Guitar design and construction focused on one goal in the first half of the twentieth century: more volume. At first crowded out of jazz bands by its louder, brassier brother the banjo, developments in design, and eventually amplification, made the guitar triumphant. The arch top guitar, still the ax of choice among jazzers and rockabilly players, stands in the middle ground in the pursuit of volume between the flat-top acoustic and the solid-body electric guitars.
Since the top is the part that refers to the whole (an example of synecdoche), let's start there. As the name implies, the top resembles an arch, rising slightly to towards the center. Originally carved by hand from a solid piece of spruce, these tops vibrated with greater force, thus moving more air and providing more volume. The greater vibrating force came in part from a reduction in top bracing, accomplished by attaching the strings to a floating tailpiece held in place by the tension of the strings, thus relieving the top of string tension and reducing the need for bracing.
Lloyd Loar and the L5
Lloyd Loar of Gibson is often credited as the creator of the first arch top guitar, the Gibson L5. This instrument featured a carved spruce top, maple back and sides, a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard and violin-style "f-holes" in place of the traditional round or oval sound hole. This instrument found favor among players as diverse as jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang and country music queen Mother Maybelle Carter, who played nothing but her 1928 Gibson L5.
Gretsch simplified the construction process by eliminating the carving step. Instead, they took several thin pieces of wood and glued them together in a mold that would produce an arch. Laminating simplified the construction process and reduced costs at a time when the arch top guitar was growing in popularity among both jazz and country guitarists. This also made it possible to use figured woods, such as bird's eye and curly maple, for the top layer laminent, adding natural beauty to the instrument, especially under a sunburst finish.
The Rewards of Volume
The greater volume produced by the arch top guitar raised the profile of guitarists. Before the advent of the arch top, the guitar was primarily a "comping," or accompaniment instrument, laying down the chord structure and rhythm for soloists and singers. Greater volume allowed guitarists to step out and solo. Amplifiaction of course brought even more volume but also a new dimension in playing, touch sensitivity. This can be heard in the pioneering recordings of Charlie Chrsitian, whose solos are often punctuated by greater picking force, producing the first examples of harmonic distortion as a desired and sought-after sound effect.
- "The Guitar Handbook;" Ralph Denyer; 1982.
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