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17 January 2016

Dreaming of building an Archtop Guitar

I know, I know... I haven't been very active on the blog this past couple of months. I've been busy! Time for an update and a little bit of dreaming about a project I've been scheming up for 2016. Grab a cup of tea... this is going to take a while...

Inspiration is a funny old thing. You can spend your life looking at something and never fully appreciate what you're looking at... and then one day... bang! 

You will remember a review I did of Jake Jacobson's wonderful book "Hearts & Hands: Musical Instrument Makers of America" at the beginning of 2012. I can see now that I was pretty harsh on the Triple-B, but in truth, I've found myself returning again and again to this book over the years to marvel at the lovely photos of luthiers, their workshops and instruments.

Flicking through it again yesterday I happened across the photo above with the caption: "Bob Benedetto, East Stroudsberg, PA." It's hidden away in the Northeast Region as unassuming as you like.

To a lot of people with interests in archtop guitars, Bob is the Godfather of archtop lutherie. What he doesn't know about the subject isn't worth knowing. How do I know this? I've done a lot of research... and I bought his book! ;-)

Here's that book: "Making an Archtop Guitar" by Robert "Bob" Benedetto. The copy I have was published in 1994 and looks to be a first edition. I'm really looking forward to reading every word inside, but so far I've only dipped in and out. I've seen hints on everything you might expect; like woods to use, techniques to employ, patterns and measurements. I don't intend to make a Benedetto-style archtop, but I'd be a fool not to take heed of all the great advice he offers inside this gem. Maybe, when I get done with making my guitar I'll be in a place to do a review of this book for you. Remind me later. ;-)

And here at last is my inspiration, courtesy of a photo I found on The Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum posted by Felix Wiedler.

Felix explains that the outer guitars as Epiphone Zenith guitars from 1932 (left) and 1934 (right). They're both lovely, but the one that has taken my eye is the one in the middle: which is an Epiphone Olympic.  Felix says that his one is from 1933 and if my research is good, this is actually a 1932 model. This is important because successive models saw gradual increases in the size of the body.

What you can't tell from the photo is that these are all small-bodied guitars, measuring close to 13 inches at the lower bout (side-to-side on the widest part of the body). I'm hankering for something light and stylish and this certainly ticks those boxes. I am particularly taken with the no-frills look. This here has been the starting point of my dreaming. You heard it here first! ;-)

This video is a series of songs by the super-talented Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch. I was put onto this very recently and if things go well, you might well hear me soon doing a version of the first song in this video as part of a collaboration

I don't know a great deal about these two, but watching this video has really opened my eyes. Both are great guitar players in their own ways. As you know, I simply love this style of playing. If only I could do it myself ;-)

You'll notice that Dave is playing something that looks very similar to the photo above. That's because it is very similar to the photo above. From what I can gather, Dave's guitar is either the 1934 model Olympic (13 5/8") or more likely the 1935 model (14 1/2").

I read the following snippet on the Gibson Guitar Board (posted by jsghome). As much as I love the detail on the guitar spec, I love Dave's self-deprecating comments at the end more. Don't be fooled... he's a genius...

David Rawlings gets his signature, midrangey guitar sound from a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop with a carved top and plywood mahogany back and sides. He likens its sound to that of a resophonic guitar. "I bought it without a bridge," he says, "and had a one-piece mahogany bridge made for it. I think with a top this small it really behooves you to get as much stuff touching the top as you can, because the top doesn’t have that much flex to it." He says his guitar is unique in that every note on every string plays at the same volume. "It doesn’t have any dead spots or any high spots—which is very, very strange," he says. "It makes it fun to play lead, because you don’t have to worry where you’re at. It’s not much of a solo instrument, but I can’t really play by myself worth a darn, so it doesn’t make much of a difference."

Because I can't stop myself...

Here's a snap of me drawing up a template for the body of my new project. I've laid it next to my prized Washburn for size. The Washburn will be the guide for my neck. I'll be going for a standard 25 1/2" scale length 

Why an archtop?

I guess it's really the challenge of doing things that I haven't tried yet. After the success off my Highwayman Banjo build, I'm thinking that I might be able to do more!

