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N4640W 09-13-2021 03:30 AM

Vs flat-top sound unamplified
I've never heard an unamplified arch top guitar that sounded as good as a flat-top. Were arch-tops designed to be played amplified? The ‘f’ holes don’t seem to move much air. The arch seems to limit movement of the soundboard. They appeared to be very popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Don’t intend to offend anyone but am I missing something here? Other than aesthetics, what’s the attraction? Some are very beautiful. The plucking physics and dynamics of fingerstyle and plectrums are different than a horsehair bow. Haven’t seen much modern new build enthusiasm. Is this a cult,,,,, like Skyline Chile?

N4640W 09-13-2021 03:31 AM

BTW, I love Skyline Chile.:D

Silly Moustache 09-13-2021 05:57 AM

Hi, regarding the archtop - it was developed round the turn of the century as a second "string" to the recreation of the mandolin family by the Gibson company.

Whilst Martin was slowly and conservatively enlarging their guitar offerings by improving the internal bracing to allow for wider guitars, gibson was taking their cue from the violin by making carved tops, initially on mandolins but from about 1902 guitars as well.

Like their mandolins Gibson made both round hole and f hole options, and the round hole offered a rounder warmer tone whilst the F hole version, like in violins, offered the maximum projection.

It was actually the invention of radio and recording technology that was the impetus for a period of rapid string instrument development as they led to (live) audiences becoming ever larger while things like electrification - pickups and microphones were still very much in development.

Until the mid '30s Martin was still building acoustic guitars for the solo or string band market whilst the Gibson archtops were fast replacing the tenor banjo in the rhythm sections of jazz/dance bands as swing replaced New Orleans music.
Martin tried with their OM in 1929, but they could not project like a Gibson L5.

Remember that bass was not the target! That was handled by the double bass and piano.
It was the chorded rhythm chunk chunk
The Gibson archtop kind of reached its peak in the early 1920s with the L-5 but many other American and European brands copied them as swing spread across the world.

This shows the purpose of the archtop in swing :

This is my friend and former jazz teacher showing his stuff. Note that the archtop makes an excellent foil for brass instruments

BTW -0 it should also be noted that as the archtop took over from the tenor (4 string) banjo, those guys changing to guitar only made four string chords and so wanted their guitars to have long necks with thin fretboards as they rarely used all six strings.
This became an elemental aspect of the jazz guitar but was copied by Martin who changed the typical design from 12 frets to 14 frets and reduced the fretboard width from a 1 & 7/8" nut width to 1 & 11/16" - in order to play jazz ! (which no-one does!)and we are still suffering from that.

I don't pretend to be able to play archtop guitar in their proper style, but these are mine.

The cheap mass produced Harmony wold serve well in a dance band - being loud if not beautiful tonally.
the Gibson is the "real" sound of the acoustic archtop and has both power and projection, and the Eastman is so open that it almost sounds like a flat top.

Last word? Electrics! When the magnetic pick-up became readily available, they were used on archtops before solid guitars came out.

However, many have fallen into the trap of trying to screw a pick up on the top of an acoustic archtop. It doesn't work because the top is about resonance so they fight each other.

Jazz style guitars with pickups usually have a large "fencepost" under the top to kill its natural resonance in order for the pick up(s) to operate. The correct way to electrify an acoustic archtop - if you have to - is to mount a "floating" pick up to the end of the fretboard not touching the top.
I hope that helps .

BTW here's some archtops played the way they sound best:

Richard Mott 09-13-2021 06:40 AM

Yes, archtops are meant to be played unamplified, and the best of them sound (at least to those of us who love them) better than all but the very best flattops. Archtops typically have more controlled bass, fewer single-note resonances, respond much more quickly (allowing more precise rhythm), and tend to have better overall balance, and as a result often make better 12-key instruments. All these are generalizations of course, but the best D’Aquistos, Monteleones, Gilchrists, Manzers, etc., have truly limitless possibilities. They spend their string energy quicker, which leads to more “push” in the sound, but can also challenge the player. In this way, archtops sit at the opposite end of the spectrum of some of the modern flattops, with their deep bass, seemingly endless sustain, and enveloping fog of harmonics. To fully appreciate them requires something of a paradigm shift in the player or listener, especially those who have built their playing style and aesthetics around rich sustain and G and D resonances, used in DADGAD tunings.

iim7V7IM7 09-13-2021 07:53 AM

A couple thoughts:

Andy has described the early history of the archtop well but there is a bit more after that. These instruments (and Gypsy guitars in Europe) were used in a band context and were competing for volume and projection to cut through the mix.

