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Favorite Archtops and their characteristics

alamon2alamon2 Calgary, Alberta, CanadaNew
I'd like to ask those of you who posess an archtop or have experience with them - which of the commonly available archtop guitars are your favorite(s).
The ones I've played seem to have a thinner nut (say 1 1/2") than what I have come to love on the gypsy guitars I've experienced (1 7/8").
Also the tone I'm looking for is more of that 'thumpy' sound I heard on Jethro Burns' 'Playing It Straight', Dudley Hill's sound on the Pearl Django recordings, or even Frank Vignolo's Benedetto.
Any help out there would be appreciated.
Al LaMonaca


  • BreezeBreeze New
    Posts: 12
    Of the modern bulders, Roger Borys in Vermont makes the best acoustic archtops I've played. Big, strong and full sounding. I think his 6 strings are 1&3/4 at the nut but I play a 7 string so don't quote me on that. He will build it how ever you want. In vintage guitars you have lots of options. I have a 1947 non-cut Gibson L5 that does the job. The old L7's are pretty consistent, loud and good sounding, and are a good bit cheaper than L5's. Vintage Epiphones can be amazing, I talked to Bucky Pizzarelli lately and he has a few vintage Epi's he's been using for recording. I know he has a Deluxe and I think a Broadway. He also has a 16" non-cut D'Angelico that both he and Roger Borys have told me is as good as it gets. If they didn't cost so much :^( Most vintage archtops are 1&11/16 to 1&3/4 at the nut. Check out, he seems to find a lot of nice ones, particularly old Epiphones. Good luck Al, Breeze.
    Somebody wake me when it's time to hit.
  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 339
    At the risk of committing an unsupportable generalization: I divide archtop voices into Gibson-like and Epiphone-like. Most Gibsons sound (to me at least) so strong in the midrange as to be a bit brassy--"gnashy" is the work I often use, especially when the sound is on the thin side. Personally, this is not my favorite sound, though lots of players clearly like it. The Epis I've tried (and the 1946 Broadway I own) tend to be a bit darker--I guess that means a stronger bottom and a rounder treble. They still cut fine, but they go "chunk" rather than "gnash." I also have a modern archtop built by Tom Crandall (redwood over walnut, X-braced) that has a touch of resophonic honk when pushed (not unlike a Sel-Mac petite bouche) but is quite sweet when fingerpicked.

    My Broadway measures 1-11/16" at the nut, and a 1945 Gibson L-7 used to ran somewhat wider--maybe 1-3/4". Both had distinctly non-electric neck profiles, quite comfy for biggish hands.
  • alamon2alamon2 Calgary, Alberta, CanadaNew
    Posts: 7
    :D Thanks so much for your responses Russell and Breeze. That's exactly the kind of feedback I was looking for.
    What does 'non cut' mean?
    Al LaMonaca
  • BreezeBreeze New
    Posts: 12
    Non-cut=no cutaway. While people hear different things, I don't agree with Russell's definition of the Gibson sound. The really good ones have a solid, woody sound. Of the old ones I've played, they are usually either quiet (some quite dead) or loud and full (think Dick McDonough, Carl Kress). I was lucky enough in the late 70's through the 90's to play lots of high quality archtops. I can't think of too many golden era Gibsons I would describe as being thin sounding. Super 400s seemed to be the most inconsitent, a lot of them were on the quiet side. That said, I played a first year (1934?) Super 400 for a few hours once; it was a superior sounding instrument. Roger Borys tells me that the bigger boxes are harder to control the sound on. He has built a few 19", Stromberg Master 400 sized guitars on request. But, like I said, people hear different things.
    Somebody wake me when it's time to hit.
  • drollingdrolling New
    Posts: 153
    Al, I've got a '59 Gibson ES-125 with a nice chunky neck and plenty of acoustic 'thump'. I string it up with heavy flatwounds and the P-90 pickup gives a wide range of tones suitable for rockabilly, western swing or straight-ahead jazz. These were 'student' models and are still cheaper than many of the new asian made jazz boxes. I much prefer the 125 to the Korean made Epiphone Emperor Regent that I traded in for it, although it, too, was a very good guitar for the money.
  • Bob HoloBob Holo Moderator
    Posts: 1,252
    Have a 1938 Epiphone Broadway. I use 13's on it - GHS White Bronze stings set fairly high - maybe 2.5mm. I could fit the bridge better to the top - but even as it sits, it's loud and full and phenomenally beautiful sounding. Epi made the Broadway in carved black walnut for several years around the end of the '30s and this is one of them.

    It has a really nice cutting voice for rhythm - just tops. The Black Walnut Epis are a unique beast. It's not much of a solo guitar if you're a gypsy style player as the pick guard gets in the way of the rest stroke on the high e string and it doesn't speak as well as a gypsy style guitar on the top two strings - it's more of a balanced tone. The thing about archtops is that you need to use a brutally stiff pick and find the sweet spot. if you try going back toward the bridge - those stiff strings will just resist your pick too much and you'll feel like you're cranking on it and getting nothing out. If you're using a flimsy pick or even a soft thick pick (like a Wegen) you will have a hard time of it. But if you use a really stiff pick (bone/horn...) and move up toward the neck - you'll be lovin' it. On my Epi, the sweet spot is about 1.5 inches to 2.0 inches from the base of the neck. if you stroke it there - man it just opens up and speaks. I love the sound of it - over any other guitar I have.

