By Adam Levy
An Archtop for the Ages – Solomon’s Phidelity gives a nod to Loar, D’Angelico & da Vinci
With the Phidelity model, New Hampshire luthier Erich Solomon offers his personal take on the time-honored American archtop. Inspired by the visual and sonic characteristics of Gibson’s early L-5 models—as well as midcentury instruments built by John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto—the Phidelity is at once classic and modern. Euclidian geometry, too, has had some influence on the design of the Phidelity, hence the peculiar spelling of this model’s name. Phi, as you may know, denotes a particular geometric ratio that can be found in nature (nautilus shells, the DNA double helix, and so on). Leonardo da Vinci used phi proportions in his art and designs. Renowned 17th-century luthier Antonio Stradivari apparently used phi when calculating the placement of F-holes on his violins. Indeed, there really does seem to be something special about this so-called “golden ratio.” (Solomon Guitars’ website includes a link to goldennumber.net, a site devoted solely to the examination of phi.)
Whether you appreciate the mathematical backstory or not, the visual appeal of the Phidelity is undeniable. It features a wide-grained, hand-carved European spruce top; beveled oval soundhole; solid-brass tailpiece; and shapely back, also carved. There are clean lines and elegant curves everywhere you look—front, back, outside, and inside.
The test guitar belongs to a private owner who generously lent his instrument for review. It was ordered to his specifications. As such, some of the details—both cosmetic and functional—vary from the standard Phidelity specs on the Solomon website. These variations will be highlighted in the review.
Bebop & Beyond
The Phidelity has a complex voice. Individual notes seem to have an abundance of overtones, while the fundamentals remain strong and clear. Simple chords sound rich and perfectly tuned. Extended harmonies also benefit from these overtones and true intonation. It is remarkably responsive to varied flatpicking techniques and to different types of picks, as well as to different fingerpicking styles. While it is the descendant of instruments usually associated with swing and bop, the Phidelity is not for jazzbos only. Virtually any style that you can play on a flattop could be rendered on this guitar.
There is an ovular sound port on the upper bout (bass side), which gives you a more detailed sonic perspective than you’ve come to expect from non-ported guitars. It’s hard to resist peering into the hole. Doing so makes it clear that Solomon’s craftsmanship is absolutely top-notch. Every structural detail is tidy as can be. This port could also be used for alternative miking techniques in the studio.
The review model is outfitted with a floating Kent Armstrong PAF-style humbucking pickup. Played through a 1963 Fender Deluxe amp, the sound is warm and articulate and is not prone to feedback at reasonable volumes. Any guitarist would primarily play the Phidelity as an amplified instrument should consider using strings intended for electric guitar. The phosphor-bronze strings that come as standard equipment are fine for acoustic playing but aren’t the material that such a pickup is designed to respond to.
The Phidelity’s dimensions make it comfortable to play, with a 16-inch span across the lower bout and a depth of 3 inches. The just-right shape of the one-piece cherry neck (hard maple is also an option) is neither too round nor too flat, and the compound-radius fretboard feels great for chording as well as melodic playing. The neck joins the body at the 14th fret. (Solomon also offers a 13-fret option.) Though there is no cutaway here (another option, if you like), it’s no trouble at all to play up to the topmost (16th) fret. (Phidelity models without pickups sport 17–19 frets, depending on scale length and the number of frets clear of the body.)
The review guitar has a strap button at the endpin jack, but there’s no button at the neck heel. To play standing up, you’d either have to install such a button or tie the end of your strap to the headstock—which I did. The Phidelity balances nicely in the strap-tied position and also sits easily in the lap, if that’s your preferred way of playing. While such easy balance may not be a major consideration for all instrument builders, it sure is appreciated when it’s right.
The Whole Shebang
With a base price of $6,249, the Solomon Phidelity is not inexpensive. The standard Phidelity is built with curly European maple back and sides. This upgraded review model—with solid walnut back and sides, a bound headstock, and Kent Armstrong pickup (made by Armstrong himself)—costs an additional $1,000. Although justified by the outstanding quality of the instrument and the degree of handwork involved (the hand-rubbed French polish process alone takes 40 hours), such a price point will put the Phidelity out of reach for many players. Those who can afford the investment, however, will be rewarded in the short term and over the years to come, as a guitar like this is bound to get even better with age.
At A GLANCE
16-inch oval-hole archtop
African blackwood bridge
Solid brass tailpiece
French polish finish
25-inch scale length
16-inch compound fretboard radius
French polish finish
D’Addario EXP16 phosphor bronze light strings (.012–.053)
Kent Armstrong PAF-style humbucking pickup
Cedar Creek deluxe hardshell case
$6,249 ($7,249 as reviewed)
Made in the USA
Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist and songwriter based in Los Angeles, where he is department chair of the guitar performance program at Los Angeles College of Music. His guitar work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Amos Lee, Ani DiFranco, among others. Learn more at adamlevy.com.