This project has lots of aspects to it that are going to push me into areas of lutherie that I just haven't been. I'm going to learn so much from the experience. The archtop element of the build is scaring me plenty; How on earth will I make the top of the body? The picture above is of a homemade caliper tool of the sort that I'll need to help me to get the thickness right on the wood.

Details of this caliper and lots of other fantastic luthier information can be found on Kathy Matsushita's website.

It's not just the archtop that's worrying me though; I haven't made a body with "proper" sides yet. I wonder how I'm going to fare bending wood? Oh wow... this could be a slow car-crash! rest assured you'll get every step - every little success and failure - documented on this blog.

So what's stopping me from digging out the chisels now?

I'm hard at work drawing up the latest installment of my Bad Moon comic saga. I'd intended to take a break from comic-making following the publication of the Italian edition of Skylark at the end of last year, but I made the mistake of sketching out a story and one thing led to another.

Comic 6 will be called "Gold Mountain" and it will fill in a gap between where "Bad Moon" finished and "The Black Pirate" started. As you will see from this little teaser, there has been a significant shift in art style, but I can promise you now that the mood and characters remain to keep it grounded.

Foolishly, before I've even finished drawing up Gold Mountain I already know what the next comic should be... right down to the ending. Damn! My challenge will be to not start this project until I've got a few other things ticked off! Damn, again.

Whilst I'm on the subject of my comics I've spotted some great comments on various sites. Some are bigging up the comics; some are ripping them to shreds. Ha ha. I urge you please to drop me some feedback, good or bad. It really does make my day when I stumble across a new one.

And on the subject of other people's comics, I realised over Christmas that I've got a bit of a comic-buying problem. It all started with me shelving and cataloging my growing collection following the realisation that I was starting to buy comics I already had. I know... what a fool. The real problem is that I can't read them as quick as I'm buying them. The good news is that I've read some great comics that I really should tell you about on this blog. If I ever find the time, I'll knock together a review or two for you. Watch this space ;-)

I've threatened Daniel Hulbert for a number of years that I would do a version of his trademark "Lafayette Lilt" song. This is the little tune that you will hear him playing most often on his wonderful videos. Like a lot of my great ideas, I never actually acted on it. That was until Daniel threw down the gauntlet in the form of a competition over Christmas. He asked for cover versions of his tune to be submitted. The prize was to be world-wide fame... and one of his crazy homemade ukuleles.

If I had been a true friend I would have posted something here sooner imploring you all to contribute and vote, but alas, I see that I am too late.

The video above is my entry. For a long time there I was bottom of the chart, but somehow I managed to sneak up a few slots stealing 0.48% of the over all votes. That seems like a lot to me. I DEMAND A RECOUNT! Ha ha. I enjoyed performing the song and that's all the reward I need ;-)

I was really impressed with some of the entries - there are some stars of the future here... you mark my words. Well done to everyone who took part and thank you to Daniel for organising the competition! It was a blast!

Finally I want to mention very briefly how sad I have been with the passing of a huge number of influential people this past couple of months. I don't know if I'm just becoming more sensitive to it, or whether there just seems to be a lot of it going on at the moment. Either way, it's shit and I wish it would stop! Cancer is a bastard!

The video above was a hamfisted celebration of Lemmy who amazed us all by getting to 70. I know that this video was made for Lemmy, but right now I want to rededicate it to a true gentleman called Roy D. Durrence. I got to know Roy on Google+ where we all-too-briefly shared thoughts on old time music and banjos. He might not approve of the song, but I'm sure he'd approve of the sentiment. RIP Roy!


  1. Long post indeed! But it's a good read.

    1. Thanks Gracie. I reckon all I'll be talking about for a good while this year will be archtops!

  2. Bending sides ain't that hard, try to get the most straight grained wood you can find, with as little run out as possible. Ideally this would mean splitting billets with an axe or a froe, but it might be easier to saw, plane and sand it. Different woods behave in different ways too.

  3. You've given me a lot to chew over already Sven on the ripping front. I really appreciate your encouragement. I'm desperate to start this project, but I'll need to wait for some warmer weather. Let's hope I can keep the enthusiasm there!

  4. Good luck with your archtop project! More about my Epiphone research: