A Guide to Archtops Part II: High-End Vintage

Welcome to part two in our series on archtop acoustic guitars. In part one, we focused on the affordable end of the vintage market, honing in on brands like Harmony and Kay. We covered some basic archtop concepts and terminology, and if you missed that post, we encourage you to check it out before diving into this one.

With those quirkier thrift shop wonders out of the way, we now turn our sights to the guitars that sit at the top end of the market. The specimens we're examining today span in resale value from the $1,000 range for some of the more spartan Epiphones to the many tens of thousands of dollars for historic instruments from the likes of John D'Angelico. It is a wide target zone to be sure, but once you cross into this threshold, you're dealing with luthier-built instruments that are a distinct class from the budget buys we covered in part one.

Whether you're getting ready to make a once-in-a-lifetime purchase of an ultra-high-end guitar or just want to learn more about this particular vintage topic, this article will hopefully fill in some blanks and flesh out the details on what's what when it comes to fine vintage archtops from the mid-20th century.

Is Buying a High-End Archtop Worth It?

When we asked this question in regards to low-end archtops, our exploration focused on issues like playability, value, and the requisite repairs that might come with buying a mass-produced instrument.

Epiphone Triumph

Higher-end archtops are a different conversation.

While certainly any vintage guitar may come with conditional issues or surprises under the hood, archtops in this higher echelon were built by more skilled luthiers using better materials and are typically better equipped to stand the test of time.

The question then becomes less about whether buying a vintage archtop is worth the potential headache, and more about what equivalent options you have on the new market. There aren't a ton of builders making lower-end archtops today, but the options open up quite a bit when working in a higher price range.

Consider, for example, that a vintage Epiphone Triumph in good condition runs somewhere between $2,500 and $3,000. For this price or much less, you could get a new Loar LH-700, a top-of-the-line Eastman, a D’Aquisto, or a Peerless to name just a few.

Of course, the only thing you can’t get in that price range is a new instrument that replicates the tone and vibe of a genuine vintage artifact. Construction methods have changed and while there will always be debates about the legitimacy of "vintage magic," there's something about a real old archtop that even the best modern builder can't capture. They don’t necessarily sound better, but they do have a unique tonality.

Major Archtop Brands and Models

Common Vintage Epiphone Archtops

Epiphone was a premier manufacturer within the archtop field before it was bought by Gibson in the late-'50s, and the firm produced enough instruments that they are still widely available and (relatively) affordable on the vintage market.

We've included a basic list of vintage Epiphone archtop models below, though plenty more varieties exist. These core models should cover the majority of what you’re likely to encounter when perusing the pages of Reverb. Many were also produced in electric configuration with added pickups and cutaways, which are often named as the "Zephyr" version of a particular model.

Many of Epiphone's acoustic archtop models were rather similar to one another. The DeLuxe, for instance, was something of a benchmark with other models varying on the template with different woods, less elaborate appointments, or slightly different dimensions. It's also important to note that the exact specs on many of the models changed regularly during over the course of their production run, meaning that examples from different periods may vary quite a bit as far as inlay patterns, hardware, and other specifics.

For a more detailed list of all the various Epihpone archtops, check out this archived page from the seeminlgy defunct Epiphone Wiki.


Epiphone Zenith

Title of this article aside, the Epiphone Zenith doesn't necessarily qualify as a high-end archtop, but we've included here because it was produced by Epiphone and brings at least that level of reputation. These guitars were aimed at students and lack the fancier appointments of the brand’s more expensive instruments.

They Zenith was built with laminated backs and sides (though the tops were solid carved spruce), which results in them having a weaker voice than mid- and upper-range Epiphone archtops. That said, they are categorically a step up from your average Kay or Harmony, as discussed in part one.


Epiphone Triumph

The Epiphone Triumph was Epiphone’s mid-range entry and is remains one of their more commonly found archtop models. The top and back of these guitars were carved from solid wood (generally spruce for the top and maple or occasionally walnut for the back and sides). The guitars were 17-inches at the lower bout, so they’re great for musicians looking for a guitar that will cut through a mix without sounding overly tinny.

