Since establishing Fine Archtops last summer, we have had numerous emails and phone calls from prospective archtop guitar buyers. For this reason, it seems most appropriate to address some of the most Frequently Asked Questions relating to the choice and purchase of a custom carved top guitar.
The following list of questions was sent to our archtop guitar luthiers and their responses have been thoughtful and informative. We do not presume this list attempts to address all issues and so, as we move forward, we will add to and update the list to make sure we address other topics and concerns that are important to buyers, as well as luthiers. Each response has been attributed to its author, to whom we are very grateful.
Click the question to be taken to that answer. Click “Back to Top” to return to this section:
Jim Triggs: “There are quite a few advantages to working with an independent luthier as opposed to ordering a guitar from a manufacturer. The first thing that comes to my mind is having direct communication with the luthier that is actually building your instrument. This makes it a lot easier to make sure the builder knows exactly what you’re looking for in a guitar. Another huge advantage is being able to customize your guitar to your specifications.
“When you look at a website or a catalog from a large guitar manufacturer you are limited to the certain models that they produce. With an independent luthier you can often customize many different specifications to your liking such as scale length, nut width, finish color, and on down the line. Most independent luthiers would tell you that every singe instrument they create is a custom instrument as they rarely make two different guitars which are exactly the same.”
Bill Moll: “Well this, of course, depends upon the experience and talent of the particular builder. However, in general – given that we’re talking about an experienced professional – the quality and attention to detail an individual builder can pay to the build, as well as their client’s needs and desires, simply cannot be duplicated by large or small factories. The one on one relationship that develops between builder and client allows both a deeper insight into each other’s requirements, desires, concepts and capabilities so that, upon completion, the instrument should be as close as is humanly possible to exactly what the client wanted. The client’s options should never be limited – nothing in the traditional small shop is “cookie cutter,” to the extent that neck shape, body depth, color, even a completely new, “from ground up” design, can’t be accomplished.”
Mark Lacey: “The main advantages of having a guitar made by an independent luthier are that the buyer is able to communicate directly with the builder on every aspect of the instrument including the choice of woods, tonal characteristics, playability and decoration. The guitar can be tailored to a specific budget and taste. There is usually a greater attention to detail from a custom builder and the buyer can request some personal touches be included. Some manufacturers offer special instruments through their Custom Shops. However, these are usually based on current models and can be very expensive.”
Gary Zimnicki: “I do not have any set models or designs for my archtop guitars, so each one I build is ‘customized’ to the individual player. I have made archtops for a lot of working professionals but, with only a few exceptions, haven’t found their requirements to be very different from those of the non-professionals.
“Almost all of my clients have an interest in a specific size of body, neck, scale length, etc when they approach me about an instrument. Working guitarists seem to lean toward smaller bodies–around 16″ wide and 2 or 2 1/2” deep. They also have expressed a preference for built-in pickups a little more often than the non-professionals. The built-in pickups are more stable than floating pickups and this is more of a concern to players who travel with their instruments. Professionals also ask for guitars with laminated construction a little more often. Here again, stability seems to be the prime motivator.
“Lastly, working guitarists are a bit more concerned about feedback, so I carve and brace the tops a bit differently on their guitars. It isn’t so much a matter of making everything heavier, but changing how the soundboard and braces are graduated. I have also made removable soundhole covers for a lot of my clients. When the covers are in position, feedback issues are greatly reduced, then they can be quickly removed for a better acoustic tone when the guitar is in a quiet environment. Beyond these few points, I have not found much difference between the groups of players who allow me to build them a guitar. Everyone is looking for an instrument that suits them perfectly and that is what I try to build, regardless of how they are
planning to use it.”
Dan Koentopp: “There are many choices available when it comes to choosing a finish on handmade guitars. There are synthetic finishes and there are more organic finishes. There are spirit finishes and there are oil varnishes. A spirit finish has resins that are suspended in a solvent and form a hard surface once the solvent has evaporated. Oil varnishes have resins suspended in solvents and oil. When cured, the finish forms a new chemical makeup. Spirit finishes can be re-dissolved after they have dried, whereas oil varnishes cannot. Shellac and lacquer are examples of spirit finishes. They are often used in guitar making because doing repair work and maintenance over the life of an instrument is much easier.
“Some finishes are made from modern chemicals and resins and are called synthetic finishes. They are usually harder and are better at resisting wear. The synthetic ingredients are often there to help a certain quality like the application or the hardness of the cured finish. These finishes include polyurethane, epoxy, acrylic lacquer, nitrocellulose lacquer, various commercial varnishes. Each finish has its own characteristics and qualities.
“I enjoy using the more organic finishes including shellac. Coming from the lac beetle it is one of the most beautiful finishes. It can be french polished, sprayed, and brushed. Its color and depth get more beautiful with age. Not to mention it is the least harmful.”
