Title photo
frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Sat, 31 Dec 2016

The guitar is wood and strings and fingers

I found this picture of my 1976 Gibson ES-175 in my 2016 photo folder. I now remember taking it to show my new guitar-playing friend Dave Green what the guitar's pickguard looks like so he could compare it to his Japanese-made ES-175 copy.

Here you see much of the guitar's body. What pegs it as a 1970s Gibson archtop electric? It has chrome pickup covers and a chrome tailpiece (as opposed to nickel, which tends to age, albeit gracefully) and "witch hat" volume and tone knobs. The nickel covers -- made famous on the rare and pricey PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers -- tend to age, albeit gracefully. I believe Gibson introduced the "witch hat" knobs in the late 1960s. Earlier Gibson electrics came with "top hat" or speed knobs.

You can't see it here, but the neck is made of three pieces of maple (as opposed to a single piece of mahogany on earlier models) and includes the thickened "volute" near the nut, meant to strengthen the neck at the point where many Gibson's suffer from catastrophic breaks.

All three of those things contribute to neck strength: maple instead of mahogany, laminated instead of one piece, volute instead of no volute. The volute was unpopular and eventually discontinued. It doesn't bother me. I kind of like the "feel" of knowing I'm at the end of the neck.

The bridge on this guitar, for this year of production (1976) is a bit of an anomaly. It's a compensated rosewood bridge, the kind that Gibson had been using for decades on its archtop guitars, both acoustic and electric. I call it an anomaly because one of the changes Gibson made on the 1976 ES-175 is switching from the traditional wooden bridge to a metal Tune-O-Matic like you would find on a Les Paul or ES-335.

When I bought this guitar in 1981, the shop had two ES-175's. This one was cheaper and had the wood bridge. The other was more expensive and had the Tune-O-Matic. I don't know the production year on the other one, but safe to say it was newer.

Aside from price, one of the things that steered me toward the 1976 model was the fact that it was properly strung with heavy flatwounds. The other 175 had typical solidbody-style light roundwounds, and for my touch and ears, heavier strings sound better. I think that Gibson archtops are "made" to be used with heavy strings. There are archtop players who prefer roundwound strings over flatwounds, including Joshua Breakstone. whose Gibson L-5 sounds great with nickel roundwounds. I've never tried roundwounds on the 175, but someday I very well might. They would still be heavy strings, just not ribbon-wrapped like traditional flatwounds.

All of this said, I can see the appeal of a Tune-O-Matic bridge on an archtop electric. But with the right string gauges, the intonation appears to be perfect, and you can't beat a wood bridge for the classic archtop sound.

So can any type of string be used on any guitar? Not really, though it is possible to set up steel-string guitars for heavier or lighter strings. But some instruments are just "better" with one or the other. I know there are players who string archtops with light-gauge "slinky" strings, and while I've gone "heavy" on Fender solidbodies like the late and very great Ted Greene, other jazz players who prefer solidbody guitars like Ed Bickert go for lighter-gauge sets that include a plain 3rd (aka G) string.

Both to get a plain 3rd string and make my Fender solidbody guitar (it's a 1979 Lead I) work better, I've recently "lightened" up my Fender solidbody strings from an .012 flatwound set (D'Addario Chromes) to .011 roundwounds (Ernie Ball Power Slinky). I had forgotten that years ago I used GHS pure-nickel strings (again, the .011 set) and I might want to revisit them, or Ernie Ball's pure-nickel strings. Pure nickel should reduce the electric output as opposed to nickel-coated steel, and I'm all about reduced output (and I will write in the future about the many different ways the electric guitar can be played, from super quiet [Ed Bickert, most other jazz players, even Les Paul] to the edge of feedback [Jeff Beck, Ted Nugent, Jimi Hendrix]).

That Fender guitar is "made" for .009/.010s, and it accommodates the .011s but would need some nut work to "fit" the .012s. The low E string doesn't fit in the slot. There is no drop-in replacement for the Fender Lead I/II nut, and I wouldn't want to mess with it even if there was. Going to the lighter strings has been interesting. My .011 set has lighter strings on the bass side (the E, A and D) than the traditional .011 set. I think it's more balanced that way.

Remember that a Fender solidbody generally has a 25.5-inch scale (distance from nut to bridge), and the ES-175 has a 24.5-inch scale. The longer the scale, the wider apart the frets and the more tension the strings have at pitch. It can really make a difference.

I remember the first time I played a full-size Ramirez classical guitar. It was a completely different instrument from my short-scale Goya. The feel, the punch and the sound from that Ramirez was something I'd never experienced before. I ended up buying a cheaper, albeit full-sized cedar-topped classical that I eventually sold. I wish I had kept it, even though I tend to prefer the sharper sound of spruce over cedar. A cedar-topped guitar sure smells good. I bet moths hate it.

