In retrospect, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the differences between archtop guitars. They all looked cool, and in the right hands sounded cool too. I bought a number of guitars over the years, eventually selling them for others, but slowly I discovered what made some guitars the right guitars for me. Hopefully the following short overview will help some unwary readers.
Not all archtops are acoustic instruments.
Archtops sometimes have a pickup (sometimes two) or not. That pickup might be “floating” (attached to either neck or the pick guard) just above the soundboard next to the fingerboard. On the other hand, sometimes the pickup is sunk into the soundboard, which has been cut open to accommodate it. These inset pickups tend to diminish and render dull the acoustic sound of the instrument. The result might be a wonderful sound when amplified, though lacking in strength and variety of sound when played unplugged.
One such guitar is the Gibson 175, as played by Joe Pass and many other jazz guitarists. Joe did in fact record acoustically, though few claim it a great success (his playing, on the other hand, was magnificent).
The floating pickup can be a good indicator that the guitar was originally conceived as an acoustic instrument – but be aware, that is not always the case…
The acoustic guitar could have a carved soundboard, or one that is pressed into an arched shape. Some regard the latter as a lesser instrument, yet many fine acoustic archtops have been made this way, including my D’Aquisto New Yorker. The acoustic sound is very beautiful, though perhaps lacking a little in projection, compared to a carved top. However, if you will eventually be playing your acoustic archtop with a floating pickup through an amp or PA, the pressed top is less prone to feedback, which might be a consideration to some. But, for sure, the pressed-top archtop has a much stronger sound and variety of colour than one with in-set pickups.
For a pure acoustic sound, you would want a carved-top instrument, with or without a floating pickup. Of course, the extra work involved means you will pay extra, but that might well be worth it. I’m perfectly happy with my D’Aquisto, but that hasn’t stopped me lusting after a top-level luthier-carved archtop! [EDIT: Update. I have now sold my D’Aquisto, using the money to help buy a magnificent, all-acoustic archtop by Frans Elferink. See blog post HERE.]
There are many excellent electric archtops available at low price points by the likes of Eastman, Epiphone and Ibanez. By comparison acoustic archtops (with or without a floating pickup) are less well served.
Modern acoustic archtops (with or without a floating pickup) at low price points tend not to be carved, or even pressed, sometimes having plywood tops. In this instance, if you really want an acoustic instrument with a decent soundboard, you would be best served by going vintage. Hofner guitars frequently appear on eBay, though some will require attention from a repair shop. Don’t worry about cracks in the body, unless they are large, as cracks don’t really affect the sound of the instrument. Do worry about the fingerboard being warped, or frets needing replaced. But you can still be lucky and get a really good acoustic archtop at a low price.
One standout guitar comes from a company called The Loar (after Lloyd Loar, a Gibson employee who pretty much invented what we now recognise as the archtop jazz guitar) – especially their LH-700-VS. I used to have one, and you can hear it in some of my videos. The reason I sold it is that the back of the neck is a distinct V-shape, which is fine if you play with your thumb over the top all of the time – something I do quite often, but mostly have my thumb behind the neck, where the V just digs in to the thumb pad. For me it was a slightly unpleasant feeling, but many people love it, so it’s worth giving one a try if you can. After all, it has a fully carved soundboard, looks gorgeous, sounds OK, and comes at a great price.
Eastman and Peerless come to the fore again, making some decent to fine acoustic archtops. I have played, and recommend, the Eastman AR810 – it comes with or without a cutaway. The Eastman AR605 is also a fully-carved archtop worth consideration. Both Eastmans come with a floating pickup.
The Eastman AR804-CE has an oval sound hole, with a slightly more flattop-meets-archtop sound.
Peerless make the beautiful Martin Taylor models, and a number of carved archtops of note, including The Imperial and Contessa.
Aria guitars of Japan have been making really excellent guitars licensed from the D’Aquisto company – one of the greatest names in archtop guitars. Highly recommended – I have one! Mine is the New Yorker, and although a bit heavier than I would like, makes a very attractive acoustic sound. It comes with a floating pickup.
There are many other brands in this price range, roughly 1 to 2.5 thousand (Dollars, Euros, Pounds), including D’Angelico, Guild, Godin, and others.
Well, we can all dream, and some can make that dream a reality. I’m the online equivalent of a window shopper. In Europe, the top makers are Slaman and Elferink, both in The Netherlands, Sonntag in Germany, Mike Vanden in Scotland, and NK Forster in England. There are many other great archtop makers in Europe – just search online for them.
There are, of course, many brilliant American luthiers specialising in archtop guitars. Some that spring to my mind are Comins, Koentopp, Dale Unger – actually the list is long, so HERE’s a link to a list someone else made.
Many early archtops were constructed with parallel bars glued to the underside of the soundboard, whereas today most are x-braced – two bars crossing each other under the soundboard. The difference is that the earlier type gave a very mid-to-high tonal range, whereas the x-brace provides a more even response from bass to treble. This might influence your decision if you are trying to recreate the sound of the early instruments.
This website exists to promote the acoustic archtop, and if that’s what you are after make sure it does not have a pickup, or if it has one at all let it be a floating pickup. The top could be carved or pressed. Some old acoustic archtops were designed for rhythm playing, matched with thick strings and a high action. Some modern acoustic archtops could have lighter strings and a medium action. Make sure you know what type it is you want before shelling out money.