Thursday, May 24, 2018

Archtop Guitars - Their History


Orville Gibson
I am surprised that the archtop guitar is a much more modern instrument than I imagined.  We have Orville Gibson to thank for creating the archtop guitar. His original design was a much different instrument from what we think of as the modern archtop guitar.

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He based the design on his 1898 patent for a mandolin. On the patent he wrote, “it was also applicable to guitars” and (the design) was intended to enhance “power and tone”.





Earliest Gibson


The instrument he created featured a top and back that were each carved from a single piece of wood that was thicker in the middle and based on his mandolin design.  The mandolins of his day were Italian bowl-back style. Gibson’s design for the mandolin (and guitar) was revolutionary since it had a thin arched back.




Back of guitar
The tops of his guitars were usually made of spruce, while the backs were walnut. His design required just a thin rim of wood in place or what could be considered the sides. Since the top and back were arched and did not require bracing. He felt this would take away from the instruments tone.

His guitar featured an oval sound hole, like the one found on his mandolins. The strings were attached to a belly bridge that had 3 or 4 pearl inlay decorations on either side.

1902 Gibson Style 03
His earliest guitars featured a “paddle-head” headstock. Generally these featured with an eighth moon and star design on the headstocks top, but some early versions came with no such design.

Due to the lack of a truss rod, the neck on Gibson’s guitar was rather thick. The neck was attached in a way that is appears to be carved from the same piece of wood. In fact that was his goal, but production of such instruments would be impractical.

1903 Gibson Style O
During the early 20th century his guitars and mandolins were sought after since they were louder than other instruments of the day. His first archtop was designated the Style O and it was produced from 1902 until 1907.

Initially he made these guitars himself in his private workshop and sold them through the company that eventually took his name when they purchased his patents. Orville Gibson was officially hired in 1908 but worked there for only a few years until he became very ill.

1910 Gibson
Style O Artist

Later in 1908 Gibson guitars redesigned the Style O and gave it the name Style 0 Artist. This version had an appearance more like a mandolin, with it curled upper bout. The top and back were carved and arched. The Style O Artist also had an oval sound hole. Unlike Orville Gibson's first version, this guitar did have a distinctive back and sides that were made of mahogany. This guitar also had a floating archtop bridge/saddle, and a trapeze tailpiece.


1911 Gibson
Style O Artist


At $265 it was priced out of reach for most musicians. The paddle headstock on the Style O Artist was updated to one that appeared more like those found on modern Gibson guitars. The neck on this guitar had a sharp V shape, which was a way to reduce warping. A truss rod was added in 1921, just a year before the guitar was discontinued.




1907 Gibson L-1



Following Orville Gibson's departure from the company, Gibson introduced the Model L-1, which was an arched top guitar with a round sound hole.






Eddie Lang with Gibson L-4
Guitarist Eddie Lang, possibly did more than anyone in his day to bring the guitar to the forefront as a solo instrument. By 1911 Gibson had come out with an updated arched top guitar called the L-4. This was the guitar that Eddie Lang played.




1896 A.H. Merrill patent


It is written that Orville Gibson was not the first person to patent the archtop guitar. This honour belongs to luthier A.H. Merrill, who in 1896 patented an instrument, “of the guitar and mandolin type” that featured a convex graduated top and back. The top had violin shaped “F-holes” and the strings attached to a metal tailpiece.



Copy of Howe Orm archtop guitar


Even earlier, in 1893 a fellow named James Back patented a guitar design that was based on the popular parlor style guitars of the day. These guitars were sold under the Howe Orm brand.



From a distance the instrument appeared to be a standard parlor instrument, but on further examination the top is arched. This instrument had a round sound hole. The design was based on Back’s Mandolinetto, which was a guitar-shaped 8 string mandolin.  Original Howe Orm guitars had a floating bridge and a trapeze tailpiece.

Lloyd Loar in his workshop at Gibson

In 1922, Lloyd Loar was hired by the Gibson Company to redesign their instrument line in an effort to counter flagging sales. Loar was schooled as a sound engineer. He was also a mandolin player, and a luthier.



