A Guide to Archtops Part I: Vintage Low-End

The invention of the archtop is currently credited to Orville Gibson, who carved the top and back of a guitar into an arched shape as opposed to using flat pieces of wood. The design was meant to increase the power and quality of tone an instrument was capable of, as described by Orville Gibson’s 1898 mandolin patent, which also featured an arched top and back.

Arching an instrument’s body is an effective way to increase its volume and projection, and because of this, the design was widely adopted before amplification was available. Both high- and low-end guitar manufacturers rushed to market archtops of their own, and many of the guitars they built are still readily available on the used market.

Yet as amplification became a viable option for performing musicians, acoustic archtop production drastically diminished to the point where only a small number of makers maintained these designs in their catalogs.

1898 Orville H. Gibson Style O Archtop Guitar
(Photo from earlygibson.com)

More recently though, the acoustic archtop has experienced a resurgence. More and more builders are returning to the template, and there’s a growing number of musicians looking for archtops to play swing and "hot jazz," along with roots and country artists who’ve adopted these instruments for their unique percussive tone. Dave Rawlings — with his '30s Epiphone Olympic — is a great example.

Yet for all the historical importance and modern interest, information on vintage archtop guitars isn’t as widely available as it should be. This is especially true for the lower end of the market, where a search for information often requires a crawl through vague advice on dead forum threads and tracking down jpegs of old catalogs on dormant websites.

To help you avoid this sort of confusion, we're going to give you the scoop on what to look for in a low-end vintage archtop. We'll discuss what repairs they might need and examine some key models to look out for should you decide to purchase one. If you’re more interested in high-end options, stay tuned for a part two coming soon here on Reverb.

Key Terminology

Before we get into specific brands and models, let's start with the basic terminology below. This will make the sections that follow easier to understand.

Laminate wood is several thin pieces of wood glued together, or ground up wood that is glued together and covered with a veneer. Neither of these options sound all that great. Guitars made from laminated wood don’t resonate well, so they’re quieter and have a lower production of frequencies.

Solid wood is simply a solid piece of wood that resonates much more freely than laminate wood, typically making the guitars built with it louder. It also allows these guitars to have a better frequency production.

A solid pressed top is a solid piece of wood that is heated and then pressed into shape by a machine. This sounds significantly better than laminated wood. However, when a luthier carves a piece of wood, they do so in a way that brings out its best acoustic qualities, making carved wood more desirable.

A solid carved top is wood that is carved into shape by a luthier. It’s very time-consuming and labor-intensive, making guitars with carved tops significantly more expensive than those with laminate or pressed wood tops. These guitars usually sound the best.

A Look at Archtop Construction

The video below is a timelapse of a luthier building an archtop guitar. It shows the work that goes into archtop construction and is a good illustration of why high-end archtops cost as much as they do.

Building an Archtop Guitar (via Will Ehster)

Archtop Sizes

Archtops vary in size, generally ranging from 16 inches to 19 inches on the lower bout. Archtops at 16 inches have a very tight and focused sound, with a strong mid-range presence. The larger an archtop gets, the more it emphasizes bass and low-mid frequencies. Larger archtops are also louder, but because they don’t cut as well as smaller instruments, the difference isn’t extreme.

What Makes an Archtop Low-End?

Compared to most instrumentalists, guitarists are fortunate to have a wide array of budget-friendly buying options available to them. But acoustic archtops are, for the most part, a different story. The age and relative rarity of many acoustic archtops inflate their price, and many may require repairs to bring them to playing condition.

1936 Gibson L-7

For example, a vintage Gibson L-7 can go for more than $2,000 (and generally go for closer to $3,000). Pre-Gibson Epiphone archtops are a bit cheaper, but the cheaper models still typically sell between $1,000 and $1,500.

Now, there are archtops available that are significantly less than that. In fact, there are a ton you can find for less than $1,000. The main thing that separates cheaper archtops from more expensive ones are the materials used, the skill of the builder, and the brand's prestige.

Old Harmony guitars, for example, used laminated and occasionally solid birch as opposed to solid spruce and maple (though rarely, some did use carved spruce tops). They were built by luthiers who weren’t as skilled as those at Gibson or Epiphone, and they didn’t have the reputation necessary to charge high prices for their guitars. While not categorically bad guitars, they were marketed towards novice players and not intended to stand the test of time as a fine luthier-built instrument might be.

Is Buying a Low-End Archtop Worth It?

The first thing to know about buying a low-end archtop is that you can end up with a great instrument without spending thousands of dollars. But in order to do so, you have to do some research.

For example, check out these Kay archtops. Compare the guitar in the first video to the guitar in the second.

Playing Brubeck's "The Duke" on a Kay K-1 Archtop through a Polytone Mini Brute

1940's Orpheum/Kay Archtop guitar

That’s a decent illustration of how the quality can vary from one model of Kay to another, and that’s not even getting into the differences between brands.

