Archtop Acoustic Fever

Freeman Keller

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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!
Schoolie, going back to your original posting where you say you were inspired by David Rawlings reminded me that there was an article about Rawlings and his iconic guitar back a while in Fretboard Journal. Having a stack of FJ's in the basement I dug the article out an reread it this evening. Rawling's guitar is a 1935 Epiphone Olympic that was literally covered in dirt when he got it. He talks about cleaning it with Murphy's Oil Soap and discovering that it was a sunburst. He had a bridge made for it and it has become his signature sound. Fwiw the guitar is 13-1/2 across the lower bout and Rawlings says he has several others but the don't sound quite the same. He records directly into a mic, the guitar does not have any pickup.

That was 2010, in 2018 there is another FJ interview with Rawlings and he has a new (old) archtop, a 1959 D'Angelico Excel. The guitar has a long and interesting history which he talks about, and he stresses that it compliments the little Olympic. Rawlings also has a collection of other guitars, but these seem to be his favorites.

So if you are listening to his early stuff with Gillian Welch, its probably the Epi, if its music on Poor Davids Almanac or later its probably the D'Angelico.

These are very different in many respects, but are both carved arched topped acoustic guitars.

I find something very interesting about the names of the manufacturers of all of these guitars (and some you are asking about). Epiphone (Epi Stathopoulo) was a competitor of Gibson during the 1930's , ironically the name was bought by Gibson and is now the "budget" line of Gibson guitars. John D'Angelico was on of the greatest archtop builders in guitar history - his guitars sell for more than a very nice car (if you can find one). Lloyd Loar was Gibson's "acoustic engineer" who single handedly created the greatest acoustic instruments they have ever buit. I Loar signed mandolin might be worth as much as a nice house.

Unfortunately both the Loar and D'Angelico names are now on the heads of inexpensive PacRim guitars that have nothing to do with the original bearers of those names. I'm quite sure the new The Loar (remember the old gibbies said The Gibson) and D'Angelicos are nice guitars, and I have absolutely nothing against PacRim guitars, I just can't get behind the new ones.

Point is, Rawlings plays a couple of different arch tops. You will need to do your own research to find the one you like. Unfortunately they are rare and unfortunately they are expensive. Good luck.

ps - both issues of FJ should be available, the first one is issue 18, the second is issue 41.
 

schoolie

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Freeman, thanks so much for posting about the Dave Rawlings articles in Fretboard Journal! He always sounds great, no matter what he's playing.. I know Epiphone, at its peak, was at least on par with Gibson. Yeah, it's weird how these once great brands are now on import guitars. Anyway I'll look for those issues of FJ.
 

Milspec

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It is very important to define if you want an archtop for acoustic playing or an archtop electrified?

I went down this road a few years back myself and tried Loar, Ibanez, and even a vintage Epiphone Broadway. At the end of the 2 weeks, I ended up with the Godin 5th Ave Kingpin ll.

The 5th Ave series are not great acoustics as the projection isn't great. It is a pleasing tone and could be loud enough for recording, but nothing else. Once plugged in, it is an excellent guitar. The reason I chose it though was simply for playability. I have never found a guitar before nor since that felt so natural to me. Seriously, it is so perfect in size and scale for me that it is an absolute joy to play.

If you want an archtop with acoustical volume, go with the Loar. If you want one with a lot of bling, go with Ibanez or Epiphone. If you want a guitar that is super comfortable to play, has good classic lines (it is patterned off the Gibson ES-125), built by an owner that is a long-time archtop player (Godin), and sounds great plugged in to the amp....go with Godin.
 

zombywoof

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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.
I also prefer the sound of old Epiphones archtops to Gibsons. With regard to necks, if you go back to the early-1930s nuts clocked in at 1 3/4". At mid-decade they shrunk to 1 5/8" but jumped back up to 1 11/16" by the time the 1930s ended where they would remain. While I can only speak to those guitars built in the 1950s the neck depth at the 1st fret was generally around .90". So what I would call a medium neck. My 1920 Gibson L3, for comparison, has a 1 13/16" nut and a depth at the 1st fret of something over 1.0".
 




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