From Mabel Carter to Derek Bailey

Although oft-associated with jazz, the archtop guitar has of course been used in a multitude of genres since the 1920s.

Eddie Lang was the first great virtuoso to embrace the Gibson L5, and we are lucky that many of his recordings survive. Take in his April Kisses – wonderful Italian-rooted popular jazz from 1927:

And with the great chord player, Carl Kress, the acoustic archtop guitar rarely sounded so lively:

Lang became known as The Father of Jazz Guitar, though his style also embraced classical music, as in this magnificent take on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C#m, Op.3 No.2:

I think it unfortunate that the acoustic archtop guitar soon turned away from classical music, possibly due to the rise of Segovia’s nylon-strung classical guitar. Yet Lang belonged to an Italian tradition which had been using steel strings in classical music for many decades. I personally feel it’s about time the acoustic archtop guitar embraced classical music once more.

There is not enough room here to trace the subsequent history of the archtop guitar in jazz, and many other websites already cover the subject, though I will return to it later.

In 1928, The Carter Family recorded Wildwood Flower, with Mabel Carter playing a Gibson L5 as large as herself, using her unique technique for accompaniment as well as a wonderful solo. Here she is using C major chord position, with a capo at the seventh fret, allowing her to play in G Major with the  band. The archtop gave her solos a cutting quality in a large ensemble.

The archtop seemed to dip out of country music for a few decades, that is until the revival of Old Time styles, and alt-country hipsters brought it back to the fore. It had been sorely missed in that genre. Check out Dave Rawlings playing and talking about his discovery of the archtop acoustic by Epiphone – their cheapest model. The reference to the guitar starts about 7’45” in:


Alternate tunings can work well on the acoustic archtop. Here I run through a few pieces from my Mel Bay DADGAD books:


There are few musical genres in which the archtop guitar could not make a positive contribution. Even the world of free improv has welcomed the archtop. Derek Bailey has ploughed his own furrow in improvised music on the archtop guitar, and is included here. Note the reversed neck pickup:

Back to jazz. The luthier, John Monteleone created four special guitars, one for each of the seasons. Guitarist-composer, Anthony Wilson, composed a piece specifically to be played on these guitars. There is a DVD available, where we can listen to four exquisite acoustic archtops, being played by four of the greatest jazz virtuosos around today. The video below has the same musicians, the same music, but different – but still very special – acoustic archtop guitars. Enjoy!

6 thoughts on “From Mabel Carter to Derek Bailey”

  1. What a great post! And some really nice insights into the early use of the Italian archtops. We’re working on some transcriptions of those early pieces by Eddie Lang, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough etc. Always nice to see other people who dig it too! Nice playing by the way!


  2. Nice ! I have a few composed studies by Derek that were published in magazine interviews decades ago….Don’t know what to make of them as I’m not a musician.


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