Thursday, October 30, 2008


What do you picture in your mind when you see the word “guitar?” It’s always interesting to me to think about these ur-images: do you see a flat-top acoustic like a Martin? Do you see a Stratocaster? The possible shapes have indeed proliferated since the invention of the solid body electric, since the contours of that instrument don’t determine the sound it produces. Some folks may picture a classical guitar, or even a shiny old metal National. Whatever may come into my mind as a picture (which might depend on the context), the guitar I most like to have in my hands is the archtop.

The development of the archtop guitar is entwined with the history of jazz music, & particularly the transition from the early days of hot jazz, where the banjo ruled, to the days of big band & swing, in which the archtop guitar brought a more mellow sound to the music; this was the origin of archtops being referred to as “the jazzbox.” But the archtop guitar was used outside of jazz—Mother Maybelle Carter played an archtop—a beautiful Gibson L-5 acoustic. Archtops are also used by blues players—both Buddy Guy
& Howling Wolf played Kay archtops, for instance; & for some time the brilliant (& musically unclassifiable) Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence played a Kay archtop, too.

The archtop guitar actually dates back before the jazz era; it was developed in the 1890s by Orville Gibson (yes, that Gibson) whose company was already making archtop mandolins. While Gibson’s original instruments featured the carved soundbox & the cello-like tailpiece, it didn’t have the violin (or cello) style “f” holes now commonly associated with archtops—the tailpiece & the “f” holes have led to archtops also being referred to as “cello guitars.” They’re also referred to as “plectrum guitars,” which is confusing, since “plectrum guitar” also refers to a four stringed instrument typically tuned like a plectrum banjo. The ca
rved soundbox of early archtops was later replaced by a lamination process on a number of models; carved archtops are still made, however.

Gibson’s archtops were large, & thus projected a bigger sound than the flat-top guitars of the day. They also were fitted with steel strings to produce more volume. Of course, steel strings are common on most guitars these days (other than classical guitars, of course), but in the 19th century, gut strings were more common, & simply couldn’t produce as much volume as steel.

Historically, the guitar has had the reputation of being a quiet instrument—for most of its existence since the 16th century, the guitar has only been suited for small ensembles with other relatively quiet string instruments. Of course, this has also meant that the guitar has long been an ideal instrument for vocal accompaniment, since the singer doesn’t have to strain to be heard. Obviously, the electromagnetic pick-up introduced in the 1930s changed that, but earlier developments also addressed the problem—not only the development of the archtop, but also the invention of the resonator guitar in the 1920s.

& speaking of the 1920s, in 1922 Lloyd Loar was a designer hired by Gibson in an attempt to boost their sales. Loar’s answer was the Gibson L-5, the first archtop featuring f-holes, & in time to become the rhythm guitar of the big band era. The pi
c at the top of this post (from Wikipedia Commons) shows the L-5 used by Eddie Lang, an early master of jazz guitar who played with (among others) Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, & Bing Crosby (back in the days when “der Bingle” could swing, before he became the pipe-smoking avuncular crooner).

An interesting observation about the sound-producing characteristics is made on this page. The writer states: "In the early days of radio, the hertz spectrum reproduction was very limited, lots of mids, very little low or high end. These guitar
s were designed to rule the middle ground, and they do. When playing a heavy rhythm style, they have no equal in the midrange department. " This, of course, also would help account for the popularity of the archtop in the days when radio was the main medium for disseminating music. In addition, because the archtop design is inherently strong & stable, the guitars can be readily fitted with heavy gauge strings, also enhancing the volume.

A number of well-known guitarists, both in jazz & other genres have been associated with the L-5; Wes Montgomery & Lee Rittenour are two renowned jazz guitarists who played L-5’s; Elvis Presley’s 1950s RCA recordings feature some red-hot work on an L-5 by Scotty Moore; more recently, Clapton has recorded using one of these guitars; & the L-5 appears on David Grisman & Martin Taylor’s wonderful Tone Poems II album.
Taylor plays an L-5 on the duo’s rendition of “It Had to Be You” (on which Grisman triples on L-5 mandolin, L-5 mandola, & K-5 mandocello!), & again on their cover of “Please.” The three-volume Tone Poems series is highly recommended, tho I’d have to say Tone Poems II is my own favorite.

Gibson didn’t hold a monopoly on archtops, however. Soon enough other companies came out with their own designs, among them D’Angelico (& later D’Aquisto, who bought the D’Angelico business),Gretsch, Epiphone (back in the days before it was bought out by Gibson to use as their low-end mark), Selmer, Kay, Guild, Harmony, etc.

When the electromagnetic pick-up was invente
d, it was put to use by the Benny Goodman band’s great Charlie Christian on a Gibson ES-150. This really brought the guitar to a new prominence, & was the beginning of the jazz guitar sound we hear today. There was a problem with amplifying hollow-body archtops, however, especially at high volumes—feedback. While the solid body electric was one response to this, the solid bodies don’t have the warm tone associated with archtops. In 1958 Gibson tried to address this problem by creating the ES-335, a “semi-hollowbody electric.” These instruments do have a soundbox, though it’s not as deep as that in a hollowbody archtop. They also contain a solid wood block that runs thru the center of the sound box in an attempt to absorb reflected sound. As an aside—can you believe ES-335s went for $267.50 in 1958; these days the re-issues are going for $2K to $3K. While this design has become popular & imitated by a number of makers, there still is some problem with feedback. Apparently B.B. King used to stuff towels into the f-holes of his 335 to eliminate feedback; later King simply had Gibson design him a custom model without f-holes. Semi-hollowbody archtops are popular in jazz, rock & blues, & are also associated with classic rockabilly.Bottom pic by Eberle—yours truly with my old archtop Harmony Master—definitely not a Gibson, but still well-loved—taken in our beach cottage at Manzanita a few week back— & this guitar player is a very long road trip back of any players mentioned in this post....

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