Birth of the Archtop: An Ode to Orville Gibson
For archtop lovers, there are few subjects more fascinating than the legacy of Orville Gibson.
One of my greatest inspirations as a guitar maker comes from my hope that the guitars I build will roam the planet long after I’m gone. Sometimes, when I’m on my some-hundredth hour of working on a guitar—sanding lacquer and chasing a flawless mirror finish—a vision of the instrument one hundred years from now will flash before my eyes. It’s a powerful reminder that along with a century of battle scars and music comes a certain beauty that only time will bring. With all the hustle and bustle of building brand-new guitars, sometimes I forget: I want to build guitars now, so that someday they will be old.
You see, old archtops are my favorite. Even if they’re not that great, I still find them beautiful. Every time I hold one in my hands, I think about how, once upon a time, it too was incomplete and being obsessed over by someone. Maybe by a factory worker whose name we’ll never know, or perhaps by one of the greatest luthiers of the early 20th century. Each of those luthiers plays a role in the history of archtops, which just so happens to hold some of my favorite stories. It’s a surprisingly not-super-long timeline that begins with a tale of innovation, tradition, mental illness, and mandolins. We only have to go back to the late 1800s to find the man responsible for planting the archtop seed, and I bet it’s a name you already know: Mr. Orville Gibson.
In the 1890s, Gibson was building guitars and mandolins with arched tops and backs, and as far as we know, he was the first to do so. Violins and cellos had been made that way for hundreds of years, but Gibson’s builds were where that construction style began for guitars and mandolins. In 1898, he achieved a patent for a number of his ideas on the construction of those instruments, including the concept of carving the top and back out of solid wood. He sold the patent (and his name), and in 1902, founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His relationship with the company from thereon is unclear. Then, in 1907, he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment, an occurrence that would take place a number of times before his death in 1918.
Violins and cellos had been made that way for hundreds of years, but Gibson’s builds were where that construction style began for guitars and mandolins.
Yes, believe it or not—the world of music was forever changed by the work this man did inside of one decade, and it may or may not have cost him his sanity. With Gibson’s innovative creations as a blueprint, the company went on to produce archtops that unified the mandolin and guitar family as one. It was 1919 when the company hired a physics-obsessed musician who unlocked the acoustic potential of these instruments: Lloyd Loar. Through applying concepts used in violin building, such as f-holes and tap tuning, Loar elevated the world of archtops to a new level in 1922 with his design and creation of the L-5 guitar and F-5 mandolin. Loar left Gibson two years later to “pursue other interests.”
So, here’s the crazy part: During these first painfully short chapters, Gibson and Loar were responsible for the making of some of the most beautiful and magical-sounding instruments on the planet. I came upon a cluster of Gibson mandolins from the early 1900s at a music store, and I felt the magic before I knew what they were; I just looked at them and they started singing like angels. Trying to describe the experience would be like trying to cover the impact of Gibson and Loar in one column, but let’s just say I left that music store a different person than I arrived, along with a higher understanding of the word “otherworldly.” These are the kinds of instruments that make you a better builder or player just by being around them. They have souls.
The story of Gibson’s role in the archtop evolution certainly goes on from there, but it’s these first chapters and the unprecedented instruments that come with it that laid the wood-shaving-covered foundation today’s archtops are made on. From there, the daisy chain of inspiration continued as the archtop guitar developed in the hands and shops of more brilliant luthiers to come, such as John D’Angelico, Charles and Elmer Stromberg, Jimmy D’Aquisto, and Linda Manzer; but those are stories for another day. These are the heroes of the archtop world, and one of my many reasons for loving old archtops is because it reminds me of them. I want nothing more than to leave behind guitars that inspire others, the way many beautiful guitars left behind by my heroes have inspired me—battle scars and all.
NAMM '17 - Ibanez RG1070 Premium, AFC Contemporary Archtop & AEWC Acoustic Electric Demos
Mod Garage: Updating a 1950s Musima Record
When you dig inside an old guitar, you have to be ready for anything.
Does this sound familiar? As you embark on a seemingly routine mod or wiring project, you suddenly discover something you hadn't considered about the guitar you've begun to disassemble. As you pop off a Strat's pickguard, for example, you might find a few non-standard parts, or unearth a less-than-stellar repair by a previous owner. Maybe the new bridge you've purchased to upgrade your favorite Tele requires a different neck angle to work correctly. It could be dozens of things, but they all have one thing in common: You have to solve a problem. And you are on your own.
