While often used as electric guitars today, the original intent behind designing the archtop guitar was superior acoustic performance. Around the turn of the 20th century, archtops were being built because guitarists needed something that would be loud and punchy enough to cut through large ensembles without any kind of amplification. In this spirit, many of today’s top archtop luthiers are building guitars with astounding acoustic properties—and today I had the good fortune of being able to compare a few of the best.
First, the Concert model from Philadelphia-based Bill Comins. I’ve always loved this guitar for its uniquely vocal quality and its punchy but sweet midrange. It really, REALLY sounds great with single-note lines (especially in the middle-upper register!), but I also love the way it plays chords. The note separation is fantastic and the colorful, woody character of this guitar comes through even in dense and dissonant chord voicings. In terms of sheer volume, the Concert Model may not the loudest of the three guitars I played today. However, its authoritative midrange presence makes you hear it loud and clear just the same.
The next guitar I played is the Natura Deluxe built by Tom Bills out of Saint Louis, MO. The smallest of the three guitars I played today, it is not quite as loud as its companions—but whatever it may lack in volume is more than compensated for by some of the sweetest archtop tone I’ve ever heard. Seriously! This instrument makes playing acoustically such a joy that I find myself leaning my head down toward the body, trying desperately to detect every last morsel of harmonic color that blooms in the decay of every note. As I go from playing melodies and single note lines to chord solos, I am astonished at how everything seems to blend so well on this instrument. This guitar has such perfect balance, from top to bottom, and at any volume. For solo jazz guitar playing this is exactly what you want—perfect homogenous tone between comping, bass lines, and melody.
The last guitar I selected for this comparison was the Buscarino Monarch Custom. This guitar has an enormous sound in just about every way imaginable. It creates an incredible amount of volume due to its large and supremely resonant body, but it also has a dynamic, expansive voice that seems to fill just about any space you occupy. The sound covers a huge frequency range and the bass response is very pleasing. It is not quite as midrange-forward as the other two, but instead seems to have a wider range that is fuller on the low end high-ends. I think the term ‘warm’ is often misused in the guitar world to signify “lack of presence or detail,” but with this Monarch you have an instrument that makes everything you play sound warm in the truest sense. Imagine how a blanket feels, not how it sounds. The harmonic content of this instrument is enough to hurt you inside and the experience of playing is something I wish everyone could have before they died.
Hand-carved archtop guitars offer some of the most rewarding playing experiences of any instrument, and over time it is something that I have learned to appreciate more and more. One of the groups I play in currently is the Mint Julep Jazz Band (www.mintjulepjazzband.com)—a hot jazz and swing band with which I play exclusively rhythm guitar in the style of Freddie Green and similar early jazz guitarists. Through this experience I have found that playing archtops acoustically and miking them, rather than using an amp, can produce very pleasing results in a group situation. Don’t believe me? Come to our showroom and let’s play a tune!