Project - My wife's new Archtop...which I promptly take apart because I can't help myself
This is a guitar that really didn't need to become a project, so this blog article is part self help, part project thread! I'll get to why in a moment, but let's start with a little backstory. My wife has really wanted an archtop for some time, she's a fan of artists like Lianne La Havas & The Staves who often use ES-175D or ES-335s (latter being a semi hollow but let's not split hairs too much!), so hearing the sounds they achieve and of course the achingly cool looks, was something she wasn't achieving with her prior strat. I was conscious that we didn't have a lot of money to play with, and the prospect of a bad archtop wasn't filling me with much desire. So instead I suggested we look at Eastman Guitars, which although a stretch of the budget, meaning a bit more saving and hard work would be needed to justify it, the quality of guitar at the end of it would be certainly worth it. We'd browsed the website and UK stockists such as Peach Guitars and GAK who both carry a wide selection, and so far so good, I liked the specs and build standard, Emma loved how they looked and sounded in the videos.

Eastman T49D/v
photo by Guitar.com

From doing Guitar Shows over the years, Russ from Eastman had become a familiar friendly face for us and we always enjoyed a catch up with him. So when this year's Guitar Show at Birmingham rolled around, it was no different, apart from this time we were super keen to finally get our hands on one of their archtops in person, something we hadn't done prior. In particular I had my sights set on the T49D (their take on the ES-175D). At the show they had the 'v' variation, which is their antique vintage finish, translated to a unique french polished finish. In person this finish is lovely to see, it doesn't at all look relic'd or road worn, it just looks naturally old and characterful. This was a variation I lusted after as the colour just seemed to pop beautifully under this finish rather than the gloss lacquer, but is of course a touch more expensive. Needless to say we fell for it, and took regular turns to pop over to their stand at the show to ogle over it.

Eastman T49D/v
photo by guitar.com

Sunday came, the show was wrapping up, and the T49D/v was well and truly on our minds. We finally plucked up the courage to pick it up and play, and straight away you know you have a nicely thought out, well built instrument in your hands due to details like the very low action, slim comfortable neck but nice medium jumbo frets making sure you know where you are across the fretboard. After speaking with Russ & Pepijn from Eastman, we decided the T49D/v should come home with us, and it would be worth the extra hours of work to purchase. It feels all the better when you've worked hard for something really!

Eastman T49D/v

Although not exactly a 'cheap' guitar by any means, at £1699 UK retail, I would still consider this a fantastic value for money guitar considering it's build and specs. For the price point, it is of course laminate back, sides and top, to be expected, but the lovely ivory style binding, parallelogram inlays, wonderful rich colour and very tasteful aging, quality Jescar frets, premium series gotoh tuners, rosewood bridge and it's unique french polish finish, it's really not to be overlooked at all. The electronics specs surprised me, as I didn't realise the model leaves the factory with an expensive set of Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups along CTS wiring, those pickups in particular are a premium choice that are seldom seen on guitars with a higher price tag, so it's nice to see the specs invested are solid choices. But that's where the 'I can't help myself' part comes into play...

Eastman T49D/v

Now, I want to say firstly that there is no real reason why you'd NEED to change components on this guitar. Straight out of the fitted hardcase, it's a wonderful instrument. It's acoustic quality is addictive to hear, and you can tell there is an awful lot of natural tone and character in the guitar before you even plug it in. But plugged in, played these through my Fender Vibrolux at home a number of times, for me personally, I felt the acoustic quality the guitar possessed just wasn't translated to the plugged in tone, so my mind began to wander... I swear it's an illness I have! I certainly can't point the finger solely at the pickups, but I wanted to check what was going on under the hood and learn a little more about the guitar and why it felt (to me) a little choked up in dynamic quality. I know first hand that 'CTS pots' on a spec sheet only tells you so much, as there are countless versions of CTS pot that vary in quality, tolerance and response, so for the sake of having a look inside I thought I'd indulge a little.

Eastman T49D/v

So inside I uncovered 4x standard (albeit brass shaft) CTS 500k pots, not the absolute best series available but certainly better than I've seen in other factory guitars from this price point and upwards. Switchcraft switch and jack were a welcomed surprise too, nice to know reliability wise, this guitar's wiring would last a long time indeed. A thinner gauge wire than what I'm used to using, but overall they are decent quality components and expensive pickups, not bad at all for it's price point. From my experience, and how I felt about the tone plugged in compared to the guitar's natural acoustic quality, I did feel there was room for improvement though. As the proud owners of this guitar now, and a real passion for bringing out the best in a guitar's electronics, I starting planning what to do to achieve that. One McNelly pickup set a lot of archtop players inquire about is the 'Bliss' humbucker. Which is a low output, Alnico II based pickup, inspired by those very early PAFs often found in 50s ES-175s, a no brainer for this project and would prove a very good comparison as that is similar to the mid output version of Antiquities that were originally installed. Also, this means I'll be able to record some videos for those interested in Bliss humbuckers for their Archtops, if so, watch this space!

Eastman T49D/v

It does seem a little crazy to go straight to work on a lovely new instrument, and as standard there is no reason why it couldn't be enjoyed. Eastman have done a great job with the design and spec choices. Maybe I am just a little crazy, and I really find it interesting to listen for the character of a guitar, made particularly easy with something like an archtop which has such a wonderful acoustic quality, and find the best way to bring that out to the forefront as it deserves. I'm picky, and just felt I could capture that further, and who knows, maybe those of you with T49D's already will find my experiments helpful if you too have been thinking of making some tweaks but have been tentative about doing so. Would it be worth it? I'm willing to make the effort in seeing if it is!

Eastman T49D/v

I set to work on making the new wiring loom. I used my much loved CTS 'TVT' series 500k pots, USA made .022uF paper in oil capacitors and preferred gauge 22AWG wire, of which I opted for the outer braided style to be slightly more fitting with the instrument's inspired era. As per original spec, the Switchcraft 3 way toggle switch was used, and again for personal preference reasons went for my Pure Tone multi contact jack socket instead. No other reason than those extra points of contact for both hot and ground add some further reliability to the heavy use item. One thing you don't want to make a habit of doing is taking out hollow body/archtop wiring looms! So may as well use the best components you can. I wired it up and added some heat shrink to keep it looking neat, and to prevent the risk of hot connections touching the outer braided ground.

Eastman T49D/v

Really happy with the result so far, and that's all ready for the new McNelly Bliss humbuckers to be dropped in on the final install. Whilst the strings are off, I took the chance to fine tune the nut slots, give the fretboard a spot of lemon oil and a wipe over the frets (although they were still nice and bright so no major clean up needed at all). My wife really likes flat wound strings, I put a set on her Bronco bass and it was night and day difference for her as well as enjoying the difference in tone. But ultimately, it's a feel thing and flats are more comfortable for her. She's still learning, but hopefully the new found love for having the dream archtop guitar further inspires the learning process. Can't wait to get it back together for her.

The next project update will be the pickups and harness install, and restring with the Thomastik-Infeld flat wound 11s. Once we've gotten used to the guitar I'll see about recording a video to share the differences. The beauty of this exact guitar is that Guitar.com had it for review and it can be heard in the capable playing hands of editor, Chris Vinnicombe. Although I'm sure his playing, and their recording equipment is far far superior to mine, I hope it will provide a nice chance to hear the before and after electronics changes made. Either way, I'm confident the specs I've chosen will capture the sound I feel the guitar possesses and provide further enjoyment to this wonderful new guitar my wife owns!



More on the project soon.

James

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