While the ES-175, the Les Paul-style solidbody guitars and ES-335-style semi-acoustics have 24.5-inch scales, most "modern" Gibson acoustic archtops (Super 400, L-5, L-7, L-10, L-12) and most flattops (of all manufacturers) have the same 25.5-inch scale of Fender solidbodies. The "traditional" modern classical guitar has a 650mm scale, which is just a bit longer at 25.59 inches. While many find the 24.5-inch scale more comfortable, especially on the lower frets, the Gibson Byrdland goes the opposite direction with a 23.5-inch scale that Billy Byrd and Hank Garland (get it? Byrd ... Land) preferred.

As the player of a short-scale classical guitar (1950s Goya), my experience is that you have to go as heavy as possible with the strings to get any tension and tone out of the instrument. I prefer the longer scale because the guitar sounds so much better with the extra string tension.

Back to the bridge on the ES-175. I liked the way the rosewood bridge sounded. The way the strings are attached is what differentiates an archtop guitar from a flattop, classical or solidbody. A flattop has a bridge glued to the top, and the strings are held into the bridge and top via ivory or plastic bridge pins.

Classical guitars also have a bridge glued to the guitar's top, with the strings tied to holes drilled on the back of the bridge. The nylon strings of a classical guitar carry much less tension than the steel strings of other guitars, so putting steel strings on a classical guitar is a good way to wreck it. (Historical note: classical guitars, like lutes before them, used to be strung with strings made from catgut, which despite its name does not come from cats but instead from other animals. One of the enemies of guitar intonation is a lack of uniformity in string thickness, and I can't imagine how catgut ever worked. Thanks, World War II and Albert Augustine, for nylon strings.

The way the strings meet the body is totally different on an archtop guitar. In this respect, the construction of the instrument is directly influenced by and much akin to that of the violin family.

Like with a violin, cello or double bass, on an archtop guitar the strings are held by a tailpiece (generally called a "trapeze" tailpiece) fixed to the end of the body. Also like a violin, the strings are held up by a floating bridge -- yes, it isn't glued or screwed into the top -- that is held down by the pressure of the strings themselves. The bridge is positioned for proper intonation and (unlike the violin family) adjusted up and down via thumbscrews for proper and desired playing action. At least one current archtop maker, Dan Koentopp, formerly of Chicago and now of California's South Bay, is offering a guitar with a fully carved "cello-style" bridge that is made of a single piece wood fitted to the top of the guitar.

So my 1976 ES-175, made at a time when Gibson began putting metal Tune-O-Matic bridges onto a floating rosewood base for this model, instead features the older-style "compensated" rosewood bridge (also on a rosewood base). I say "compensated," because you can see how it is carved to vary the point at which each individual string meets the top of the bridge in an effort to automatically set the intonation. The Tune-O-Matic allows string length to be adjusted for each individual string and was (and is) a great innovation for the electric guitar in general. But it's not so woody.

For an archtop, I find that a wooden bridge adds to the "archtop" sound -- it's more "woody." You can tell the difference in the attack. The string vibrations decay faster.

This is a good time to point out that guitar makers like Gibson can (and do) change things every year of production on their guitars. But they don't do it like clockwork on Jan. 1. Changes could be gradual, coming at any time during the year. And workers putting a guitar together tend to reach into a parts bin and pull out and use what they have. Since the rosewood and Tune-O-Matic bridges are pretty much drop-in replacements on these archtop guitars, it's nice to have a choice.

When you're talking about any musical instrument, everything affects tone. The attack, sustain and decay of notes is important. That's why I don't like digital signal processing on the guitar's sound. In my experiences with DSP, the notes sound less natural. The attack is more about what the computer can do and less about the player, the strings and the wood.

Of course there are situations where you want a more electronic sound with more uniformity and consistency. I'm not interested in those kinds of sounds. Part of this factors into why I love the sound of the archtop jazz guitar. It's nice to have such a nice instrument (one I probably couldn't afford today).

I'm getting more and more interested in the sound of the acoustic archtop guitar, primarily the Gibson guitars of the 1930s through '50s. There's something special about the sound of actual strings and wood with no electronics. Electric guitars, as created in the 1940s and pretty much the same today, have their own sound. The materials that go into electric guitars, including strings, wood and metal, shape the tone of the instrument, including the attack and decay of the notes.

To that end, I've been playing my $200 Yamaha flattop acoustic. It has a solid spruce top. It sounds and plays surprisingly well. It's built like a tank. Even though a lot is the same, playing an acoustic guitar is very different than an electric.

Talk about burying the lede. Yep, I'm playing the guitar a bit these days. All I want to do is learn songs. I've been working on "How High the Moon." I can play the melody from memory. Now I'm working on the chords.

So what is an archtop acoustic going to do for me? (Other than set me back $3,000+ that I don't have?) I would explain it now but instead will leave it for another post.