By Adam Perlmutter
In 2013, in the zero-gravity atmosphere of outer space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield made history when he reached for a floating Larrivée parlor guitar to perform the early David Bowie hit “Space Oddity” for a video clip captured live from the International Space Station. The video went viral—and Larrivée got the best publicity the solar system had ever seen.
Back on Earth, interest in small-bodied parlor guitars—precursors to the bulky modern dreadnought—skyrocketed. Earlier this year, at the Winter NAMM music retailers convention in Anaheim, California, a steady stream of curious guitarists strolled past the Santa Cruz Guitar Co.’s impressive line of stalwart dreadnoughts to ogle a diminutive PJ model tucked away into a crook in the manufacturer’s exhibit booth.
The little parlor guitar nearly stole the show.
“The smallest guitar that we make today was one of the biggest guitars available up until about 1870,” Santa Cruz owner Richard Hoover says. “The only reason they didn’t make larger guitars [in the old days] is that they didn’t need to. More volume wasn’t an issue until people started competing with other instruments in ensembles, or with barking dogs and banjos in vaudeville.”
Hoover says that today, advances in amplification and recording have rendered larger guitars less essential, resulting in the current parlor guitar craze. “In the early 1980s, interest in smaller instruments began a steady incline because people realized they didn’t need the volume of the dreadnought,” Hoover says. “In 1985, probably 70 percent of our guitars were dreadnoughts. Today, the majority of the instruments we make are OM, 00 size, or smaller, as more people appreciate the quality of the volume over the quantity.”
Santa Cruz isn’t the only company experiencing growth in its sales of small-bodied instruments. Last year, Gretsch added the low-cost G9515 Jim Dandy Flat Top model to its Roots Collection and parlor guitars were in evidence everywhere on the exhibit floor at the 2013 NAMM music-trade show in Anaheim, California.
The growing list of other companies that have added parlor guitars to their product lines—including well-crafted instruments at affordable prices—is a testament to the popularity of this model. Those include Alvarez, Aria, Beddell, Breedlove, Blueridge, Cordoba, Godin, Hohner, Fender, Grace Harbor, Ibanez, the Loar, Lowden, Luna, Martin, RainSong, Recording King, Simon & Patrick, Taylor, Tanlewood, and Seagull, to name a few.
Meanwhile, parlor guitars are finding renewed interest among a broad spectrum of players, both professionals and those looking for small, lightweight instruments to take to beach parties or campfire singalongs. “The parlor guitar is light, easy and fun to bring on trips,” says Dom Flemons, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “It’s a wonderful social instrument to have around for gatherings, vacations, and picnics. Everyone usually knows at least one song on the guitar, so it’s really nice to have a parlor to pass between a bunch of friends.”
‘Quicker fingerstyle patterns really benefit
from the clarity of the parlor . . . . I play
this guitar every day of my life and will
never sell it.’
Players ‘Flip’ Over Parlors
In the modern era, parlor guitars are perhaps most closely associated with folk singers, including Joan Baez and a young Bob Dylan, as well as earlier bluesmen such as Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson. “I love to play the old styles on a parlor guitar,” says Flemons, who played a parlor on his recent solo debut Prospect Hill. “I use a medium-size parlor—a Fraulini Loretta. It has a punchy sound while still having a delicate tone; it has a great response for both fingerpicking and for using a thumb pick and the fingers.”
Even in bluegrass, a genre in which most guitarists prefer big dreadnoughts, some players favor small guitars. “Jody Stecher played bluegrass on a 1-sized Martin for years, travelled all over the place with it in its original coffin case, and it just sounded incredible,” says Eric Schoenberg, vintage-guitar expert and proprietor of the eponymous store in Tiburon, California, on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. “I sold Ronnie Earl, the [former] Roomful of Blues guitarist, one of those really early Martins—an interesting thing I’ve found is that electric blues players have just flipped over these things on a number of occasions.”
One of the most notable high-profile players of the parlor guitar is Mark Orton, who uses the instrument for his work in wide-reaching chamber ensembles, including Tin Hat (formerly the Tin Hat Trio), as well as in films, dance, and theater. Orton’s signature sound—the one that resulted in his being asked to score movies such as the Oscar-nominated Nebraska—is made possible by virtue of his using a parlor instrument. “My main guitar is a Martin 1-21 from 1893 that I’ve had for years,” says Orton, who also plays a 1913 Martin 2-17. “It’s my pride and joy, my second wife. It’s very comfortable to play, even easier than my Telecaster. It weighs next to nothing; you could practically push a pencil tip through the face of the thing.
“It’s so incredibly responsive,” Orton adds. “It takes very little force to get great bass out of the guitar, and it works great for switching between pick and fingerstyle. I have a D-18 as well, but that guitar can get muddy-sounding, especially for doing stuff with more dissonance and with smaller intervals—quicker fingerstyle patterns also really benefit from the clarity of the smaller guitar.”
