History of Archtop Guitars
An archtop is a type of guitar where the top is slightly angled upward as opposed to being flat. For those that are fans of jazz, electric blues, and rockabilly you will have seen plenty of archtop guitars! They are known for having a richer tone and more volume which is why they are so popular among those genres. Here is a quick look at the history of the archtop guitar.
Why An Archtop?
If you pick up a solid body electric and strum some barre chords with no amplification it will be hard to hear, especially for an audience. The purpose of a hollow body is to allow for the string plucks to be heard at a greater distance. Long before electricity was invented musicians and instrument builders tried different methods to make acoustic instruments louder, sometimes by adding bowled backs or shaping and arching the tops outwards.
This addition of space allowed for more room for acoustic vibrations so instruments like violins and mandolins could be heard better. In 19th century America one of the main instruments used was the banjo which thanks to a resonant head was much louder than the guitar. Back then you couldn’t simply be a beginner guitar player, you had to know what you were doing. Between marching bands with brass and drums, orchestras, banjos, and pianos, the guitar had a hard time standing out!
But by the 1900’s a number of inventors would use this archtop process on guitars to give them more projection. Orville Gibson is often credited with the creation of the archtop which he also patented for the mandolin. However he was not the only one at the time that was trying to make guitars louder.
The History of The Archtop Guitar
Besides Gibson’s innovation other builders used floating bridges and convex shaped tops like A.H. Merrill and James Back. As always in music and technology there are many individuals trying to solve a problem so soon enough different companies were jumping on these hand carved tops to make their guitars look unique and sound louder and better.
These early models look much more bulbous than modern archtop guitars and were sought after once famous guitarists like Eddie Lang began playing a Gibson. Eddie was the Van Halen of the 1920’s and his guitar tone and style was copied by many future guitarists. This new guitar style not only had a unique look but it also delivered with a richer tone so it became even more popular.
Some creators used the more traditional guitar look with one sound hole, while other inventors based their archtop guitars on violins with their signature “f” holes (which have nothing to do with the F guitar chord). Builders like Oscar Schmidt and William Wilkanowski had been trained as violin makers so they simply transferred those skills and methods to fit the better selling guitar market of the era. Lloyd Loar left Gibson and went on to create the famous F-5 mandolin that was also known for its signature f holes.
These days the f holes are mostly the standard on many archtops, but to be clear the hole doesn’t really matter for the final sound. It is the extra amount of acoustic space that provides the volume and tone. As the 1930’s progressed more makers got into the archtop game like Epiphone, Harmony, and Stella. The cheaper models used pressed and laminated tops as opposed to solid carved wood.
The Electric Guitar Keeps the Archtop Popular
Besides increasing acoustic space, inventors were also electrifying the guitars with pickups and amplifiers, which was becoming popular with electric blues and harder rhythms. These new rocking styles were known for their higher gains and distorted sounds. The archtop guitar may have been harder to make, but it remained more popular with jazz, swing, and blues players that wanted a cleaner tone.
Of course the electrification also occurred on the archtops like the Gibson ES-150 in 1936, which made them even more popular. The mixture of the clear tone and ability to be heard amongst all other instruments made these styles highly sought after. Charlie Christian used this model to create a warm tone that easily stood out on records. And besides jazz greats, country stars like Mabel Carter liked the tone and sound projection of the archtop. If you are trying to learn how to play guitar, check these guitarists out!
By the 1950’s Gibson had perfected its electric semi-hollow body archtops with models like the ES-350 that Chuck Berry used for “Maybellene.” The guitar tone in that song though is much grittier. Other songs like “Hound Dog” by Elvis used an archtop in a much more rocking way than before. But even when used in a more rocking fashion, it still provided a mix of high-quality sound with the electric overdrive.
Eventually Gibson would perfect their archtop with a hollow cutaway body model known as the L5CES. Which was so popular that many modern electric archtops are based on this style and look. Some makers like Gretsch created similar styles that had more twangy vibes and were used among rockabilly artists like Eddie Cochran and even later by George Harrison.
Loss of Popularity and Revival
The archtop guitar never disappeared; it has always remained a popular instrument among jazz musicians. But during the 70’s and 80’s the electric solid body clearly took over. It was easier to make and cheaper so a better access point for most student guitarists. Plus the advent of hard rock and shred guitarists playing more than a simple pentatonic scale was not easy to do on a hollow or semi-hollow body archtop. And the clearer tone of the archtop made it less appealing for heavily distorted rock.
But there were still many examples of pop and rock players using archtops like Ted Nugent, Eric Clapton, Bono, Brian Setzer, basically most guitarists still use it when they want a particular sound. Modern electric archtops can cover a variety of genres and give you great acoustic qualities with clean amplification. They have seen a resurgence in years with more interest in jazz, fusion, and even blues styles of music.
If you are one of the guitarists that want to purchase and play an archtop there are a few pointers to keep in mind. Obviously they are going to be pricier guitars as the build is more complicated than a flat sound board. This can be mitigated with a laminated top, but keep in mind solid wood always sounds best. Archtops are also always going to be bigger and bulkier than small solid bodies so it will take some adjustments, but otherwise playing them is the same as all other guitars!
Thanks to their unique look and clear tones, archtop guitars are still popular over a century later. If you are going for an older and cleaner jazz, rockabilly, country, or blues they are great models to choose for your music. Or if you are simply looking to add another guitar to your collection, a quality archtop will be a worthy addition. Archtops are so ingrained in various musical genres that they will likely be popular for another 100 years!