1924 Gibson L-5
Lloyd Loar redesigned the Gibson mandolin creating the F-5, which is still the most sought after and most expensive mandolin ever. Loar took that same design and applied it to the guitar. This instrument was called the L-5. It's appearance is what we have come to know as the modern archtop guitar, with it’s twin F-Holes, arched top, long pickguard, floating bridge, and trapeze tailpiece. This was the beginning of the archtop guitar that we know today, and has been copied thousands of time by countless companies and luthiers.

1924 Gibson K-5
Loar's guitar had a very similar shape to his 8-string mandocello, model K-5. His conception was to design a set of four stringed instruments; the F-5 mandolin, the H-5 mandola, the K-5 mandocello, and the L-5 guitar.

Initially the L-5 was a failure. Loar left the company within a few years. However the Gibson L-5 in various incarnations has remained one of Gibson most popular and resilient models. It also became one of the most imitated guitars and is still in production.

1934 Gibson
Super 400



Ever striving for volume, Gibson introduced the Super 400 in 1934, It cost $400, which was an exorbitant price. The first models said L-5 Super on the truss rod cover. Five years later the tailpiece was redesigned to resemble what we see on modern Super 400’s. The body was 18”, which was a full inch wider that the L-5.




1930's Oscar Schmidt
Cello Guitar
With the archtops standard F-Holes one might assume it was designed based on a violin. In fact some European guitar makers started as violin makers.  The Oscar Schmidt Company was manufacturing violin shaped guitars in the late 1920's and early 1930's.

There is one American designer that did base his archtop on a violin style body. This was William Wilkanowski,



1934 Wilkanosk Archtop
Wilkanoski grew up in Poland where he trained as a violin maker. Upon immigrating to the United States he went to work for the Ditson Company, a Boston stringed instrument manufacturer. In the 1930's Wilkanoski began making archtop guitars. Most of his guitar were conventional in their appearance, but his most unique guitars were based on a violin, or more accurately, a cello design, using an unusual wood called Valley Poplar. He stained these guitars with a violin finish. The binding on these guitars were made of wood.

1938 Wilkanoski Airway



Some instruments featured a violin-like scroll on the headstock, while others had a headstock that had an unusual top (which may have where Ovation got their headstock design). Wilkanoski's instruments were sold under the AIRWAY brand, although some instruments were labeled with a W.


Epiphone Recording
Model D and B



In 1928 Epiphone came out with a unique series of archtop guitars that had round sound holes. These were the Epiphone Recording Models A,B,C,D, and E. Model E was the most expensive.





Epiphone Recording
Model E


The top was made of carved spruce. The back and sides were made of maple. The headstocks varied though the years, but always came with a cellulose (mother-of-toilet-seat) veneer. The necks were bound, with ebony fret boards. The position markers also varied depending upon the model.





Duke Ellington Band
Guitarist Fred Guy
By the early to mid 1930’s the archtop guitar was replacing the banjo in Jazz bands. The archtop was voiced differently than any flattop guitar and seemed to be able to cut through the horns and drums.

Subsequently Gibson began making larger versions, such as the Super 400.

'50's D'Angelico New Yorker
and  '74 D'Aquitson


So did other makers, such as John D’Angelico and his protege Jimmy D’Aquisto, whose original guitars were strongly influenced by the Gibson Super 400.




'46 Stromberg Master 400


Charles and Elmer Stromberg of Boston built fine archtop guitars that were prized by Big Band players due to their loud sound.





'50's Harmony Patrician
and '40's Kay K-42



Harmony and Kay guitars of Chicago made inexpensive version of the Gibson archtop, which generally had pressed tops and backs instead of carved backs and tops.




1940 Gretsch
Synchromatic 400



The Gretsch Company came out with the Synchromatic archtop acoustic.





'51 Epiphone
Masterbuilt Broadway




The Epiphone Company created some wonderful archtop instruments. Many had a unique device that the company called The Frequensator Tailpiece.

