Which Archtop Guitar Is Right For Me?

from J Hall Music (600 Hartbrook Dr. Hartland, WI 53029)

If you are a first time archtop buyer, or if you are unhappy with your present archtop guitar, it is worthy to review the topics below before making a choice.

The first consideration must address the question “How do you intend to use this guitar?” Will you use it on gigs or only at home? If you do intend to gig with this instrument, will you be playing relatively quiet cafe type gigs or will you be playing in a noisy club with noise competition from other band members? Failure to address this consideration is likely to result in purchase of a guitar that won’t perform in your situation.

The key parameter here has to do with the trade-off between acoustic tone and amplified feedback. Archtop guitars with carved construction typically have the best acoustic tone with the least tolerance to amplified feedback. With a small audience or in a cafe type gig, these instruments are truly the best. Both the player and the audience can hear the acoustic and amplified tone of the instrument.If you are a first time archtop buyer, or if you are unhappy with your present archtop guitar, it is worthy to review the topics below before making a choice.

The first consideration must address the question “How do you intend to use this guitar?” Will you use it on gigs or only at home? If you do intend to gig with this instrument, will you be playing relatively quiet cafe type gigs or will you be playing in a noisy club with noise competition from other band members? Failure to address this consideration is likely to result in purchase of a guitar that won’t perform in your situation.

Guitars with laminate bodies tend to have a subdued acoustic tone as compared with a carved instrument. The acoustic tone is warm and mellow and they exhibit more tolerance to amplified feedback. They will however begin to feedback at some point depending upon volume, amplifier placement and acoustics of the room.

If you want to have the best acoustic tone, you will want to get an instrument with a carved body (carved top and carved back). If you plan to use the instrument in a noisy environment where your audience will predominately hear the amplified tone, then an archtop with laminate (aka solid wood) construction will serve you best.

Bottom line is as follows. If you plan to play in noisy club settings or with musicians who create noise competition, and you plan to have only one guitar, then an archtop may not be the instrument of choice. In these cases you would be best served with a semi-hollow, 335 style instrument, an Eastman El Rey (currently my #1 axe- see picture on right), or even a solid body guitar. (For more information see “Laminated vs Solid vs Carved Body Archtops”.).

Bout Size: 18”, 17”, 16” or 15” … which is the best? Its important to pick a guitar which can be played comfortably. When contemplating the differences in sound between an 18”, 17”, 16” or 15’ archtop, first consider how comfortable it will be to play. Large body guitars with 18” and 17” lower bouts do have more bottom end sound and acoustic volume than the smaller 16” or 15” instruments. Yet the large body guitars can be difficult to play, especially if you play standing up with a guitar strap.

When I first starting playing jazz guitar I was convinced that I needed to have a Gibson L5. I mean after all, L5’s are the flagship of the jazz guitar community (or so I thought). Well I bought one from George Gruhn and I loved the tone. After awhile I started to avoid the instrument. I felt I was wrestling with it and when I stood up and played, I could not see the fingerboard. After having the luxury of operating a jazz guitar store, it became apparent that a small body archtop was best for me. It may be different for you and it is good to pick up different size guitars to determine how they feel. It doesn’t have to be an archtop. Try a Jumbo Acoustic and see how that feels. If its OK then perhaps a 17” or 18” archtop will be just right for you. If not, try a Dreadnought Acoustic or even a Concert Acoustic. My advice, figure out what size guitar is the most comfortable to play and then stick with that. The differences in tone between a 16” and a larger body guitar are meaningless if you can’t feel relaxed while you play.

Floating or Mounted Pickup? A floating type pickup sits above the top of the guitar and is typically attached to either the neck or the pickguard. Unlike mounted pickups, the top of the guitar is not cut-out to facilitate the pickup mounting. By not cutting the top, optimal acoustic tone is of a carved top is preserved. The difference in acoustic tone is subtle but suffice it to say that cutting the top and mounting a pickup does not improve the acoustic tone of a carved top instrument. Note that the majority of floating pickups are mini-humbuckers.

Mounted pickups are typically full sized, traditional humbucking pickups. Although the tone of the floating mini humbucker is fine, the full size humbucker is superior. If you are going to rely on the amplified tone of the instrument, then you would be best served by an archtop with a mounted, full size humbucking pickup.

Note that since the idea of a floating pickup is to preserve the acoustic tone of a fine carved top instrument, a floating pickup on a laminate guitar doesn’t provide any advantage from an acoustic performance perspective. Although these instruments are just fine with the floater, the difference in acoustic tone resulting from cutting the top and installing a mounted pickup is negligible.
Finally, there are a few floating pickups which are indeed full size humbuckers. Its easy to tell, they are the same physical size as a traditional mounted full sized humbucker.

Scale Length. The length of the scale determines the spacing between the frets. The longer the scale, the wider the spacing. The scale length also determines the tension on the strings, the longer the scale length, the more tension and more overtones produced by the string.

