Dominant Archtop Designs

November 26, 2007

Nicolai Foss

Scholars who study technological development have coined the notion of a “dominant design,” that is, a specific construction that sets the standard for innovative activities within an industry. For example, the dominant design in automobiles has pretty much been with us since before the First World War (i.,e., gasoline driven, four-wheeled vehicles with steering wheel, etc.).

There is surely also a dominant archtop design, which on the very overall level, is the original Gibson L5 (f-holes, archted top etc.). However, technological development takes place within a dominant design, and while the L5 design itselt may have been dominant until just after the Second World War, the ES-175 pretty much took over until around the mid-1980s, when the D’Aquisto design began to become the dominant standard. To see this, look at the what the copyists are copying. The early Asian copyist producers, like Ibanez, Aria, Hondo, Yamaha, etc., were all within the ES-175 mode (with lots of variations, of course). More recent copyist producers, like Peerless, D’Aspiranta, etc., have directly copied the D’Aquisto (New York) design, however, and countless other builders have accepted this design as the basis for further innovation.

4 Responses to “Dominant Archtop Designs”

  1. DHM Says:

    Are these really examples of the same instrument?

    L5 (as opposed to the L5CES):an acoustic instrument (carved solid-wood top etc), which if it has a pickup it’d be a floater so as not to impair its acoustic tone.
    175: Electric guitar made from plywood with holes cut in it for pickups, and consequently execrable acoustic tone (Joe Pass’s 1st ‘Virtuoso’ LP is an example).
    D’Aquisto: see L5

  2. Nicolai Foss Says:

    That is a very, very good comment. I suppose that what we really are interested in when we talk about “designs” is functionality, rather than the physical form per se. While the 175 and the L5 have pretty similar physical forms, their functionalities are very different; hence, they are different instruments.

  3. davefg34 Says:

    Dominate Archtop Designs

    The L-5 (or L-7, 10s. 12. etc),in fact, the archtop concept of design is a good one. It lasts and lasts. Instruments of 80 years plus are intact while the flattop design has troubles. When you look at its cousin the cello and other stringed instruments then you can see instruments dating much earlier.

    Tensions inherent in the design of the instrument are conducive to its longevity. Contrast to flattop designs which on average have a life span of 50 years or so. This is a general statement I’ve heard in the community. There are the flattops of the 1500s, 1600s and onward (Guitarra and Vihuela) which are mostly museum pieces that are still present.

    One must consider the attitude of construction differs from that of today. Today most if not all guitars are made for sale as a product. The product has a short lifespan. The idea of repair is not as highly regarded as in the past. Hide glue allows tops, backs, and necks to be removed with minimal disruption to appearance and function. Polyurethane glues do not lend themselves to repairs easily.

    The same can be said for the contemporary finishes. Shellac (French polish) and nitrocellulose finishes can be reworked to make “just made” vibe. Urethane finishes are one-shot deals whose repair procedure is removal and refinish. Costs involved for such procedures usually make it cost effective to purchase another new instrument.

    While on this topic, luthiers of earlier period, had less string tension on their instruments than today which may account for some destructive tendencies of contemporary flat top designs.

    Archops are good designs. Some contemporary luthiers do build with repair in mind. The playing public is less concerned about this aspect the guitar. The market will continue to lower the cost of instruments and make them disposable. Discriminating players understand the dynamics of constructions and tone. Pockets of the instrument buying market do understand this. They are likely to be found in the orchestral instruments, classical and flamenco guitar market segments. The jazz guitar / archtop community could benefit from this attitude.

  4. Hi Nicolai and readers.
    Good commment to start a chat.
    I keep coming back to the basics and that is Acoustics verses electrification. As we all know the 175 was really built as an electric archtop where as the forerunners like the L-5 were built as acoustic archtop guitars.
    The 175 was a laminated top and the L-5 was a carved top and so in many way I would have to agree with Nicoloai that they are completely different guitars. As I have said many time as soon as they started putting pickups on guitars, that changed the guitar for ever. If you want to debate this then please do because I believe that the true archtop acoustic sound has slowly taken second place to the plugged in sound, which in many cases has no resemblence to the acoustic sound of the archtop guitar unplugged. As Nicolai knows D’Aquisto in his latter years tried to retain that archtop acoustic sound by making The Centura, The solo, The Avant Garde etc which all came without pickups. I have played many of the popular famous name archtop guitars including the 175 and I am not impressed by the acoustic sound they struggle to produce. Just getting a little bit more technical now, but apart from many changes to the achtop guitar that has taken place the short scale concept has not helped with the acoustic sound. Whilst the short scale guitar makes the fret board easier for many to use it has shotened the string length and I have noticed that the nicer sounding acoustic archtop guitars are a full 25 1/2″ scale allowing the strings to fully resonate. On the subject of strings the flats have not done much for the full acoustic sound of many archtop guitars as most like the L-5’s were designed for round wounds. I still use L-5 on most of my archtops for that reason.
    Best wishes Richard.

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