When looking for an Epiphone Triumph you’re going to see a lot of Epiphone Triumph Regents, which have cutaways. These are significantly more expensive than a standard Triumph, so you can save a decent chunk of change if you don't find the cutaway to your liking.


Epiphone DeLuxe

The DeLuxe (or De Luxe as it's often styled) was introduced as a flagship model in 1931. Though it was originally constructed with a 16 ⅜-inch width, it was widened to just over 17 inches a few years later. At this size, the DeLuxe was much like the Triumph but with more extravagant appointments. The guitars sported bound fingerboards and F-holes, a floral headstock inlay, and mother of pearl fretboard inlays.

If you’re looking for a great archtop to play, you may want to skip on a DeLuxe in favor of a cheaper model. They aren’t any better than similarly built Epiphones from the era, and simply earn higher resale prices due to their fancier aesthetics.


Epiphone Broadway

Compared to other Epiphone archtops, extant Broadways tend to vary in size and configuration depending on the year of manufacture. This means if you find one you can afford, you should dig into the listing and consult with the seller to be sure of the exact specs you're working with.

Most Broadways are essentially minimally appointed Triumphs, though from 1931 to 1938 it was made from solid walnut as opposed to maple. Its tone and quality will be similar to a DeLuxe, especially if it’s a post-1938 model. Unlike these other models, though, the Broadway was never produced in an electric configuration in its original run, though the name was used for an electric archtop model in the Gibson era.


Epiphone Emperor

With a lower bout width of 18.5 inches, the Epiphone Emperor is one of the largest archtops ever made. It was the most expensive instrument produced by Epiphone and is currently one of the more coveted models with vintage collectors.

Compared to other archtops, this guitar has a very full, strident, and loud voice. Like other rare over-18-inch archtops, the Emperor is an acoustic cannons, easily able to fill a room with sound. If you know that you're after a giant archtop, the Emperor is usually more affordable than the comparable Gibson Super 400.


Common Vintage Gibson Archtops

Like Epiphone, Gibson archtops are still popular and readily available on the vintage market. But be warned that the reverence commanded by the Gibson name tends to push price points higher than you'll find on similarly constructed Epiphones.

The Gibson model naming conventions are also a bit easier to understand. Most Gibson archtops were name in the following scheme: “L-“number." Generally, guitars with a lower number were of a higher quality, though there are exceptions to this rule. Below, we've detailed a handful of the more common models, but like with Epiphone, there are tons more that are not mentioned here.

It's also worth noting that many of the original Gibson archtops evolved into electric models in the '50 and '60s, often earning the model designation CES along the way. For instance, if searching for a Gibson Super 400, you'll likely find many more-expensive Super 400CES models. These are, of course, wonderful and collectible instruments in their own right, but today, we're sticking to the acoustic chapter of the story.


Gibson L-50

The L-50 was one of Gibson’s more affordable archtops, and it was also one of the most varied guitars in their line. There are L-50s that are comparable to an Epiphone Triumphs, and there are L-50s that are closer in sound to a mid-range Kay or Harmony. The majority fall somewhere in the middle.

Gibson was not especially consistent in the materials and design they used in their models, and there are some years where two L-50s from the same year might be made with very different specs. Gibson serial numbers were also known to be unreliable, only confusing the matter further.

A possible deal breaker with the model is that it doesn’t have raised fingerboard. This can make attaching a floating pickup to the guitar difficult, which may be frustrating for anyone looking to amplify the instrument.


Gibson L-5

The Gibson L-5 was Gibson’s professional-level archtop that dates back to 1922. From 1934, it featured an “advanced" 17-inch body, providing plenty of volume while still retaining some punch.