Orton uses steel strings on his 1-21, but to make it work he had the bridge reinforced, and he uses very light strings—basically a gauge-ten set in which the first string is replaced with an 11. He tunes everything down by a whole step (low to high) D G C F A D. “A collector would cringe to see the things that have been done to stabilize the bridge, but I play this guitar every day of my life and will never sell it, so I don’t care,” he says.
Designed for Women
With their distinctively narrow bodies and short scale lengths, parlor guitars are the smallest of all six-string flattop acoustics—as much as three inches shorter than the modern standard of 25.4 inches. Often seen as a bridge between the traditional Spanish nylon-string guitar and the modern steel-string, parlor guitars served a specific function when they appeared in the United States in the late 1800s. They were originally built for women’s more compact frames, and they were named for their use as instruments intended to entertain guests in homes rich enough to include parlors.
In the mid-19th century, design distinctions between European and American guitars were minimal—both were compact by today’s standards, and built delicately to accommodate the comparatively weak gut strings. Near the end of the century, as European guitars became increasingly larger, some American companies, including Martin, continued building small guitar bodies while experimenting with structural elements—for example, X-bracing in place of the traditional Spanish fan—that would give them a heartier sound.
Popularity of parlor guitars waned by the early part of the 20th century when guitar makers began designing larger-body sizes structurally reinforced to handle the tension of steel strings. After Martin introduced the bigger dreadnought in 1931, to compete with other bluegrass instruments, parlor guitar sales began to wane. Today, thanks to modern sound reinforcement and recording technology, getting volume from a small instrument is no longer a big concern. And in the past decade, as guitarists have become more drawn to old music and vintage instruments, fascination with parlor guitars is on the rise. Guitar companies have rolled out new models across the spectrum of affordability—from high-end Martins to budget Washburns—for contemporary players drawn to the look and feel of the little instruments.
Grace Teague, of Grace Harbor Guitars, agrees that one reason there’s an increase in interest in parlor guitars today is that the small bodies are friendlier to women than jumbos and dreadnoughts. “Anything we can do to encourage women to play guitars is a good thing,” she says, adding that a parlor model was a natural for the new line just launched by distributor Dana B. Goods.
Companies large and small now include new parlor guitars in their product lines—instruments without the problems of playability inherent to 100-year-old guitars. In some instances, the rise of parlors has come from a demand for detailed recreations of golden-era instruments from before World War II. In the 1990s, Martin, for example, began revisiting small-bodied guitars with period details such as tapered slotted headstocks.
“Years ago, I asked Martin’s Custom Shop if they could build a 000-42 exactly like a 1930s model, but they didn’t have the fixtures, so they turned my order down,” says Martin historian Dick Boak. “Then, in the mid-’90s, I worked at the estate of Jimmie Rodgers and got to know his historic 1927 000-45. Martin finally retooled its fixtures to create a replica of this guitar and this now allowed us to build guitars in the Vintage and Golden Era series.”
The instruments in Martin’s standard line that most closely resemble parlor guitars are the 0-28VS, the company’s smallest full-size guitar, and the slightly larger 00-28VS. Both are equipped for steel strings. But Martin’s Custom Shop has made detailed recreations of 1800s parlor models. Most recently, the company built a slightly fancier version of a mid-1800s style 2-24 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C.F. Martin. “We’re seeing requests from vintage dealers for size-2 instruments made in the old way, just as they began asking for OMs a couple of decades ago,” Boak says .
In other cases, companies offer parlors as inexpensive and fun guitars, built with modern construction techniques for greater durability than their original counterparts. Washburn’s Vintage Series includes decently built parlors with traditional-looking appointments and wallet-friendly price tags. Larrivée’s parlor guitar was originally conceived as a travel guitar. But with variations using several other all-solid tonewoods—including Italian spruce, Indian rosewood, and genuine mahogany—the parlor also happens to be an excellent instrument for performing and recording.
At the other end of the spectrum, high-end independent luthiers and boutique makers have gotten in on the fun. Stunning modern interpretations of the classic parlor form include Santa Cruz’s aforementioned PJ and Style 1, and Froggy Bottom’s L, P-12, and P-14. And Todd Cambio, the builder behind Fraulini Guitar Co., patterns his Loretta model after the ladder-braced guitars made by Lyon and Healy. Cambio’s Loretta not only looks traditional but is built in an old-fashioned way, assembled with hide glue and finished with varnish—although it does include a truss rod. “The Loretta is very light in weight, comparable to the old ones,” Cambio says. “The last one I made was only two pounds, ten ounces. I try to build it delicately, like the originals, but with structural integrity. It’s a balancing act, and I love the challenge.”
