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Ken Parker’s Uncut Personal Take on the Genesis of the American Archtop Guitar

Ken Parker’s Uncut Personal Take on the Genesis of the American Archtop Guitar

as told to Mike Doolin

Published online by Guild of American Luthiers, July 2023


First, let’s note that a well developed, centuries long tradition of plucked, fretted instruments travelled to America from Europe, just like CF Martin did in 1833. He was the key figure in the evolution of the 6-string American guitar, and the importance of his work as a ferocious, persistent, successful instrument inventor cannot be overstated. Although there were other builders who did exceptional work and have had some continuing influence, CF laid the groundwork for the flattop designs we still revere and copy today.

There is no analog in the field of archtops, which have kind of stumbled from insult to injury, as I’ll try to explain. It’s my view, and you don’t have to like it, but I’ve been obsessed, and paying a lot of attention for a long time, so I hope you’ll give me your ears.

Circa 1890, brilliant oddball Orville Gibson decides to try to improve fretted instruments for his own use as a hobbyist. He played mandolins, which were becoming very popular, and he saw room for improvement and his artistic expression. He didn’t care much about the guitar, and so didn’t make many of them, maybe a dozen, some think even fewer. Orville concentrated his efforts on mandolins and harp guitars. He turned out to be a talented and prolific builder, and was active as a musician and performer. Orville had no training as an instrument maker or woodworker. He grew up on a farm in Western NY state during the second Industrial Revolution, and we all know that farm girls and boys can do a lot with a little. He moved to Kalamazoo MI., a fast growing manufacturing center ripe with opportunities, full of startups and others eager to make their mark in the modern world. He was self-financed, working day gigs as a sales guy in a shoe store, then in a restaurant, whatever it took. Sound familiar? He made a close friend, Thaddeus McHugh, an expert woodworker, who may have had some training in Lutherie. Thad had a great singing voice they performed together. More on this important guy later… Orville was a good musician and although I’m sure he knew about violins, when he designed his arched mandolins and guitars, he followed his own design instincts. Some of his innovations were good, and others… well let’s say there was very little that he took from violin family bowed instrument construction.

Did you know that he sawed the sides and part of the neck heel out of one solid piece of thick wood? The sides were sawn about 3/8" (10MM) thick. Also, his designs are unlike any other carved instrument that I know of in that there’s no recurve in the arching whatsoever, quite the opposite, also there are no braces*, no blocks, and no linings, natch, since the sides were so thick they weren’t needed. . If you admire “traditional” archtop guitars and you think that Orville started the tradition, then traditional archtop guitars don’t have braces, don’t have linings, don’t have tailpieces, have glued-on bridges and the plates don’t have any recurve. That doesn’t resemble what any of us build today, and from where we stand now, his guitars kind of look like they came from outer space.

They were unbraced? I didn’t know that.

Orville Gibson was awarded one US patent, in 1898. In it he claims that we want the fewest parts possible, that all those pesky little bits and pieces, lining, braces, cleats, etc. inside the instrument are just choking the tone and hurting the sound of the instruments. He took “less is more” quite seriously. If you go to my site and look at Archtoppery, you can see X-ray images, courtesy of John Thomas, of an 1898 guitar showing that Orville did in fact sneak in one small-dimension cross brace below the large oval soundhole, and you can also see that he liked to use little steel brads to keep parts in alignment while gluing. They’re all over the place!

He does create some beautiful, ornate Victorian-style mandolins using arched tops and backs, a revolutionary design. He figured out how to make some great sounding mandolins which gain notoriety in the local scene. He must have made a splash, because a group of local investors size him up, and figure they can make some serious money by producing his new mandolin designs, which they did. They paid him quite a lot for the rights to his patent and for his guidance and participation in launching the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company in 1902. However, the relationship quickly fell apart. Tragically, Orville had serious mental health problems, and was institutionalized several times. He was intractable and insisted on some impractical construction details that the team at Gibson resisted. Ouch. Some suggest that he only worked at the Gibson factory for a couple of months before he got squeezed out by the exasperated owners for his eccentricities.

Between the horse-drawn carriage and furniture factories, Kalamazoo was crawling with expert woodworkers and metalworkers employed by a number of big, profitable factories. Boom times! Kalamazoo was surrounded by good local timber with railways built to move it to the factories. Importantly, there was a modern East-West railroad hauling passengers and freight, bringing in guild-trained European craftsmen who had recently met with the Statue of Liberty, while also distributing finished products at low cost.

