Ever since the Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado pioneered the design of the modern classical guitar in the mid-1800s, guitar makers have been toying with ways of making louder instruments with wider tonal ranges. These experiments have resulted in structural deviations from the traditional flattop guitar—changes that must have seemed revolutionary when they were introduced, but which are now standard designs that guitarists of all stripes tend to take for granted.
The archtop guitar, for instance, is distinguished by its carved top, floating bridge, and separate tailpiece—features that, on the best instruments, offer enhanced projection and an unmistakable punchiness—a boon for ensemble players before the introduction of the electric guitar, especially those in big bands. Also a solution to the problem of volume, resonator guitars, with their internal sound-transmitting cones, were originally designed for Hawaiian music but came to be closely associated with blues, country, bluegrass, and other rootsy American styles.
Modern baritone guitars were first seen in electric form, existing somewhere in the space between standard and bass guitars. Eventually, acoustic baritones hit the market. Though they might not be as widely used as their archtop and resonator counterparts, baritones offer acoustic players a new world of arranging possibilities, as they extend the guitar’s range down by a perfect fourth or fifth in standard baritone tuning.
AG recently asked three of our contributing writers—Sean McGowan, Greg Olwell, and Emile Menasché, who have spent a lot of time with archtop, resonator, and baritone guitars, respectively—to talk about the history of these instruments, the makers and players associated with them, and how you can get your hands on one, no matter your budget. — Adam Perlmutter
Special thanks to vintage guitar expert George Gruhn for reviewing some of the historical aspects of this piece.
Resonator Guitars Became an Integral Voice in American Music
By Greg Olwell
The quest for loud guitars came long before Les Paul, Leo Fender, and a host of other innovators developed workable electric guitars and amplification. As the relatively quiet and small-bodied guitars of the 19th century left the small, genteel parlors of homes for larger public spaces, they needed to become louder to accompany violin, piano, or brass instruments. This resulted in the guitar being transformed from the refined, delicate instrument still tied to a European model to one more stereotypically American—big and loud. As the 20th century began to ramp up, several American makers began fundamentally changing the guitar to meet the needs of the players who wanted to be heard on a bandstand, juke joint, or busy downtown sidewalk.
In this arms race for more volume and presence, guitar makers began building larger and larger instruments and experimenting with different construction concepts, like new bracing systems and mechanical amplification. Out of all these innovations, the resonator guitar stands out for its solution of using a spun aluminum cone (or cones) to turn a player’s picking energy into ear-tingling music.
During the last two decades, the resonator has seen a reawakening, with instruments becoming more affordable through overseas mass production, and at the same time more innovative, as smaller builders continue to refine the basic concept that’s nearly 100 years old.
A Radical Invention
For anyone familiar with the gutsy chime of a shiny, nickel-plated National or the lonesome wail of a Dobro, it’s almost hard to imagine how radical these guitars were when they were new. The sound of a guitar relied on a vibrating wooden box to produce sound, but all of that changed in the late 1920s, when a Slovak-born luthier named John Dopyera was tasked by an American guitarist, George Beauchamp, to create a guitar loud enough to play melodic parts on the bandstand.
As an inventor who already had a few patents to his name, Dopyera devised a way to make the guitar louder using three very thin aluminum cones, driven by the strings vibrating a T-shaped bridge. The cones operate nearly identically to the speaker cones in your home stereo or guitar amp, though they face the back of the guitar and their sound is reflected off the rear. In 1927, the success of this instrument led Dopyera, Beauchamp, Dopyera’s two brothers—Rudy and Emil—and a group of investors to form the National String Instrument Corporation in Los Angeles. The dramatic story of the invention and the contentious aftermath is covered in great depth in Bob Brozman’s The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments (Centerstream) and is a worthy read for anyone interested in learning more.
These first three-coned instruments were called tricones, and they immediately caught on with the Hawaiian guitarists that were very popular in this era, like Sol Hoopii. The tone of these guitars could be almost liquid, with complex overtones, a reverberating quality, and a lot of sustain. The instruments found favor with players as diverse as Tampa Red, who played his singular slide guitar parts on an elaborately engraved gold-plated Style 4, and the criminally overlooked Oscar Alemán, who played fingerstyle with a thumbpick and recorded a handful of breathtaking recordings on a National Style 1. Alemán led the singer Josephine Baker’s band in prewar Paris and was widely considered Django Reinhardt’s main competition until he fled the Nazis and returned to his native Argentina. As Michael Dregni writes in Greg Ruby’s Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook (excerpted in the November/December 2019 issue of AG), Aleman’s tricones “were deemed essential to the Nazi war efforts and were to be melted down to be made into weapons of war.”