In the 1940s archtops began to move to become more electric instruments. First with floating DeArmond pickups and later with built in pickups (Charlie Christian, P-90s and Humbuckers). In the 1950s because they were primarily electric instruments, they added lower cost laminate constructed instruments. Most jazz from the 1940s to today is made using archtops plugged in the electric paradigm.

The idea of a soloist played acoustic archtop began to return in the 1960s and 1970s with luthiers like Jimmy D’Aquisto and later Bob Benedetto who both stretched the acoustic potential of these instruments. In the 1980s and 1990s a builders like Steve Andersen, John Buscarino, Steve Grimes, Ken Parker and Tom Ribbecke started to create acoustic archtops that differed from the Lloyd Loar L5s of the 1930s. This has evolved over the decades with many archtop luthiers today.

In the 1990s Eastman Strings, a Chinese violin maker began to build lower cost, Bob Benedetto derivative factory made archtops using Bob’s methods shown in his book “Making of an Archtop Guitar”.

Here is an example of a modern acoustic archtop by luthier Bill Comins. This is my guitar and it was designed to exhibit enhanced bass response and a bit more overtones like a flat top with the fast attack and string-to-string clarity of an archtop. I describe it as 75% archtop and 25% flattop. Here is a demo by my friend jazz guitarist Jimmy Bruno playing a solo version of “Alice in Wonderland”.

Here is a more traditional modern, x-braced archtop by luthier Bryant Trenier. A different timbre which a bit more sustain and complexity but less strident than a vintage instrument.

RLetson 09-13-2021 10:48 AM

The posts above give the history that accounts for the range of guitar designs and uses, so all I can add is this:

"Sounds as good as" needs a context: sounds as good for what? If it's a bluegrass band, most players find a D-18 optimal. If it's a classic-swing/dance big band, something in the Gibson/Epiphone archtop tradition fits. If it's a Hot Club combo, Selmer-styles produce the required timbre. If it's slack-key or Celtoid fingerstyle, something in the Goodall-Lowden-Froggy Bottom line. And so on.

And as always, You Never Can Tell. I've played swing on a flat-top acoustic--and slack-key on a Michael Dunn Selmeroid, and country/folk on a National M-1 tricone--so the right guitar and the right technique can get some of the desired effects. But the optimal guitar for each style remains the conventional one, unless you want to be constantly adjusting your technique and settling for an almost-right sound.

The attack-decay-timbre-volume-projection profile of the acoustic archtop fits the needs of a swing band--and "modern" archtop designs have stretched the contexts in which that profile can fit comfortably.

Richard Mott 09-13-2021 11:08 AM

Here’s a 1933 Gibson L-5 that made me question everything I’d ever heard about early archtops being built mainly to be heard above a horn section while chunking out rhythm chords. This guitar sounds sublime for both chords and melody work and has warmth, clarity, and a pronounced natural reverb. I asked the folks at Retrofret who posted this video whether any EQ or other modifications were added, and reportedly it was just two mics, though I am guessing it may have been a pretty “live” room:

ssstewart 09-13-2021 11:25 AM

Andy said it best imo with his summation of the early years...I believe even Ken Parker would concur. i will only add that..Lloyd Loar was making Works of Art for Gibson until his departure when Gibson moved more towards mass production...profit over passion...just my opinion :)

David Eastwood 09-13-2021 11:47 AM

What a great thread.

Thanks to all who’ve contributed their knowledge and experience.

The AGF shines, once again.

Tricky Fish 09-13-2021 03:48 PM

It’s a really interesting question.

I think archtops are the most beautiful looking guitars and I have always wanted to own one. I want to like their tone, however, everytime I’ve played one, the archtop “voice” doesn’t work for me.

