Archtop Acoustic Fever

schoolie

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I've got an acute case. Huge Dave Rawlings fan..Looking through Reverb, I see a lot of catalog archtops, Kay and Harmony mostly, in my price range. Not being able to examine these guitars in person, I fear wasting my money on something with serious issues...My ideal archtop is an old Epiphone, I think, but those are a little spendy for me. Are there any bargain guitars that I should be looking for, with decent materials and construction? Is the Godin 5th Avenue a good choice. I've seen those used in the $500-600 range. Thanks!
 

Old Smokey

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Rawlings' guitar is something special for sure. IIRC, he said he has played other Epi Olympics from the era and none of them had the same magic. I think the lower bout on those is something like 13".

If you're interested, I can sell you my Framus 5/51 Studio. PM me.
 

RomanS

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Look for a Loar LH 300, 600, or 700 - those are very close copies of a late 1920s Gibson L5, solid carved top, great sound; they usually need a bit of fretwork and a setup, but that's money well spent, the tone is worth it. Oh yeah, and being faithful to the originals they are modelled on, they have HUGE necks, thick and wide, with a soft V profile.

I've also got some experience with the Godin 5th Ave - I own the twin P90/cutaway model, a friend has the single P90/no cutaway model, and I've played the all-acoustic version. Very well made guitars, with a weird neck shape (flat fretboard radius, rather thin, with a kind of flat D profile - kinda like a shrunk-down classical guitar neck). BUT: Those are NOT great as purely acoustic archtops - very cardboard-boxy sounding, not a lot of volume; unplugged, my Loar LH 300 totally blows away my Godin. Plugged-in, the 5th Ave sounds great, it keeps a lot of "acoustic" qualities, even through an amp.

Whatever you get, DON'T get one of those Epiphone Masterbilt acoustic archtops from a few years ago. Those sound terrible, super-thin, no volume; which doesn't come as a surprise, since the pressed top has almost no arch to it. They sound kinda like those super-cheap floating bridge budget flattops from the late 60s and 70s.
I think Epi just tried to cash in on Dave Rawlings' popularity with those, but most guys figured out quickly how bad they are - you can still find NOS ones in stores, even though they were discontinued quite a while ago.

So, unless you can find something affordable vintage (Kalamazoo, Regal, SS Stewart, Kay, Harmony) - which will definitely some work - a Loar is pretty much your only choice, the next level up from those are Eastmans - but purely acoustic ones are rare, and they sound a lot more "modern" (less mid-range focused) than Dave Rawlings' vintage Epi.
 

bottlenecker

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Regal, kay, harmony can all sound really good for not much money, but you absolutely have to evaluate the individual instrument. Either find shops that have them, or deal with buying/selling/buying online until you get a good one.
Honestly, the Loars are looking good to me right now.
 

schoolie

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Excellent advice. Thank you! I had been looking at the Loars (or the The Loars:) but don't find many available at the moment. I think I'll wait until I can find one of the Loar LH models.
 

Flaneur

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If you have time, look for something with age. My '43 harmony Cremona isn't very loud but has wonderfully woody tone.
IMG_20190319_143601673_HDR.jpg
IMG_20171213_202305841.jpg
IMG_20171213_174147141.jpg
 

schoolie

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If you have time, look for something with age. My '43 harmony Cremona isn't very loud but has wonderfully woody tone.

Beautiful guitar, Flaneur! If I see one pop up locally, I will definitely take a look. Thanks I like the idea of buying used, so no trees need to perish for my addiction;)
 

sloppychops

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I'll second RomanS' recommendation of the Loar LH-300, if you can find a used one and check it out in person. I lucked out with mine, which I bought from a seller on FB Marketplace for $185.

I've seen a couple used LH-309s (same guitar, but with a neck pickup) at Music Go Round, but they did not impress at all. For awhile, the Music Go Round near me routinely had used Loars, so if there's one near you check their website.

I couldn't find any new LH-300s online, and I think they may have discontinued them. They're not even on Loar's website anymore. The next step up is the LH600, which gets you basically the same guitar but with solid back and sides. They look to be going for $1500 to $1700 new.

I wouldn't rule out the Epiphone Masterbuilt models. I have the round sound hole Zenith model and it has decent volume and a unique tone.
 

Old Smokey

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If you go for vintage Harmony, etc. Look for one with an adjustable truss rod. We take them for granted nowadays, but a lot of the old ones didn't have them and 60 years later they are in need of a neck reset.
 