In response to the Great Depression, National introduced a less complex design that was more cost-effective to build. These more affordable guitars used one large cone, with a small bridge attached to the top of the cone, called a biscuit. Single-cone, or biscuit-style, resonators became the most popular design among country, folk, blues, and gospel musicians, who found ways to capitalize on the instrument’s strong attack, ideally suited for styles like Piedmont blues and ragtime. The list of players who used single-cone Nationals is as diverse as it is long and includes such greats as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Boy Fuller, Booker “Bukka” White, Son House, Hawaiian guitarist King Bennie Nawahi, Scrapper Blackwell, and countless others.
The single-cone’s development caused a lot of internal friction at National, and Dopyera and his brothers left to form a new resonator company, Dobro. The name was a clever one, incorporating Dopyera, while nodding to the brothers’ native tongue with a word that means “good” in Slovakian (dobrý).
The Dobro and National systems share the same basic idea—using a metal resonator to amplify the guitar’s tone—but with one very important difference. Instead of reflecting the cone’s sound off of the back of the guitar, the new Dobro design used a cone that faced outward, away from the guitar, which called for a web-like bridge to power the instrument’s cone. A spider bridge, as the design came to be known, produces a sweeter and more sustaining sound than a biscuit-style resonator, but not as rich as a tricone. Spider bridges found favor first with country and later with bluegrass musicians.
The rise of the electric guitar and the onset of World War II effectively ended production of resonator guitars, though they remained popular with artists who continued to make music with them until interest in their unique tones again began building in the 1980s.
A Specialized Market
Because the resonator is a niche instrument in the acoustic-guitar world, many of today’s makers tend to be specialists who make this instrument type exclusively. The market is quite specialized, too, which allows it to be nimble, with many unique and exotic variations on the resonator theme being produced by small custom builders and larger factory makers alike.
The allure of a vintage guitar is undeniable, and classic Dobros and Nationals are relatively affordable. But in most cases, modern resonators are more playable and sonically on par with—or even better-sounding than—the earliest examples, which often suffer from poor intonation (at least on the round-neck models) and inconsistent manufacturing techniques, not to mention the ravaging effects of time. Many of today’s builders use CNC machinery to create necks and bodies with far greater precision than was possible decades ago, resulting in guitars that play more in-tune and are consistent from instrument to instrument.
National Guitars, which was founded in 1989 and is based in San Luis Obispo, California, is a leader in integrating modern construction aids like CNC with the considerable amount of handwork that goes into soldering brass, steel, and German-silver bodies together or creating wooden guitars. The company has not only recreated many of the most desirable vintage models, it has improved on the resonator’s usability, while offering unique finishes and decoration that have helped redefine what the instrument can be. And having recently acquired the revered Scheerhorn brand of spider-cone guitars, National now offers dobro-type models. Prices for these American-made guitars begin at $3,100 (MSRP) and go up quickly with different finish, body material, and electronics options.
Just like steel-string acoustic players, resonator guitarists often crave unique instruments, which leads some of them to turn to smaller makers for custom pieces. You can find high-quality boutique resonators from John Morton, Mule, Ron Phillips, and Trussart, among other U.S. builders. Likewise, several smaller makers focus on dobro-style guitars, with companies like Beard (see our review of the A-Model Odyssey from the March 2020 issue) producing what are arguably the finest examples in the resonator guitar’s history.
Players looking to spend less than $1,000 on a new or used resonator guitar have many options to choose from in spider- and biscuit-type resonators. The resonator scene is dominated by instruments made in China and sold in the U.S. under several familiar brands. In this price range, you’ll find some with historic allegiances, like Dobro, Regal, and Gretsch, as well as other legacy companies—Dean, Recording King, and Washburn—that didn’t have resonators back in the day, but now offer a mouthwatering buffet of options to choose from at prices not possible in American-made guitars. Other relative newcomers, like Republic and Royall, are making waves with unique models that summon modern aesthetics, like steampunk.
Most resonator designs fall into the two traditional choices—a steel-, brass-, or wood-bodied biscuit-style modeled after a National, or a wooden Dobro-type guitar. Still, like the higher-end instruments, these more affordable options may offer more cutaways, electronics, and slimmer necks, to appeal to today’s guitarists who may have rootsy sounds in their ears yet want modern playability. Regardless of your budget, there is something out there that can satisfy your musical cravings for the unique sounds of a resonator guitar.