My ears prefer prefer flat-tops, both steel and nylon. This may be a reflection of the music that i play and my voice.

Richard Mott 09-13-2021 03:59 PM

Tricky Fish, the reaction you describe is pretty common, I think. Certainly I loved the arching and the violin f-holes from a visual perspective, but the sound left me nonplussed. Then at some point that changed, kind like when John Coltrane started to sound non-dissonant to me. Part of that type of transition involves letting go of previously held conception, and becoming open to a new aesthetic. Same with some abstract painting and modern verse.

N4640W 09-13-2021 11:42 PM

Wow gentlemen, what an eye opening and interesting discourse. Especially the videos. That was a hell of an education. As someone before mentioned AGF is a rare and unique forum. As usual, have to put the instrument and sound in context….CONTEXT! A lot of expertise and experience and talent here.
Thank you.

Silly Moustache 09-14-2021 02:28 AM


Originally Posted by Richard Mott (Post 6808400)
Here’s a 1933 Gibson L-5 that made me question everything I’d ever heard about early archtops being built mainly to be heard above a horn section while chunking out rhythm chords. This guitar sounds sublime for both chords and melody work and has warmth, clarity, and a pronounced natural reverb. I asked the folks at Retrofret who posted this video whether any EQ or other modifications were added, and reportedly it was just two mics, though I am guessing it may have been a pretty “live” room:

Thank you Richard for giving us this video of an L-5 payed beautifully.
It surely makes the point of a solo acoustic archtop.

However, let's listen to how htwy sounded back in the day :

Can't bring to mind other names we should listen to at present. Gotta go. Back soon.

RJVB 09-14-2021 03:31 AM

The problem with those old recordings is that the recording technique wasn't exactly of the greatest quality, idem for the durability of the final product. As a result we get a rather distorted picture of what music sounded like in the day.
I have "Troubador" archtop, a cheapish instrument from the 40s or 50s by the Kirschnek company, beech or maple laminates with a single parallel brace under the bridge that has come loose entirely on the bass side and a warped neck ... when I play it I have the impression I'm listening to an old recording :)

Rob Mackillop has an excellent site up with lots of "unplugged" recordings of a number of instruments that sound very nice to my ears, including this Elferink for instance:

An informative related thread on the other guitar forum I frequent (I hope it's ok here to post links to "competing" forums):
The opposite mechanics of classical and archtop

And just because every time I come back to the (IMHO) superior sound you get with composite strings:

RLetson 09-14-2021 11:01 AM

It's possible to learn how to hear through the signal chain of early recordings--especially the "electrical process" that came in in the late 1920s--and mentally recreate the original sound. By 1938, when the Ryerson side was cut, audio quality was far better than the old play-to-the-horn recordings, and in it I can hear a characteristic "doink" that I associate with 17-inch Gibsons.

There would seem to have been as much guitar-to-guitar variety in the 30s and 40s as there is now,and the videos sampled here (or demo'd by, say, Jonathan Stout) are evidence that sweeter-voiced archtops were out there pretty much from the beginning. But I suspect that among big-band players there was some selection pressure favoring the very loud, relatively dry, midrange-honk voice that we hear on the records.

Then there's the context of many of the solos on which we base our sense of what a vintage archtop sounds like: the guitar steps out for a chorus but for the rest of the tune is in its rhythm role, which means the player was going to be using his orchestral axe. (For example, Al Casey on the small-group "Buck Jumpin'.") An interesting exercise would be to go through the solo/duo recordings (Kress, McDonough, Van Eps) to see whether those players chose guitars with sweeter voices or just stayed with their big-group instruments. I suspect they're pretty much all using their regular gigging instruments.

Eddie Lang's Gibson (a pre-Advanced L5) has a bit of that constricted voice I associate with a big-band guitar--but he still manages to get it to sing. (His hands must have been really strong.) Matt Munisteri plays a similar L5 on a promo for his lesson series here:

The modern recording tech lets us hear what Eddie's guitar might have sounded like without the bandpass constriction.

On edit: Carl Kress's "Sutton Mutton" shows off what a 30s archtop could sound like, even through the recording tech of the time:

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