Oskar Graff: “As a one-man luthier shop, I have some flexibility in my ordering procedure. For me, the important part is to explore with the customer the specific wishes and needs that would result in a truly custom-built instrument. If at all possible that should be a done through a face-to-face visit but at least via a series of emails and phone conversations.
“After we have a clear understanding of the features and design, as well as the cost involved, I’ll mail out my “Confirmation of Order” form that lays out all the specifics of the instrument. It also includes an approximate delivery time and costs.
“Once the customer returns the signed Confirmation form, including a 20% down payment, it becomes the agreement that guides me in the building process and also completes my ordering procedure.”
Wyatt Wilke: “It is perfectly fine to leave you guitar on a stand all the time as long as the room you’re keeping it in is climate controlled. A relative humidity level of around 50% plus or minus a bit and a room temperature of around 70 F would be ideal. The guitar on a stand is the guitar that gets played.”
Stefan Hahl: “If your guitar is finished with nitrocellulose lacquer make sure your guitar stand is suitable for that finish. Many are not and if you leave your guitar in the stand for a period of time the softener in the rubber can cause damage to the finish. A soft cloth between the guitar and the stand can prevent damage to the finish.”
Q: Why is it important to keep a guitar in a humidity-controlled environment, and how do I achieve this?
Chuck Thornton: “The humidity level is different all over the world, Hawaii can be extremely humid whereas Arizona can be extremely dry, so if a luthier were to build an acoustic instrument in Arizona without a humidity controlled environment and shipped the guitar to Hawaii where the guitar was exposed to extreme humidity, the instrument would expand to such a point where it could come apart at the seams or if the guitar were built in Hawaii without a humidity controlled environment and shipped to Arizona where it was subjected to a hot dry climate the acoustic instrument could actually cave in, meaning the top would look concaved as opposed to slight bulge in the top and also the back would sink in towards the interior of the guitar.
“The average humidity in the world is about 45 – 50% so most luthiers try to keep their building environment at around 45 – 50%. Probably one of the easiest ways to keep your guitars humidity controlled is to keep them in the case with something like the Humidipak and the Oasis. People with lots of guitars keep a room humidity controlled using humidifiers and dehumidifiers as well as a hygrometer to read the amount of moisture in the air.”
Michael A. Lewis:”For ordering a new instrument to be made there is a typical wait period of from a year to two years depending on my workload at the time of order. Any instrument I have on hand is immediately available.”
Brad Goodman: “My average waiting time for a commissioned guitar is 9 months. Generally speaking, for most Fine Archtops luthiers, I think one should expect between six months to two years.”
Q: Are all warranties pretty much the same, and can I take my guitar to a local repair technician or should I send it back to the luthier if it needs repair?
Victor Baker: “Warranties usually vary from builder to builder. A common warranty is a ‘limited lifetime’ type, which covers the main components of the guitar as well as various minor ones to the original owner for the life of the guitar (or builder!). Normal wear, alteration, environmental issues as well as some other features are usually only partially covered, and a lot of these situations are not covered at all if they are out of the maker’s influence.
“Most builders don’t cover another repair technician’s work and would prefer to personally handle adjustments, modifications and repairs to their instruments. Some factories or large manufacturers have “authorized repair centers” such as Martin, Gibson etc., but the vast majority of small volume / custom builders don’t have this arrangement in place. Since most luthiers work one-on-one with their clients, individual arrangements are usually easy to make, and in the case of a long distance situation a suitable local repair person may be able to be agreed on depending on the issue.”
Bill Moll: “Neither is really ‘better’ than the other; they simply meet different needs. While a laminated instrument is more stable under changes in climatic conditions and road wear, a solid carved guitar can be more effectively “voiced” and “tuned” in order to home in on the tonality that the player/client is looking for. A solid carved instrument also offers a much wider variety in materials choices whereas laminated plates, while very nice looking, are usually fairly similar in grade of figure. A solid carved guitar requires quite a bit more labor than a laminate does too so, laminate guitars also offer a less expensive proposition than carved. There is, of course, much more that can be said about carved vs. laminate – ask your builder for further observations.”
Howard Paul – President Benedetto Guitars: “From the players perspective, if everything else is equal (quality of workmanship, fingerboard scale, frets, bridge & tailpiece, string material and gauge, components, finish, etc.) than the carved guitar has richer and louder acoustic characteristics, while the laminated guitar compromises those characteristics in favor of improved amplified versatility and feedback resistance. This compromise can dramatically reduce the cost of materials and labor, and generally increase the consistency of build.
