It’s no secret; a handmade tool can cost a lot. After all, any of the better guitars bought from a quality manufacturer will command what most people would consider a lot of money. Are there good reasons to spend money on a hand-built guitar from a custom builder rather than a name-brand factory or custom shop? They certainly exist!
Most of the famous guitar brands have been put into series production for a long time. What began many decades ago as the love of skilled craftsmen has become a modern factory assembly line. For many of these established brands, the resulting drop in quality is now as famous as the name. In addition, the market is full of cheap imported guitars made of plywood and glued with epoxy.
It’s been a long time since I played a new guitar in a music store that caught my eye with its tone, regardless of the name on it. Sure, there are some great smaller American companies where the quality of fit and finish has been maintained, and the guitars are still made by skilled craftsmen, not cheap labour.
This is partly due to the inability of mass manufacturers to tune guitars individually. Parts and finished guitars are machined and assembled with consistency to a standard that is quite high in some cases, but still falls short of individuality. Bringing out the full tone of the instrument by adjusting things like brace height and top thickness has to be done manually for each guitar. Whether they are achieved by instinct and feel honed from years of experience, or quantified with modern technology as some builders do, the result is a better sounding guitar than one that was cut at the factory no matter how fancy it looks.
Archtops sometimes have a pickup (sometimes two) or not. This pickup can be “floating” (attached to either the neck or the pickguard) just above the soundboard next to the fingerboard. On the other hand, sometimes the pickup is embedded in a cabinet that has been cut to fit. These embedded pickups tend to reduce and dampen the acoustic sound of the instrument. The result can be a wonderful sound when amplified, although it lacks the power and variety of sound when played unplugged.
Modern archtop acoustic guitars (with or without a floating pickup) for a low price tend not to be carved or even pressed, sometimes they have plywood boards. In this case, if you really want an acoustic instrument with a decent soundboard, vintage will do you best. Hofner guitars often appear on eBay, although some require the attention of a repair shop. Don’t worry about cracks in the body unless they are big because the cracks don’t really affect the sound of the instrument. Don’t worry about the fretboard twisting or having to replace the frets. But you can still get lucky and get a really good acoustic arc for a low price like Scharpach guitars that are very cheap yet beautifully played.