In Europe, German based Framus and Höfner came out with some exquisite archtop guitars. While in Sweden Hagström took up the banner.

'52 Hofner 457


In Europe, the Höfner company, founded in 1887, had a rich and interesting history. The company was located in West Germany, but in 1948 began working on a new factory in Bubenreuth. This facility was opened in 1950. Prior to this Höfner was selling both acoustic archtop guitars, with and without pickups throughout Europe.




1930 Framus Capri
The Franconian Musical Instrument Manufacturer aka the anogram Framus Company was founded by Fred Wilfer, a violin maker. Like the Höfner company, the events of WWII had a lot to do with the companies location. In 1945 Wilfer was allowed to build a factory that turned out not just exquisite violins, but also a variety of acoustic and electric guitars. The 5/53 Capri was first offered in 1958. By 1963 it was updated to have a single cutaway. A simpler version called the Hobby was offered in the late 1950’s.

Jimmy D'Aquisto and
John D'Angelico
37 Kenmare Street


One of the more famous archtop guitar builders was John D’Angelico of New York City. He started as an apprentice to his uncle who made violins, mandolins, and flat top guitars. Within a few years D’Angelico took over as the shops supervisor. Upon his uncle’s death, John took over the shop.





Vintage D'Angelico Style B
D’Angelico based most of his designs on the Gibson L-5 guitar. His first two models were Style A and the more ornate Style B. Both instruments had 17” bodies. In the 1940’s the Style B was phased out and replaced with the Excel, which also had a 17” body. John’s top-of-the-line instrument was the New Yorker. This guitar had an 18” body and peal inlay on the peg head that resembled the Empire State Building. This guitar was based on Gibson’s largest archtop; The Super 400, with also had an 18” body.

1952 Stromberg G-5


Charles and Elmer Stromberg, a father and son, built archtop guitars in the style of the Gibson Super 400. These were exquisite instruments that are known for their impressive volume level. Well known jazz guitarists sought these out so they could be heard over the drums and horns.



Gibson ES-150

In 1936 Gibson introduced the ES-150 which was proclaimed as the world’s first electric Spanish-style electric guitar. This was a boon for Jazz bands of the day. Guitarists could be heard above the horns and could play single line runs instead of just chopping away as a rhythm instrument. Other companies followed suit with their versions.



'54 Epiphone Devon with DeArmond pickup

The Rowe-DeArmond company came out with individual pickups designed to be added to archtop guitars, without defacing the wooden top. These became very popular with Jazz players.




1949 Gibson ES-175



By 1949 Gibson followed up with another popular model; their model ES-175. Two years after that Gibson electrified the L-5 with the introduction of the L5CES. Shortly after that the Gibson Super 400CES was introduced.




1935 Harmony Cremona
Harmony guitars was started in 1892. It was purchased in 1916 by the Sears and Roebuck company. By 1931 Sears introduced the arched top Cremona guitar. The top was indeed arched, but the first incarnation of this guitar had a round sound hole. By 1935 the Cremona had F-Holes.

1947 Harmony Broadway

Other Harmony archtop guitars included the Patrician and the Archtone, the Catalina, the Monteray, the Montclair, and the Broadway. Depending on the year of origin, some of these guitars had carved tops, but most had pressed tops or heat pressed lamination. This was a processed developed by European luthiers.



1940's Kay Archtop

Another maker the produced less expensive archtop guitars was the Kay Guitar Company. Some of these were produced under the Kamico brand, while others were sold under the Gold K line. And of course Kay made some archtops under their own name. Both Harmony and Kay were going for the budget minded guitarist. Much of their products were outsourced to retailers such as Sears, J.C. Penny's and Montgomery Wards.


Joe Maphis with Gibson
modified by Mosrite
During and after WWII many families that had moved to northern cities from Appalachia and southern states for work, found employment to be more plentiful out west. Much had to do with airline manufacturing. These people took their Country music with them and this usually was played on flat top guitars. If the professional players in bands of the day played an archtop guitar, it was generally an electric archtop.