Meanwhile, other luthiers are working to create something new with smaller body sizes. About ten years ago, Michael Baranik, based in California’s San Luis Obispo County, scored a turn-of-the-century parlor guitar on eBay and had used it as the basis for his Retreux guitars with mid-century-inspired cosmetics. “I borrowed the shape and the back brace placement of the old parlor, but redesigned just about everything else,” he says. “I decided to increase the scale length, from 24 to 24 ½ inches, and went with a 13th-fret neck joint and solid headstock, rather than a 12th-fret and slotted headstock. For the soundboard bracing, I used a traditional X with one tone bar. I also increased the depth of the guitar and use a domed braced soundboard, as well as a small oval sideport that really adds another dimension for the player.”
The Market for Vintage Parlors
Vintage parlor guitars can be pricey, but certain originals by companies like Martin, Lyon and Healey, and Washburn can be found for a relative bargain—it’s not uncommon to see a late-1800s Martin with Brazilian rosewood back and sides for several thousand dollars, or a comparable Washburn for a bit less. But while those prices might be attractive to collectors, there are some obstacles in preparing the instruments for modern playability—especially considering that many of the guitars were originally built for nylon strings.
For instance, not only is the typical 1800s or early-1900s parlor guitar insufficiently sturdy to accommodate a medium-gauge or heavier set of steel strings, the footprint of its bridge is too small to house the slanted saddles needed for the spot-on intonation of steel strings. But the guitars can be transformed into great players. “We tend to make these older guitars quite playable by resetting the neck angle and getting the frets perfectly leveled, the action set just right,” guitar dealer Schoenberg says. “Most of them do fine with pretty light steel strings, unlike the typical modern guitar on which heavy strings are needed just to pull the sound out of it.”
Provided that it’s receptive to a modern setup, a good parlor guitar will have a sweet sound that is well-balanced between the registers, and even a healthy amount of volume and projection. “Practically every day we have customers who are absolutely blown away by the sounds that emerge from these instruments,” Schoenberg says. “But the truth is, with such a small size, it’s easy to drive the top and enjoy a greater frequency range, especially in the high end. People just assume that a small instrument will make a small sound—even though a Gibson mandolin, for instance, is incredibly loud. The nicest parlor guitars actually have a big, full sound—1800s Martins are some of the best-sounding steel guitars ever made.”
With Brazilian rosewood being used less often and costing much more on new instruments, finding an old parlor guitar might seem like a great way to access this prized tonewood. But old or so-calledgoodwood doesn’t necessarily make a fine-sounding instrument, as evidenced in the varying sonic merits of those small early guitars made from Brazilian rosewood. “It’s interesting how Washburn and other companies used what we now consider to be really fine materials on cheap guitars,” Schoenberg says. “Many of them were just sort of student-grade, and they can really run the gamut. Some sound great; others, not so much.”
Recording King RPH-05
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Here are several parlor and small-size guitars
ranging from budget models to high-end instruments.
Street price: $199.99
With its 24.75-inch scale length, the CP-60S is designed for the beginner with smaller hands, but it’s a fun guitar for a musician of any ability and mitt size to play.
Street price: $339.99
With its slotted headstock and Shadowburst gloss finish, the affordable AP66SHB cuts a handsome figure.
Art & Lutherie Roadhouse
Street price: $449
Made in Quebec, Canada, this little guitar boasts modern playability, a solid spruce top, and Fishman Sonotone electronics.
Washburn Vintage Series R314KK
Street price: $499
This elaborately ornamented guitar, which comes complete with a coffin-style case, is based on the instruments that Washburn made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Price: From $3,200
The Loretta is the luthier Todd Cambio’s tribute to the ladder-braced parlor guitars built in Chicago in the early 1900s by companies like Lyon & Healy.
Froggy Bottom Model L
Price: From $7,645
After Froggy Bottom’s founder, Michael Millard, repaired an old Martin 1-17 by replacing its trashed top, everyone in his shop was so impressed by the guitar’s stunning voice that the company incorporated the parlor-sized Model L into its line.
Santa Cruz Guitar Company PJ
Price: From $7,475
Before 2019, Santa Cruz’s refined take on a parlor guitar cam standard with a Sitka spruce top, but the instrument is now available in a wide range of tonewoods and custom appointments.
Bourgeois Piccolo Parlor
Price: From $4,100
Bourgeois’ smallest guitar, the Piccolo Parlor has a 25-inch scale fretboard and a full and dynamic voice.
Collings Parlor Series
Price: From $5,725
As with all Collings instruments, those in the recent Parlor series, including the 1 T and 2H T, are meticulously crafted and can be ordered with a variety of tonewood and decorative options.
Street price: $9,999
Martin’s ultra-luxurious new signature model is John Mayer’s interpretation of a late 1800s parlor guitar. Limited to 50 instruments, this run benefits the Crossroads Centre in Antigua.