slightly thicker top, while the parallel braces support a thinner top that offers a louder and livelier response to the strummed chord. To cite the granddaddy of archtops once again as an example, Gibson used X-bracing on most of its better archtops until 1939, switching to parallel bracing thereafter (although later exceptions do exist).
High-end archtops use solid woods for their backs and sides, too, figured maple being the most desirable variety. Traditionally, the back is also carved into an arch, although some are also made with flat backs. While the move to amplification made the use of a laminated top entirely acceptable in many great acoustic-electric archtop models, laminated-top archtops have never been praised for their properties as purely acoustic instruments. That’s not to say that something like an old Gibson ES-125, a new Ibanez Artcore, or a Samick LaSalle can’t provide a decent miked acoustic tone in a pinch—an archtop of this nature, laminated top and all, might be exactly what your track needs on some occasions. But the full depth and nuance of an acoustic archtop is best exhibited by guitars with solid, carved-arch tops, and ideally solid-wood back and sides as well.
TONE AND PERFORMANCE
A good archtop should exhibit warmth and fatness in the notes in both the high and low frequencies, with a woody depth and richness that is round and even, yet still punchy enough to provide good definition. It’s a tone that is quite different from that of a quality flat-top acoustic—not better, or worse, but purely different—and is far less familiar to most ears today, too. It’s a cousin to the amplified archtop tone that most of us recognize from jazz clubs and classic recordings alike, but the miked tone of a top-grade acoustic archtop displays added breadth and dimension in proportions similar to what is lost when, for example, you DI a flat-top from its under-saddle piezo pickup only, rather than also miking it to capture all those airy, organic tonal subtleties. As such, when makers and players want solid-top archtops to carry pickups for use with traditional guitar amplifiers, they usually equip them with floating units mounted at the end of the fretboard (the so-called Johnny Smith pickup), on the pickguard, or on a thin rail clamped to the strings behind the bridge (as with many vintage DeArmond units), so as not to impede the top’s vibration by cutting a hole into it to anchor a pickup.
We might think of archtops of this gradeas a thing of the past, but in fact the highend, hand-carved archtop acoustic guitar is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with several skilled luthiers turning out examples that can compete with the best of anything made in the 1920s and ’30s. James D’Aquisto, who was widely regarded as the successor to John D’Angelico, made some of the world’s most highly prized archtops up until his death in 1995. He has been survived by a raft of talented makers, including Steven Andersen, Mark Campellone, Bill Collings, Linda Manzer, John Monteleone, and—best known among them in this arena—Robert Benedetto. A genuine carved-top instrument from any of these craftspeople will cost many thousands of dollars, as would a professionalgrade violin or cello intended for classical performance. Meanwhile, Gibson’s only purely acoustic archtop is the Custom L-7C, made in Bozeman, Montana. If you’re tempted to taste the tones of a solid-topped jazz box, but your finances are looking more cigar box, you can still occasionally pick up a B- or C-list vintage archtop for surprisingly reasonable money. Many old Vega, Harmony, and Kay archtops of the ’30s and ’40s were made with carved spruce tops, and can still be found in the $500 ballpark, sometimes even in playable condition.