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  1. #1

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    A couple of weeks ago I came across a Unity 100th Anniversary archtop.

    I have looked these up on the global intrawebs and find almost nothing about them. What little I have found says 1994 and that there were at least two made (got that off a post by Marty Grass).

    Can anyone share their experience with one?

    What are they like - would you compare them to anything else out there then or now?

    Thanks in advance...

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  3. #2

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    I'm aware of 2 of them. Did you happen to see the production number on the back of the head stock? Marty Grass had number 2. It's now owned by JGF forum member Kuz. He's accessible here and on one of the Heritage guitar forums. I also know of number 1. It was commissioned by player/collector Wayne Wesley Johnson. I played that guitar at Wayne's home. That was over 20 years ago. I think that Marty Grass and Kuz can give you better and more accurate info than I can. I think I played Marty Grass' guitar also. Just can't remember it too clearly right now.

  4. #3

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    One sold over here in the Uk about 3 years ago. Blonde one.

  5. #4

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    Mine was owned by Ted Krause. It was #2 of 7. Aaron kept one himself and another went to a friend of his.

    They are basically the box of an L5 with a floater. But they are over the top elegant. I wish I kept the photos to show you. He put a hell of a lot of extra work in inlays and binding.

    Aaron Cowles built high end archtops for Gibson for many years along with Hutch and was truly gifted. Aaron did the 100th Anniversary Model to commemorate 100 years of guitar building in Kalamazoo in 1994. These were his ultimate guitars he told me.

    The neck was fat and the box was large. Despite it having a very rich acoustic tone, I sold it to a friend because it felt too big. I have gotten over the size thing and have tried twice to get it back. He won't give it up.

  6. #5
    Thanks Marty and AH.
    The one I saw was big/deep, blonde, had great inlay (lots of detailed inlay on the headstock, L5-style fret markers, something on the ebony tailpiece). Fantastic flamed back.
    Great tone unamped. Really deep and rich - not super bright but quite clear. And louder than almost anything I have heard I expect.

    Any idea how much one of these might go for? Were there any which were not blonde?

    FWIW, one thing I was surprised by was that in the cutaway, the top plate was either super thick or there was a spruce shim. Where in most archtops that part of the top plate edge is covered by a wider-than-normal section of binding, this box had a constant-width binding and so there is a sliver of spruce sticking out. I had never seen this.

  7. #6

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    Quote Originally Posted by travisty
    Thanks Marty and AH.
    The one I saw was big/deep, blonde, had great inlay (lots of detailed inlay on the headstock, L5-style fret markers, something on the ebony tailpiece). Fantastic flamed back.
    Great tone unamped. Really deep and rich - not super bright but quite clear. And louder than almost anything I have heard I expect.

    Any idea how much one of these might go for? Were there any which were not blonde?

    FWIW, one thing I was surprised by was that in the cutaway, the top plate was either super thick or there was a spruce shim. Where in most archtops that part of the top plate edge is covered by a wider-than-normal section of binding, this box had a constant-width binding and so there is a sliver of spruce sticking out. I had never seen this.
    You bring back memories which have long bveen forgotten. I do remember seeing the rim extention (shim) you speak of. I can't remember if it was on Mark's (Marty Grass') guitrar or Wayne Johnson's) I didn't care for it at all. I was very specific with Aaron about not wanting that on my first Unity American Classic, which was the 17". Aaron was OK with that. Had I known that I could have ad him carve the top plate further at the rim near the cutaway, as was done on earlier Gibson Citations, and D'As . . instead of going with a thicker binding in the cutaway, I'd have asked Aaron to do that. But, that was way back in 1994 and my arch top tutelage under Aaron, Jim deurloo and Marv Lamb had just begun. So, I was oblivious to the options. All I knew was that I didn't like the *shim*.

    Not really sure if Aaron ever did one of these in a shading, sunburst of semi solid color. But, it's probably best if there were not any. If Aaron had any weakness at all . . it was in his shading of a guitar. Some were great . . as good as Heritage's. Some. not so great. When shading a guitar, consistency is critical.

    I'm surprised to hear you say that the one you saw had L5 style finger board inlays. That must have been a special specification by the person who commissioned the build. Aaron typically used the split block inlay.

    Regarding your comments on the tone of the one you played; I have spoken many times here about the tone Aaron was able to get out of his hand carved arch tops. Aaron was a master at getting the most out of what ever pieces of wood he was working with. It really can't be described . . . it needs to be experienced.

