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Flattop Vs. Archtop Guitars: Sound Holes And Soundboards

Sep 17, 2008
Among the many divisions in the guitar family is that of flattop vs. archtop. Both terms are really quite self explanatory. A flattop guitar is one with a flat top, the part of the instrument usually referred to as the soundboard. The sound hole of a flattop guitar is found and placed under the instrument's strings. The archtop guitar, on the other hand, has an arched top and a sound hole or holes carved in the (approximate) shape of an "f." The latter instrument was invented at the end of the 19th century. Until that time, all guitars had been flattop. Hence the term "flattop" never existed until the innovation of the archtop guitar made it necessary. The word "flattop" is now used to refer to a steel-string acoustic instrument (as opposed to one with nylon strings) with a flat soundboard. An archtop guitar is also steel-stringed, but it can be either acoustic or semi-acoustic.

Orville Gibson, founder of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, was the inventor of the archtop guitar. The instrument's first incarnation was the Gibson L5; featured the violin-inspired F-holes that would eventually become the archtop's trademark. Although this instrument flopped, the concept was retained and refined. In 1951, Gibson released the L5CES, an archtop that featured two electric pickups. These pickups allowed the guitar to be played as either an acoustic or electric instrument. The innovation was immediately popular and such models became the standard for archtop guitars. The instruments were eventually adopted by other guitar manufacturers. Today, the list of companies that make archtop guitars includes Eagle, Yamaha, Epiphone and others.

The defining characteristics of an archtop guitar are its arched soundboard and f-shaped holes. The strings of this guitar are generally thicker longer and thicker than those of a flattop, and the body is deep and usually hollow (although some semi-hollow models are manufactured). A true archtop guitar has a rich acoustic tone, but as mentioned, most models are fitted with electric pickups. These pickups are usually humbuckers, which use two coils of reversed polarity to reduce noise and interference.

Archtop guitars are often used in conjunction with attachments designed to create or increase vibrato, a slightly tremulous effect that adds warmth and expressiveness to music. A tremolo arm, for example, is a lever attached to the guitar's bridge. It enables the artists to quickly and temporarily vary the tension and sometimes length of the strings, thereby changing the pitch to create vibrato. A Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, or "Bigsby," is another vibrato device, one that allows the musician to bend the pitches of notes and chords with his pick hand.

Of all the musical genres, jazz and country most often feature the music of the archtop. These musical forms adopted the instrument almost immediately after the release of the modern version in the early 1950s. Pop music sometimes utilizes the sound of the semi-hollow body electric archtop, which produces very distinctive music. Rock and roll also uses the instrument, most often with one of the vibrato devices mentioned above.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for guitars, archtop, flattop, sheet music, guitar tabs, and home theater audio.
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