Many low-end archtops are also going to require repairs, such as a refret or neck reset. Both of these repairs can be expensive, so if they haven’t already been done to the instrument, expect to spend at least a couple hundred more just to get it into playing shape.

The question, “Is buying a low-end archtop worth it?" doesn’t really have a simple yes or no answer. Great bargains exist, but you need to be willing to search. One tool you can use in this endeavor is the Reverb Feed, which allows you to keep track of new listings on Reverb that match your preferences for brands, price range, and other criteria.

Brands to Look For and Stand Out Models

Kay

Kay K46 Master Size Artist Archtop Guitar

The high-end Kay archtops are the equal of lower-end Epiphones and Gibsons but are generally much cheaper. Many of them have carved spruce tops and laminated maple backs. However, many older models don’t have truss rods so they may require a neck reset.

Kay K46 Master Size Artist Archtop Guitar

The Kay K46 Master Size is a 17-inch acoustic archtop with a solid-carved spruce top. This current listing in particular says that it also has solid flamed maple back and sides. This is an upper-line Kay and is a good choice if you’re looking for a genuine vintage archtop without having to pay Gibson-level prices.


Harmony

Harmony H1407 Patrician 1958

Harmony archtops were generally of a lower quality than Kays, but they still have the potential to be a good bargain. Many of their upper-end models had solid spruce tops and laminate maple back and sides, and some were even made from mahogany.

Harmony H1407 Patrician 1958

The Patrician was one of Harmony’s flagship models throughout the '50s and '60s. According to the invaluable Harmony database, they were actually made from all solid woods (spruce tops and mahogany bodies). They aren’t going to hold up to the nicer Kays, but they’re a definite step up from the sub-$300 archtops you’ll find floating around.


Recording King

Recording King M3

Before its recent re-launch, Recording King was a house brand for Montgomery Ward. At different points in the original run, these guitars were made by Gibson, Regal, and Epiphone. These guitars are often bargain buys, and they’re generally a step up from most Kay archtops.

Recording King M3

The Recording King M3 was a mid-range archtop, most likely made by Gibson. It features a solid spruce top and laminate maple back and sides, making it very similar to the L-50 at a lower price point. The guitar in this current listing looks a bit rough, but appears to be structurally sound.


Gretsch

Gretsch did not produce many high-end archtops, with most models landing closer in quality to Kay than Gibson. They are not especially desirable to collectors and can still a good deal for savvy buyers.

Gretsch New Yorker

Like vintage Gretsch electrics, Gretsch archtops seem to be a bit less durable than their contemporaries. If a listing doesn't indicate that any work has been done recently, it's safe to assume that you will need to shell out for some repairs.

Gretsch New Yorker

Most Gretsch New Yorkers were all-laminate archtops that are regarded as decent entry-level guitars. They tend to have issues with their neck joint, though that's true of many guitars of their age.

The price on this recent listing may be a tad high, but not too far out of the normal expected range, given its condition.


Silvertone

Silvertone Aristocrat (Made by Kay)

Silvertone guitars, like Recording Kings, were manufactured by a few different brands, including Kay and Harmony. Upper-end Silvertones are comparable to upper-end Kays, though they tend to be a bit more affordable on average.

The more coveted Silvertone archtops sport a logo with a spear and halberd crossed behind a green shield.

Silvertone Aristocrat (Made by Kay)

This guitar was the flagship of the Silvertone line. Considering that it was made by Kay, it likely has a solid spruce top and laminated maple back and sides. Silvertone archtops like the one listed here tend to get listed for lower prices than their Kay counterparts.


Should I Buy a Loar or Godin Instead of a Low-End Vintage Archtop?

Loar and Godin are both currently producing affordable archtops. The Loar LH-300 features a solid, carved-wood top and can routinely be had for under $400. The Godin 5th Avenue Acoustic Archtop is all-laminate and can generally be found for under $400 as well.

The main benefit these two guitars have over vintage archtops is that they won't require any repairs beyond an initial setup. The difference between their tone and that of a vintage archtop is more a matter of personal preference, but as you move up the scale of vintage quality, the tone of a higher-end instrument will certainly be superior.

Epiphone has also recently reentered the low-end archtop game, with the resurrection of their Masterbilt series, while Gretsch and Eastwood are also offering archtops of their own.

If the pitfalls associated with a vintage archtop search seems like too much of a risk for you, then finding a modern counterpart is certainly a viable option. That said, if you're like me, combing through listings and learning all you can about this particular guitar niche is almost as rewarding as that first strum on your freshly tuned vintage archtop.

In part two, we’re going to pivot to high-end archtop guitars, so if high-end guitars are more your speed, definitely keep an eye out for what’s up next.


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