However, I’m not talking about f-hole archtops with electronics. The ones that really catch my eye are the acoustic versions. It’s important to remember that back in the 1920s and 30s especially, and right up into the mid 1950s acoustic f-hole style guitars were far more popular and common than those with round sound holes. There’s a definite reason for this. Until a practical and affordable true electric guitar came along in the late 40s – the Gibson ES-150 and the very early Fender solid bodies – guitar was almost always viewed as an instrument to accompany voices or other single tone instruments that functioned as the lead or solo. Those old f-hole archtops were designed to be as loud as possible but things that we expect today from acoustic guitars like sustain, resonance and clarity were an afterthought at best. In fact those old guitars were almost a percussion instrument, with the player often strumming steadily on the beat, chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk, what became known as “four to the bar” accompaniment. This meant that in 4/4 time the guitarist would strum down once on each beat. Regardless of the type of music played, whether it be big band jazz or in smaller jazz groups, traditional country such as was played by groups like the Carter Family, or as a single accompanying instrument for vocal groups, the guitarist’s job was to keep a steady beat and be part of the “bottom” of the arrangement.
There were exceptions of course. One of the first great jazz guitar single note improvisers, Django Reinhardt played f-hole acoustics on occasion but was much better known for his soloing on his huge Selmer Maccaferri guitar, which helped him overcome the problem of low volume. The Maccaferri had a very small oval shaped sound hole and a trapeze style bridge with a very long saddle to transmit vibration over the maximum amount of surface area. Still, while certainly loud, that guitar had very little in the way of sustain or resonance. Guitarist Eddie Lang, considered by many to be the Father of Modern Jazz Guitar, brought fame to the iconic Gibson L-4 and L-5, and his single note playing was far, far ahead of its time. It’s important to remember that most of the well known recordings of these two great players were done with relatively small groups in which it was feasible to expect to be heard when it was solo time for the guitar.
Guitar makers realized that their goal was to produce a loud, percussive sounding guitar that would be essentially part of the rhythm section of a band or a purely accompanying instrument and they accomplished this in a number of ways. Instead of gluing many braces to the inside of the back of the f-hole guitar or on the underside of its top, they took to using curved pieces of arched wood, the better to amplify the sound without bracing to impede the volume and also to allow the instrument to vibrate more freely. This is the way violins and orchestral string instruments have been made for hundreds of years and it worked. Unfortunately however, carving out and thinning a thick piece of flat wood to attain an arch is time consuming and requires a very skilled hand. This is why, even back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (thought by many to be the golden age of acoustic arch tops) those instruments were quite expensive. In short order the manufacturers began using laminates that could easily be steamed and shaped to attain the arched backs and tops. This resulted in much less expensive guitars but also considerably inferior ones in terms of both sound and fit and finish. But the average person could afford one of these, perhaps from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog, and they sounded good enough to warrant the production of many tens of thousands of these instruments from the 1940s right into the late 1960s when what we think of as acoustic guitars – those with round sound holes and braced bodies – pushed those old f-hole plywood archtops to the brink of extinction. Gibson, Guild and others continued to produce fine quality arch-tops however, especially for the jazz community and classic rock and rollers discovered the cool sounds of thinner hollow bodies with f-hole like the ES series from Gibson. The blues guys always preferred hollow body, f-hole guitars, both acoustic and electric. It’s impossible to imagine the great B.B. King without “Lucille” in his arms!
In the last ten years or so, many younger guitarists who are into retro country, Americana or old blues have rediscovered the archtop f-hole acoustic. The best known player of one of these is David Rawlings, partner and lead guitarist with singer/songwriter Gillian Welsh. David’s 1935 Epiphone Olympic is an integral part of their sound and this small guitar, once almost an afterthought in the vintage guitar market has skyrocketed in price as people discovered what it could sound like in the hands of a master. The Godin Guitar Company in Canada a few years ago began producing their “5th Avenue” series of very reasonably priced (laminated birch) archtop f-hole acoustics. On the other end of the price spectrum, boutique makers of archtops have appeared almost over night and their stunningly beautiful instruments can cost many, many thousands of dollars.
The archtop, f-hole design was obviously borrowed from the violin/viola/cello/bass world and while those guitars will never replace the round sound hole, braced acoustics we have today, they have their place in many kinds of music. If you haven’t tried one, pick one up the next time you’re in a big music store that may have one in stock. Chunk-chunk-chunk a few 6th and 9th chords and I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face.
Peace & good music,