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Tech: Retro Archtop Setup

GUEST,highlandman at work 02 May 12 - 12:49 PM
GUEST,Stim 02 May 12 - 04:18 PM
Leadfingers 02 May 12 - 09:36 PM
GUEST,Tony 03 May 12 - 09:21 AM
GUEST,highlandman at work 03 May 12 - 10:11 AM
Will Fly 04 May 12 - 03:37 AM
Will Fly 04 May 12 - 03:41 AM
GUEST,Stim 04 May 12 - 04:17 AM
Darowyn 04 May 12 - 06:22 AM
GUEST,Whistle Stop 04 May 12 - 09:12 AM
GUEST,highlandman at work 04 May 12 - 12:02 PM
GUEST,highlandman at work 04 May 12 - 01:06 PM
GUEST,highlandman at work 08 May 12 - 09:43 AM
Will Fly 08 May 12 - 09:45 AM
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Subject: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,highlandman at work
Date: 02 May 12 - 12:49 PM

Hey y'all-

I recently acquired a ca. 1954 Hofner Model 463 archtop. It was given to me by the estate of my late aunt, whose late husband was one of my favorite uncles, who taught me to play guitar o so many moons ago. Nice sentimental connection there.

My questions relate to setup.

This was originally an acoustic instrument with an added clamp-on pickup (not of Hofner manufacture). It has pretty heavy flatwound nickel strings on it (which make the acoustic sound rather poor). The bridge adjusted all the way down gives me about .125 inch action at the 12th fret, which makes it play like a truck grille. The neck is straight though, (not truss-rod adjustable) with about .015 relief.

It's in fairly nice shape, other than widespread light finish checking and I'd like to get it playing. If anybody has comments on the following plans, please chime in.

1. Strings. I'm thinking to stay with flatwound nickel, as I have a nice Gibson acoustic and would use this mainly plugged in. I have used flat/round hybrids on my bass guitar with good effect -- should I consider that to brighten up the tone a bit? As far as gauge, it has radio mast guy wires on it now, .014 or so 1st string with a wound third. I know with such low neck relief I can't go too light on the strings, but I'm thinking I may be able to go down to .011 or .012 for playability and still keep the retro sound.

2. Bridge. I'll keep the factory original (which doesn't sit neatly on the body, quite, and is too high) in a specimen jar somewhere and replace it with new. I'm hoping I can get the action down to .080 or so by shaving the bottom of the new bridge. My bridge options are a two-piece one with compensation for a wound 3rd string, or an individually adjustable one. I'm kind of OCD about intonation, so I'd lean toward the individual model, but I'm a little concerned about killing the sound. I hear archtops are finicky about anything interfering with the vibrations of the top. Would a mechanically complex bridge interfere too much with the transmission of vibration down into the body?

So I won't be doing anything irreversible to the instrument, but if anyone with experience has suggestions (or dire warnings) I'd appreciate hearing them before I start spending scarce pennies on the thing.

Thanks
-Glenn


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 02 May 12 - 04:18 PM

My general thoughts, as longtime archtop player, are that they are commonly misunderstood instruments, and are often grotesquely misshapen with strings and pickups. I am not familiar with your particular instrument, but I'd hesitate doing anything to the bridge until I'd gotten the string situation sorted out.                                                                  First, I'd get rid of the flatwound strings. They make the bass notes much louder than you need, and they also create extra tension on the neck, which may be causing the high action (they were used to make the rhythm cut through in a dance band, in a time when amplifiers were not very good)The archtop is a wonderful melody instrument, and you want a fairly even response over the full range of the instrument. That also means you want a clean, full response from the high strings, so you don't want them too thin. I'd start with some medium electric/ acoustic strings and decide where to go from there.                                                                Second I'd get a floating pickup of some kind, given that, since the sound from a pickup tends to override everything else, the pickup is often placed in a way that completely destroys the sound qualities of guitar itself. If you've got an acoustic instrument, you want it to sound nice. These are a little pricey for some, but they are about the best, at getting out the sound of the instrument itself .                                                                   Kent Armstrong Floating Pickups Anyway, getting the instrument to sound and play in a way that works for you is a process. You've got the main idea, which is not to do anything irreversible.


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: Leadfingers
Date: 02 May 12 - 09:36 PM

I would suggest a GOOD local lutier as your first port of call - NO percentage in fiddling with a decent instrument unless you DO know what you are trying to achieve .


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,Tony
Date: 03 May 12 - 09:21 AM

Why not a one-piece bridge with compensation?
And if you're fussy about intonation, consider compensation at the nut after the bridge is finalized and you've settled on what strings you want.


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,highlandman at work
Date: 03 May 12 - 10:11 AM

Thanks for the opinions.
Lead, with a vintage instrument (even though not particularly valuable) I certainly would go to a professional luthier if I were contemplating anything more than changing the changeable bits. (Remember that the bridge on an archtop is not attached to the guitar.)
I've settled on a two piece (pretty much standard for archtops of the period) with a machined bone saddle. Cheap enough to toss if I don't like it, but it looks like the best acoustic coupling into the body I can get. It has a full contact bottom piece like the original, rather than the two-footed pedestal type that is common now.
And this particular guitar has a zero fret, so nut compensation is not practical.
I am going to try D'Addario XL Jazz Lights (.010) as a fair middle-of-the-road first shot. I prefer wound third strings as it seems to me the timbre transition between the wound fourth and plain third is too big.
BTW I am pretty handy and experienced with setup and minor mods/repairs. Just about the only thing I shy away from is flat-top neck resets, finishes, and valuable instruments. (I have a finish question I may put forward one day regarding a different guitar, if I ever gather the nerve to tackle it.)
Looking forward to taking delivery on my strings and bridge and disappearing into my study for a weekend.
Oh, and I was able to identify the pickup. It's a DeArmond Rhythm Chief, quite proper to the period of the guitar.
Thanks and happy fretting everyone
-Glenn


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: Will Fly
Date: 04 May 12 - 03:37 AM

A few months ago I found a 1960 Otwin Harmony archtop on eBay - I had one of those beasts back in the mid-'60s and regretted selling it - so made a bid and got it for £120.

