Past Flattops: The Magic of Archtop Guitars

Past Flattops: The Magic of Archtop Guitars

From the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar  | By SEAN MCGOWAN

Although lengthy favored by jazz and swing guitarists, the archtop is at present having fun with a revival amongst roots and Americana musicians, flatpickers, and singer-songwriters trying to develop their textural palettes. Archtops additionally take pleasure in a fan base of passionate fans and collectors, who hunt down classic examples in addition to up to date designs by fashionable luthiers. 

Violin-Impressed Design

Many various kinds of guitars fall below the archtop designation, however whether or not absolutely or semi- acoustic, and with or with out electronics, they share distinguishing traits. An archtop’s soundboard is carved from a single hunk of wooden (normally composed of two items which might be book-matched and joined collectively), with the highest arched upward away from the again and sides, as on a violin. The again is commonly carved in an identical method, however some archtops have flat backs. Archtop soundboards are sometimes constructed of spruce; the backs and sides are maple or, much less generally, mahogany, walnut, or different tonewoods. An acoustic archtop borrows different options from the violin household, together with opposite-facing f-holes (although some archtops have extra conventional soundholes as an alternative), a floating bridge, and a rear-mounted tailpiece.

The design of the fashionable archtop is mostly attributed to the luthier Orville Gibson. In 1898, Gibson utilized for a patent for a mandolin and guitar design, supposed to make the most of the aforementioned options to boost “energy and high quality of tone.” Early Gibson archtops, like Gibson’s L-1 and Type O, featured spherical or oval soundholes. The yr 1923 noticed the discharge of Gibson’s first Grasp Line L-5 Skilled Mannequin, which might develop into the benchmark for all archtop makers. Whereas the L-5 shared some traits with earlier fashions, like a 16-inch decrease bout and an adjustable bridge (a function first seen on Gibson mandolins in 1921), it sported some daring new parts: a pair of parallel tone bars for soundboard bracing, f-holes, and an elevated fingerboard. It needs to be famous that whereas the L-5 is commonly credited to Gibson’s “acoustic engineer,” Lloyd Loar, who signed the labels of the earliest examples, his position within the instrument’s design and development has in actual fact been known as into query as advertising and marketing hyperbole. 

The L-5 was nearly an afterthought in a quartet of Gibson choices that additionally included the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, and the Ok-5 mandocello. And regardless of its highly effective tone and pristine look, the guitar wasn’t a right away success. Few musicians may afford an L-5, which initially price $275, plus about $40 for a case (round $4,700 in at present’s cash for each). Examine that to the worth of a Ford Mannequin T ($265 in 1924)—or the truth that in the course of the Nice Melancholy many laborers earned only a greenback for a day’s work. However thanks largely to jazz star Eddie Lang, the L-5 developed a formidable popularity. On the identical time, in 1928, the nation pioneer Maybelle Carter used earnings from her first recordings to buy the brand-new L-5 that she performed for the remainder of her profession. 

Earlier than the arrival of amplification, nation and jazz guitarists wanted acoustic devices that may very well be heard as clearly as banjos, fiddles, horns, and drums. In 1934, Gibson launched the Tremendous 400 mannequin, with its 18-inch decrease bout. All through the ’30s, different makers, competing for the eye of big-band guitarists, additionally produced bigger and louder archtops—Epiphone’s 18-1/2-inch Emperor being a main instance. The Boston-based luthier Elmer Stromberg went even greater with the gorgeous Grasp 400, which featured a 19-inch decrease bout and a single diagonal prime brace. Legendary jazz guitarist Freddie Inexperienced favored Strombergs all through his lengthy tenure with the Rely Basie Orchestra.

Made in New York

John D’Angelico, who opened a store in New York Metropolis in 1932, was one of the vital influential particular person luthiers related to the archtop. His New Yorker and Excel fashions are among the many most sought-after examples by gamers and collectors alike. D’Angelico, typically with the assistance of his assistant, Vincent “Jimmy” DiSerio, constructed over 1,000 devices—all by hand. D’Angelico’s archtop guitars, most of them customized orders, grew to become the devices of alternative for New York’s jazz and studio elite, equivalent to Johnny Smith, Chuck Wayne, and Billy Bauer. 

In 1952, D’Angelico took on a younger apprentice named James D’Aquisto, who would develop into a extremely influential luthier in his personal proper. Cristian Mirabella, an progressive luthier and restoration specialist based mostly in Saint James, New York, additionally had the chance to apprentice with D’Aquisto and shares this attitude: “The circulate of the archtop is so interesting—the seemingly tender, but daring and robust traces that outline the instrument’s form and contours. It’s the most versatile of all types of guitar development and is actually probably the most difficult to construct. It forces you to have an intimate relationship with the wooden, as a result of it’s your data of easy methods to carve that piece of wooden that’s going to convey out the sound. Its skills are as various because the gamers who select to choose it up.” 

An Archtop Resurgence

The acoustic archtop’s stature started to decrease within the Nineteen Fifties, as guitarists in rising numbers turned to electrical devices. However the Nineties witnessed a resurgence of the archtop’s recognition with gamers, collectors, and luthiers, a lot of whom have been impressed by luthier Robert Benedetto’s landmark e-book, Making an Archtop Guitar. In 1995, famous collector Scott Chinery, impressed by the beautiful end on his D’Aquisto Centura, commissioned the “Blue Guitar” mission, by which a stellar group of conventional and fashionable luthiers constructed blue archtops. This mission was documented in Ken Vose’s e-book Blue Guitar and serves as inspiration for a lot of of at present’s builders and their purchasers. 

The archtop continues to take pleasure in important developments within the fingers of proficient guitarists and builders alike. Luthiers equivalent to John Monteleone, Linda Manzer, Ken Parker, Tom Ribbecke, Tim Frick, Erich Solomon, Otto D’Ambrosio, Tad Brown, Maegen Wells, Tyler Wells (no relation), and others are providing breathtaking improvements whereas bridging the hole between archtop and flattop development. 

Totally acoustic archtop guitars have lengthy been rarities amongst manufacturing fashions. However manufacturers like Eastman and The Loar provide a variety of superb examples at compelling costs. On the different finish of the worth spectrum, and inbuilt very restricted numbers, Collings affords hand-carved archtops just like the AT 16 and AT 17, with 16- and 17-inch decrease bouts, respectively. And Waterloo’s current WL-AT mannequin (reviewed in the September/October 2019 issue) takes its cue from finances Nineteen Thirties Recording King fashions. 

Up to date acoustic guitarists of all types are having fun with handmade, classic, and manufacturing archtops of their quest for distinctive tone, fashion, and general vibe. Tyler Wells, the luthier behind LHT Guitars, shares this attitude: “I believe that archtops are gaining popularity with individuals who won’t have historically gravitated towards them, equivalent to fingerstyle guitarists and singer-songwriters. I’m an electrical participant, however I’m keen on constructing acoustic devices; the archtop is the plain intersection of these two worlds. When you mix the evolution of the instrument with the best way guitar music has branched out and cross-pollinated between genres, I believe extra gamers than ever would discover that the voice of the fashionable archtop actually appeals to them.”

This text initially appeared within the March/April 2020 subject of Acoustic Guitar journal.

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