Scale Length is the vibrating length of the guitar string, from the nut to the bridge. It is exactly double the distance from the nut to the center of fret 12. Since floating bridges on jazz guitars can be easily placed out of position, the most accurate way to determine the correct scale length of an instrument is to double the distance as measured from the nut to fret 12 . (Correct placement of the floating bridge is another subject covered under the topic of “Intonation”.)
For many years there were (2) popular scale lengths for guitars. The 24 3/4 ” scale which is often called the Gibson Scale and the 25 1/2 ” scale which is often called the Fender Scale. Later, Bob Benedetto popularized the 25” scale length with his fine archtop guitars. There are other scale lengths used on classical guitars and gypsy jazz guitars. It isn’t that one is better than another, they are just different.

If you have small hands you may prefer the shorter scale length. This gives you an advantage when trying to make long stretches on the lower frets. The advantage could turn into a disadvantage on the higher frets since these fret spaces can get tight.
Conversely the longer scale provides wider spaces at the upper frets and if you can stretch or have large hands, you won’t have any problems with the lower fret spacings.

These differences are very subtle and in most cases, guitarists are comfortable with either. It is true that there is slightly more tension on the strings when fitted to a guitar with a longer scale length. This tends to make the string ring with more overtones … more of that “new guitar string” sound. Again this difference is very subtle.

Which should you choose? I say choose the one which lets you play most comfortably. This outweighs any of the other subtle differences.

Nut Width. This measurement defines the width of the playing surface at the nut. Properly measured it includes the width of the fingerboard plus the binding(s). It does not include additional nut width which may overhang the actual playing surface.

Jazz guitarists typically prefer a wider nut width as compared to blues or rock/roll players. Widths of 1 3/4 ” and 1 11/16” seem to be the most widely accepted, 1 5/8” is typically too narrow for many jazz players. Gypsy jazz guitars and classical guitars tend to have nut widths of 1 13/16” or more. Again it is important to consider the size of your hands and length of your fingers when choosing a guitar. Make sure you get one that is comfortable and lets you play at your very best.

Inlays, Bindings, Cosmetic Features. Guitarists seek instruments that sound great, but just as importantly they must look great too. Guitars are very much unlike violins where the most beat up, scratched instrument attracts favor while fancy, shining new instruments are immediately held in contempt by most players and conductors. At a recent seminar at our store, someone asked Bob Benedetto if it was true that the best guitars had multiple layer bindings and stunning fingerboard/headstock inlays. He said that the best sounding guitars have no inlays and no bindings. These adornments do nothing to improve the sound and/or playability of the instrument. If done properly it is hoped that they won’t get in the way and degrade the tone. It is important however to choose a guitar that makes you proud. That’s about all I can say on this one.

Nitrocellulose, Polyeurathane, Violin Finish. The finish on a guitar is important for several reasons. The type of finish used has an effect on the acoustic tone, ease of repair, and overall appearance of the instrument.

Nitrocellulose lacquer has been used for many years as the finish of choice for guitar makers. Clear when first applied, this finish darkens and even turns a bit golden over the years. The big advantage is that it is fairly easy to repair. Experienced luthiers can melt new nitro into a crack or ding and with a bit of buffing, make it look perfect. It also can be buffed to a thin shiny layer which does not overly constrain the wood from vibrating thus contributing to a great acoustic tone. With age, all nitro instruments develop “checks” or “lacquer checking”. Lacquer Check is a nice term for cracks in the lacquer. Its inevitable, its going to happen and checks can develop even in the first few months. Old guitars with nitro are covered with lacquer checks and collectors look for this effect to confirm originality of the finish. Sudden changes in temperature can cause nitro finishes to check. This is due to the rapid expansion of the underlying wood, which expands/contracts at a different rate than the lacquer finish. Note that most lacquer checking is found on spruce tops (which expand and contract more than maple) and in tight spots such as neck joints. Its always good to protect your instrument from rapid temperature changes. Don’t leave it in the back seat of your car during weather extremes. If the case of your guitar feels hot or cold … don’t open it. Just let the temperature stabilize over a few hours time. This is also important to remember when receiving a guitar via UPS or FedEx. Let the temperature stabilize before opening. This process can take several hours … be patient!

Polyeurathane finishes are used on many guitars and if applied properly, do not overly constrain the wood vibrations. The finish is clear and remains that way for years. The poly finish is harder than nitro and it is not as easy to scratch or mark. Under severe conditions this finish can crack and once it does, the repair is not easy. I have heard that finish cracks can be repaired by filling them with super glue and then sanding/buffing to a shine. I have never tried this. In any event, suffice it to say that if you have a poly finished guitar and it cracks, you may have difficulty getting it fixed. Many inexpensive guitars use poly finish with heavy application. It looks great. Very shiny. But over application deadens the sound of an otherwise great acoustic instrument.

Violin type finishes have the least effect on acoustic tone. These instruments always sound the best. Of course that is why it is used on the tiny violin instruments. Many builders would keep their mixture of shellac and spirits a secret. French polish is another term used for this type of finish. Note that most violin finishes are very soft and pick up scratches, marks and dings easily. Novus #2 fine scratch remover can be used to repair some surface scratches. Otherwise, blemishes can be removed with another application of shellac by an experienced violin repair shop.

Related subjects:
I am looking for an archtop guitar/amplifier that will give me that Wes Montgomery, (Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, etc. etc.) tone.
Laminated vs Solid vs Carved Archtop Construction.

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