The following image is of the Super 300, non-cutaway, non-electric guitar from 1948.
I’ve written a lot about various small guitars (see my series on Small Guitars). I think smaller guitars are more comfortable to play and many have a surprisingly rich tone. But really big guitars can also have great tone, and they tend to be loud too. That’s the first reason builders made guitars bigger – to make them loud.
So here’s a bit of history on big guitars and some of the bigger sized guitars that are still being made and sold. As always, the definition of big and small is somewhat arbitrary. If you are a large person, one of these “big” guitars may seem just right. But for this article, I’m calling any hollow guitar with a lower bout of 17″ or larger a BIG guitar.
Gibson’s Style O (1902 to 1921) came in multiple sizes, some as large as 18″ wide for the lower bout. But a more common size from Gibson was the L series which in 1902 started at 13 1/2″ wide. The L series were archtops but had round sound holes. The game changer was the L5 which introduced f shaped sound holes on an archtop guitar and a 17″ wide lower bout. The L5 marked the beginning of the modern large Jazzbox guitar.
Large guitars were now loud enough to join the Swing Orchestras (Jazz Bands) of the 1930s. There was a competition to make larger, louder guitars. Gibson had the Super 400 in 1934. It had an 18″ wide lower bout.
One of the greatest luthiers for archtop guitars, John D’Angelico began making custom variations of archtop guitars that were inspired by Gibson designs. The Excel was a 17″ wide guitar (1937) and the New Yorker an 18″ wide guitar (1936).
Epiphone also competed with Gibson. The Epiphone Emperor (1936) was 18 1/2″ wide and the Deluxe was 17 3/8″ wide.
The biggest archtops were made by Stromberg. The Master 300 and Master 400 were 19″ wide.
Freddie Green, the guitarist with the Count Basie Orchestra, played an Epiphone Emperor, then a Stromberg Master 400 and finally a custom Gretsch Eldorado with an 18″ width.
Although the above are all archtop guitars, size matters for flattop acoustic guitars as well. The most significant large guitar in this category is the Gibson SJ-200 (also called at times the J-200). It has a 17″ lower bout but is proportioned like a classical guitar rather than like a dreadnought such that the waist is narrow.
Among guitars still being produced, 17″ is a fairly standard width and is available from many luthiers who specialize in archtop guitars. Benedetto, Collings and others make guitars this size.
Here are some readily available 17″ guitars – this is not a complete list.
The Gibson L5 is still being made. The current form is the L5-CES Wes Montgomery model. It is a 17″ wide guitar but the body is Mahogany instead of maple is in the original.
Image links to product page for L5-CES at Music123
The Epiphone Broadway is more reasonably priced 17″ wide Jazzbox.
The following image links to the product page for the Broadway at Musician’s Friend.
The Gibson Super 400 CES is the largest archtop from a major company with an 18″ wide lower bout. It is still listed on the Gibson website but is probably difficult to find in stores.
Eastman makes two interestingly shaped archtops. They are 17″ wide guitars, the Pagelli PG1 and PG2.
Eastman also makes traditional 17″ archtop guitars. These all have modele numbers such as AR610CE, AR810 and AR910.
Finally, the King of the Flattops, the Gibson SJ-200. This is the model played by Elvis and many others. Still available. 17″ wide.
Hi Dave, I wonder if you can help. I’ve just acquired an old guitar that I believe dates from the early 60’s. From my research it seems these were imported into the UK by an Organ Building and Music Company in Liverpool by someone who knew Paul Mc Cartney. It possibly originates from the Chicago area. It looks similar to the picture of a 1948 Super 300. Though probably not very valuable, I was about to cut it up for the BBQ but just before I cut the strings, I thought I’ll just see what it sounds like, as most of the strings were missing, I roughly tensioned what was left. to my surprise, it sounded really nice. Its a really Basket Case, and has had a hard life, but the bulk of it is in sound condition. Unfortunately, the makers name is missing. Could I perhaps send you a photo to try and shed some light on its make, date or origins.
Thanks very much
It would be very interesting to list all the measurements of the body guitar, scale length and so on. All the webs only list as “body dimensions” the lower bout, what about the upper bout, the waist, and the neck-rings. So, one has a better vision if one desires to buy a guitar.
I agree. But the marketing departments for most guitar builders don’t believe they will sell more guitars by providing that information. They would rather have a big-name endorser or tell you about the color and flame maple top.