An archtop guitar looks distinctively different from a standard guitar. The archtop is named for the arched top, which distinguishes it from a flat top guitar. The names are very simple and descriptive. If you put a guitar down on a flat surface, the flat top guitar with have a flat, level top. The archtop, on the other hand, arches up and does not have a level top.
This design is after a mandolin which has an arch. An archtop uses steel strings, and can be either all acoustic or semi-acoustic. This type of guitar is a favorite of country, blues and jazz musicians because of its rich sound.
Archtop guitars also have distinctive sound holes. Where a flat top acoustic guitar will usually have a round hole in the middle, beneath the strings, archtop guitars have what are known as f-shaped holes or f-holes.
These holes are on the sides and are shapes like an italic f. They mirror each other, and give the guitar the look of a violin, which uses these types of sound holes. The top and the back are each carved from one piece of wood that’s a bit thicker in the middle than on the sides, and the sides are from one piece of wood.
There aren’t braces or bridges inside the guitar to interfere with the sound, either, or dampen the volume. Archtop guitars have a rich, vibrant tone that’s suitable for solo playing and music that heavily features guitar sounds, so everything is designed for optimum sound quality.
The first archtop is believed to have been manufactured by Orville Gibson, of the Gibson music company. It was built after his 1898 patented design of a mandolin. But another guitar maker patented a design very similar 2 years earlier. Gibson is still regularly credited for the design, however.
For a richer sound, archtop guitars are usually played with thicker strings than flat top guitars, so they can played more forcefully, giving more volume. Modern archtops have a system that allows for mic-ing or amplification, this type of guitar is capable of enough volume to reduce the need for it.
It’s not easy to find an archtop guitar today, because they are barely manufactured now. You can order custom archtops or find used and vintage models. But because of the scarcity, vintage models can command a high selling price.
Because of the different quality of the guitar, if you plan on playing an archtop you should probably learn on an archtop. The feel of one of these guitars in your hands and your lap is different than the feel of a flat top guitar. If you learn on one, you can easily play the other, but you might need a little time to get used to the response and the shape.
Archtop guitars are still sought out by many guitarists. If you plan to purchase one, expect to pay between $2,000 and $3,000 for a new Gibson archtop, and more if you order a custom model.