  8. #7
    Thanks Patrick!
    I might have mis-remembered the blocks - they might have been split blocks. I remember the inlays and the binding which were pretty special (even around back of the headstock), and the spruce portion showing in the cutaway 'perpendicular' to the top plate. The tailpiece was actually brass with an ebony insert which itself had an inlay in it. The tailpiece had the '100th anniversary' etched in, and a "1" near the bottom. I was flabbergasted by the level of finish (except for the sliver of spruce between binding and flamed maple in the cutaway - which was a little odd). Seemed like a pretty special guitar. So much so that I expected it to be way out of my price league... But I can't help but wonder now if I shouldn't have made the effort...

  9. #8

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    Hello,

    Kuz is here. I bought the Unity from MartyGrass. I am not sure if there is anything more I can add. It is a sole handmade guitar and as such it definitely has a vintage vibe. It feels and plays like an old vintage guitar. It doesn't feel like the modern made art tops. This is not good or bad, it just feels like the older style archtops.

    The tone is very even from highs to lows and has the floater acoustic tone.

    Mine also has the lack of a thicker binding over the cutaway. Mine does have the rim extension (shim) you speak of, at first I thought it was odd, but hey I'll take wood over plastic.

    If you have anymore specific questions, let me know...

  10. #9

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    As a player, I have no use for a guitar like this at all but I love the fundamental design. It looks like it's the ultimate incarnation of the Gretsch SuperChet and I suspect that Chet would have thought of it as heaven. The body design is incredibly bold for an arch top builder and I could probably go on for several paragraphs about how much I like it and why. In my little world of guitar-as-tool, this looks like just a great guitar. (although I would probably want to try it with a strap button at the end of the upper bout).
    Last edited by Jim Soloway; 02-07-2015 at 02:35 PM.

  11. #10

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    Being 6'5" and 225lbs the size of this guitar (which is the biggest guitar I own) is no issue for me but I could see how it might be a little big for others. Although my full size Collings dreadnought is at least as wide.

    But Jim you are dead on with the Strap Button. It is on the wrong place. It needs to be on the upper bout or upper back of the guitar. If I gigged it or even recorded with it more I would change that strap button location immediately.
    Last edited by Kuz; 02-07-2015 at 03:40 PM.

  12. #11

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    Unity Anniversary #2 is simply a STUNNING guitar. Every guitar that I have known Aaron Cowles to have been associated with has been an exceptional archtop instrument--Citations and other guitars at Gibson, Unity guitars built at his shop, and bodies built for Heritage.

    Does anyone know if Cowles was responsible for the Kalamazoo Award guitars?

    Confession: I have always wanted one of Cowles' Unity Special guitars. Pretty scarce, though.

  13. #12

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    Notice the neck heel. Aaron made them thin for better high fret access. It does make a difference.

  14. #13

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    Let me point out another thing. Maudie Moore did the engraving work and even signed the label. Maudie is legendary for this sort of thing and is a part of modern guitar history.




  15. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by Greentone
    Unity Anniversary #2 is simply a STUNNING guitar. Every guitar that I have known Aaron Cowles to have been associated with has been an exceptional archtop instrument--Citations and other guitars at Gibson, Unity guitars built at his shop, and bodies built for Heritage.

    Does anyone know if Cowles was responsible for the Kalamazoo Award guitars?

    Confession: I have always wanted one of Cowles' Unity Special guitars. Pretty scarce, though.
    Both Aaron and Jim Deurloo worked on Kalamazoo Awards. But, they didn't have much of a hand in the design. Some say that the Kalamazoo Awards were even better guitars than the Citations. IMO, once you're at that level . . there's no such thing as better . . . only different. But, if you look closely at the Kalamazoo Award . .and compare it to the Citation . . you can see quite clearly that when Jim and Marv of Heritage were designing the Golden Eagle, they were channeling the KA more so than the Citation.

    Ken: if I knew you wanted to sample a Unity, I'd have brought bpth of mine along whne we did the deal on the SE. Who knows? Maybe when I buy it back from you I'll bring them along with me. ;-)

  16. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Grass
    Let me point out another thing. Maudie Moore did the engraving work and even signed the label. Maudie is legendary for this sort of thing and is a part of modern guitar history.



