How to find the right guitar Pt 5. Ian Noyce
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
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")
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.
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
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