Freeman Keller

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Schoolie, first of all I think it is good to define your terms. Your post title says "archtop acoustic" - to me that is a very specific guitar. First and foremost it is an acoustic guitar - optimized for play and sound without amplification. It might have a pickup but if it does it is designed to have minimum impact on the acoustic sound - normally the pickup floats off the end of the neck and does not touch the top.

The top is almost always a carved single piece of wood - usually spruce. The arching and carving is designed to optimize the tops vibration. Most of the time the carving, at least the final voicing, is done by hand.

Acoustic archtops date back to the Loyd Lloar era at Gibson and include guitar such as the L5 and all the following carved tops. A few have round or oval holes, most have f-holes. Typical guitars start around 16 inch across the lower bout and go up to 18. Size really does matter when you are playing in a big jazz band.

Almost by definition those guitars are expensive. There is just a heck of a lot of hand labor that goes into their build. Yes you can cnc the top but the best ones were done by the great makers, D'Angelico, D'Aquisto, Benedetto, et al and includes Epiphone.

The other variety of archtop guitar is the laminated pressed tops found on the Gibson ES series and most of the copies. In general these are electric guitars and were designed to be plugged in. They can be played unplugged, of course, but they are not optimized for this - the tops don't vibrate like a carved piece of spruce, they tend to have heavier braces, the pickups are screwed to the tops. These guitars are much easier and cheaper to mass produce - one you have tooled up to form the tops you can turn out a lot of them. While these guitars do have arched tops I prefer to call them "hollow bodied electrics" to differentiate with the carved acoustic ones.

There are a lot of guitars in that latter group ranging from the classic Guilds and Ibanez jazz guitars to a lot of modern ones. They should be easier to find and more reasonably priced - you just need too play them to find out. I put the Godin 5th Avenue in that group - the one that crossed my bench was a very nice guitar but it was not a true acoustic

IMG_4603.JPG


IMG_4604.JPG


The P90 and pots screwed to the top tells me that this was intended more for plugging in than not.

I've built both kinds and consider them different styles of guitars for different purposes. Here is my electric hollow body and my carved acoustic

IMG_7411.JPG


The sounds are similar - both are punchy with good note separation, short decay, biased towards the fundamental. The acoustic is remarkably loud and it probably has the most head room of any guitar in my collection. It is a very different sound from a flat top, I find myself playing different music on it.

So, short story, if you want an electric hollowbody there are lots of choices and some fairly reasonable. If you truly want an acoustic archtop the choices are limited and will tend to be expensive. Be sure to play before you buy.
 

schoolie

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Wow, those are beautiful guitars, Freeman! Thank you very much for the information..I am looking for a true acoustic archtop, without a pickup. Maybe I can sell a few off to fund the purchase. Have you ever had one of the new Loar LH series guitars on the bench?
 

zombywoof

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I have never owned a Gibson carved top and back plate f-hole archop but did own an Epiphone Triumph Regent.

That said, though I do have a thing for Gibson round soundhole archtops and at present own a 1920 L3. As noted above these guitars were engineering marvels. Tops were not only radiused for sound and stability but prior to the appearance Ted McHugh's adjustable truss rod and bridge around 1922 to line everything up perfectly. Interestingly before around 1908 or 1909 Gibson went with fixed saddle bridges on their L series archtops rather than the floating bridge and tailpiece.

If I were looking for a really nice carved top plate archtop which would not break the bank though, the Kay K60 or K62 Television model and Harmony Cremona as pictured above would be very high on the list. While I would give an edge to the Kay, it is a lot harder to find as they were only produced 1938-1939 while the Cremona was available from the mid-1930s into the mid-1950s.

Anyway, here be the Gibson L3




Wacky celluloid pin tailpiece



Headstock

 

Freeman Keller

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Wow, those are beautiful guitars, Freeman! Thank you very much for the information..I am looking for a true acoustic archtop, without a pickup. Maybe I can sell a few off to fund the purchase. Have you ever had one of the new Loar LH series guitars on the bench?
Thank you. I have not seen or played a Loar. They are probably about the only real option for a new hand carved archtop, Eastman might have a couple of models, a few others, but they are going to be hard to find. The old ones have all the issues of an old guitar, however one thing I do not hear of being a problem with the old ones is neck angle. They all have dovetail joints but I just don't hear of them needing resets like flat tops do.

New domestic hand made archtops are just frightfully expensive, but having just built the one I understand that. I have no idea how many hours I put into the carving and I cheated and used a pressed back. Anyway, good luck with your search. If you are ever in central Washington drop by and you can play mine.
 

zombywoof

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Schoolie, first of all I think it is good to define your terms. Your post title says "archtop acoustic" - to me that is a very specific guitar. First and foremost it is an acoustic guitar - optimized for play and sound without amplification. It might have a pickup but if it does it is designed to have minimum impact on the acoustic sound - normally the pickup floats off the end of the neck and does not touch the top.