    Maudie was slowing down quite a bit when Aaron did my 18" American Classic. He couldn't get her to do the work on it. Aaron did all of the inlay himself . . except for the split blocks in the finger board. I'm really pretty happy about that too. Aaron did a few things that Maudie wouldn't have done. He went with a split diamond motif throughiut the guitar. It's a combination of MOP and abalone. I photo bombed another thread, Heritage Super Eagle, 3-3/38", with photos of the 18" . . so, I'll spare everyone the duplication here.

  17. #16

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    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Grass
    Notice the neck heel. Aaron made them thin for better high fret access. It does make a difference.
    Yeah….the opposite of the Heritage neck heel.
    Yet another design triumph for the boys in Kalamazoo...
    Last edited by Hammertone; 02-08-2015 at 02:13 AM.

  18. #17

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    Aaron had his moments.
    And sometimes he didn't.
    Here's a Unity Jazz Deluxe. Sigh:
    Attached Images Attached Images Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-unity-jazz-deluxe-4-jpg 
    Last edited by Hammertone; 05-10-2020 at 10:56 PM.

  19. #18

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    Then, of course, there's #005, which makes up for it, eh?
    Note the sunburst - sorry to disappoint you, Patrick, heh.
    And note the Citation-style wood at the heel.
    And the midget pickguard.
    Attached Images Attached Images Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-unity-005-head-back-jpg Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-unity-005-front-jpg Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-unity-005-back-jpg 
    Last edited by Hammertone; 02-07-2015 at 10:20 PM.

  20. #19
    No. 005 is a real beaut. Love the heelcap.

    No. 004 has just a squished half-moon in ebony I think - the backplate doesn't come up to cover it.

  21. #20

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hammertone
    Then, of course, there's #005, which makes up for it, eh?
    Note the sunburst - sorry to disappoint you, Patrick, heh.
    And note the Citation-style wood at the heel.
    And the midget pickguard.
    A prime example of what I said earlier. Consistently great shading was not Aaron's strong suit. I've seen examples of some very nice shadings from Aaron. But, there's a reason that the two I commissioned from him were finished in a natural. ;-)

    No surprise about the Citation like heel cap. I didn't say Aaron never did them. I said he told me . . "no, I ain't doin' them no more" . . which is pretty much what Jim Deurloo told me, albeit with greater grammatical correctness.

    I've never seen this phot before, Hammertone. I'd be curious as to where you got it.

  22. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Soloway
    As a player, I have no use for a guitar like this at all but I love the fundamental design. It looks like it's the ultimate incarnation of the Gretsch SuperChet and I suspect that Chet would have thought of it as heaven. The body design is incredibly bold for an arch top builder and I could probably go on for several paragraphs about how much I like it and why. In my little world of guitar-as-tool, this looks like just a great guitar. (although I would probably want to try it with a strap button at the end of the upper bout).
    Aaron was a worshiper of all things Chet. To say that Chet Atkins was Aaron's guitar idol is a gross understatement. The last guitar Aaron built for himself was a clone of a Gretsch model that Chet favored. Aaron called it *The Red Guitar*. Marty Grass saw this guitar on one of his visits to Aaron's shop. It was kinda cool . . because every time our conversation would gradually shift into a discussion [by Aaron] of Chet, (which was pretty much every time he and I had a conversation . . lolol) . . Aaron would pick up *The Red Guitar*, reach into his front left pocket and pull out his thumb pick, and start to play a Chet tune.

    I've posted this short 6 minute video here before . . so, those of you who have seen it, please excuse the re-post. But, for those of you who haven't seen it, if you can sit through 6 minutes or so . . it's a real throw-back to a past era . . . but in current times. This is a realistic view of old school mid western charm and courtesy, as seen in current times. Aaron was a true gentleman. But, he was also a man's man. He wore a .380 pistol holster on his belt. When I first saw it, I thought it was there to hold his cellular phone. When I asked him about it, he told me what it was for and then opened a drawer on his work bench to show me the .380. He said something to the effect of . . "this is a nice little town . . but, people are people even in nice little towns. If somebody comes in here with a mind full of bad intentions, he's gonna have a problem with me". The content of this video is an indication of why I developed such a strong fondness of and for this man. My eyes actually welled up as I watched it again.

    A couple of note worthy things you'll see in this video;

    ** Note the age in Aaron's skilled hands . . and what it takes to actually hand carve a top and a back plate. This is mainly why Aaron stopped making arch tops.

