When it comes to guitars, there are countless varieties to choose from, each with its own unique sound and characteristics. Among these, the archtop guitar stands out as an iconic instrument with a rich history and distinctive tonal qualities.
In this article, we will delve into the world of archtop guitars, exploring their origin, construction, differences from flat tops, popularity in jazz music, and some popular models worth considering.
Whether you’re a seasoned guitarist or a music enthusiast, understanding the archtop guitar will deepen your appreciation for this classic instrument.
A Brief History of the Archtop Guitar
The archtop guitar’s history traces back to the early 20th century when jazz orchestras sought a transition from banjos to guitars. Regular flattop guitars of the time weren’t loud enough to be heard over the ensemble.
Orville Gibson, the inventor of the archtop guitar, believed he could enhance the guitar’s volume by curving the top, similar to a violin’s design. He used wood to carve the top and increased the guitar’s size to produce a more resonant sound.
Over time, archtop guitars have different transformations, including the addition of cutaways to allow guitarists to reach higher frets.
With the emergence of jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, the archtop guitar gained immense popularity.
Christian’s influence, in particular, solidified the archtop as a staple in jazz music, and its distinct tone became highly associated with the genre.
You can learn more about guitar history in our article The History of the Guitar.
Construction of an Archtop Guitar
Archtop guitars typically feature three-a-side pegheads and necks with a width resembling that of a steel-string acoustic rather than an electric guitar. High-end models often have “block” or “trapezoid” position markers for added elegance.
The top or belly of the archtop guitar can be crafted by either carving a solid block of wood or heat-pressing it using solid top or laminated construction techniques.
The belly usually has two f-holes, which are partially covered by a raised scratch plate to avoid dampening the vibration. The design of the arching profile is often done in an ad hoc fashion, and the f-holes and arching are reminiscent of the violin family, from which they were originally derived.
The choice of wood for the resonant top of archtop guitars includes Sitka spruce, European spruce, Engelmann spruce, Adirondack spruce (Red spruce), or Western red cedar. Additionally, archtop guitars often feature Curly maple or Quilted maple backs.
These guitars can be quite large, with the width of the lower bout sometimes approaching 19 inches (47 cm).
While the original acoustic archtop guitars were designed for use with relatively heavy strings to enhance volume, modern jazz guitarists still prefer heavier strings (0.012″ gauge or heavier) for tonal reasons and often opt for flatwound strings. Thinline archtops, on the other hand, typically use standard electric guitar strings.
Why Archtop Guitars Have Soundposts?
A soundpost, commonly found in string instruments like violins and mandolins, serves to transfer vibrations within the instrument. In the case of archtop guitars, the soundpost serves both as structural support and as a means to transfer sound from the top plate to the backplate.
Soundposts also play a role in altering the sound produced by the instrument by influencing the vibrational modes of the plates, contributing to the guitar’s overall tonal qualities.
Differences Between Archtops and Flat Tops Guitars
The term “archtop” contains both acoustic and electric archtop guitars, which are sometimes referred to as semi-acoustic guitars due to their similar uses. The most apparent distinction lies in their physical appearance and sound.
Archtop guitars feature a curved body and f-shaped soundholes, typically located on the treble and bass sides of the instrument. They offer better vibrations and tension relief.
Conversely, flat-top guitars are standard acoustic guitars with a central soundhole and internal bracing.
In terms of tone, flat tops produce a shimmering and bright resonance, while archtops deliver a mellower, rounder sound akin to a solid-body electric guitar. This characteristic makes archtops well-suited for playing blues and jazz music.
Regarding volume, archtops are generally louder than flat tops. Consequently, many archtop guitars are used as electric instruments, with their sound amplified through an amplifier.
If you want to know more about differences between archtops and flat tops guitars, you can check out our article Archtops vs. Flat Tops Guitars: What’s the Difference
What Makes Archtop Guitars Popular for Jazz Music?
Although jazz music can be played on various guitar types, the archtop guitar became synonymous with jazz due to its historical association with iconic jazz guitarists and its unique tonal qualities.
Unlike flat tops, archtops’ sound isn’t hindered by braces or bridges, allowing for enhanced volume and a distinctive punchy sound.
The curved body design further contributes to better projection and a warm, resonant tone, making it a perfect fit for the nuances of jazz music.
Jazz enthusiasts often opt for archtop or semi-hollow body guitars because of their warmer, jazzier sound, which perfectly complements the genre’s expressive nature.
Popular Archtop Guitars
If you’re considering getting your hands on an archtop guitar, here are some popular models worth exploring:
- D’Angelico Premier EXL-1 Electric Guitar: D’Angelico Guitars has a long-standing reputation for producing top-quality instruments. The Premier EXL-1 is a hollow-body electric guitar with a single cutaway, a rosewood fretboard, and a maple neck. Despite having a single pickup, it still delivers a punchy and warm sound ideal for jazz.
- Gretsch G100CE Acoustic-Electric Guitar: Gretsch, a renowned guitar-producing company, offers the G100CE, an electric, hollow-body archtop guitar with vintage style and excellent playability. Its mellow tone makes it a perfect choice for jazz enthusiasts.
- Eastman AR503CE Electric Archtop Guitar: Known for their quality handmade guitars, Eastman offers the AR503CE, an electric archtop guitar with a single-cutaway design and a deep, resonant, and articulate sound perfect for jazz lovers.
The archtop guitar holds a special place in the world of music, particularly in the realm of jazz. Its unique construction, warm and resonant tone, and historical significance have made it a favorite among musicians and enthusiasts alike.
Whether you’re a jazz enthusiast or just appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted instrument, the archtop guitar is a timeless classic that continues to captivate and inspire generations of musicians.