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Noyce Guitars
Mount Clear
Ballarat, Victoria
Australia, 3350

Choosing a guitar (5)

How to find the right guitar Pt 5. Ian Noyce 1997

This is the last in my series on choosing the right guitar and it's here that we look at "Semis" and Arch-tops.

Arch-top or Jazz Guitars
Orville Gibson is reputed to have invented the arch-top guitar in the late 1800s but Lloyd Loar, who worked for Gibson between 1920 and 1924, introduced the modern form with the Gibson L-5 in 1924. The L-5 had f-holes and the two-footed adjustable arch-top bridge.

Whereas steel string flat-tops are typically 400mm. (16") wide at the hips and 125mm. (5') side depth, Arch tops are generally built in 17" and 18" forms and are invariably 75mm (3") deep.

The arch-top had its' heyday in the 1920s and 30s in dance bands and jazz orchestras, its' loud, punchy sound and short sustain being ideal in those conditions. After world war two, big dance bands were at the end of their popularity and jazz and popular guitarists were turning to amplified instruments (heil heil rock,n,roll!).

In recent years arch-top guitars have enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as lower priced pressed ply top types have resurged in rockabilly bands and solid wood carved instruments have been more sought after by a more affluent and older guitar playing population. With or without pickups, the arch-top beats anything for its compact, warm, punchy sound where either single notes or chords come out rapidly and then dissipitate.

Prices on arch-tops go from around a $1000.00- $3000.00 for steam pressed ply bodies and $3000.00 upwards for the real McCoy- guitars with solid, carved top and back. Whether factory made like the Gibson L-5 or Super 400 or hand made, most solid arch tops must be custom ordered and its really down to personal preferences; I've been amazed at the variety of performance amongst good arch-tops- some are beautifully even and smooth, playing at the same volume no matter how hard or soft the player hits the strings, whilst others change character and volume as the player changes his dynamics.

Not surprisingly I find the tone quality of pressed ply arch-tops somewhat bland in contrast to solid wood, but in spite of that pressed ply does lend itself well to the typical short sustain, punchy sound typical of arch-tops.

Semi-acoustic guitars.
Typically these are double cutaway f hole guitars like the Gibson 335 constructed from a steam pressed ply top and back with a glued in set neck. These guitars usually have a trapeze tailpiece, attached where the strap pin is but some use combination bridge/tailpieces and some use the Les Paul style stopped tailpiece.

Originally built in the late 1950's, Semis' became popular with blues players but were also of interest to anyone who wanted more of an "electrified acoustic" sound as opposed to the range of solid-body guitars As time went by and amps got bigger, solid blocking under the bridge between top and back was incorporated into most designs, minimising acoustic feedback.

There is a great deal of variation between different makes of semis, and in my view the most important issue is how acoustic (compared to solid) the guitar feels and sounds. Unless you are very familiar with these guitars you are well advised to try out a range of models before choosing, even if they're not all in your price range. Above all, try to get some idea of how important an individual guitars' propensity for feedback is to you.

Most semis use a medium scale length of 630mm. (24 3/4") and "standard" nut width (43mm.) but watch out for shorter scaling and narrow fingerboard nut width. These are characteristics that aren't always noticed at first if you're not on the lookout for them!

A somewhat recent addition to the family of acoustic/electric guitars, typically being like a bolt-on solid body, hollowed out with a strutted acoustic style top built over the body. Once again, there are so many variations that it's difficult to generalise other than to say yet again that solid woods will invariably sound better and be more responsive than laminated or ply construction. Again it's a matter of choosing how acoustic you can make it without feedback troubles.

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