During the pre-war dance band era, all throughout the forties jazz and swing craze and right up until the time when rock and roll changed everything, guitarists playing in these styles were faced with very little choice when it came to instruments. The arch top – sometime known as the ‘cello’ – guitar was about all you could find. Mostly totally acoustic, with no cutaway, these orchestra sized hollowbodies came with heavy gauge flatwound strings and needed to be played with some vigour to be heard in a band situation. Jazz guitar legend Freddie Green, who was in Count Basie’s orchestra, used his signature Stromberg arch top to great effect, developing a ‘damped’ chording technique that drove the rhythm section along. What Green did encapsulated the role of the arch top perfectly, although he rarely played solos as he would have struggled to have been heard above the brass section.
Gibson was inevitably the pioneer of the arch top guitar, introducing its L-5 model far back as 1923. The company’s pride and joy ‘masterpiece’, the L-5 set the benchmark for other makers like John D’Angelico and Elmer Stromberg who eventually created their own versions. The Gretsch Manufacturing Company – which by the 1930s had diversified into importing and making a wide range of musical instruments – wasn’t going to be left out, introducing the American Orchestra Line of both student and professional arch tops – all based on the Gibson L-5. In 1939, inspired by the Art Deco movement, Gretsch launched the Synchromatic line which featured revolutionary construction principles. Gibson countered with its cutaway models and battle commenced for market leadership throughout the following decade. In 1949 – amongst a plethora of increasingly expensively adorned arch tops – Gretsch announced the New Yorker, a budget model with a characteristic raised scratchplate and maple body construction. However, it was about the same time that Leo Fender introduced a guitar that would change everything and the arch top’s days were numbered.
Obsessed as we are with all things retro; from amplifiers that resemble Bakelite radios to exact replicas of 50 year old electric guitars that have been used and abused, the guitar makers continue to turn out stuff ‘just like it used to be’. As part of its Roots Collection, Gretsch has re-introduced the New Yorker, now with a new G9555 model number and added rail-mounted pickup. It also features a laminated maple body with an arched back, oversized f holes, vintage style ‘V’-shaped mahogany 19 fret neck and a rosewood fingerboard. Another modern feature is the compensated rosewood saddle for better intonation but the thin frets retain the vintage feel, although the neck on this model is probably nowhere near as fat as the original. The pickup is mounted onto the side of the fingerboard and has a rail on which the pickup can be slid to alter tone. This is controlled by a single volume control mounted on the large single-ply faux tortoiseshell pickguard. Finish is a thin satin in a very authentic looking vintage sunburst.
Playing an arch top like the G9555 is a quite different experience from a regular semi or full acoustic guitar. The unamplified sound may be a surprise for most people; it’s not very loud for a start and the tension doesn’t lend itself to be much use for anything like blues style bending. Add to that the problems of trying to use it plugged in with any sort of amp or pedal distortion and you’re probably wondering what use it is. The answer is simple; it’s a jazz guitar. Comping or soloing, the Gretsch is perfect for any jazzer who needs the feel and look of a 1940’s model – without a huge investment. The pickup placement naturally gives the G9555 classic jazz tones and you can always turn the treble down on the amp for the characteristic wooliness so favoured by the jazz fraternity. Search out clips of Freddie Green, get yourself a chord book and learn some added 6th and flatted 9ths and with the Gretsch G9555 in hand, consider yourself a member of a very niche group of guitarists.