The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
Reply to Thread Bookmark Thread
Posts 1 to 17 of 17
  1. #1

    User Info Menu

    This has been brought up before but would like to have a discussion on the phenomenon of an acoustic archtop changing sound over time especially when new. I mention this because Bill Barker always said that the 1st year a guitar was when the majority of the sound changes or opens up. I would generally agree with this however what about carved tops that were made and basically not played? Does anyone have experience with this and what they have noticed?

    I say this because my guitars that I have had for from 17 to 44 years have generally seem to sound the same to me in the last 10 years. No noticeable change. I do play them but not huge playing time on some of them at least lately. My Hollenbeck bought new in 1993 I have not played as much the last 2 years but has not changed at all in sound. It is sort of my guitar I go to for all the rest of comparisons. Sometimes I though with good reason some say that this really is all "in our heads," not really much change takes place.

    My recent experience of getting a Heritage Johnny Smith about 4 months ago that I don't think was played much at all. I have certainly notice it has open up in sound. The guitar was made in 2001 but not much playing on it. SInce I got it I have been really putting some time in and for the life of me I think it has become much more alive. The whole guitar just seems less stiff. I know that sounds pretty vague, but I have nothing else to go on since it is just me.

    Finally if a guitar is simply not played for a long time but is still well played fine sounding guitar, does this present any changes? I will have to answer this myself in that I have not found this to be true to any extent. Seems once a guitar has enough age and playing time it remains stable regardless. Would be interesting to here other reports.


    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
  3. #2

    User Info Menu

    All I can talk about is flat-tops and double-basses; maybe archtops are different.

    I built a flat-top many years ago. When I was a bench-hack I strung up hundreds. I got to play a batch of just-finished CF Martin custom-custom guitars. Also, I've been the first owner of a couple of upright basses and had several others essentially dismantled and re-built during restoration. Based on all that I say:

    The first few minutes, the changes are dramatic
    The first few hours, the changes are substantial
    The first few days, the changes are clear
    The first few months, the changes are noticeable

    Much after that, you've gotten what you're going to get for a very, very long time, depending on how the instrument gets played and what misfortunes befall it.

    Not everybody agrees with me, as always.

  4. #3

    User Info Menu

    It’s now about 20 months since I bought my Eastman 807CE7, which was a fresh arrival at GnJ from Eastman when I got it. I’ve played it for an average of 45 minutes to an hour a day since it arrived, and it’s definitely and dramatically opened up in sound consistently since I got it. It’s my first carved archtop since the new L5CN I got in 1970, so my series is limited to one (the L5 was a perfect example of early Norlin’s willingness to sell anything - it was so bad that my dealer insisted on sending it back within days of delivery).

    I have to admit that I was skeptical that any guitar would “break in” to this degree. I remember an article that I think was in Vintage Guitar many years ago in which they compared consecutive serial number identical ‘40s Martin dreads one of which was played daily and one of which was left under a bed. They heard no differences. The ‘69 D-28 I bought new didn’t change much over the 35 years I had it. I never thought my wonderful ‘68 Aria 559 (made by a very young Matsuoka) changed much over its 30 years with me.

    But my 807 has changed my mind. Now I wonder if I wasn’t paying enough attention to my earlier acquisitions. My carved archtop really did get warmer, fuller, richer and more dynamic in sound. It’s definitely louder than it was when I got it when played energetically, yet it retains a full but delicate sound when stroked like a lover.

  5. #4

    User Info Menu

    Quote Originally Posted by deacon Mark

    My recent experience of getting a Heritage Johnny Smith about 4 months ago that I don't think was played much at all. I have certainly notice it has open up in sound. The guitar was made in 2001 but not much playing on it. SInce I got it I have been really putting some time in and for the life of me I think it has become much more alive. The whole guitar just seems less stiff. I know that sounds pretty vague, but I have nothing else to go on since it is just me.
    May I say that you learnt from this baby and she learnt from you ?

  6. #5

    User Info Menu

    It is 100% quantifiably certain the everyone's hearing changes over the course of 17 to 44 years.
    I believe a thin spruce top can change over the first few years, cedar does not; what you hear when it's new is what you'll always hear.
    I think the folks who believe that a thick chunk of hard maple glued to an even thicker chunk of dense mahogany (both woods often used to make necks that super strong and stable over years) change tone as they get played, are delusional.

  7. #6

    User Info Menu

    People who can taste burnt leather mixed with apricots when sipping wine can probably hear all kinds of things when playing a guitar over time. Or so they report.

    It doesn't make any of it real.

  8. #7

    User Info Menu

    Having played a large number of acoustic archtops at this point, and having had some of these as personal guitars for years, my experience is that this varies greatly with individual guitars. Some basically always sound the same from the time they are new continuing into many, many hours of play. Some develop over time and basically stay at that spot whether they are played or not. Others take a reawakening period every time they sit unplayed for an extended period.