There were jazz players that favored archtops, but these were generally electric instruments or acoustic archtops topped with a DeArmond add-on pickups.

By the 1970's the archtop market was greatly diminished. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the best instruments were essentially handmade and very expensive.

James (Jimmy) D'Aquisto
One archtop maker that persisted during this drought was Jimmy D'Aquisto. He was the protege of John D'Angelico and purchased D'Angelico's shop upon the masters death in 1964 at age 59.  Jimmy continued to build guitars throughout his life.

At first he continued the D'Angelico brand, but then put his own name on his creations.  Most of these guitars were archtops and today they are worth up to a half a million dollars. He took D'Angelico's designs and updated them, making them his own signature designs. Jimmy subsequently influenced future archtop builders. Sadly D'Aquisto died at age 60 in 1995.

1978 Benedetto Cremona


But the biggest resurgence of acoustic archtop guitars did not happen until the 1990's. Builders such as Robert Benedetto, John Monteleone, Robert Collings,  and Linda Manzer.




Ken Parker Archtop

Even Ken Parker (who gave us the original Parker Fly guitar), all make wonderful contemporary archtop guitars that are functional works of art.

Godin 5th Avenue
Builders such as Godin, and Epiphone are producing affordable archtop guitars.







Monday, May 7, 2018

Gibson Brands Files For Bankruptcy Protection - A New Hope

Gibson Guitars
Gibson Guitars has recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This is a legal way for companies, or people for that matter, that cannot pay their bills, to reorganize, and develop a plan to repay their debtors. Gibson has overextended their business, possibly due to numerous acquisitions of companies unrelated to the guitar industry.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
Gibson has at least 100 million dollars of debt. It may be as much as 500 million dollars. This was noted in documents filed on May 1st, 2018 in a Delaware court.

The company states its goal is to emerge from bankruptcy, “…with working capital financing, materially less debt, and a leaner and stronger musical instruments-focused platform,"



Gibson Factory Nashville
Gibson Brands not only includes Gibson guitars, but also owns Epiphone guitars, which manufactures wonderful replicas of original Gibson guitars that are nearly as good, and sometimes superior to the US made instruments, and sell for a much lower price point.



Maestro Guitar by Gibson



Gibson Brands also owns the name Maestro, which was once a productive brand, but now has been applied to inferior guitars made in Pacific Rim countries and sold by Walmart and Amazon.




 mid 1970's Kramer metal neck guitar


They also own the name brand Kramer, which was a guitar company started in the 1970’s by building metal neck guitars.







1983 Kramer Pacer guitar
The company then went on to produce more exotic and pointy electric guitars which include many improvements to the Stratocaster shaped guitar, and eventually gave us the Super-Strat.  One of these improvements was the Rockinger tremolo.


Kramer guitars were a mainstay for Heavy Metal rockers and got a shot big in the arm from rocker Eddie Van Halen.

Sadly the Kramer brand was sold out to bankruptcy and purchased by Gibson Guitars. Kramer guitars are now made in Japan and Korea.

Vintage Steinberger Bass Guitar
Gibson Brands owns the Steinberger name, which was originally designed by Ned Steinberger, who produced unique basses and guitars made out of graphite, that had headless tuners, and resembled a Cricket bat. The original instruments were expensive, but prized by their owners.

Hohner B2 Licensed by Steinberger
Eventually the design, and shape were licensed to other manufacturers that sold similar instruments, usually not made of graphite, at a lower cost. The latest Gibson/Steinberger models are manufactured in South Korea.

Vintage  Pre-Gibson Tobias Bass
Tobias Bass guitars were established by Michael Tobias in 1977. These were asymmetrical instruments with neck thru-body that featured a neck that was thinner on the lower side than on the upper. Gibson purchased the brand in 1990 and changed to a bolt-on style neck.

1941 Kalamazoo KG-14 guitar



Gibson still owns the Kalamazoo brand name, but has not used it on instruments since the mid-1960’s.