The Baritone and Its In-between Position in the Guitar World
By Emile Menasché
If the baritone guitar were a basketball player, it would probably end up on the scouting report as a tweener—a player whose size and skills don’t fit a standard position. Think six-foot-six, 250-pound Charles Barkley: too short for power forward, too beefy for small forward—and too good for the opposition.
Like Barkley—who earned such nicknames as “Sir Charles,” “The Round Mound of Rebound,” and “The Leaning Tower of Pizza” over his hall-of-fame career—at first glance, the baritone guitar may not look like an easy fit into your lineup. For one thing, it’s typically tuned a fourth or fifth below the standard six-string—from B1 to B2 or A1 to A2—falling in the zone between guitar and bass. For another, it doesn’t have a ton of repertoire of its own. That can be a challenge, even for experienced players. “I think of the baritone guitar as a transposing instrument like a trumpet or saxophone,” says noted session player and solo artist Sean Harkness, who began playing the acoustic baritone in 2008. “Everything is down a fourth. For 40 years that’s been a G chord—I can’t all of a sudden think of it as D—just can’t do it. So I transpose.”
Yet like an overlooked athlete who turns into an all-star, the baritone acoustic is a winner in the hands of players like Harkness. And with instruments from Collings, Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Walden, Ovation, Alvarez, and Ibanez currently available, guitarists of all budgets can dip into the deep end. (Note: Taylor has made a number of baritone guitars in recent years. However, like the 326e reviewed in the January 2016 issue of AG, these are not in current production but are available in the used market. While some of the recent Taylor baritones have eight strings, these are essentially tuned as six-string guitars; the third and fourth strings are arranged in 12-string-style octave pairs.)
The origins of the baritone guitar as we now know it are a bit murky. In the 1800s, some European makers produced baritones, but very little is known about these instruments, other than the obvious fact that they were acoustic. On his website oranjproductions.com, musician and writer Mike Freeman considers the ancient, cello-like viola da gamba and Gibson’s mandocello as precursors to the baritone guitar.
But the baritone guitar as we know it has much more recent roots. Some historians call the late 1950s Danelectro Baritone the first of its kind. It was never a bestseller, but it did add low twang to 1960s rock, country, and Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Others contend that the Dano was intended to be tuned an octave lower than standard, making it a more of six-string, guitar-bass hybrid—albeit one with the same relative tuning as a six-string guitar—than a true baritone. The Fender Bass VI (introduced in 1961) also falls into this category.
According to Freeman, a closer forbear of today’s baritone was built by luthiers Joe Veillette and Harvey Citron in the 1970s. Making guitars for John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful fame), Veillette came up with a 27-inch scale length, putting the instrument squarely between the guitar and bass. “Before that I was achieving the [baritone] effect by capoing Fender six-string basses at the fifth fret, as the Spoonful had done on ‘Jug Band Music,’” Sebastian says.
A Matter of Scale
Because the baritone pitch range typically falls in between the six string and bass guitar, it is possible to play a standard guitar as a baritone by putting on heavy strings and tuning down. A good illustration is the seven-string guitar. The seventh string is typically tuned to low B, which allows the guitar to cover both the baritone and standard pitch range (B1–E3). Yet while the fretboard is wider, most seven-strings use the same scale length as their six-string counterparts.
But a true baritone guitar isn’t just a tuned-down six-string. Its proportions are designed to offer the ideal playing feel and tone for the lower pitches. Perhaps the main difference—and this is true of both acoustic and electric baritones—is the fretboard scale. On most standard guitars, that scale runs between 24 inches and 25.5 inches. The baritone acoustic guitars I surveyed have scale lengths between 26.75 and 28.33 inches. Harkness’s Walden B-1E—which he helped develop with luthier Jonathan Lee—has a 26.75-inch scale. The Ibanez AE255BT measures 27 inches, as does the 12-fret Santa Cruz baritone, designed with the late guitarist Bob Brozman and set up to be tuned a major third lower than standard pitch. The two Collings baritones, 1 and 2H, come in at 27.5; the Alvarez ABT610E’s scale measures 27.7 inches.
Then there’s the 28.33-inch Ovation Elite A/E D-Scale model. It’s longer than the typical baritone, yet according to Ovation, is designed to be tuned down to D—i.e., just a full step lower than standard. Evidently, if you capo at the second fret, you have standard tuning at a relatively standard scale length. That said, with 28 inches to play with, the Ovation should handle tunings down to full baritone range.