    ** When was the last time you heard a luthier charge $5 . . . for anything?

    ** Note the state of the art cash register and invoice producing hardware and software. lolol

    ** Note also, how Aaron kept track of how many coats of finish he applied to a guitar . . as well as the state of the art aspirator he uses when spraying.

    Anyway . . here's the video with Aaron playing the affore mentioned Gretch like Chet Atkins guitar;

    Last edited by Patrick2; 02-08-2015 at 01:04 PM.

  23. #22

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    Quote Originally Posted by Patrick2
    I'm very familiar with this guitar. Aaron took and kept photos of it. The guy who commissioned this build made the template for those goofy sound holes himself. Aaron really didn't want to do it. But, as a luthier who was pretty much living pay check to pay check, he took the order and made the guitar.
    Maybe the single greatest danger as a builder is letting the customer have too much control of the specs. It's hard to turn down when you need the money but in the end it's the builder's name on the instrument. That's who get's the blame and the blame lasts a lot longer than the money. I know that without exception, my least favorite of all the guitars we built were, without exception, guitars over which I let the customer have too much control. And usually in those instances, the customer didn't like the results of their decision making so the guitars ended up on the open market fairly soon. I'd like to take back about five of them and either cut my name off them or even better, put them in the fireplace.

  24. #23

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    Aaron was both a craftsman and a very practical guy. Many of the Gibson old timers were exactly the same way.

    Once I brought an archtop to Aaron and asked him to take the Seth Lovers out of it and put in a pair of Alumitones. He'd never heard of Alumitones before, and they are certainly very different than PAFs.

    When I picked up the Golden Eagle I asked if he played it with the two set of pickups. He said he did. I asked him what he thought about the sound. He simply said both sets work okay. When pressed about the tone, he said maybe there was a little difference between the two. And then he asked me why I wanted to change the pickups when the first set wasn't broken.

    Another time I brought in my Gibson Johnny A to have the TOM saddles changed for a greater string spread. He looked through his parts and found an old set of chrome saddles uncut. He told me I could have these for $3. If he had to order gold ones to match the rest of the guitar, it would be $12, and he didn't see the point of wasting money that way.

    So he cut the saddles, installed them, polished the frets and set up the guitar all for $30. This was about 3 years ago.

    I learned a lot from him about doing my old adjustments and repairs on my guitars. Just like in the video, he'd tell me that I don't want to throw my money away to hire him on the things I could do myself.

    If you now think Aaron is eccentric, I can tell you that he's just like some of the guys at Heritage and some Gibson retirees in Kalamazoo.

  25. #24

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    fwiw, that guitar sold July 5, 2015 for $1750 on the bay.

    Quote Originally Posted by Hammertone
    Aaron had his moments.
    And sometimes he didn't.
    Here's a Unity Jazz Deluze. Sigh:

  26. #25

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    Thanks to Kuz and to Marty Grass, I am the new owner of what is my dream guitar. In 1994, the late Aaron Cowles--long-time Gibson employee who tap-tuned and built Gibson Citations and Kalamazoo Award models--built a limited edition of eight custom archtops to commemorate 100 years of instrument manufacture in Kalamazoo, Michigan. These guitars are called the Unity 100th Anniversary Custom archtops. Cowles kept the first one for himself. He built the first production model for archtop collector and owner of the D'Aquisto String Company, Theodore Krause. The other six were sold to various customers. The 100th Anniversary guitars are 17" body, exquisitely figured solid wood instruments that have strong acoustic voices.

    Forum Member, Marty Grass, purchased the Ted Krause guitar. He later sold it to Kuz, who sold it to me.


    The tailpiece (heavily engraved), headstock, and bridge were all inlayed/engraved by Maude Moore, who did custom engraving for Gibson and Heritage. The pickup on the guitar is a Shadow 48 Zoller. It was designed and built to commemorate Attila Zoller's 48th birthday. At one time or another, Attila Zoller, Jim Hall, and Jimmy Raney all used the Shadow 48 on their guitars.
    Attached Images Attached Images Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-4994808e6acf3321e41691fc2457915f-jpg Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-909f5c2b627c274180f7d0b1a534d486-jpg Unity 100th Anniversary Custom Archtop-0c62351898790b7e6b3fd44523767301-jpg 
    Last edited by Greentone; 10-26-2015 at 02:26 PM.