    Using a single guitar or comparing two guitars won’t tell one much. I’ve said it before, and I believe it to be true, based on personal, non-scientific experience. In my opinion, if you believe acoustic guitars can’t develop and change tonally, you just haven’t played enough instruments to have experienced it or you just don’t have an ear for a tonal spectrum in the way that they change, and that’s okay.

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

  9. #8

    User Info Menu

    Pretty much been my experience

  10. #9

    User Info Menu

    I had a luthier tell me once you plug it in, it doesn’t matter, Lol!

  11. #10

    User Info Menu

    My Trenier Broadway has significantly increased in volume, warmth, and responsiveness since I first got it last December. Unfortunately I've had it at my luthier for about 5 months now, which is unbelievable since all I asked for was to install a pickguard and some minor fretwork. Anyway, curious to see if it sounds like I remember it to sound when I get it back.

  12. #11

    User Info Menu

    This year I bought a 1977 L5CES. I think it had seen modest playtime back in the 70s/80s/90s. May be for a period of 10-20 years. I believe it ended up in the case and stayed there until a year ago or so. The original frets showed very little wear, as all the wood. The hardware was in bad shape. Pickguard, pickguard bracket, pickup covers, etc were corroded. I think the pickguard gassed out. When I got it, the tailpiece was replaced. Soundwise, I could tell that the guitar had not been played for a long time. It was tight with allmost no sustain, as if it had a damper on it. However, I noticed the potential. We are now 3/4 months further and slowly, but surely it came back to life. I do not know if all the potential is back, but what I can say is that this guitar took 3/4 months of playing at least 1 hour each day to shift from locked up to great.

  13. #12

    User Info Menu

    I can tell the difference in a guitar after you change strings. I can tell the difference between, say, an L7 and an L50 if I play one after the other. But being able to tell the difference between a guitar played six months ago? You guys must have canine ears.

  14. #13

    User Info Menu

    Quote Originally Posted by nopedals
    I can tell the difference in a guitar after you change strings. I can tell the difference between, say, an L7 and an L50 if I play one after the other. But being able to tell the difference between a guitar played six months ago? You guys must have canine ears.
    It's not that complicated if you have a stable benchmark. I have two 90 year old archtops that are benchmarks for my Trenier. I use the same strings and setup on each of them, and it's easy to notice changes in the Trenier by noting how it compares to the other two, which don't change. I have also made recordings comparing them at different times.
    Last edited by omphalopsychos; 09-22-2022 at 02:58 PM.

  15. #14
    I put a decibel meter app on my iphone. I am not just how accurate is it but maybe it is at least consistent. I put my phone on music stand and played my guitars through it getting various readings.

    The results are not all that far apart in some sense. The loudest guitar I have is my 37 D'a New Yorker. Playing 4 bar rhythm it seem to give larger reading, 80 or about 5 above the lowest reading guitar. The odd thing is that what the player hears is very different than what the person out in front of you hears. I recently played a guitar the owner had in front of him and his first remark was how different the guitar sounded from not actually playing it himself.

    When I play some guitars, they seem to me louder than others but the decibel meter had them equal. My Hollenbeck was around 78-80 it sounds to me louder than my Heritage Johnny Smith but on the decibel meter they are same. They possess a completely different sound. The Hollenbeck has not changed a bit but the Heritage JS easily has gotten louder over the past 3 months. The sound is much more alive and rich not just louder.

    A loud archtop is not necessarily better at all and if fact some loud guitars sound terrible. I have played some very loud Epiphones that on initial contact produce a big chunk but have no real sustain or mellow smoothness. I also have a 2001 18 inch Vestex D'angelico copy which I think were the best commercially ones made and better than some carved top guitars. I put this guitar on the decibel meter and yes it was as loud as any of my other guitars. This guitar to me over the years has way opened up and become quite smooth and plenty of acoustic punch. It is a solid formed spruce top and right now I have to say it sounds as good or better than many complicated and carved solid tops.

    My father told me his Barker guitar made in 1965 he bought new from Bill change dramatically in the first year. He said it was very loud and bright and then became much more even with bigger bass presence. It did not get louder but rounded in tone and richer. Since I have had the guitar the past 40 years it has not change much but I played it primarily with a big band in college and after college. To me it has never changed sound and is a constant benchmark against other guitars. The decibel meter test on this guitar was pretty much around 80.

    My experience has been the new carved tops do not get brighter sounding but mellow losing the upper register cutting sound that is loud but not developed. I think has much to do with the finish drying over time. A true nitro finish will take a long time to cure and can influence the sound based on just environmental conditions. In the winter here in Illinois due to dry indoor air all my guitars seem to sound a bit brighter. This last observation has me more than ever convinced that playing the guitar and out of the case are so important.

    I remember Barker suggesting to a guitarist who bought his guitar that if he wanted to speed up the process of opening the guitar up, he could put it on a stand in front of a stereo playing big band recordings like Ellington and Basie. Just let the music playing into the guitar as it would make the top vibrate. I find this all fascinating but I am sure it is overkill to many.

