What Are Archtop Guitars?

by Michael Black
Archtop guitars have a specific body shape.

Archtop guitars have a specific body shape.

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The body shape and style of a guitar are extremely important to the overall tone of the instrument. Virtually all guitars can be classified as either hollowbody, semi-hollowbody or solidbody guitars, based on the physical characteristics of their bodies. Archtop guitars, at the simplest level, are a very specific type of hollowbody guitar.

Top Wood

The major defining feature of an archtop guitar is the shape of its top wood -- the piece of wood over which the strings pass. The top wood is literally arched on an archtop guitar, like that of a violin or a cello; this reduces the need for interior bracing, thus increasing the overall space within the guitar. This larger-than-normal cavity has a strong effect on the tone of the instrument. Archtop guitars generally have F-shaped sound holes on both sides of the strings instead of one circular hole directly beneath them. The back wood is also curved on some archtop guitars.

Electric or Acoustic

Archtops can be either electric or acoustic instruments. In most cases, they are equipped with electronic pickups even though they tend to have enough natural amplification to be used as an acoustic instrument. Some electric models have several tone- and volume- shaping knobs on the guitar body, while others have none. They are always hollowbody instruments, however, even when they are technically electric guitars.

Sound and Playability

Archtop guitars tend to have a very warm sound with strong, low frequencies. Amplified archtop guitars generally emphasize the natural tone of the guitar's body wood more than a solidbody instrument. The smooth sound of a quality archtop guitar is well suited for jazz and blues music. Archtops are not well suited to heavily distorted types of music, however. They have a tendency to feed back uncontrollably when a significant amount of distortion is used. Many guitarists find archtops easier to play than traditional acoustic guitars or certain types of electric guitars because they usually have low action (string height above the fretboard) due to the trapeze tailpiece used on most models. Low action makes fretting notes, sliding and bending easier.

Archtop Versus Semi-Hollwbody

The term archtop and semi-hollowbody are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. A semi-hollowbody guitar has a solid block of wood that runs from the neck joint to the rear end of the guitar. This block of wood significantly cuts down on the space on the inside of the guitar body, thus giving semi-hollowbody guitars a different sound than archtops.

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