The Gibson Company devised an effective marketing scheme that proved to be a runaway success. Gibson instruments were not sold in music stores, where they would compete with others’ products. Gibson contracted with well respected music educators all over the country, and made them exclusive Gibson “agents”. and devised a payment scheme combining lessons and layaway mandolin financing that worked like a charm. The result was oodles of mandolin orchestras comprised very nearly exclusively by Gibson Mandolin family instruments. They figured out a system where local music teachers would become Gibson sales agents who has exclusive rights to sell Gibson products. Eager students would study a couple times a week, pay for the lesson and make a payment on the Gibson mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mandobass, guitar they hoped to master. Maybe after two years, you’d own the mandolin, and hopefully you’d be good enough to play in your local mandolin orchestra. There wasn’t a lot to do in the Midwest before WWI, and before radio, you needed to make your own music. Unless you traveled, you would never hear any music that wasn’t made by somebody that you grew up with. Mandolin orchestras were popular and a social focal point for the youngsters and young adults in the community. These orchestras created a decent setting to meet people that wasn’t a church, and wasn’t a saloon. In other words, a place you might get yourself a date! Have a look at all the beautiful, well-dressed young women and men in the old Mandolin Orchestra photos. It looks like Tinder! Anyway, this worked perfectly for a while, and everybody won, or close to it. The teachers got students, the students learned to play music, these new mando-musicians got a safe, respectable, and secular place to play nice music, and the town got to use their bandstand and hear the nice youngsters play some tunes! What’s not to like?? Thanks, Gibson!

The Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company in the aughts and teens was growing well with their mandolin family instruments, but there was little demand for the guitar. There were a few seats in some of the mandolin orchestras, but they were background instruments, not featured like the mandolins. Few played guitars outside the home, and there was no repertoire. Gibson was not building many archtop guitars, and their first flat top guitars weren’t introduced until 1926. The GM&G company started to build archtop guitars in 1902, and didn’t ever build a flat top guitar until the Nick Lucas model was released in ’26. Or was it ’25? It’s always a little tough to tell for sure with Gibson dates and numbers.

After WWI, nobody seemed to want lessons with those Gibson agents leading to a seat in the mandolin orchestras any more. Their mandolin marketing plan collapsed, and although their banjos sold well in the ’20s, Gibson very nearly went bankrupt in 1924, when the economy was strong, and everyone else seemed to be getting rich.

Why do you think that was, when it had worked so well just a few years before?

WWI and the Spanish flu took out a lot of our country’s youth in just a few years, and left lasting scars. I have a haunting picture here in my shop, an old style landscape group portrait, from early 1917. There’s about four hundred young men and a few young women all dressed up shoulder to shoulder in army uniforms. I would bet you that only a few of those kids were alive and well in 1920. Between deployment “Over There” and the flu, the young people were at terrible risk for injury and death, and we lost a big chunk of that generation. Older people apparently had some viral immunity from their youth, and most lived through the 1918 flu, but otherwise healthy young people and children were unlikely to survive it. Half of one percent of all Americans died from this H1N1 virus, and more on the fields of Europe. This was a tumultuous, difficult time that changed our culture. We went from the Gay ’90s to the horrors of war. By the time radio arrived in the early ’20s, the mandolin orchestra had already become an anachronism.

After you’ve heard Jascha Heifetz on the radio, Uncle Joe doesn’t feel he can measure up. It’s sad, but maybe Uncle Joe puts his fiddle away and doesn’t play anymore.

Our culture got more cosmopolitan. Before radio, Americans were isolated in a way that’s hard for us to imagine. Most rural Americans hadn’t heard anything much from the rest of the world in their whole lives. Mandolins were out of favor, and wouldn’t start to come back into their own until Bill Monroe! Gibson tried to make better banjos, and did have some success, but there were many good banjo companies and everybody was patenting improved banjo components. Gibson got into tenor and then plectrum banjos, but they had a lot of competition and sales weren’t strong enough to fill in for the mandolin downturn.

My understanding is that although the early Gibson Company mandolins closely resembled Orville’s early development work and patent drawings, so far as I can tell, Orville Gibson did not design any guitar that the Gibson company ever made. They kind of looked like his guitars, and they all had oval or round sound holes like Orville’s guitars did, but they certainly weren’t built with his patented ideas, and they were probably better for it. The Dutch immigrants that made up the great majority of the workforce brought with them the trade skills and high level craftsmanship that were part of their culture. The Gibson archtop guitars that were first made in 1902 featured none of Orville’s odd construction features. Like other guitars, they had bent sides, triangular kerfed linings and blocks and braces, and they most certainly had the dome and recurve features in their tops like all the violin family instruments do. The archetype “traditional archtop guitar?” At Gibson, the original source of the archtop, probably “nobody” and/or “everybody” designed it. Maybe three workers designed it? Or maybe there was one uncredited genius designer? We just won’t ever know for sure who that person(s) was. (Could it have been Orville’s buddy, 30-year Gibson employee, and factory supervisor Thaddeus McHugh? Or maybe one of their skilled draftsmen?)