The fact is, almost every mod requires some degree of improvisation. There's more to earning the “ace modder" merit badge than simply being able to read a schematic or follow directions printed off the internet. Guitars are unique, so it's important to develop a problem-solving mindset. Knowing how to deal with unanticipated issues is part of the game.
To help you in this quest, I want to share a challenging mod I recently undertook. The guitar was an old German archtop—a Musima Record from the early '50s—that came into the shop for a complete restoration.
I think the Record is one of the most beautiful archtops ever, and if you Google it, you'll find a wealth of photos and all kinds of fascinating lore about its history. It's unlikely you'll ever see one of these guitars, but the techniques and strategies required to do this mod have applications that reach well beyond this specific instrument. Let's take a look.
Photo 2 — Photo courtesy of singlecoil.com
This was a very early example of the Record, and what's important here is that it has a Rellog pickup embedded in the end of the fretboard (Photo 1), as well as an ancient output jack mounted on the neck heel (Photo 2). The jack looks a little like a 3.5 mm output jack, but it requires a special plug. While there are still new-old-stock guitar cables and individual plugs available that work with this jack, the system is not very reliable because the plug won't lock into the jack. And only straight plugs are available, which means the guitar is difficult to play with a cable attached. The owner wanted the old jack replaced with a modern 1/4" jack so he could use a standard guitar cable with an angled plug.
Photo 3 — Photo courtesy of singlecoil.com
To access the electronics on this archtop, you need to remove its neck, which is attached to the body with a Stauffer-screw system called a Rubner anchor. Removing the neck is easy ... if you have the right tool (Photo 3). Fortunately, it's still available from watchmaker supply stores.
Photo 4 — Photo courtesy of singlecoil.com
Removing the neck revealed the thick celluloid heel cap that holds the jack (Photo 4). To access the ancient jack, I had to remove the heel cap, which was glued to the heel. For this task, I used a hair dryer and a bridge removal knife, which you can buy from luthier supply outfits like Stew-Mac.
Note: Celluloid is extremely flammable, so be very careful not to apply too much heat when working with it. In this case, I simply heated the knife with the hair dryer—a safe procedure.
Photo 5 — Photo courtesy of singlecoil.com
After scraping away the crumbling insulation tape protecting the braided shield, I unsoldered the jack and removed it from the heel cap. The next step was to enlarge the 5 mm hole so it would accommodate the 1/4" jack. I used a tapered reamer for this task—this handy tool cuts through celluloid like butter (Photo 5). You could also use a small half-round file, but again be careful not to generate too much heat. And never try to enlarge a hole like this with a drill bit: Old celluloid breaks easily and the bit generates excessive heat.
After preparing the pickup wire by cleaning and pre-tinning it, and before soldering it to the new jack, I slid a piece of latex tubing over the braided shield to insulate it. It's a handy trick to prevent the shield from shorting out on something by accident, and it's especially important when packing wire into a small cavity.
Here's another tip: Don't bend old braided wires too much—they can be brittle. And when soldering, don't apply too much heat for the same reason.
Once I'd installed and wired up the new output jack, I glued the heel cap back in place using binding glue. A quick measurement at the output jack showed a DCR of 3.16k ohm. This was very close to the Rellog factory spec of 2.9k, so I could assume the 50-year-old pickup was still alive and kicking.
Photo 6 — Photo courtesy of singlecoil.com
And speaking of the pickup, you might be curious what a 1950s “stealth" pickup looks like. After removing its protective celluloid cover, there it was, tucked into a pocket cut out beneath the fretboard (Photo 6). I was eager to hear this little guy, so after I completed the entire restoration (which took a total of 52 hours) and finally had the guitar strung up, I plugged it in. Wow—the pickup sounded great and was really loud. With a DCR of only 3.16k, you might be tempted to conclude the pickup was going to be very weak, but that wasn't the case. Once again, this proves the point we discussed last month (“Demystifying DCR"): a DCR reading tells us virtually nothing about a pickup's output and tone.
Next month we'll resume exploring pickup parameters and examine magnet polarity. Until then ... keep on modding!