The top is almost always a carved single piece of wood - usually spruce. The arching and carving is designed to optimize the tops vibration. Most of the time the carving, at least the final voicing, is done by hand.

Acoustic archtops date back to the Loyd Lloar era at Gibson and include guitar such as the L5 and all the following carved tops. A few have round or oval holes, most have f-holes. Typical guitars start around 16 inch across the lower bout and go up to 18. Size really does matter when you are playing in a big jazz band.

Almost by definition those guitars are expensive. There is just a heck of a lot of hand labor that goes into their build. Yes you can cnc the top but the best ones were done by the great makers, D'Angelico, D'Aquisto, Benedetto, et al and includes Epiphone.

The other variety of archtop guitar is the laminated pressed tops found on the Gibson ES series and most of the copies. In general these are electric guitars and were designed to be plugged in. They can be played unplugged, of course, but they are not optimized for this - the tops don't vibrate like a carved piece of spruce, they tend to have heavier braces, the pickups are screwed to the tops. These guitars are much easier and cheaper to mass produce - one you have tooled up to form the tops you can turn out a lot of them. While these guitars do have arched tops I prefer to call them "hollow bodied electrics" to differentiate with the carved acoustic ones.

There are a lot of guitars in that latter group ranging from the classic Guilds and Ibanez jazz guitars to a lot of modern ones. They should be easier to find and more reasonably priced - you just need too play them to find out. I put the Godin 5th Avenue in that group - the one that crossed my bench was a very nice guitar but it was not a true acoustic

View attachment 986635

View attachment 986636

The P90 and pots screwed to the top tells me that this was intended more for plugging in than not.

I've built both kinds and consider them different styles of guitars for different purposes. Here is my electric hollow body and my carved acoustic

View attachment 986637

The sounds are similar - both are punchy with good note separation, short decay, biased towards the fundamental. The acoustic is remarkably loud and it probably has the most head room of any guitar in my collection. It is a very different sound from a flat top, I find myself playing different music on it.

So, short story, if you want an electric hollowbody there are lots of choices and some fairly reasonable. If you truly want an acoustic archtop the choices are limited and will tend to be expensive. Be sure to play before you buy.

Those are truly some wonderous looking archtops. When I lived in Kanas we had Jim Triggs (who was one of the early Gibson Custom Shop guys) building archtops and F style mandolins out there. My thought with regard to his instruments is the same I have about yours - I have a long way to go to rise above my advanced hacker status to even think about deserving something like this.
 

loopfinding

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I find the old epiphones to sound really good, but the necks are too unmanageable for me. They’re gigantic and uncomfortable/clunky.

Me, I’m on a quest for a guild A series. They generally don’t sound as good as an L-5 or L-7 but the neck feel is incredible, much better than a Gibson. They also slip under the radar a lot - I’ve seen vintage a-150s or a-350s go well below 2k.
 
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schmee

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To me if you gotta have an archtop acoustic it HAS to be a solid wood top. Otherwise it sounds like cardboard. AA's are not loud guitars usually anyway, the the plywood top just kills that as well.
Most every Kay or Harmony I've tried has sounded like dog doo. BUT, If you get a quite old one, or high end one like Flanuer's in post 6 with a solid wood top, it is likely an exception that will sound good.

The Godin was tempting to me in the past but the neck shape is the worst case scenario for me personally... "weird neck shape ....flat fretboard radius, rather thin, with a kind of flat D profile "
There are 3 things I dislike in a neck:
Thin neck
With a flat on the back
Flat fretboards............
 

philosofriend

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Archtops vary tremendously depending on what the designer was trying to accomplish. This is true of the all acoustic ones and even more true of ones with pickups. My advice is for you to play as many as you can get your hands on. You will figure out what you really want so you will recognize what you are looking for when it shows up at the right price.
I still miss a Gibson Johnny Smith I used to have. On the other hand, I have played dozens of old Gibsons (I live in Kalamazoo) that just don't sound like anything I would ever want to own. Buyer beware.
 

KokoTele

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You'll definitely want to inspect a vintage guitar hands-on before committing, particularly in your price range. Any serious repairs rival the value of the guitar, so those repairs rarely get done. The glue has crystalized and weakened and it was hastily applied anyway, so loose braces, seams, and neck joints are not uncommon.

I've had several customers bring Eastmans to me for setups and pickup swaps, and they have been mostly excellent instruments. Unfortunately, they've also gotten pretty expensive.
 




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