    However, again - it's not a gypsy guitar. So, you'll be in heaven if you're using it for rhythm. If you're trying to use it as a lead guitar, YMMV. If you've not played an archtop - spend some time with one (like... an hour or so) so that you get the feel. If you just pick one up and play a song on it... your reaction will be: "wow, that's a tough brute to play" keep playing, use the stiff pick... go up toward the neck... find the sweet spot. You'll know when you're there - trust me on that. IMVHO, Epiphone archtops are wonderful pre 1950 - medium bodied models I love include the Triumph, Broadway and Deluxe. Small bodied models I love include Spartan and Blackstone... and many early pro-model Epis (at one time - they were all 16" or smaller on the lower bout) Less expensive vintage archtops that are darned cool include Gretsch Synchromatics, Recoring King & several models of Kay (watch the necks on these though - they can be very clubby) Modern affordable archtops... well - there really is only one - the Eastman. For the money - those are GREAT boxes. I think Gryphon strings has an 810 on trade-in under $1700. I heard a guy play it a few months back and it was sweet - and what a steal.
    You get one chance to enjoy this day, but if you're doing it right, that's enough.
  • musicofanaticmusicofanatic Swingville✭✭✭
    Posts: 38
    Dunno where you're finding archtop gtrs with a nut width of 1 1/2" (?!?!?!?) unless you are refering to cheap modern imports. All of the archtops I love (from fifties Harmonys [NOT Kays] to pre-Philly Epiphones) are at least 1 11/16th", more often 1 13/16th", and commonly 1 3/4". The gtr heard on "Playing it Straight" is probably a 40's/50's Gibson L-5, but Homer Haynes, being one of THE BEST EVER rhythm guitarists could have played a Kellog's Corn Flakes box with a neck and strings, and made it sound like a million bucks. Interesting that someone should mention an archtop with a resophonic-type midrange honk. I owned (for a minute) an early D'Angelico (1933, basically a dead-solid copy of a 16" L-5) and it definatly had that reso honk when pushed. I reckon the main goal of luthiers of that era was "make it loud!".
    chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp...
  • BohemianBohemian State of Jefferson✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 303
    I would recommend finding and playing some of the new CHinese made Eastmans; you will be surprised, I was.

    Quality of built, tone and playability are outstanding. Much less than American counterparts.
  • Dave BrickerDave Bricker MiamiNew
    Posts: 17
    All good comments here, but I'd be careful not to generalize too much about archtops. I have a '38 Epi triumph that I love with flatwounds on it, but there was a time when they made a bazillion archtops and the quality of wood and workmanship really varied tremendously.

    Most of the hand-built modern archtops are very pricey, but your likely to find that most builders today are well-versed in the D'Angelico - D'Aquisto, Benedetto traditions and will take the time to carve and tune the guitar from the very best woods. If you can find a builder who isn't well-known yet, but makes excellent guitars, that may be your best bet. $2000 would probably be a rock bottom price, but it could be a real steal if you want a guitar to play and aren't worried about resale value and all that other stuff that has very little to do with making music.

    I've played old Gibsons that just sounded like crap and others that really had "mojo." As with any factory-built guitar, the range of wood quality runs from pretty good to excellent with a few exceptional samples. Sometimes, the pieces of wood just never harmonize. Other times, you get a magic marriage. Usually, you get "pretty good" guitars. The pros and cons of factory building were evident in the 30's and 40's, but at least there were real people putting things together and some of them were fine luthiers.

    Today, the CNC technology means that everything is cut to incredibly precise tolerances, but the instruments may be assembled by someone who was building circuit boards the week before. Modern factory builders often rely on the odds that good wood and a tight assembly will usually result in a guitar that's at least "pretty good." Still, if you look long and hard enough, you may find a really excellent CNC built guitar for under $1000. I see them on eBay all the time, and have heard great reviews of the Eastmans. I've got to say they've done a wonderful job with the Gitane Selmer copies in China so between the cheap labor and the CNC machines, there are some good things happening.

    My advice is don't get too hung up on brand names. Play a lot of archtops and play them as acoustic guitars. (If you want to play electric, get an ES-175 with a plywood top and it'll sound great once you plug it in.) Get familiar with the variety of sounds they produce, and then, if you hear that sound in an old Harmony or something that wasn't made to be high-end, grab it.

    Collectors have a lot of obstacles to oovercome because they're totally concerned about the condition and value of the guitar. If you find the ugly duckling that can really sing, you can focus on making music - which was what these things were intended for anyway.

    Just my $.02

    Dave Bricker
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