Welcome back to Know Your Acoustic Body.
In this edition, we’re taking a look at the Parlor guitar. The smallest guitar we’ve covered so far, the Parlor made waves in the late 19th century, offering a musical outlet for living room strummers.
Going into decline in the 1950s, Parlor instruments looked like the products of a bygone age until recently. But, these compact guitars have seen a surprising resurgence in the present day.
Today, we’re covering the Parlor guitar’s origins, what makes it sound the way it does, and the great and the good of the music world who have played one. Let’s dive in!
Washburn Revival Series R320SW
Today, we’ve got a pretty clear idea of what an acoustic guitar looks like. But, in the 1800s, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry. The variety of acoustic guitars – in six, eight and ten string variations, and with varying degrees of ornate carving – was astonishing.
It was out of this culture that the Parlor Guitar emerged, laying the foundations for what we think of as the modern acoustic.
First produced in the late 19th century by the likes of Washburn and Martin, Parlor Guitars were some of the earliest guitars made on a mass scale. And, with their shorter scale lengths and narrower bodies, they were designed to keep production costs low, resulting in an affordable instrument for the mass market.
To understand the appeal of the Parlor Guitar, you’ve only got to look at the name. To families of the 1800s, the Parlor was the living room. Pre phonograph, pre radio and pre television, musical entertainment in the home was live music. And the Parlor Guitar was designed so that the player could hold court for family and friends.
But, the parlor guitar wasn’t just an instrument for the domestic player. Thanks to their small size, good build quality and affordability, they increasingly found favor with blues and folk musicians.
Parlor guitars held their popularity until the 1950s. As the ‘50s turned to the ‘60s, however, the guitar market went through a seismic change. Electric instruments were in and the Dreadnought was increasingly positioned as the acoustic de-jour. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, the Parlor Guitar was relegated to relic status.
Yet, in recent times, the once forgotten Parlor has seen a remarkable resurgence. In part, it’s the remarkable heritage of these guitars. But their balanced tone and portability have undoubtedly played a part in their revival. Case in point, astronaut Chris Hadfield brought a Parlor (a Larriveee P-01 replica) to the International Space Station in 2013.
1920's Wurlitzer Cincinnatus Parlor Guitar by Martin
“Parlor guitar” gets bandied around a lot to describe any small-bodied acoustic guitar. True Parlor instruments, though, are those smaller than a size No. 0 concert model. Typically, they have a short scale length and upper and lower bouts roughly equal in width (creating a distinctive “peanut” shape). Usually, the neck meets the body at the 12th fret, with a nut width of around 1.75.”
In the past, Parlor guitars were traditionally made out of Sitka spruce. In modern times, however, the range of tonewoods associated with the instruments has expanded dramatically. Cedar, mahogany and Koa are all used today, and there’s even the ‘Single Malt Ariel’ parlor from the Fylde Guitar Company, which is made out of used whisky casks.
With a resonant mid-range and mellow projection, Parlor guitars offer a balance between bass and treble that’s well suited to fingerpicking and plucking. It’s for this reason that they’re popular in the realms of blues, jazz, country and bluegrass.
When it comes to strumming, however, your mileage may vary, depending on the guitar. Of course, given their smaller size, Parlor guitars are noticeably quieter than their Dreadnought or Super Jumbo counterparts. In the age of the electro-acoustic, however, this poses less of a challenge than it did many years ago.
Who plays one?
Historically, Robert Johnson was perhaps the most famous player of a Parlor guitar. Only two photos exist of the enigmatic bluesman. He’s playing a Gibson L-1 Parlor model in one, and a Kalamazoo KG-14 in the other.
In the folk world, Bob Dylan has used Parlor instruments at various points throughout his career (to be fair, Dylan has used pretty much every type of acoustic guitar in existence at one point or another, but that’s a story for another article!) and they’re a mainstay for Joan Baez. Country artist Marty Robbins is also a fan.
While those in the rock world tend to gravitate towards a more chord-friendly acoustic, there are some exceptions. Prog players with a fondness for intricate picking like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Yes’s Steve Howe have long favored Parlor instruments.
Who is your favorite Parlor player? And do you use one for family entertaining? Share your stories in the comments.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.