Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments
Wolf Kater :: Custom made musical instruments
Archtop Guitars

Archtop guitars are in a class by themselves. The guitar as we know it today, with aligned flat top and fingerboard, could well have gone on Columbus' voyages, although in a somewhat diminutive "lady's" format. The archtop guitar with its contoured top and bottom plates, angled neck, floating bridge and tailpiece, belongs more to the violin family. Only the absence of a soundpost prevents the archtop from being a tenor viola da gamba, six-stringed fretted bowed instruments popular during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. In German the archtop is known as a schlag-gitarre, roughly translated as "pulse" or "percussive" guitar. This was the archtop's original function, as a rhythm guitar in acoustic ensembles. The entire concept and execution of the archtop points to this usage. Transposed violin family aspects—the carved plates out of standard violin woods, spruce and maple—create an air pump effect that generates a loud, penetrating sound capable of holding its own in a rhythm instrument. Due to the pulsing action of keeping a beat, lack of sustain was not a problem. The imparted string energy, maximized by playing with a pick, was meant to be amplified and punched out of the sound chamber as quickly and loudly as possible. Ergo schlag-gitarre.

The development of the onboard magnetic pickup totally changed the nature and use of the archtop. Loudness and lack of sustain were exchanged for a round sweet amplified tone, with long singing trebles and plump basses. The air pump acoustic system now served as a primary sound generator only; the rest was done by the pickup and amplification. Thus the archtop was liberated from the schlag-gitarre role and became a soloist's dream—juicy tone with tons of sustain. The adjustable bridge could be cranked down to produce lightning action. Small wonder the "new" archtop quickly became the axe for jazz guitarists.


Acoustic-Electric Archtop
Prop. Ron Trumper
Acoustic-electric archtop
Several decades ago, I built my way through the entire viola da gamba family, from diminutive ukulele size treble to cello-like bass. The archtop was home turf for me. The acquired drawings of a contemporary maker revealed a large, plump instrument with many features, doubtless standard to the genre, that I did not like.
Acoustic-electric archtop side view
Putting pencil to paper I drew up the "Wolfie" archtop—with 24 fret range and heel-less through neck. The high fret range required a deeper, tighter cutaway, producing an overall leaner aesthetic effect. I liked that. Both volume and tone pots (the latter absent in the prototypical design) were placed in my standard side upper-bout internal location. The builder's drawing showed a large pickguard, used to support both the humbucker pickup and a singleton volume pot visually obscuring the treble F hole, partially because the wiring was led through it. To me it gave the guitar an eye-patch effect. Not good. The geometric symmetry of those two mirrored F holes was so strong that this karma shouldn't be messed with. The humbucker lead wire would require a small hole underneath the pickup through the top. A small price to pay for keeping all the wiring internal, where it should be. My narrow oblong pickguard, having to resist a torsional load due to the suspended pickup as well as the occasional impact from animated playing would need to be firmly anchored to the top at the bridge end.
This required a tricky little hidden ebony bracket that would also have to accept a screw fastener to allow for pickguard removal. This was a huge plus. A slotted aluminum bracket supporting the top end of the pickguard at the neck allowed for entire subassembly removal—pickguard with pickup, albeit the latter still on its umbilical cord—without removing the strings. And, just to make things even trickier, the pickup was hard-mounted by an integral tab to the underside of the pickguard—no adjustments whatsoever, unlike my "standard" acoustic/electrics. Everything had to be just right. No leeway of any kind. That was pretty well the rule for the entire instrument—a high-wire lutherie act without a net.

My client wanted a high-end instrument, so all the stops were pulled out. European Alpine spruce for the top, European flamed maple for the back and sides. It was heart-breaking to render almost all of the precious aged top and back slabs into chips and shavings. I wondered how many shaving mountain ranges the past and present violin industry has created over the centuries. As the instrument came together under my hands it began to speak with an ever-increasingly assertive voice. Despite my modifications, I seemed to have retained the essential soul of the archtop. Yet every activity and assemblage created new lutherie challenges that had to be solved on the fly. A true performance in all respects. Towards the final stages, as the wood glistened and shimmered, seductively undulating and rippling with ebony and purpleheart highlights in counterpoint, the guitar radiated its rebirth as a new format in this genre. Despite its size, it was light and refined, all the parts in harmony. After the guitar was strung, that duality revealed itself—a strong, punchy tone in the acoustic mode, and a glistening, bright hypnotic polished sound when amplified. The schlag-gitarre redefined.

Top:  European Alpine spruce
Back and Sides:  European flamed maple
Binding:  purpleheart
Pickguard:  ebony
Neck:  American curly/birdseye maple, bookmatched
Neck Centre Stripe:  ebony
Truss Rod:  aluminum over/under
Headstock Veneer:  ebony, inlaid m.o.p. "Wolf" logo
Tuners:  12:1 M6 Schaller, black
Fingerboard:  ebony, fingerboard bound with ebony
Bridge:  ebony, adjustable height
Fingerboard Radius:  16"
Fingerboard Dots:  mother of pearl
Fret wire:  medium/high
Scale:  25"
Nut:  bone
Tailpiece:  ebony
Body depth:  3" at sides, 4 1/2" at centre
Neck Pickup:  Benedetto S6 Jazz Pickup