  16. #15

    User Info Menu

    A guitar is a system for moving air. It's also a mechanism for turning the energy of a taut vibrating string into a vibrating surface in the form of a guitar top. How efficiently and optimally it does this depends on the design, build, and yes, the perception of the listener.
    If you think of your guitar like a speaker cabinet, the energy at the bridge is the magnetic driver and the speaker cone is like the top. If you've ever gotten into amp technology, you'll know that material has a big effect on your sound but you'll also know that there's something known as the 'break in period' where a speaker comes into its own sound.
    On a guitar, especially on an archtop, where the sound is determined by material (and the inherent stiffness to weight ratio of each material: spruce, cedar, hog, maple, cherry, apple all have their personalities and working parameters), thickness (each material has a different relation of load bearing and stiffness), arching (stiffness, and efficiency, are effected by the arch, like a piece of paper can be made to support the weight of a penny if you make it into a tube), bracing, and yes, even the type and curing (period of time it takes for plasticizers and volatiles are off gassed leaving a hard finish) of finish.

    A top will tend towards a vibrational pattern at certain frequencies, like the harmonics on a string. In three dimensions, if you were able to see it, you'd see that each top and back has a frequency signature that makes the wood resonate in different patterns at different frequencies (looks like an X, a t or a ring depending on the frequency. These are called vibrational modes and they can be seen with laser or glitter patterns along the nodes). So I can build a top knowing where these nodes are and what frequency they come in at and by carving bring out the top that works most efficiency. This also know as tap tuning where the luthier can find the sound and location of the places that need to vibrate and carve to 'bring in' the tone to where it best works with the entire top. When this is done properly, with the top and the back talking to one another across a smooth frequency sweep with no significant peaks or valleys, the guitar plays even and projects well (it's sweet and loud).

    Now when a guitar is new, it still thinks it's a tree. It doesn't know where the nodal lines are. It's a new speaker, it's the stiff page of a brand new book, it needs to become the best vibrating surface given a quantity of energy at the bridge. On the microscopic level, the resins in the annular rings with the fast growth wood between are uniform and have a disparity between the cross grain and lengthwise stiffness (mahogany is a lot more even, as is maple) but over time with playing, the resins soften with vibration and re-form along the nodal lines of the vibrating top. THIS is why playing in a guitar makes such a difference. The WAY you play is also important. It can be argued among sensitive players, that you can tell if a person is a picker, hard or light, or finger picker by the way the personality of a well built guitar plays in. The guitar does learn how to sing. It takes commitment from the player to bring out the best in their guitar. I was recently gifted a hand carved guitar, built decades ago and very evidently kept in 'pristine' (unplayed collector's) condition. It sounded horrible, stiff, closed off, like cardboard under a pillow. I considered regraduating it but gave it 9 months of constant playing (and keeping it next to my stereo speaker) to 'learn' to be musical. Now, 6 months in, it's starting to open up, It's sounding like a real guitar and I can see a great potential emerging. I can only imagine what it could have been had the original owner not been afraid to play it.

    Add to this the effect of the finish, which has its own timeline of curing (which can be months or years depending on the type) which also needs to be broken in, taught to be pliable along the lines where the top vibrational lines 'fold', and the play-in time is constant and can profoundly change the sound and feel of the guitar.

    Laminates to a lesser degree, but absolutely still true.

    The higher the quality of the build (the better the luthier) the greater you'll feel the convergence with the intended design.

    And of course if you're a player that doesn't feel it, or your playing style doesn't tend towards nuance and feel, then this is all moot. Not going to make one iota of difference.

    Just some bench thoughts after 40 years of making and playing guitars. This is what I've come to know. Take it or leave it.
    Play well!

  17. #16

    User Info Menu

    Deacon Mark mentioned dry cold air making his guitars a bit brighter. Yes, sound waves travel through the air in a room and the level of humidity effects them. You can hear this playing an electric and on your stereo but it is much more pronounced with acoustic instruments.

  18. #17

    User Info Menu

    Quote Originally Posted by whiskey02
    Deacon Mark mentioned dry cold air making his guitars a bit brighter. Yes, sound waves travel through the air in a room and the level of humidity effects them. .
    There was a saying in the luthier circles I was in "There are two kinds of guitars. Ones that sound good in the winter and ones that sound good in the summer. I live in New England USA where the humidity extremes run the gamut. There is a noticeable difference between a free plate (uncarved, in this case unbraced and unattached to the ribs) in the summer time when humidity literally makes it bigger and the winter where the moisture is drawn from the wood (you know the swell in the door that makes the door stick in the summer? That's it).
    Take a top in the summer, carve it to dimension, brace it and glue it to the ribs. Now comes the winter and it's like the guitar has lost weight and gone down 2 sizes. This effects vibrations too, have no doubts.
    Some guitars show this more than others but yeah, no matter what you attribute it to, it changes. THat's why they make those adjustable bridges part of the design of an archtop guitar.
    The winter air has different density too, everyone can hear that, and to a guitar, you have your seasons too.