If the player performs in an acoustically superior environment where the acoustic voice of the guitar (even when amplified) can be heard by the audience, then there is a distinct clarity, richness, protection, and natural reverb and overtone warm of a carved guitar. This quality of sound is organic and can’t really be reproduced artificially. The louder it’s played (if amplified), the more difficult those characteristics are to capture, eventually to a point of diminishing returns where feedback and thinness (particularly in the upper register) becomes a problem. The smaller the dimensions of the body on a carved guitar and the more restricted the top (via bracing, pickups, metallic components), the further compromised the acoustic voice and the more easily captured the electric voice.
Converting the top and back to laminated materials will result in a more restricted voice, making amplification more easily controlled. So the critical question for a guitarist is “in what environment to you usually perform, and with what other instrumentation?” If the answer is mostly concerts or clubs with excellent acoustics, engaged audiences, dynamically sympathetic accompanist, or in a controlled recording studio, than you can’t beat the sound of a carved guitar and you don’t need to compromise those qualities. If the answer is mostly loud clubs, with loud bands, or through processed electronic accessories that rely on the pickup rather than the acoustic performance of the guitar, than you should probably lean towards a laminated instrument. If you are financially able, and don’t need to compromise, you should own one of each!”
Mark Campellone: “In the interest of efficiency, I’ve made up jigs for the fabrication of parts like fingerboards and necks – very helpful in achieving accurate and consistent results. However, making jigs can require quite an investment of time, so I’ve limited dimensional spec options to those I’ve found to be most popular.”
Stefan Hahl: “Every musician is unique in physical, musical and aesthetic aspects. Some are taller some are smaller. Everybody has a different hand size, technique, music repertoire or sound favorites. I have experienced that many musicians have a dream or a vision about how their perfect guitar should sound, look and be playable for them.
I love to create and realize, together with the player, the best suitable instrument I am able to build. Of course, that takes time, phone calls, visits and e-mails to get it right, working together to determine individual scales, neck shapes, body sizes, etc.. But the result is a happy musician who enjoys his personal guitar for a lifetime without compromises because it fits like a tailor made suit.”
Steve Andersen: “To me, the choice of the top wood is by far the most important consideration. I’ve always been a big fan of Engelmann spruce, because it lends warmth and balance to the archtop, which is inherently a bright instrument. The guitar will be very responsive to a light touch, with lots of sustain. These properties are what I think of as the modern archtop sound. This is my recommendation to most of my customers.
“The other spruces I use are European and Adirondack. European can be a good choice when the player is looking for a very big, lush sound, and it’s a little brighter than Engelmann. Adirondack spruce is generally going to make a very bright, loud guitar, but it requires a fairly aggressive playing style to really make the guitar speak. I rarely use Sitka spruce; it just doesn’t do anything for me.
“For back, sides and neck, I use Western maple, Eastern red and hard sugar maple, and European maple. Each has a distinct look. I like the lighter weight of Western maple, the European has a beautiful silky look, and the Eastern maples are a pleasure to work with.”
Mark Campellone: “European Spruce and Maple tend to be less dense than their domestic counterparts. In my experience, I’ve noted that guitars with bodies built from European woods generally tend to have a slightly more open and airy kind of sound – in comparison, guitars with bodies of domestic woods generally have a little more midrange presence. The differences are pretty subtle, and both can make great guitars.
“Another thing worth mentioning is that I’ve seen as much variation in tonal quality among different pieces of wood of the same species as I have seen between wood sets of different species. Point is, using a particular species of wood doesn’t guarantee a superior sounding instrument.”
Mark Campellone: “As in any business, pricing depends on a number of things – cost of materials, labor, overhead, demand, economic conditions, etc. For me personally, my philosophy determines my approach to my work, and that also affects pricing. I like building and selling lots of guitars. In order to sell lots of guitars, I have to make them affordable to a broad range of customers. In order to keep prices in an affordable range, I have to make the work process as efficient as possible. This has meant limiting features and options to the things I’m set up to do – but it also means that I can offer a high quality instrument at a reasonable price.”
Bill Moll: “In its essence, it’s really very simple – the craftsman’s years of experience and expertise that allow him or her to be very good at what they do. The builder’s ability, and willingness, to take a personal interest in a client’s specific needs and desires in an instrument, and the capacity to produce the expected result. Excellent communication before, during, and after the build, are also essential to a mutual understanding of expectations and capabilities are factors that larger, higher volume, companies simply can’t provide.
“Except in the case of rare exotics or very high grades of wood, etc., materials generally only constitute a small portion of an instrument’s cost and, other than aesthetics, there is no ‘magic’ in any particular piece of wood. The ‘magic’ and majority of the costs, are in the hours of labor and the builder’s acquired abilities that allow him to know how to work those given materials to a particular end.
Supply and demand also have their place in the equation. A single builder can only build so many instruments in a year, and so, if his or her guitars are particularly sought after, the market itself drives prices up.