As a point of comparison, you’ll find electric baritones on both ends of the above scale range. The Supro Westbury SS and Reverend Descent RA are both slightly shorter at 26.5 inches. Dean, ESP, and Ibanez are among the brands offering 27-inch scale baritone electrics. Danelectro’s 56 Baritone (29.75 inches), and the 30-inch Fender Bass VI fall into that disputed baritone-versus-bass category mentioned above.
Having spent a lot of quality time with a 26.75-inch-scale baritone—as well as many down-tuned standard guitars—I can vouch for the importance of the extended scale. You might need long fingers to play a barred F chord at anything above, say, 26 inches, but it’s worth the occasional stretch to get a tight and predictable attack when playing the lower-pitched B. Just as important, the tighter strings are easier to keep in tune. As for the longer-scale instruments, chording may be a chore, but they do give you the option of tuning down a full octave, which opens up some alternate tuning possibilities as well. How does DADGAD transposed down into baritone range (A E A D E A) ring your bell?
Body Size and Resonance
While an electric guitar with a longer neck fits easily into baritone range, acoustic baritones are a little more complicated because the instrument needs to resonate at a lower frequency. Yet baritone doesn’t necessarily mean bulky. For example, compare Collings’ Baritone 1 with one of its dreadnoughts, the D1. In addition to its 27.5-inch scale vs. the D1’s 25.5, the Baritone 1 is a 16th of an inch wider at the nut and has a slightly longer body (20.75 vs. 20 inches). While the D1 has a 14th-fret neck junction, the Baritone 1’s neck joins the body at the 13th fret, which places the bridge in a sweet spot for the instrument’s tuning and for the brace positions. Both guitars are 4.875 inches deep and 15.625 inches wide at the lower bout. Conclusion: If you’re used to a big-bodied acoustic, the transition to baritone may be fairly easy.
That’s not to minimize the differences inside the box. From bracing to neck joinery to many subtle changes, a good baritone is designed to deliver all the nuances and tonal complexity one would expect from a standard-tuned guitar, just lower. Not all baritones are larger than their standard siblings. “The Walden B1-E [which will return to the U.S. market in 2020] has a standard grand auditorium body,” Harkness says. “They made it work by moving the bridge further into the lower bout and offsetting the soundhole to accommodate the baritone-specific bracing.”
Reach for It
Whether your budget is sub-$500, ten times that, or somewhere in between, the baritone is a tweener that comes with challenges—yet one where a little effort can pay major dividends. “With a longer scale length and heavier strings, it can be daunting to reach things sometimes,” admits Harkness. “Fingering and expressing the melody while supporting yourself with bass notes and chords is where it’s at, and a baritone is so richly rewarding when it works. With a baritone acoustic I can be an entire band—bass, drums, and guitar—on one instrument.”
Gibson’s Master Model L-5 Set the Stage for the Modern Archtop
By Sean McGowan
Though long favored by jazz and swing guitarists, the archtop is currently enjoying a revival among roots and Americana musicians, flatpickers, and singer-songwriters looking to expand their textural palettes. Archtops also enjoy a fan base of passionate enthusiasts and collectors, who seek out vintage examples as well as contemporary designs by modern luthiers.
Many different types of guitars fall under the archtop designation, but whether fully or semi- acoustic, and with or without electronics, they share distinguishing traits. An archtop’s soundboard is carved from a single hunk of wood (usually composed of two pieces that are book-matched and joined together), with the top arched upward away from the back and sides, as on a violin. The back is often carved in a similar manner, but some archtops have flat backs. Archtop soundboards are typically constructed of spruce; the backs and sides are maple or, less commonly, mahogany, walnut, or other tonewoods. An acoustic archtop borrows other features from the violin family, including opposite-facing f-holes (though some archtops have more traditional soundholes instead), a floating bridge, and a rear-mounted tailpiece.
The design of the modern archtop is most commonly attributed to the luthier Orville Gibson. In 1898, Gibson applied for a patent for a mandolin and guitar design, intended to utilize the aforementioned features to enhance “power and quality of tone.” Early Gibson archtops, like Gibson’s L-1 and Style O, featured round or oval soundholes. The year 1923 saw the release of Gibson’s first Master Line L-5 Professional Model, which would become the benchmark for all archtop makers. While the L-5 shared some characteristics with previous models, like a 16-inch lower bout and an adjustable bridge (a feature first seen on Gibson mandolins in 1921), it sported some bold new elements: a pair of parallel tone bars for soundboard bracing, f-holes, and an elevated fingerboard. It should be noted that while the L-5 is often credited to Gibson’s “acoustic engineer,” Lloyd Loar, who signed the labels of the earliest examples, his role in the instrument’s design and construction has in fact been called into question as marketing hyperbole.
