– by Richie Zellon
Most jazz guitarists brought up on the likes of Charlie Christian to Jim Hall have garnered an appreciation for a fine handcrafted jazz archtop. For the mainstream guitarist, the feel of sitting down and playing a full bodied instrument that emanates warm and lush harmonic tones, is next to none! Due to its strong presence in the history of the genre, the archtop has become associated with jazz while its counterpart, the solid body guitar, is a symbol of rock & pop music.
If you are new to the world of jazz guitar you might be wondering what differentiates an archtop from a solid body. As its name implies, the latter consists of a thin body and is exclusively designed to be amplified. Although there were earlier attempts, its first commercially successful design is attributed to Leo Fender in the late 1940’s. Two classic examples of present day solid body guitars are the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. The archtop on the other hand is a fully acoustic hollow body guitar with a violin-style arched back and top with 2 f- holes.
The first commercially known archtop design is credited to Orville Gibson who formed the Gibson Guitar Co. in 1902. In 1919 Gibson hired Lloyd Loar who designed the classic L5 model released shortly thereafter. Although sales were unsuccessful and Loar soon left the company, the L5 remains in production to this day. Subsequently other manufacturers such as Gretsch, Epiphone , Guild and Selmer (in Europe) as well as various independent luthiers, notably John D’Angelico and Jimmy D’Aquisto ,started designing archtops.
With the birth of Rock n’ Roll and electric solid body guitars throughout the 1950’s, the archtop guitar declined both in sales and popularity. In the 1990’s the archtop enjoyed a revival which introduced us to new makers such as Bennedetto, Montelione, Buscarino, Moll and others who redefined the instrument with their innovative designs.
In most of the high end archtops, the body is carved from a single block of solid wood. The common choice for the top is spruce while maple is traditionally employed on the back. The body on the more affordable models is often made from heat-pressed laminated wood or plywood. The advantage to these guitars is that they produce less feedback than a fully carved instrument when amplified. A brace either scalloped or in the shape of an x, is built into the body with the purpose of adding strength to the top as well as aiding in the distribution of the vibrations. This is crucial due to the fact that archtops usually feature medium to heavy gauge strings and the tension they exert would likely splinter a lighter top if it were not for the brace. Along with your choice of woods, many luthiers also claim that the bracing plays an important role in determining the tone of the guitar.
The body of an archtop can range in size anywhere from 15” to 18”. The 17” with a depth of 3” on the sides is considered the present standard. Although the larger body guitars have more bottom-end as well as acoustic volume, the trade off is that they can be uncomfortable to play standing up and when amplified are more susceptible to feedback.
In most archtops the bridge unlike conventional guitars is not permanently attached to the body. Traditionally carved from ebony, the “floating” bridge as it is known is held down by the pressure of the strings.
Regarding the neck, they have traditionally been made from hard curly maple wood although mahogany which is lighter and less susceptible to humidity is now also being used. Nowadays the scale length which determines the spacing between the frets, varies anywhere from 24 ½ to 25 ½ inches. The longer the scale length, the more tension as well as overtones produced by the string. As far as tone is concerned this can be good, however keep in mind that if you have small hands you will most likely find it the easier to play with a shorter scale length.
For amplification purposes archtops usually include a mounted single- coil pick-up, a mini-humbucker or a full sized humbucker pick-up carved into the body.
I would like to conclude this introduction to the jazz archtop guitar with an interview I conducted with Bill Moll, a leading luthier who will share some of his expertise on the subject.