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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, Michigan, 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.

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Intonation in the Real World

Intonation in the Real World

by Mike Doolin

from his 2006 GAL Convention lecture

previously published in American Lutherie #92, 2007



Getting guitars to play in tune has been a major topic of interest for many years, both for guitar players and guitar makers, and it has been a major source of frustration as well. During our current “Golden Age of Lutherie” the bar has been raised for standards of craft, playability, and tonal quality, as players have become more sophisticated in their expectations and builders have become better educated and more demanding of their own work. Expectations for accurate intonation have come along with all that: it’s no longer acceptable for a guitar to only play in tune for the first five frets, or in a few keys. Modern players are using the whole neck, exploring extended harmonies, and playing in ensembles with other instruments. They are looking for instruments that play in tune with themselves and with the rest of the musical world.

It turns out that guitar intonation is a huge can of worms, because it is really two topics:

▶What does it mean to be “in tune?”
▶How do I make a guitar do that?

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Herr Helmholtz’ Tube

Herr Helmholtz’ Tube

by Mike Doolin

previously published in American Lutherie #91, 2007

See also,
“There’s a Hole in the Bucket” by Cyndy Burton
“Sideways” by John Monteleone
“Three Holes are Better than One” by Robert Ruck



Design innovator Mike Doolin tried an interesting experiment. Mike’s guitars have the distinctive double-cutaway feature and they don’t lend themselves to a port up in the neck/cutaway region for reasons of underlying structure. So Mike put one in the lower bout and very unexpectedly found his Helmholtz resonance had raised something like a major third. He felt that compromised the responses of the guitar. His solution was to “tube it.”

The side was ported before I assembled the guitar. After gluing the back on, I realized the change in the Helmholtz when I tapped on the guitar with the port open. It seemed obvious that a shift of a major third up was going to radically change the sound of the guitar, probably killing most of the bass response. I knew that ports in bass reflex speakers are often tubes, where the longer the tube the lower the resonant frequency. I also knew that the tube could be either inside or outside the box. So I initially held a roll of toilet paper against the port, letting the cardboard core of the roll form a tube that extended the port. That dropped the main air resonance back down, showing me that I was on the right track. Then I turned a tube of wood on my lathe to fit the hole and experimented with the length until the air resonance moved less than a half-step with the port closed or open. I recall the port being 1 1/4" in diameter and the tube being about 2 1/4" long, but that’s just from memory.

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Side Soundports

There’s a Hole in the Bucket

by Cyndy Burton

A Discussion of Sideports, with Contributions from Kenny Hill, Alan Carruth, Roger Thurman, John Monteleone, Mike Doolin, and Robert Ruck

previously published in American Lutherie #91, 2007

See also,
Sidewaysby John Monteleone
“Herr Helmholtz’ Tube” by Mike Doolin
“Three Holes are Better than One” Robert Ruck



Just in case we become too self-satisfied with our “discovery” of ports, Alain Bieber, in his article on lyra guitars (AL#88, p. 16), points us to the Neapolitan Gennaro Fabricatore’s ported lyras from the early 1800s. (Alain ported his own contemporary lyra guitar, too.) So we know prominent makers were putting holes in the sides of their instruments in the late 1700s, early 1800s. Many of us are also aware of Carleen Hutchins’ groundwork in the early 1980s. Her “Le Greyère” violin, with sixty-five sideports, has provided a wealth of data about violin resonances since it was made in 1982. She donated the violin to the National Music Museum in 2002. See some great photos of Le Greyère and a list of publications reporting on that research at collections.nmmusd.org/Archives/NewViolinFamily/Hutchinscheeseviolin.html.

People are sensitive about putting holes in things. Many guitarists — perhaps more classical guitarists than others — find the ports some sort of denigration, a violation of the sanctity of the guitar’s perfect form. In all fairness, we’ve met with very strong feelings on both sides of the port issue. Luckily, our customer was very open to the idea. He’s not a concertizing musician, but he’s a serious player, and occasionally he plays publicly for special events. We wanted to try ports for him because he has a hearing loss, and we thought ports would be a great way for him to hear himself better. At that time, Robert Ruck had made about a hundred ported guitars, so we figured he had worked out the kinks. He kindly advised us on size, location, and so on. We followed his lead. The result is a wonderful instrument that the owner truly appreciates. We love the feedback — the monitor effect for the player — and when we tested it in a small auditorium with an overflowing audience, we could not discern any loss of projection or quality of sound. But was it louder? Our evidence was very meager and inconclusive. Many makers are adamant that it’s louder with the ports open for both the player and the audience.

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