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The Swingin' Blonde Sextet:
The Rhythms of Style in Archtop Design

January 1995
by Bianca Soros

fter midnight at Harlem's Cotton Club, the glitzy orchestral rumblin' began. It was 1938, and Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, dressed to the nines, were busy setting the pace of modern urban rhythms. Meanwhile, that same year in Hollywood, American clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," starred in his first feature film, Hollywood Hotel. The jazz era had arrived.

   From coast to coast the guitar helped form the foundation of rural and urban swing styles and proudly stood as visual statement of elegance. Acoustic archtop guitars became extensions of the grand extravagance of style that performers wished to convey to their audiences. American orchestral guitar designers were burning the midnight oil creating a new product worthy of exhibition at the New York World's Fair (1939-40). The results were full-bodied instruments with natural-toned lacquer and made of select-quality carved spruce and maple. The destiny of these guitars would be to travel in the hands of the best musicians and to be heard in the night clubs, dance halls, and honky tonks across America.

   This collection of '40s blonde archtops, affectionately dubbed "The Swingin' Blondes," was assembled by Hank Risan of Washington Street Music in Santa Cruz, California. The collection commemorates a time when the acoustic guitar was used mainly as a rhythm instrument during the swing era of modern music. Featured guitars include a '40 Gibson Super 400, '45 Gretsch Synchromatic 400, '47 Stromberg Master 400, '39 D'Angelico New Yorker, '45 Epiphone Emperor, and a '40 Martin F-5. Because of the inclusion of the ultra-rare Martin F-5, this assembly of instruments is a unique and definitive representation of the best instruments that the major American guitar manufacturers offered professional players in the 1940s.

   One only has to gaze at the compelling Stromberg Master 400 or Epiphone Emperor to realize that American musical instrument designers had become visually style conscious. Each instrument of the sextet was an individualized expression of its maker as well as a significant cultural product of its time. These high-quality guitars boast state-of-the-art features such as accurate scale lengths, graduated sound board, architectonic inlays, finely designed tuning machines, multi-layered plastic bindings, adjustable compensated bridges, and natural finishes.

   These guitars exude a modern cosmopolitan flair with curvilinear elements and stylized shapes and angles. Their designs reflect the two major aesthetic movements that enjoyed popularity in the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1950s: Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. These styles found their way into many mass produced objects and symbolized efficient and modern living for Americans, for whom fashionability was becoming an increasingly important means of expressing social aspirations and status.

   Art Deco represents the geometric stylization of naturalistic forms, with a degree of abstraction and simplification thrown in for good measure. It originated from the temple towers of the ancient Babylonians in the form of terraced pyramids, called ziggurats, and resurfaced in the 20th-century American skyscraper architecture. It emphasized strong vertical shapes and was used frequently by set designers in Hollywood and on Broadway, consequently forming a popular lexicon of visual style in contemporary design. Art Deco was adaptable to mass production and found an audience of mass consumers throughout America. Its appeal was its decorative eclecticism that made overt references to luxury and the high life during a period of economic depression.

   As a decorative style, Art Deco could be applied to the guitar's forms and surfaces, instantly endowing it with qualities of modernity and fashionability. The commanding Art Deco design of the Empire State Building, built in 1931, must have been the inspiration for John D'Angelico's ziggurat peghead inlays, stairstep pickguard, and tailpiece on his New Yorker guitar. The split-back inlay pearl position markers on Gibson's Super 400, introduced at the Century Of Progress Exposition in Chicago (1933-34), can be symbolically viewed as reflective windows placed upon the skyscraper-neck. The F-5's vertical C.F. Martin peghead logo and the Gibson Super 400's abstract diamond-configuration peghead inlay are further examples of the deco influence.

   Guitar manufacturers utilized new metal and plastic materials and adopted emerging mass production methods such as case-steel stamping, die-casting, and thermoplastic injection molding to create parts capable of withstanding the stress of steel strings. For example, the Grover N-110 nickel-plated tuners on the Martin F-5 have an enclosed case-steel stamped back and die-cast brass buttons. The Stromberg Master 400's gold-plated Kluson sealfast tuners used die-cast brass casings with injection-molded thermoplastic buttons. The gold-plated Epiphone Emperor frequensator tailpiece features die-cast brass string holders and a stamped steel base.

   In the United States, where design and commerce were closely intertwined during the war years, another style developed. Called Streamline Moderne, it emphasized the dynamism of horizontal forms in motion and was derived from advances in transportation, aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, and electricity. This style represented power, speed, mechanization, and abstract futurism. It could be seen in a vast array of machine-age products: planes, trains, automobiles, ocean liners, communication devices, and appliances. Streamlining requires a form that is shaped so that it meets that least resistance as it travels through a dynamic medium. In mechanics this shape is rounded and smoothly finished, often in the form of a teardrop.

    The Gretsch Synchromatic 400, introduced in 1939, with its tear-drop tone holes conforms closely to the streamform ideals. The cat's-eye tone holes were designed to project sound from the tone chamber with maximum velocity and volume. This resulted in an instrument with fast transient response and considerable cutting power. The guitar was equipped with other streamlined features such as a curvilinear pickguard, chromatic compensating tailpiece, and synchronized adjustable bridge. The peghead's curvilinear "light bulb" shape suggests thought and creativity. The peghead inlay's juxtaposition of the pearl tear-drop and engraved "Synchromatic" lightning bolt captured the spirit of power and motion inherent in the streamform design. Gretsch catalogs from that period incorporated the streamform vocabulary and read like an a modern art manifesto. Clearly, the Synchromatic 400 was a milestone in 20th century artistic expression and achievement.

   These natural-finish, full-bodied models can be considered prototypical because so few were manufactured prior to and during WWII. Martin made only two maple F-5 archtops before discontinuing production of all archtop models as a result of wartime material restrictions. According to Gibson company records, only seven non-cutaway blonde Super 400s were produced before the war, and an additional 40 were made at the end of the 40s. D'Angelico and Epiphone each made approximately 50 full-bodied blondes from '39 to about '55, and Stromberg crafted about 50 natural Master 400s in the '40s. According to Jay Scott, author of The Guitars Of The Fred Gretsch company, about 20 blonde Synchromatic 400s with cat's-eye tone holes were produced in the '40s. These manufacturers made a total of approximately 220 big blondes in the 40s.

   The advent of interstate transportation networks enabled swing-era performers to tour and promote their music throughout the American landscape. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey's bands achieved commercial popularity through nightclub tours, record and radio performances, and Hollywood film productions. Films like Orchestra Wives (1942), starring Glen Miller, and A Song Is Born (1948), starring Danny Kaye and a gaggle of jazz hep-cats, are great examples of their musical genres. Today, these films serve as a historical testament and are a great resource for viewing many Swingin' Blonde archtops.

    Swing-era music provided escape from the realities and hardships of Depression-era life. As singer Lena Horne put it: "The Cotton Club was an exotic, jungle-like café. The shows had a primitive, naked quality that was supposed to make a civilized audience lose its inhibitions." The swingin' blonde sextet assembled here captures the artistry of acoustic archtop guitar design and engineering in the 40s, where early manufacturing methods foreshadowed the mass-production assembly lines of the decades to follow. By tracing the development of the jazz guitar in context with movements in industrial design, one can see how entirely new genres of music and expressions of style were created to define this era's individuality and greatness. End

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