I left the bridge as it was - it's a two-piece with knurled wheels which adjust the upper saddle piece height - and fitted it with .012 gauge coated Elixir steel nickel strings. These give a nice tone to the guitar and have a reasonable tension. Being coated, they've lasted well.

I bought a Kent Armstrong floating Slimbucker pickup for around £50 and it sits nicely just at the end of the fretboard. I found a nice ebony floating pickguard on eBay - from a shop in New Jersey - for around £25, and fitted a volume pot with a chicken head knob, which looks good on it. Didn't bother with a tone pot, leaving that to amp settings.

The tuners and tailpiece are fairly cheap-looking, but they work and they're original, so I've left them as they are.

It sounds great for rockabilly, blues and jazz and anything else and - wait for it - I play it regularly in the ceilidh band!


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: Will Fly
Date: 04 May 12 - 03:41 AM

Forgot to say - you can see it in action here:

How High The Moon


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 04 May 12 - 04:17 AM

The guitar is in amazing shape, Will. I remember them quite well-I had one that must have cost $15, and the seller was glad to get rid of it. Your playing exellent, it goes without saying, but you've set it up so that it sounds better than anyone ever could have expected.


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: Darowyn
Date: 04 May 12 - 06:22 AM

Most Hofners are due for a neck reset sometime in their history. That might be the permanent solution to the high action. I have three Hoffy archtops, none of which use the standard bridge, and all of which run as low an action as is physically possible, just to keep the strain on the neck joint as small as possible. Early models used a two piece bridge with four grooves along in the upper part, and the intonation was adjusted by fitting short pieces of fret wire into one groove or another. Later models had six adjustable saddle pieces, and they do turn up on Ebay. Every Hofner I have seen has a Zero Fret, so the intonation adjustment at the nut is out. You can get flatwounds specially made for the Hofner from the German factory, which is stil very active, and they sound great.
You can find all about the very active worldwide Hofner community,
HERE
Cheers
Dave
PS My Hofners are:-
6 String President
500/5 Bass
Senator 12 String
175 Six String solid
Classical nylon strung.
None of them are 'investments' they are shamelessly modified or re-modelled to make them playable as useable instruments. Three of them were put together from parts.


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,Whistle Stop
Date: 04 May 12 - 09:12 AM

If you're hoping for a decent acoustic tone out of the guitar, you need heavy enough strings to drive the top. Archtops can typically handle pretty heavy strings, as that is what they were designed for. At a minimum I would opt for a standard light set (.012-.053), but you would probably get better tone from mediums (.013-.056). With a proper setup, these will play well, and the tone difference will be dramatic. Stringing an archtop with .010's is a waste of a good guitar.

It's not necessary to stick with flatwounds -- they can provide a nice rhythm "chunk," if that's what you're after, but for the most part you'll find the tone more pleasing with roundwounds, especially for single-note lines. Or you can split the difference with half-rounds (roundwounds that are ground flat after the windings are on the string).

As far as a "proper setup" goes, you may need a neck reset -- not something that a novice can do, but any competent luthier should be able to handle it for you. If it needs it, bite the bullet and get it done; you'll be glad you did.


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,highlandman at work
Date: 04 May 12 - 12:02 PM

Thanks for the additional info.
I might get the neck done after all, even though I can't see any symptoms of it having shifted other than the action height. It's a simple mortise joint and a floating fretboard, much simpler to detach and shim than your typical flat top dreadnought. A neck reset every half-century or so doesn't seem excessive.
I'll keep you all posted, particularly about the results with the light strings.
-Glenn


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,highlandman at work
Date: 04 May 12 - 01:06 PM

Nice playing, Will. Sweet guitar, too. -Glenn


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: GUEST,highlandman at work
Date: 08 May 12 - 09:43 AM

Update:
I took all the loose stuff off and gave her a good look over. After making careful measurements, I find the neck angle is in fact just a tad off, and I can see where it moved at the heel. So one day there will be a neck reset. But with the lower bridge everything is pretty much in proper relative place, and although the action is still a little higher than I would like (about .100), she plays great. Polished all the green stuff off the frets, cleaned up and remounted the tailpiece, etc... had to pour boiling water over the pick guard (off the guitar!!) to get it back flat... intonation is excellent (I always chew my nails a bit when compensating a straight saddle but I got this one dead on).
The .010 strings are about as light as you would want to put on this guitar. She still has a bit of bite, and with the round wound strings the bass seems to be in better balance than with the flats. Nice rhythm crunch. Interestingly, I get a drastically different voice playing fingerstyle than flatpicking, when using the pickup. Not as drastic acoustically.
I'm going to have a lot of fun with the old girl, but I have to re-learn how to keep from making extraneous noises around the neck and body (of the guitar I mean) because she really picks them up.
Cheers and thanks for the tips
-Glenn
BTW the date 11.5.53 is pencilled inside the body. Presumably May 11, 1953. Older than me!


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Subject: RE: Tech: Retro Archtop Setup
From: Will Fly
Date: 08 May 12 - 09:45 AM

Well done, Glenn - have fun!


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