Beyond Flattops: The Magic of Resonator, Baritone, and Archtop Guitars

From the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar 

Ever since the Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado pioneered the design of the modern classical guitar in the mid-1800s, guitar makers have been toying with ways of making louder instruments with wider tonal ranges. These experiments have resulted in structural deviations from the traditional flattop guitar—changes that must have seemed revolutionary when they were introduced, but which are now standard designs that guitarists of all stripes tend to take for granted. 

The archtop guitar, for instance, is distinguished by its carved top, floating bridge, and separate tailpiece—features that, on the best instruments, offer enhanced projection and an unmistakable punchiness—a boon for ensemble players before the introduction of the electric guitar, especially those in big bands. Also a solution to the problem of volume, resonator guitars, with their internal sound-transmitting cones, were originally designed for Hawaiian music but came to be closely associated with blues, country, bluegrass, and other rootsy American styles.

Modern baritone guitars were first seen in electric form, existing somewhere in the space between standard and bass guitars. Eventually, acoustic baritones hit the market. Though they might not be as widely used as their archtop and resonator counterparts, baritones offer acoustic players a new world of arranging possibilities, as they extend the guitar’s range down by a perfect fourth or fifth in standard baritone tuning.

AG recently asked three of our contributing writers—Sean McGowan, Greg Olwell, and Emile Menasché, who have spent a lot of time with archtop, resonator, and baritone guitars, respectively—to talk about the history of these instruments, the makers and players associated with them, and how you can get your hands on one, no matter your budget. — Adam Perlmutter

Special thanks to vintage guitar expert George Gruhn for reviewing some of the historical aspects of this piece.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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