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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Archtop Guitars and Mandolins

The archtop guitar and mandolin are distinctly American forms of two traditional European instruments. Archtop instruments incorporate a number of construction features that are taken from the violin, most significantly the carved, arched soundboard (top) and back. The creation of archtop guitars and mandolins is credited to Orville Gibson of Kalamazoo, Michigan. His 1896 patent application was for a mandolin design with a carved top and back. In his application, Gibson explained, “Heretofore, mandolins and like instruments have been constructed of too many separate parts bent or carved and glued or veneered and provided with internal braces, bridges, and splices to that extent that they have not possessed that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone and melody found in the use of the instrument below described.” Gibson was awarded patent number 598,245 on February 1, 1898.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to a very rare example of a Gibson mandolin (2015.643a–c). The instrument is similar to the drawing in the patent application and was probably built soon after the patent was awarded in 1898. The mandolin is built according to Gibson’s design and has a carved, convex top of spruce and a carved walnut back with no internal structure. The sides are also carved and made of a single piece with the hollow neck, another element of Gibson’s design that he claimed increases its resonant and “vibratory qualities.” There are no internal braces or struts. Gibson said in his patent that his design was also applicable to other stringed instruments, including the guitar. The Gibson instruments were louder than his competitors and were in such high demand that he couldn’t keep pace with orders. His revolutionary archtop designs were successful and would have a profound effect on American music.

The mandolin was a wildly popular instrument at the turn of the twentieth century. The typical mandolin found in the United States at that time had a bowlback made of bent staves like a lute. The Gibson design, with a carved arched back, was considerably shallower. The Neapolitan version had eight strings grouped into four double courses (two strings placed close to each other and tuned in unison) and pitched the same as the strings of a violin. In ensembles, larger mandolin-family instruments were used, based on the members of the violin family. The alto-voiced mandola is tuned like the viola (2013.125), the baritone range of the mandocello matches the strings and range of the cello (2013.126a–c), and the large mandobass is tuned like a double bass (2013.132). Members of the mandolin family can be grouped to play together in quartets (instrumentation similar to the string quartet) or into even larger groups called mandolin orchestras that included guitars as accompanying instruments.

The popularity of the mandolin may be why Orville Gibson patented his design applied to this instrument rather than the guitar. The high demand for his instruments caused him to sell his patent and his name in 1902 to a group of Kalamazoo financiers who formed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company. This new company specialized in providing all sizes of mandolins and guitars to outfit a mandolin orchestra. In the beginning, the Gibson Company copied Orville’s designs nearly exactly, but within a few years adopted several changes both for acoustical reasons and to make the instruments more cost effective to produce. These changes included building the necks separate from the bodies, using bent sides instead of carved ribs, and changing the arching on the top and back to more closely resemble the arching of a violin.

The Museum’s Gibson mandolin orchestra is made of instruments produced during the late 1910s. It includes a quartet of instruments made with scroll bodies that have a curlicue “scroll” on the upper left shoulder and two points on the right side of the body, as well as a mandolin, mandola, mandocello, and mandobass with symmetrical teardrop body shapes. This mandolin orchestra also includes four archtop guitars, including a model O guitar that has a scroll—similar to that found on mandolins—and a cutaway body (without shoulders). This cutaway allowed players to more easily access the upper frets on the fingerboard, a design that would reappear years later on other archtop instruments (2013.129a–c). There is also a large harp guitar, designated as the model U, which is a six-string guitar with ten open bass strings supported by a separate pillar and an extension of the headstock (2013.131a–c).