And it wasn’t Lloyd Loar.

Certainly not, as there were many archtop models produced over the seventeen years before Master Loar joined the Gibson team; lots of idiosyncratic variations from tiny to gigantic, coming and going as Gibson tried to hit the guitar market target. Lloyd Loar was an early acoustic engineer, a virtuoso performer, a multitalented, visionary inventor who started working with Gibson in 1919; although I believe he took summers off to tour and perform. He wasn’t trained as a builder and he didn’t build any instruments, but he made intuitively good decisions based on his training as a musician and acoustic scientist. He was the maestro at Gibson. In fact, he made everybody at the factory address him as “Master Loar.” (No, really, he did!) First project was to breathe new life into the mandolin; he evolved and refined Orville’s work into the F and A models, the two styles that everybody still builds today. It was not wholly his design, of course. He tinkered with the flexibility and tap tone of the plates and parts, and got it to speak better, he helped the builders to make a higher quality instrument.

From 1902 to 1922, Gibson had made several guitar models in many variants; the L-0, L-1, L-2, L-3, and L-4. Finally, in 1922, Lloyd Loar got around to the guitar. He applied his scientific methods to the project and tweaked it all into the L-5. Many agree that Lloyd’s original L-5 is the first guitar we consider to be a modern (and “traditional”) archtop guitar. Everything else comes from that. Loar is the first American (although other builders in Germany and France were way ahead on this) to put f-holes in an archtop guitar. It’s hard to see this as some kind of brilliant leap since every other arched (and bowed) instrument has f-holes! Remember, he was a virtuoso violinist, so he understood some things the may have been overlooked at Gibson by previous designers. More importantly, Loar trained the team to think about plate behavior and vibrations in a new way. Whoever was running the carving department before Lloyd didn’t seem to have a target. They tried this, they tried that, and the guitars were all over the place.

His new L-5 guitar is light, and it sounds impressive. It’s better proportioned, has a slender neck with the brand new truss rod, and it’s the right size. It’s not too anything. Gibson had always made big and little guitars, so it wasn’t that the size was new. But Lloyd decided, “This is the right size: 16" wide.” I agree, I think it is about the right size. Then Thaddeus McHugh, Orville’s good friend and musical performing partner invented the screw adjustable truss rod (just a long carriage bolt, really, once again demonstrating that you can’t beat a simple good idea) and the height-screw adjustable bridge, both patents granted in 1923. This powerful patent ensured that it was quite a while before anybody else could use an adjustable truss rod, or at least one that resembled Gibson’s. And since the McHugh/Gibson truss rod was the perfect (simplest) engineering solution right off the bat, for other companies to do a design that slithered around the patent was tough. Best example of this was Epiphone’s awful two way turnbuckle design that tended to both not work very well, and eject fingerboards randomly when the neck/fingerboard glue joint gave up. (Take my advice, and don’t expect these to do much, and maybe just not turn them at all to be on the safe side) So the first L-5s burst out with a modern, slender neck that gives a much better ergonomic experience. Before that, their archtop guitar necks were so big that modern players can hardly believe it. So now Gibson had a killer modern guitar with some marvelous improvements, but there was still no market for it. No Market.

Now back to the Gibson story. Lloyd Loar left Gibson in 1924. He had done his best work, raising the bar of everything he worked on, also including the Mastertone banjo. Nowadays we consider his efforts heroic and worthy of high praise and accolades, but at the time, Gibson was almost going out of business, and Lloyd’s contributions weren’t helping their bottom line. If anything, it may have done the opposite, as he must have been well paid, and his most important contribution might have been his commitment to training the builders to do the careful, time consuming work of tap tuning in order to improve response and insure consistent tonal quality. If you look at the number of the L-5 guitars that were made in the ’20s, it was so few! Worse, we think some guitars might have been counted more than once, since they cost a fortune, were hard to sell, and sometimes were returned by agents who were unable to sell them. But then, here comes Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, who invented country music playing her early L-5, and Eddie Lang, the first guitar hero, who played an L-4 and L-5! Two utterly different virtuosos, exciting innovators in their fresh, thrilling new genres, they both chose the L-5 to show their stuff! Five minutes later, everybody who heard them wanted an L-5. Everyone wanted one, but sales were so few. The guitars were lots of work to make, and it was the most expensive guitar in America. When the L-5 was introduced, a Martin 000-45 cost $150. At $305 with case, the classy and understated L-5, with its varnish sunburst and very nearly without ornament, was the ultimate. Like owning a Strad, owning an L-5 made you musical royalty.

