Gypsy guitar design
The gypsy jazz guitars are an ingenious combination of flat top and arch top guitars with some of the qualities of both. They were originally built early in the jazz age when guitars of greater volume and projection were necessary in order to be heard over the wind instruments typical to jazz ensembles. Guitar manufacturers in the United States, like Gibson, were developing the arch top design that produced a mid-
Mario Maccaferri’s design produced a guitar with many of the same qualities of tone at a fraction of the cost. He was a classical guitar performer and luthier who studied with builder-
The primary movement of a floating bridge under string tension is vertical, with very little torque or rock, which is why the tone is mid-
The dome shape of the top is crucial to the tone and functionality of this kind of instrument. This dome is accomplished in Maccaferri’s design by gluing arched braces to the top that run perpendicular to the grain of the spruce with two short vertical braces under the bridge. This creates a cylindrical section, with the entire arch in one plane. Forcing the top down at the neck and tail blocks attains the dome, which creates a lot of uneven stress on the top. The back is built in a similar way – like most modern flat tops. The tone of these guitars is predictably dry and lacking in overtones. Ladder bracing favors the fundamental pitch of any note at the sacrifice of the rest of the overtone range. This is because the top is divided by the braces into only a few vibrating plates which are essentially rectangular. Ladder bracing is also used in lute construction. The right hand attack of the player must be strong to get the best sound from a laddered braced guitar.
Ladder bracing is created when all the braces are parallel with the bridge, so if you look at the back side of the guitar top, the braces look like steps in a ladder. There usually are not many, 3 or 4, maybe 5. They create fulcrum points where the top can easily vibrate in short, low amplitude motions that are perfect for producing high notes, which therefore get emphasis, along with high overtones from lower pitched notes. Thus ladder bracing strongly supports what is called the "long dipole", though there are more than two poles (spans) created. Highs increase the carry and make the sound more assertive. To get this, the top sacrifices the rich complex lows that a well built X-
Ladder bracing tends to produce a less stiff top because there are fewer braces and they do not create much triangulation. Thus the energy transferred by the strings to the top can move it further, creating a louder sound, along with the emphasis on treble which makes the sound carry better. Some say ladder bracing came to be because it was easier to execute in a factory environment. Others say the Italian artisans employed by Oscar Schmidt (one of the early guitar factories) were simply accustomed to doing tops this way, since the lute and early parlor sized guitars were made this way in Europe. There is probably truth in both theories.
Contemporary ladder brace builders tend to copy old designs without many essential changes, except to build them better, with more playable necks and with a truss rod, better sounding wood, tighter construction standards, and so on. The blues are the natural fit for these instruments, as they were for the earlier ladder braced guitars, and also gypsy music. Since flat pickers value loudness, a large bodied ladder braced guitar could suit their playing better than the X-
The backs of Selmer-
Believing that all great luthiers, and Busato more particularly, just succeeded to make awesome guitars intuitively would be a mistake. They were making vibrating monster machines, using a set of secret techniques, which were probably only partly applied or understood by modern luthiers. Busato was making guitars, seriously, with any wood quality he would find. And he did not always find the best grades or best looking. But you know what? Who cares?
While scientists still try to discover the secrets of Stradivarius, apparently without much success, many modern artisan luthiers are simply replicating formulas, copying design, dimensions and some wood choices, and they are producing various levels of gypsy guitars. Some, of course, are decent, and some are really good. Gypsy vintage guitars fans are glad that there are modern luthiers as otherwise the price of vintage instruments would not make them affordable to all.
Barnabe “Pablo” Busato remains undoubtedly the unchallenged master, and probably for a long time…