1930's Dobro Angelus


Gibson Brands also purchased the Dobro brand name of resonator guitars. This company started in 1928 and produced acoustic steel guitars, and guitars that are used by Bluegrass, and Blues performers. There was much turmoil within the company, and eventually the remaining Dopyera brothers established OMI, the Original Musical Instrument Company in 1967.


1967 Mosrite D-100 Dobro
By 1970 Semi Moseley acquired the Dobro name and company assets that were being liquidated. Moseley subsequently filed bankruptcy, and Gibson bought the brand in 1993.

Gibson's version of these guitars are made under the Dobro brand, offshore under the Epiphone brand.

Valley Arts Guitar
Gibson also owns Valley Arts guitars brand, a company started in Hollywood, California by Mike McGuire and Al Carness in their guitar repair shop. In 1977 these instruments caught the eye of many well known players. In the late 1990’s a fire destroyed their shop. To rebuild, the partners sold half of their assets to Korean manufacturer Samick, but quickly became dissatisfied with the arrangement and sold to Gibson. By 2002, the remaining partner McGuire retired, and the brand ceased production.

Garrison G20 guitar
Gibson also purchased Garrison Guitars, a Newfoundland, Canadian company. The company made instruments using the unique Griffiths active bracing system. Gibson acquired this brand in 2007, and let it languish.

1970's Slingerland
Buddy Rich Drum set

Non-guitar brands owned by Gibson include the Slingerland Drum Company which once produced the best drums ever made and was founded in 1912. The company continued flourishing until the 1970’s and ‘80’s when the ownership changed multiple times.

In 1994 Gibson Brands acquired it, and demanded that in order for a retail business to sell Gibson guitars, they must sell Slingerland drums. Individually owned music stores could not comply with this demand. It not only killed off Slingerland Drums, but caused smaller dealers to lose their Gibson franchise.

Gibson also purchased four piano manufacturing companies. Count them; four piano companies!

Wurlitzer Piano

One of the oldest piano manufacturer in the United States was Wurlitzer, and was established by Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer in Ohio in 1861. By 1880 he was building and selling pianos.


1960's Wurlitzer 140b Electric Piano
By 1955 the company introduced the first electronic piano. This was originally built to train students in large classrooms, but went on to become a mainstay in rock and pop music.

In 1995 Baldwin Piano, another Ohio company, acquired the Wurlitzer name and assets. Baldwin was undergoing a lot of changes at the time and before the acquisition they had moved their manufacturing business offshore to be built by the Young Chang Piano Company. Production later moved to Samick, the largest piano builder in Korea, and in 2001.

Gibson Brands acquired Wurlitzer, Baldwin, Hamilton, and Chickering Piano companies. All were popular brands and once manufactured in the United States, but now are made offshore in Korea. Out of all of the piano companies that Gibson acquired, only Baldwin pianos are still in production.

Vintage Baldwin
baby grand piano


The Baldwin Piano Company was started in 1857 and began building pianos in 1880 in Cincinnati, Ohio and made some of the most popular pianos in the world. My own father worked for the company when he was a young man. In 1961 the Baldwin Company began manufacturing organs. By the 1970’s Baldwin not only had acquired the guitar company Burns of London, but Gretsch Guitars as well.


Baldwin United Stock certificate
Baldwin management decided to diversify and  also got in the financial business. At one point they  owned over 200 savings and loan and insurance companies. By 1977 they merged with the United Corporation to become Baldwin-United. By 1983 they were forced into bankruptcy.

The piano and organ business remained until 2001 when the company once again was on the verge of bankruptcy and sold their assets to Gibson Brands. Gibson maintained a small staff at the Baldwin Arkansas factory to build artist grand pianos. The main piano manufacturing is done in South Korea. Hamilton Pianos, were a subsidiary of the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company and were acquired by Gibson with the Baldwin acquisition.

1854 Ad for Chickering and Sons
Piano Company

The Chickering Piano Company was a Boston Massachusetts based company that started building pianos in 1832. By 1853 the name was changed to Chickering and Sons.