The L-5 was almost an afterthought in a quartet of Gibson offerings that also included the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, and the K-5 mandocello. And despite its powerful tone and pristine appearance, the guitar wasn’t an immediate success. Few musicians could afford an L-5, which originally cost $275, plus about $40 for a case (around $4,700 in today’s money for both). Compare that to the price of a Ford Model T ($265 in 1924)—or the fact that during the Great Depression many laborers earned just a dollar for a day’s work. But thanks in large part to jazz star Eddie Lang, the L-5 developed a formidable reputation. At the same time, in 1928, the country pioneer Maybelle Carter used earnings from her first recordings to purchase the brand-new L-5 that she played for the rest of her career.
Before the advent of amplification, country and jazz guitarists needed acoustic instruments that could be heard as clearly as banjos, fiddles, horns, and drums. In 1934, Gibson introduced the Super 400 model, with its 18-inch lower bout. Throughout the ’30s, other makers, competing for the attention of big-band guitarists, also produced larger and louder archtops—Epiphone’s 18-1/2-inch Emperor being a prime example. The Boston-based luthier Elmer Stromberg went even bigger with the stunning Master 400, which featured a 19-inch lower bout and a single diagonal top brace. Legendary jazz guitarist Freddie Green favored Strombergs throughout his long tenure with the Count Basie Orchestra.
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Made in New York
John D’Angelico, who opened a shop in New York City in 1932, was one of the most influential individual luthiers associated with the archtop. His New Yorker and Excel models are among the most sought-after examples by players and collectors alike. D’Angelico, sometimes with the help of his assistant, Vincent “Jimmy” DiSerio, built over 1,000 instruments—all by hand. D’Angelico’s archtop guitars, most of them custom orders, became the instruments of choice for New York’s jazz and studio elite, such as Johnny Smith, Chuck Wayne, and Billy Bauer.
In 1952, D’Angelico took on a young apprentice named James D’Aquisto, who would become a highly influential luthier in his own right. Cristian Mirabella, an innovative luthier and restoration specialist based in Saint James, New York, also had the opportunity to apprentice with D’Aquisto and shares this perspective: “The flow of the archtop is so appealing—the seemingly soft, yet bold and strong lines that define the instrument’s shape and contours. It is the most versatile of all styles of guitar construction and is truly the most challenging to build. It forces you to have an intimate relationship with the wood, because it’s your knowledge of how to carve that piece of wood that’s going to bring out the sound. Its abilities are as diverse as the players who choose to pick it up.”
An Archtop Resurgence
The acoustic archtop’s stature began to diminish in the 1950s, as guitarists in increasing numbers turned to electric instruments. But the 1990s witnessed a resurgence of the archtop’s popularity with players, collectors, and luthiers, many of whom were inspired by luthier Robert Benedetto’s landmark book, Making an Archtop Guitar. In 1995, noted collector Scott Chinery, inspired by the exquisite finish on his D’Aquisto Centura, commissioned the “Blue Guitar” project, in which a stellar group of traditional and modern luthiers built blue archtops. This project was documented in Ken Vose’s book Blue Guitar and serves as inspiration for many of today’s builders and their clients.
The archtop continues to enjoy significant developments in the hands of talented guitarists and builders alike. Luthiers such as John Monteleone, Linda Manzer, Ken Parker, Tom Ribbecke, Tim Frick, Erich Solomon, Otto D’Ambrosio, Tad Brown, Maegen Wells, Tyler Wells (no relation), and others are offering breathtaking innovations while bridging the gap between archtop and flattop construction.
Fully acoustic archtop guitars have long been rarities among production models. But brands like Eastman and The Loar offer a range of very good examples at compelling prices. At the other end of the price spectrum, and built in very limited numbers, Collings offers hand-carved archtops like the AT 16 and AT 17, with 16- and 17-inch lower bouts, respectively. And Waterloo’s recent WL-AT model (reviewed in the September/October 2019 issue) takes its cue from budget 1930s Recording King models.
Contemporary acoustic guitarists of all styles are enjoying handmade, vintage, and production archtops in their quest for unique tone, style, and overall vibe. Tyler Wells, the luthier behind LHT Guitars, shares this perspective: “I think that archtops are becoming more popular with people who might not have traditionally gravitated toward them, such as fingerstyle guitarists and singer-songwriters. I’m an electric player, but I’m interested in building acoustic instruments; the archtop is the obvious intersection of those two worlds. If you combine the evolution of the instrument with the way guitar music has branched out and cross-pollinated between genres, I think more players than ever would find that the voice of the modern archtop really appeals to them.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.