Electric Wars: Archtop vs. Solid-Body
Well, maybe it's not war, but aficionados in each camp sometimes become quite heated when defending their main squeeze. This may have to do with the perception that the two opposing types of construction represent conflicting ideologies as well. You've heard it said: Archtops are for jazzers, solid bodies are for rockers. A brief look at the history of the electric guitar does not totally support that thesis, though there is some truth to it. Blues and rock pioneers like T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Bill Haley, Scotty Moore, and Chuck Berry stayed with archtops even after the debut of the Fender and Gibson solid-body guitars in the late '40s and early '50s. In the jazz world, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Lenny Breau, Mike Stern, and Les Paul (naturally) gravitated to solid-bodies and remained there.
So, what are the pros and cons of archtops and solid-body guitars? Let's have a look.
Arguably, there is no guitar more esthetically pleasing to the senses than a fine archtop. The voluptuous curves, top-quality woods, bindings, inlays and hardware of a Super 400 or an L-5, not to mention a D'Angelico, are tough to beat. Beyond that, there is the playability and sound. Due to the decreased tension engendered by the trapeze tailpiece, the action on most archtops is lighter than on solid-body instruments, even when heavy strings are used. This is no trifling matter, as archtops tend to become more responsive and resonant as the string gauges increase. Likewise, fingerboards are often constructed from fine-grained, high-quality rosewood or slick, hard ebony, contributing to easier string bending.
Great archtops offer a broad palette of tonal colors. Because so much of the sound is acoustically generated, lower frequencies are particularly full and rich whether the guitar has single-coil or humbucking pickups. Some effects can be employed with archtops, but the best ones only need a good amp to perform excellently at low, clean volume levels or at higher, distorted levels. Either way, the sound comes out huge, warm, and natural. In addition, archtops have a quick attack-the notes jump out of the instrument, offering many opportunities for dynamic and subtle pick work.
Drawbacks? Less sustain, generally, than solid-body guitars. Foremost, though, feedback is the bane of archtop players and, in fact, was one of the main reasons for the development of the solid-body guitar. However, hard-rocker Ted Nugent, who has mainly played the Byrdland, a thinline archtop, has made this work to his advantage. Anyone who has seen him live can attest that he sounds like hell's bells when his axe roars.
Solid-body guitars are everything archtops are not. They are far less prone to feedback, have sustain that varies from good to great, are more practical for vibrato units and are usually quite adaptable to a variety of effects and amps. If you are into customizing your axes, solid-bodies have more after-market items available for them such as replacement pickups, bridges, nuts, and tuners. While you should probably never alter the finish on an archtop, as it will affect the sound to at least some degree, you can let your imagination run free when considering a color for a solid-body.
Depending on the particular instrument, most solid-bodies have more adjustment at the bridge and can usually accommodate any action preference. Likewise, they can usually be fitted with strings ranging from super light to heavy, although gauges above .011 may require tuning down from concert pitch due to the extra tension. In addition, solid-body guitars are thinner and smaller than archtops, making them especially attractive to those of average or lesser height who may find it uncomfortable to wrap their arms around a big fat hollow guitar.
What about the sound? Solid bodies vary tremendously from one model to the next and, taken as a group, offer a far wider tonal range than a comparable group of archtops. Most individual guitars, however, including Strats with five-way selectors, usually have only a couple of sounds that are appealing to the majority of players.
Clearly the solid-body has been the choice of most rockers. Solids have been an indispensible part of rock music's finest moments, and their tonal reach has won many hearts outside the genre. Tough to beat that image, too. Archtops, however, capture a player's touch and produce it with a warmth beyond compare. They are the past and the future of guitar music. Players spend their lives chasing down the right guitar and the right sound. You'll only know whether an archtop or a solid-body is right for you when it's in your hands and in your ears.