A few years later, the perception that an archtop was aspirational gave Manhattanite John D’Angelico his pathway into the new market. He was challenging Gibson on their own terms, and on his own turf, which, unlike Kalamazoo, was the center of the musical universe!

John’s first instruments were very hard to tell apart from an L-5, except for his name on the headstock. His customers were close at hand, and if he liked you, you could get an informal layaway deal. If you wanted your neck a little smaller or a little bigger, or you wanted your name engraved somewhere, it was “Sure, we’re doing that just for you.” The ridiculous “Teardrop Guitar” is the most far-out example of this. John ran the first custom guitar shop in America! Finally, we see the first healthy part of the archtop market, and it’s New York City-centric, partly because the amazingly prolific and talented John D’Angelico is kicking butt, and partly because even though it’s the bottom of the worst economy ever, in New York, at least some one-percenters are still in the game, throwing parties and weddings and hiring musicians.

In one of the first few L-5s, signed by Lloyd Loar, inside the top, in pencil in Lloyd’s handwriting, it reads, “Make the braces a little thinner”. That’s why we care about Lloyd Loar; he was sensitive to the stresses, proportions and thicknesses that need to be carefully controlled and optimized to reveal the power and sensitivity of the archtop design. By the end of the ’20s, there was a little group of people in the archtop department that were building a few Master Model L-5s. The first guitars had plain birch backs, but then perhaps they thought, “We’re charging a lot for these. Maybe we should throw down and get some snazzy-looking wood.” So they switched to curly maple, and those are the ones that everybody remembers. Since curly maple is almost always used for violin family instruments, this also seemed “traditional”.

So I think when you say “traditional archtop guitar,” really what you mean is one of those L-5 guitars from Gibson between ’22 and ’29. That’s a super short time to develop a guitar design to its full potential. (Ask me how I know!) It’s a huge challenge to train first-rate factory laborers and try to fit and fuss everything together in order to realize Lloyd’s version of Gibson’s time consuming, and labor-expensive archtop. The archtop market didn’t exist yet, and maybe the L-5 started to create its own market by just being so damn good. It was, in fact good enough that John D’Angelico’s first guitars were an exact copy of an L-5 without the Gibson name.

Sadly, America’s Great Depression dealt a body blow to non essential manufacturing of all kinds in late 1929. It’s hard to imagine how the small demand for this extravagantly priced L-5 guitar was able to survive all this stress, and, sad to tell, Lloyd’s careful voicing and brace thinning instructions were abandoned that year, just when the team was starting to kick ass, and replaced by some terrible cost-saving compromises, most notably the shameful use of kerfed braces to simplify brace fitting. Horrible! But I suppose it was one of those cost-cutting massacres that helped Gibson to stay in business while lots of equally good smaller instrument making companies vanished forever.

Speaking of traditional archtops, a pet peeve of mine is the idea that the L-5 archtop guitar was designed to cut through a big band. They weren’t really designed for anything like that as there were no big bands back then.

If anything, they were forlorn instruments all but abandoned by Gibson during the mandolin craze years, and finally dialed in by Master Loar to be powerful and sound musical. It is known that he himself had little interest in the guitar, as he didn’t play them, and mostly wanted to get back to teaching, inventing his incredible electronic instruments, and touring in good weather with his wife.

We think that Nick Lucas was handed the first L-5 prototype by someone at Gibson (Lloyd Loar?, Thaddeus McHugh?) in 1922 for evaluation, to take on tour and play beta tester for the first article/new design. It’s hard to think who would have been a better choice! Nick Lucas was a friend and client of Raphael Ciani who had a big lutherie shop in downtown Manhattan making violins and all kinds of fretted instruments. Raphael Ciani was John D’Angelico’s employer and great uncle. So in 1922 when John D’Angelico was eighteen, he heard the first L-5 prototype in the hands of homeboy Nick Lucas. Kind of a great industrial espionage story, right? Around this time, Ciani passed, and John D’Angelico took over supervision of the whole factory. D’Angelico had started working there when he was nine!

No school, right?