It is unclear what relationship Orville Gibson had with the company after it was incorporated in 1902, but the year after his death in 1918, the company hired Lloyd Loar as an instrument designer and luthier. In 1922, the Gibson Company introduced the Master Model series of instruments that included, among others, both the F-5 mandolin and the L-5 guitar. These archtop instruments had several refinements that were also inspired by the violin, including a fingerboard that floated above the soundboard and f-holes like those on a violin instead of oval or circular soundholes. Changes in musical styles during the 1920s meant that the F-5 mandolin was not immediately successful, as interest in mandolin ensembles was waning. Meanwhile, the L-5 guitar found popularity with guitarists who used the instruments in large jazz ensembles. When strummed with a pick, the guitar had a bright, percussive tone that cut through even large horn sections to be heard. It was used by such early jazz guitarists as Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian.

The success of the L-5 caused other guitar makers to build similar instruments. The young New York luthier John D’Angelico opened his workshop in 1932 and built instruments closely modeled on Gibson’s L-5. D’Angelico gained a reputation as an extraordinary archtop guitar builder, and his instruments were valued for their tone and visual beauty. His earliest instruments, including serial number 002 now housed at the Metropolitan Museum (2012.480), are very similar to the Gibson L-5. Over time, he would introduce his own models and designs, including his famed New Yorker model guitars with strong Art Deco motifs. D’Angelico hired James D’Aquisto as a shop boy around 1952. The younger builder spent the next twelve years learning every aspect of guitar making. D’Aquisto purchased the workshop after D’Angelico died in 1964. After a series of unfortunate business deals, he moved to Long Island, where he established himself first in Huntington, then Farmingdale, and finally Greenport.

Changing musical styles would greatly affect D’Aquisto’s career. Rock and roll became the dominant popular musical style, and musicians preferred electric guitars to acoustic instruments. Instead of big bands, jazz was now centered in small clubs with three- and four-piece combos. The archtop guitar, with its many subtleties of sound, became a dominant instrument in the new bebop and cool jazz styles. Only now, instead of playing acoustic, the instrument was often amplified. Both D’Angelico and D’Aquisto were sought out by the best jazz guitarists in New York City in order to build and repair their instruments. This included musicians such as Grant Green, Tal Farlow, and Jim Hall. The special, pressed top, archtop guitar built for Hall in 1984 and featured on many albums and in countless performances can now be seen at the Metropolitan Museum (2014.274a,b).

At the beginning of his career, James D’Aquisto continued to build archtop guitars in the style of D’Angelico. These instruments were designed during the height of the big band era and featured Art Deco details, and used then popular materials such as plastic and metal. D’Aquisto challenged the traditional design and introduced instruments that incorporated modern design ideas, shapes, and a wider range of finish colors. D’Aquisto also believed that plastics and metal inlay and hardware hindered the resonance of an instrument, and he introduced wood tailpieces, pickguards, and bridges. In the late 1980s, he introduced the first of what would come to be known as his “Modern series” of guitars that incorporated all of these ideas.

Only twenty-four guitars were built in this modern style, including a magnificent example known as a Centura Deluxe model that D’Aquisto sold to the rock musician Steve Miller in 1993 (2012.246). D’Aquisto died in 1995 at the age of 59. He had been the most prominent builder of traditional archtop guitars for decades, keeping the tradition alive at a time when most musicians gravitated toward electric instruments. His later years saw a resurgence in acoustic instruments, and D’Aquisto’s great skills as a maker and his transformational ideas inspired a new generation of guitar builders such as Linda Manzer, John Monteleone, and Ken Parker (2016.124a–d).

The mandolin had fallen out of favor in the 1920s. Bluegrass musicians such as Bill Monroe began to utilize the instrument, especially the Gibson F-5 model archtop mandolin, in the 1930s and 1940s. Its importance in American roots music genres increased over the subsequent decades. In the 1970s, John Monteleone, another Italian American builder on Long Island, introduced significant innovations to the instrument, the first redesign in half a century. His mandolins had a redesigned tailpiece, smaller pickguards that didn’t block the soundholes, and a radial fingerboard to make the instrument more comfortable to play (2016.424). In the twenty-first century, a number of successful archtop mandolin makers continue to work and improve high-quality instruments for musicians in a wide variety of genres.