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What makes a good Gypsy guitar?

MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
One of the perks of this job is that I get to play lots of Gypsy guitars...all kinds of instruments from the most inexpensive Asian copies to vintage Selmers. In doing so, I've learned a lot about the wide range of tone and playability that exists in these instruments. Ultimately, "good" is a subjective thing, since any given player may love a guitar that I hate or vice versa. But in general, I think there are some basic rules you can use when looking for a Gypsy guitar. The following are my thoughts and experiences:

Four characteristics a Gypsy guitar must have:

1) Bright, trebly tone

This is a hard one for people coming from the flatop, classical, or archtop world. Most people are accustomed to looking for a balanced, full sounding guitar with a very present bass response. But really what makes a Gypsy guitar useful is it's ability to spit out lead lines loud and clear. This usually comes at the expense of balance and fullness of tone. But in the right hands, these guitars sound great. Basically, a Gypsy guitar is really a mandolin with six strings.

One of the biggest mistakes newbies make is that they buy a guitar that looks like a Selmer but sounds like a flatop. They still have their old sense of aesthetics, and avoid the trebly sound of most Gypsy guitars. Most eventually figure this out and trade to something with more punch.

2) Relatively Dry Sound

When you first play a "wet" or reverby sounding guitar, it can sound really amazing. The reverby quality of "wet" guitars gives them a big, full sound with a lot of character. However, what sounds good alone, doesn't sound so great in a jam setting. Once you start playing with someone else those reverby qualities work against you. They make the guitar sound small and nasal. Most of the best Selmers, Favinos, and Duponts I've played were very dry, or maybe slightly "wet," but never that reverby sounding. A dry sounding guitar really cuts and sounds full when playing in a group. But can sound a little dull beware!

3) Lack of annoying overtones

Some Gypsy guitars will give you a whole orchestra's worth of overtones every time you hit a note. Again, this is something that sounds kind of cool when you play the guitar by itself. But is ultimately counterproductive and annoying when playing in a group. I like to hear a really strong fundamental when I hit a drives me nuts if there's a bunch of overtones and sympathetic strings ringing. Sometimes people ask me about palm guess is that these people have a guitar that produces these sorts of overtones.

4) A hollow bass sound

As mentioned before, you really don't want a big fat low end on a Gypsy guitar. It takes away from the guitars main job, which is producing crystal clear lead lines. But Gypsy guitars can have some bottom. The really good Gypsy guitars have what I call a "hollow" bass sound. It's almost like you're hearing a subharmonic without much of the fundamental. Not sure, but whatever a spectral analysis might reveal, it sounds sort of "hollow" to me. But in a good way. It gives the feel of a bass note without really taking up too much sonic space.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I'd like to hear what other people think. I only discussed tonal characteristics here. At some point we should discuss playability as well.

Paulius Volkovas


  • aa New York City✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 800
    it's got to have a cutting sound, but also a huge sweet spot. it's hard to find a guitar with both. for me, the big difference between these guitars and flattops is that most flattops have almost no sweet spot; you can't dig into them without encountering a choke (probably from the x bracing). and this is true, to a much less extent, for most of the gypsy guitars i've played. occasionally, if the weather's right, i've picked up guitars that let you dig and have a razor tone. i've always wondered how it would feel to play guitar with zero bracing...maybe someone can build a carbon selmac ? ?
    Learn how to play Gypsy guitar:
  • Bob HoloBob Holo Moderator
    Posts: 1,252
    Agreed on all points and would add "responsiveness" to the pack.

    Most flat-tops have a fairly even attack - moderate - good headroom... sure there are some old Gibson J45's out there and Prewar Martins with scalloped bracing that have crazy-big responsiveness, but they're few and far between. A good Gypsy Jazz guitar is lightly built and almost jumps when you chop a chord on it. The tops and backs are considerably thinner (on the order of 30% thinner) than most flat-tops. Flamenco guitars have a similar responsiveness - good ones anyway.

    By the way, I have done a histogram on several GJ guitars and flattops and archtops but I can't find it right now. Suffice it to say that GJ guitars have a fairly pronounced bump around 2,200 to 2,400hz. Coincidentally - this corresponds to the frequency range most subjectively sensitive to human hearing... hence the "cutting" tone... most people assume that the human ear is a linear device... it's not. The design of GJ guitars sacrifices overtones for fundamentals - specifically in the range most sensitive to hearing... not a bad strategy for an instrument that wants to get heard ;)

    The bass histogram was not very revealing but mostly that is because the facilities/setup required to accurately measure bass is very specialized and I just didn't take the time and effort do some form of anechoic or groundplane measurement. The wavelengths of low frequencies get so long from cycle to cycle that you wind up measuring more of your room's bass response than your guitar's unless you jump through some hoops... maybe I will someday but it's a lot of work and I can probably tell you what you're hearing without jumping through those hoops. My gut tells me that it's either bumped up around 200hz or hollowed out somewhere around 400hz. Subjectively, either of those or a combination of them could give a hollowe'd out / boxy bass tone... (not scientific... just experience listening to speakers before during and after the design process)

    Great post Michael! Very informative.
    You get one chance to enjoy this day, but if you're doing it right, that's enough.
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