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Instead of Just Unplugged, Try Unconventional.
So you’re thinking about adding an acoustic guitar to your collection but you’re not sure what to buy. There are a lot of directions to go, and they all have their merits:
- A big dreadnaught or an even bigger jumbo guitar offer plenty of “whomp” and can give you a massive, muscular rhythm sound.
- An OM or orchestra model has a little less authority, but its increased midrange (and decreased bass) can often help it cut through a mix. Also, most have a slightly wider fingerboard, which will help you articulate finger picking.
- A small body—a parlor guitar, 00-model Martin or L-model Gibson, for example—offers a more intimate sound, great for acoustic blues or finger-style. The focused tone can really stand out in a sea of big-bodied flat-tops, and produce a unique solo sound.
There are other shapes and sizes, plus 12-strings, nylon-stringed guitars and resonator instruments (Dobro or National-style). They all have their place, which is why so many pro guitarists often have several different acoustics at their disposal. In the words of picker extraordinaire Vince Gill, “I got love for ‘em all.”
As cool as all these different styles can be, there’s one other that you shouldn’t overlook.
“F-Hole” Is Not A Dirty Word
If you really want to stand out, tonally and looks-wise, you ought to consider an archtop guitar. Often considered “jazz boxes,” archtops are hardly limited to only one style. While there’s certainly nothing better for four-to-the-bar comping, you can also strum wide open on an archtop. With its bright, cutting tone, an “f-hole” guitar can provide a striking compliment to other acoustic instruments or stand out when mixed into a live band or track.
Archtop guitars typically have a more barking, metallic sound than their flat-top cousins, which is why they rose to prominence in the big-band era. As vaudeville and banjos went out of style, the archtop’s projection and short sustain allowed it to hold its own in the rhythm section and provide a sophisticated drive under screaming swing-era brass and saxes (before guitars were amplified). Now, bands like The Lumineers and Civil Wars are finding a new place for the throwback look and sound.
The good news is that you can still find a number of older archtop guitars made from the 1930s-60s, including Epiphone, Gibson, Gretsch, Kay, Guild and others. Bigger-bodied, more deluxe models can be fairly pricey—especially if you run into rare makes like D’Angelico, Stromberg or other custom-made brands. But vintage dealers regularly offer less-ornate versions at reasonable prices and bargains can be found.
The even-better news is that a few companies are making new archtops at somewhat more believable prices. It’s unlikely that you’ll find vintage tone in a brand new guitar, but you may very well find a classic look and distinctive sound that could help you (and your axe) carve out a unique identity.
Here a few of the newer archtop models that you should check out.
Godin 5th Avenue
From north of the border, the 5th Avenue is generally advertised for around $600, or $700 for the Kingpin model with a P90-style pickup. The Canadian wild cherry top and back are molded, rather than carved, and come in either natural, black or cognac burst satin finish. The neck is comfortable, they play easily and sound good, and toss out vintage vibe without breaking the bank. This is an axe you could play all night.
The Loar LH-300
The back-to-basics LH-300-VS features a carved solid spruce top with maple sides and back. The Loar brand is obviously banking on the vintage effect (they even borrowed the name of the man responsible for Gibson’s earliest archtop designs) with its 16” vintage sunburst body and V-profile neck. Several reviewers have suggested the neck might be a little cumbersome, but it certainly has the authentic feel and look. Look for prices around $599, with a P-90 version (LH-309) for around $649. Loar also has two other acoustic archtop models (the LH-600 and LH-700) with upgraded finishes and inlays, and upgraded price tags.
Gretsch G9550 New Yorker
Having once been a major player in the archtop arena, Gretsch is jumping back in with the G9550 New Yorker. This no-frills model from the Gretsch Roots Collection offers a 16” solid spruce top and maple laminate body. Like many of the other guitars in this class, the New Yorker projects a straightforward, 30s-era dustbowl image. MSRP is $799, so look for prices between $650-$699.
Gretsch G400 Syncromatic
This big beauty from Gretsch raises the bar cosmetically, with its 17” high-gloss body, bound fingerboard, ‘split hump block’ inlays, cat-eye sound holes and gold-plated metal parts. The G400 Syncromatic also raises the ante at $1,575—which really isn’t bad for a solid spruce top and laminated maple sides/back. It doesn’t have the depression-era vibe of some of the others, but what it gives away in Americana simplicity it easily gets back in swagger. In either sunburst or black, this gleaming machine will turn heads.
(NOTE: This model has been replaced in the Gretsch catalog by the more-expensive G400JV Jimmy Vaughan model Synchromatic, but many online stores are still offering the standard G400.)
Also showing up at around $1,600, Eastman’s AR605 is an excellent little archtop with carved spruce top and mahogany sides/back. This model recently went from a single-cutaway electric style to a non-cutaway acoustic (though the Eastman site hasn’t caught up, yet). The guitar features a very attractive violin finish, rosewood tailpiece and bound f-holes. The sound is very good out of the box, and as with any of these new kids, should only get better with additional playing.
Weber Raw Hide
Weber specializes in fine mandolins but they also make a series of archtop guitars, from barebones, smaller-bodied versions to some really high-end pieces.
But for something a little different, I really like the Raw Hide. Not cheap ($6,999 retail), but it’s a beautifully made instrument with nice details, including herringbone binding, bound f-holes and scrolled, cantilevered fingerboard. It has really surprising sound, too, for a smaller guitar. The deeper sides provide more depth of tone than you might expect and it cuts like a knife in the high mids. This is a unique, quality instrument and you’re almost certain to be the only kid on your block with one. You just have to find the 7K to plop down on a slightly oddball guitar.
Now you have a little extra food for thought. I wouldn’t trade my flat-top guitars, but I’ve owned several archtops (my first guitar was a $36 Kay f-hole beauty), and I know from experience you can drive them really hard and sound great doing it. There’s definitely a place in any guitarist’s toolkit for at least one.