By Pat Moran
“I’m drawn to archtops because each maker puts his fingerprint on each individual instrument,” Dan Krugman says. He’s speaking from the Brooklyn workshop of DDK Guitars, the company he launched in 2011. “Design elements seem less agreed upon. Everyone has their own style of F-hole or bridge configuration.” He likens the process of building archtops—the violin-like guitars noted for their power and projection—to watching “evolution still happening.”
Krugman came relatively late to the business of guitar making. In college he majored in literature and later got his master’s in linguistics. Then he worked as a publicist and a web designer before he started building archtops for a living. But he was always interested in lutherie.
“Ever since I was a kid I was tinkering with guitars,” Krugman says. He was in graduate school when he made his first instrument—a cigar-box guitar—from scratch. “I built it on the floor of our kitchen without tools,” he remembers.
After graduating, Krugman moonlighted as an instrument repairman, and as the job began claiming more of his time, he “decided to push the boat out” and become a full-time luthier. His decision had much to do with the allure of the archtop. Unlike a flattop, in which the bridge is glued down, an archtop’s bridge is kept in place by the pressure of the strings.
“Everything is held in tension,” Krugman says. “That construction aspect appealed to me. It made intuitive sense.”
A Novel Concept
At DDK, Krugman specializes in crafting three archtop styles: the 14-inch Archtop, 16-inch Modern, and 16-inch Concept. “The price range doesn’t go by size because I dedicate as much energy to a small instrument as a large one,” he says. “It’s about the level of ornament or detail work.”
For the Archtop, the price runs from $4,500 to $5,000, while the Modern ranges from $5,000 to $6,000. As for the 16-inch Concept, “the first one was experimental—it was $7,000,” Krugman says. “The next one was a little bit less because I had most of the stuff figured out.”
The inspiration for Krugman’s Archtop was the small-bodied, budget-conscious archtop guitar that was popular among 1930s and 1940s folk and blues players. The cheaply made original didn’t get much respect in its day, so Krugman has lavished his update with care. “I do everything with this guitar that I’d do on a larger guitar,” he says. It’s small for an archtop—most are about 17 or 18 inches—but any archtop guitar will project well, he says, “because archtops were [originally] designed to compete with brass instruments in jazz ensembles.”
Krugman isn’t surprised that his small Archtop model is most popular among singer-songwriter clients. “I was envisioning that crowd when I made it,” he says. “It makes sense, since its inspiration was big with the original folk movement.”
The 16-inch Modern is based on the dimensions of even earlier classic archtops—ones made as far back as the 1920s. “When archtops were introduced, they were 16 inches, bigger than dreadnoughts,” Krugman says. “They stayed big even when amplification arrived.” Without significantly reducing the size, Krugman reduced the bulk and weight, making the guitar more comfortable to play.
The wood used for the tops of archtops is thicker than what’s used for flattops. As a result, archtops “are strong with midrange and trebles, but not so much with bass.” Playing around with “different geometries, the angle of the neck, where the tailpiece sits, or how much tension you’re putting on the top,” Krugman reduced the top’s thickness for his Modern model, and the thinner top results in more bass and “a greater depth of sound.” That’s proved popular with his jazz clients.
Despite his admitted affinity for jazz players, however, Krugman brings the archtop out of the jazz-guitar box with his Concept. While keeping the strong points of archtop construction, the Concept boasts flattop-like features, such as a fixed bridge and a bone saddle.
“Flattops have a much richer sound because the pieces are more delicate and the tops are thinner. When you strum a flattop, the notes blend together into a chord. On an archtop, those chords maintain their individual notes,” Krugman says. To retain the archtop’s clarity while adding the flattop’s warmth and richness, he made the Concept’s arch lower and its top thinner.
But the Concept’s biggest innovation is its soundhole. “I moved the soundhole to the shoulder,” he says. Since a guitar’s sound comes from the vibration of the top, Krugman wanted the air to move in and out of the box easily, while leaving the largest surface area available for the top. “Moving the hole to the shoulder also puts it closer to the player’s ear,” he says.
All three of Krugman’s models have tops of Sitka spruce, chosen for its stiffness-to-weight ratio. “Spruces are light but strong,” says Krugman, who only buys from companies that guarantee the Sitka is sustainably harvested at a fair price. For the back and sides of his 14-inch Archtop, Krugman chose Indian rosewood, noted for “its clarity and good bass response.” In contrast, he used maple for the backs and sides of the two 16-inch models.
Unlike rosewood, maples are heavy on bass and treble, Krugman says. “They’re harder than mahogany and they respond better than walnut. Maples give nice depth and clarity.”
For the 16-inch Modern displayed on Krugman’s website, he used red maple that came from New Hampshire sawyer Tom Thiel of Northwind Tonewood, a company that specializes in alternative and salvaged woods. “So I know the guy who cut the tree down, and I got it direct from him,” Krugman says.
One of Krugman’s favorite things about building an instrument is seeing it come to fruition. “I’m currently finishing up a couple, polishing them,” he says. “After putting so many hours into it, watching something start to shine and come together as this lovely thing is very rewarding.” But, he adds, “If it doesn’t make any music, you’re just making furniture.”
That’s why Krugman’s greatest goal is to create an instrument that a player falls in love with and wants to play. “I want it to be their favorite,” he says. “I want to make their best friend.”