Friday, February 22, 2013

Carved versus Laminate

In most jazz guitar communities the "carved versus laminate" discussions appear regularly. That has been the case for years. Some argue that guitars with carved tops are superior instruments. Laminates are sometimes even depicted as "low budget plywood guitars." This is surely an uninformed and simplified view. A good laminate is often just as expensive and laminate guitars have been and are used by top players all over the world: Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Pat Martino, George Benson, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Pat Metheny, Herb Ellis, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Emily Remler, Jonathan Kreisberg, Martijn van Iterson, etc.

I admit the acoustic sound of a carved guitar may, or rather, should be superior but the differences in amplified sound are often hard to discern. If noticeable at all ... Remember my Gibson Blindfold test? There was just one guy out of many that could single out the L5 and the Johnny Smith ...

Here's a few quotes from J. Hale Music on the issue:

"So are carved archtops better than laminate? Only if you and your audience can hear the acoustic tone of your instrument. If you plan to play amplified in a club setting, a carved archtop could be a disaster ...

 ... If you want to have the best acoustic tone, you will want to get an instrument with a carved body (carved top and carved back). If you plan to use the instrument in a noisy environment where your audience will predominately hear the amplified tone, then an archtop with laminate construction will serve you best."

Makes sense to me. It is simply easier to get a good sound from a laminate guitar in a live situation. They are less prone to feedback. Also, carved guitars seem to be more vulnerable to humidity conditions. Therefore laminate guitars probably make better "workhorses." But ... if you absolutely require the acoustic tone of your guitar and you can handle the feedback issues, go carved.

By the way, I have played some laminate guitars that sounded prety good unamplified. Especally vintage Gibson laminates from the 50s and early 60s are very resonant and lively. These guitars were built more lightly with thinner tops and had fine acoustic properties, even as laminates. Here's my 1963 Barney Kessel unplugged and recorded as an acoustic guitar:

I have owned guitars with a carved top myself and ended up selling them to get Gibson laminates. Next to feedback advantages, I seem to prefer the sound of Gibson guitars such as the ES 175, ES 350, Tal Farlow etc. It's simply the classic bebop sound that I hear on my favourite jazz guitar albums by Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney. They seem to fit my style of playing better. I have added three tracks with some classic bop sounds played on laminate guitars. They are my kind of sounds ... But I realise this is a personal thing.

That said, of course there are many beautiful sounding carved guitars that you hear on classic jazz guitar recordings by the greats. Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith, Peter Bernstein, Mark Whitfield, Bruce Forman, Jesse van Ruller, Julian Lage, Louis Stewart etc. etc.

One of the most beautiful and unique carved sounds I ever heard have come from my countryman's Jesse van Ruller's old Levin. He is not playing that guitar anymore these days. It was severely damaged when he drove over it accidentally after a gig, or so I heard. But listen to this:

And of course there's plenty other examples of great guitar soundsfrom carved top guitars. In the end it's just a matter of taste. And only that. I have read too much nonsense about the presumed superiority of carved top guitars on internet fora - usually by very inexperienced players - that this needs to be said.

To be frank, there's a number of popular (often) lower end carved top models that I really dislike. I'm not going to drop brand names here but I have played quite a few with floating pups that I thought sounded really trebly and shrill. And I played some luthier made guitars with carved tops that did not rock my boat either. Just because a guitar has a carved top, it does not mean it will be a tone monster. Same for laminate guitars by the way. Well constructed guitars will sound good, regardless of the whole carved/laminate issue.

So it all comes down to preference. End of story.


  1. Most working musician's need the reliability that a laminate gives. With the carved archtop everything has to be just right or disaster may strike. I've seen many guys with carved archtops tring to play with something like a loud organ group and sweating bullets because of the feed back that ensued. I've also seen them drowned out by audience noise because of the need to keep the volume down.

  2. Quite so Charlie. That's basically it.

  3. Dick, great article...

    I own an L-5 Wes Montgomery model that I love, but my main guitar is my 1965 ES-175D....that is the one I use all the time and if I had to keep only one of them it would be the ES-175D.



    1. Thanks Serge. Glad you liked it.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I understand your viewpoint. One thing to consider when you stated your dislike for the popular lower cost carved guitars is the pickup that they use. I switched out the stock pickup for a handwound Kent Armstrong and the tone was so much better on my Eastman 810CE! Still could not imagine it in a loud setting, though. The other side is that I have a Heritage Classic Eagle that is carved, but has that tone and could be played at higher volumes. Heritage told me that the tops are carved thicker on the electrics.

  4. Hi Dutchbopper,
    I'm discovering your Website, there are so many interesting things to read and hear about !
    For the current subject check out the model "Brigit" of the german luthier Stefan Sonntag. He's trying to resolve the question acoustic/electric/solid/laminate.