Most builders involved in archtop guitars started with the fascination for the traditional archtop instruments which is primarily based on traditional Italian violin making techniques although slightly modified but still following those principles. Obviously there is the German tradition on the German side of these instruments, using more plateau style arch. As archtop making evolved makers started to abandon the bomb-proof tank basis, the tops and backs are carved thinner the instruments in general are more refined and the sound is more open and multi-purpose. Different techniques evolved using different bracings, in some cases the braces being so light and flexible just pressed in the top, and even false concepts like top and braces cnc-d from one piece of spruce, which is completely non-valid building method for anybody with the experience of repairing cheap 19th century manufactured violins.
I have not been any different, at the beginning of my guitarmaking I carved gradually thicknessed tops, x or parallel bracing, and pretty much followed the basics of archtop making. As we all want little more all the time, a little bit more volume a little bit more sustain, more harmonics one is set on a path and the most obvious would be to follow the general principles. Try to make the instrument as light as possible to transfer as much energy from the strings to the top as possible, to squeeze out the maximum of the instrument. Indeed I made some very light guitars. Maybe lighter than some of the flattops made of more dense timber. (still some customer remark had been that those were the most stable instruments they ever encountered). I think structurally I pushed it to the limit. Whilst the resulting sound was lovely in quality, sweet, jazzy, responsive, comparable to any contemporary archtop I wished for more in volume and projection. There was something I have been missing which was present in some old Gibsons, Huettls, Strombergs… Not in the quality of the sound but in power.
So back to the basics. Take a look at some of the early Gibsons, it is like an armoured warship, not even evenly carved, bumps everywhere, poor quality top materials (and the rest), still in some cases the sound produced is amazing. So there is a basic recognition for more power there must be sufficient amount of material producing that powerful sound, overly thinned plates will simply not have that projection. Another angle of approach have been to re-evaluate the violin making experience. The creation of the sound and the vibration the strings perform are completely different on a violin vs. the guitar so it is a false approach to use those principles. And there are still quite a few of those even on most contemporary archtops. Just consider the neck angle and breaking angle of the strings over the bridge. So there is still room to improve and introduce new principles.
The contemporarily prescribed dimensions of modern archtop guitars such as arch height, graduating the tops, bridge height and neck angle left me with more to desire and I needed to reconsider these aspects. Whilst there is continuous energy supply to vibrate the strings on a bowed instrument that is not the case with a guitar and I found the common standards result a too rigid instrument and in case you wish the ease that by making it as light as possible will result a floppy powerless sound. Based on these experiences I had to consider how can a make a looser construction without removing too much material. And there are a few options: I greatly reduced the arch height of the top using a much flatter arch, I also abandoned the graduated thicknessing of the tops, I kept reasonably thin but rather evenly thicknessed only reduced at the very edge of the top.
Another great misconception in archtop making to assume having a higher bridge and thus increasing the pressure on the top will give you more, I have to argue for a much looser construction there actually reducing the bridge height. In case of the guitar it has a more efficient energy transfer from the sting to the top. Here comes another consideration of the weight of the bridge, so any traditional bulky archtop and even adjustable height bridge ideally should be abandoned. I recently started to use Maccaferri style bridges on my archtops with great results. In case of a properly built archtop guitar set up for the requirements of the customer the need for adjustable bridge is greatly diminished. I found it more desirable to have the stings running closer to the top and I had experiments where there was actually no need for fingerrest the strings running not higher than on a flattop instrument. I also have to note the role of the tailpiece, I argue that any moving tailpiece result in loss of energy whether it is hinged or corded tailpiece and I was rather happy to anchor the strings in a completely rigid non-moving tailpiece.
All these changes gave me the direction of where I wish take my archtop guitars. The strive for a more powerful, more contemporary sound is reaching its goals. Of course there are still elements to research, such as the role of the back, the correlation between the resonating surface and the depth of the instrument, these issues may be the subject of a future blog.