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10. Archtops

The quest for volume in the early twentieth century produced many interesting instruments, some more successful than others. Jazz guitarists in particular suffered as a result of the acoustic guitar’s inability to compete. Not only did they have to deal with the high volume of massed saxes and brass instruments, they also aspired to equality as soloists - an acoustic instrument which produces barely enough volume when strummed energetically obviously can’t hope to cut it when playing melodic lines, still less so if musical dynamics and articulation are desired.

Orville Gibson noticed that instruments with a curved top, such as violins, cellos and Gibson’s own mandolins were generally louder than flat-top acoustic guitars. This observation led to the birth of the archtop acoustic guitar. The project was successful to some extent – archtop acoustics are relatively loud – but there are other reasons for the guitar’s inherent quietness which remained unaddressed at that time.

A permanent solution to the volume problem was only a few years away though. Early jazz players did adopt the archtop widely, but they were also among the first to embrace amplification. The electrified archtop has become the iconic mainstream jazz instrument, with most reckoning Gibson’s ‘ES’ and ‘L’ series to represent the pinnacle of achievement, at least for the more conservative player. These days, few purely acoustic archtops are made, so strictly speaking most archtops belong to the semi-acoustic class, though a recent trend has seen hybrid designs from various makers incorporating both magnetic and piezo pickups, which give a choice of electric and acoustic tones.

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