School until nine, maybe, if that, then child labor. At least he was working for his family. I understand that there were a whole string of Italian families running instrument building businesses all on that same block who sometimes joined forces to do a group co-op assembly line in order to save a little labor, collaborate, and so be able to sell good instruments for a little less money, and expand their market.

John obviously had a huge gift, he was a prodigy. By the time he was seventeen or eighteen, he was capable of building world class stringed instruments of any style or type, and he was running his family’s business with fifteen or more workers reporting to him. He did that for almost ten years, but then got sick of not getting paid, parted ways with his great Aunt, and opened his own shop.

Unfortunately it was 1932, the worst economic year the United States has ever had. He opened a little shop in his Manhattan neighborhood building something that nobody really needed, at a time when it was tough, to say the least, to make a living as a guitar player. I understand that he took a few guys with him when he left; there were four or five guys in his shop for a while in the early ’30s. A lot of archtops came out of that little shop, starting with L-5 inspired non-cutaways between 16˝ and 17˝. These early models were very nice guitars for the most part, and with that charming “made by hand” vibe we all love.

I understand that the spruce, flatsawn curly maple and basswood used in linings came from a local lumberyard. Of course, a big-city lumber yard in 1932 was a different kind of place than we have today. You could get 5/4 spruce in several grades. Well, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where the top wood came from. It was low cost construction lumber that John must have been able to pick over. If you look closely at some of those early guitars, you’ll see that none of them are bookmatched. They’re slip matched. Many of them are off quarter. After I’d serviced a bunch of these early guitars thirty plus years ago, it dawned on me that part of what we think of as the iconic sound of an D’Angelico guitar, a lot of that tonality might be attributed to rift-sawn spruce top material. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Sometimes it was 20° off vertical. The guitars tend to be on the thick side, and the wood was not always up to modern standards, so maybe building a little thicker isn’t so bad in this equation? I don’t know. Was it optimal? I don’t think so, and that’s my point: The domed archtop design is such a strong design that it can tolerate suboptimal material and be left too thick, and still sound pretty great! Thanks, John!

When I asked Jimmy D’Aquisto, “What was D’Angelico’s strongest period?”, without a second’s hesitation, he said, “John’s best guitars are from the ’30s.” None of these had a cutaway or an adjustable truss rod.

So John D’Angelico, Charles and Elmer Stromberg, and Gibson made acoustic archtops to a high standard, and staggered through the depression, hoping to attract players for their acoustic archtops.

In 1937 Charlie Christian plugged in a brand new Gibson ES 150 with an electromagnetic pickup into a tube amplifier, and the whole world tilted. It’s game over, really. The electric guitar stomped out the Acoustic archtop like a cigarette, and most folks never looked back.

Very nearly no professional ever bothered playing an acoustic archtop without a pickup again, and if somehow you’ve never heard Charlie Christian play his incredible solos with Benny Goodman’s band, do yourself a favor, and then you’ll know why everyone has been trying to sound like him ever since!

Always we hear that the exception is the exceptional, the inimitable Freddie Green, who has become like Atlas holding up the whole planet on the idea of cutting power. By the way, this was a setup, so here we go one more time with my pet peeve about “cutting power in a big band.”

Freddie Green played his own unique style of acoustic rhythm guitar in Count Basie’s Big Band for half a century, and is often cited as the exemplary big archtop voice that cut through it all. Freddy’s favorite guitar was a 17" Stromberg with one diagonal brace, or half an X brace.

1) Freddy comped, played mostly triads, but even if there are more than three notes in his voicing, he treated all the notes save one as grace notes, muting them right after they are sounded, and letting one note ring out and sustain. His is an absolutely unique approach, and sounded great; his was almost like a descant part to the bass line. If he ever took a solo, I’m not sure any of us know about it. (I think there’s one.) Freddy was an idiosyncratic rhythm monster/master, and has no one standing beside him, making him an especially odd and troublesome exemplary musician to try to leverage to make a point about cutting power.

2) It is well known that count Basie had a saying that was heard with some frequency by a number of rambunctious horn players in his brass/sax sections, and it goes, “If you can’t hear Freddy, you’re playing too loud.” I rest my case, your honor. It certainly is true that a powerful archtop can be uniquely powerful and kick hard, and we love this sometimes, but let’s not overstate the case and embarrass ourselves!

Wonder what “unique” means when we talk about Mr. Green? Here are his words, “You should never hear the guitar by itself. It should be part of the drums so it sounds like the drummer is playing chords—like the snare is in A or the hi-hat in D minor.”