The L-5 was richly appointed and remained a well-crafted mainstay in Gibson's catalog for decades. Today, the L-5 is one of the more collectible vintage archtops available. For a model in good repair, you can expect to spend over $10,000 with some of the best examples going for more than double that. Gibson L-5s with original natural finishes and cutaways (the L-5P or Premier) tend to fetch the highest prices of all.


Gibson L-7

The Gibson L-7 was essentially the working man’s version of the luxury L-5, built to similar specifications but without as many high-end appointments. L-7s are generally much cheaper than L-5s, but offer a similar quality of tone.

The L-7 (and original acoustic L-7s in particular) are not as common as other Gibson models. If you are able to find one though, they can be an excellent value in the archtop realm.


Gibson Super 400

The Gibson Super 400 was the big kahuna of the Gibson archtop family. It was launched with an 18-inch lower bout, which is gargantuan by any standard. The only commercially made archtop with a similar size was the Epiphone Emperor mentioned above.

The Super 400 is also an extremely prized guitar by collectors. The earlier acoustic models will typically sell for between $10,000 and $15,000, with higher prices for blonde-finished and cutaway examples. The later electric models can go for even more that, especially late-'50s guitars with PAF humbucker pickups.


Other Archtop Makers

D’Angelico

John D’Angelico was and remains the world's most prestigious builder of archtop guitars. He heightened and perfected the form, and earned a reputation as the "father of the archtop" through the estimated 1,164 guitars that he built.

D'Angelico learned his craft from his uncle, Signor Ciani, a mandolin and violin maker, and his style of luthiery was more in-line with the traditions of Italian violin craft than the production-oriented methods of Gibson. D'Angelico died in 1964, and his business was taken over by his protege Jimmy D'Aquisto. D'Aquisto's guitars are similar and nearly as coveted as the work of his mentor.

D’Angelico New Yorker

D’Angelico's work essentially took existing designs of the day and reimagined them at a higher standard. For example, the New Yorker was similar to Gibson's Super 400. Every instrument he produced was built to a level of quality that was unequaled at the time, and all guitars that do end up on the market need to be considered on a very case-by-case basis.

Typically, D'Angelico guitars like the New Yorker will sell in the $40 to $50,000 range. Now, of course, most buyers will never be able to afford a piece of this magnitude, but it's still always fun to browse listings for these unique instruments when they come to market.

The D'Angelico name has also been revived by a new business in recent years, which offers a variety of acoustic and electric guitars that honor the legacy and aesthetic of the originals.


Martin

For as definitive as an acoustic brand as Martin is, many players aren't aware of the Pennsylvania firm's history with archtops. There have been a few different Martin archtop series including the C, F, and R series in the '30s, as well as an electric take on the F series in the '60s.

Many vintage Martin archtops have actually been converted to flattops, like this one, but in their unaltered state they’re still solid instruments that can be had for significantly less than something from Gibson.

Martin R-18

The Martin R-18 was made from a solid carved spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides. This wood configuration, while found on Martin classics like the D-18, is not especially common with archtops so the R-18 does offers a unique tone. The mahogany fosters a warmer and rounder tone, somewhere in between an archtop and a dreadnought acoustic.

Typically, Martin R-18 — which were built between 1932 and 1942 — will sell in the $1,500 to $2,500 range, or less for guitars with conditional issues.


Stromberg

Stromberg was an American guitar maker in operation from 1906 to 1955, known for their high standards of quality and extremely loud acoustic tones. The brand reportedly made only 640 guitars, which makes the surviving models extremely rare and collectible.

Due to their scarcity, Stromberg guitars are rather expensive. While the workmanship is typically considered to be a notch or two down from the exquisite art of D'Angelico, their relative scarcity and unique voice can still put these guitars in similar price brackets.

Stromberg Ultra Deluxe

The Stromberg Ultra Deluxe is comparable to the Gibson L-5 in terms of specifications and build quality. They’re reported to be more consistent than Gibson, though are also more expensive if you are able to find one for sale.


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