Jonas Chickering made great developments and improvements to the modern piano. By 1985 the company went out of business and the assets were acquired by the Wurlitzer Piano company, which eventually went to Gibson Brands.

Onkyo TX-8160 Stereo receiver

Gibson Brands includes a division known as Gibson Innovations which owns multiple audio manufacturing companies, including the Onkyo Corporation, which also makes Pioneer Brands.



Teac Tascam DA-78HR

Gibson owns both the TEAC Tascam Companies which manufacturers recording and audio equipment.


KRK powered monitors
and 2 x 2 audio interface



They also own the KRK Systems company which manufactures audio equipment used by DJ’s. Prior The audio company acquisitions occurred between 2011 through 2014.





Raid on Gibson Factory

In 2009 and 2011 agents from the United States Fish and Wildlife Department raided Gibson and seized illegally imported ebony, and rosewood from India that was questionably obtained.


These were violations of the Lacey Act of 1900 that protects fish and wildlife, including plants, to preserve species. The Act was amended in 2008 to include wood illegally harvested.

Fish and Wildlife Service
raid Gibson factory
Gibson fought the charges and tried to recover the wood, but by 2012 they reached a settlement with the United States Government and agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and a $50,000 community payment. The agree stipulated they forfeit the seized wood. Gibson Brands has never recovered from this chapter in their history.

One other issue that I am aware of is that in 2011, Gibson pulled the plug on many of their loyal franchise holders, awarding much of their business to Guitar Center, Musician's Friend, and other large music retailers. I visited one of my favorite music stores this past week. They had been selling Gibson products for years, but there was no sign of a Gibson guitar in sight.

Musicyo Kramer

At one time Gibson attempted to sell some inferior instrument direct to the public through an online website called Musicyo. Many of these budget instruments were low quality Pacific Rim knock-offs of Fender Stratocaster style guitars under the Kramer brand.  These were made with cheap parts, such as PVC material for pickups, wiring, nuts and fret markers. Not all of those products were bad. Apparently the venture was not successful as Gibson abruptly shut down the web site.


Gibson Factory Memphis

Last year Gibson announced it was looking to sell off it's plant in Memphis to consolidate manufacturing to the facility in Nashville, Tennessee. Their acoustic guitar facility is headquartered in Bozeman, Montana.

Gibson was not the only company to go on a acquisition spree in the past few decades.



Fender Owned Brands
The Fender Musical Instrument Company has done the same, and some of their ventures have not turned out too well.

The fiasco from back in the 1960's and 70's when the Baldwin Piano company made a futile attempt to venture into the guitar manufacturing business is legendary.

Reading this history of other musical instrument manufacturers is a real eye opener. Piano companies, brass and wind instrument manufacturers, and some guitar business have all experienced financial ups and downs, and some were eventually consolidated or purchased by other companies before they folded.

Norlin era
Gibson Maurader 
Even Norlin Brands, who owned Gibson Guitars was within three months of going out of business before it was bought by Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman, and Gary A. Zebrowski in January 1986.

Gibson's turnaround plans include giving some of the company's lenders equity ownership, while its lenders have agreed to an operating loan of up to $135 million to keep the company afloat. The company sells over 170,000 guitars annually in more than 80 countries and says that it sells over 40 percent of all electric guitars costing more than $2,000.

Gibson Factory Bozeman, Montana
They will continue to operate their guitar-making factories in Nashville and Memphis, at least until the Memphis plant is sold, and Bozeman, Montana.  The restructuring will allow Gibson to focus on its most profitable ventures, such as musical instruments.

No changes will be made to its guitar manufacturing business, and all Gibson and Epiphone branded guitars are expected to continue in production uninterrupted.

I sincerely hope that Gibson will emerge from this chapter in their history as a stronger, leaner, and smarter company. Gibson guitars are an iconic American brand with a incredible history of innovation.  May they concentrate on what they do best; build incredible guitars.

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