From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Rotondi
Your acoustic guitar collection is complete, right? You’ve got your veteran dreadnought, your college archtop, your midlife OM, that jumbo that looks great in the living room, the Gibson Blues King from your Delta discovery days, and the 12-string you swear you’re going to get really into as soon as you find time to change all the strings. Oh, and you even have that nifty travel guitar that accompanies you on vacations. Sometimes. Okay, that one time. Ah, sweet completion.
Not so fast, spruce warrior. What your impressive array may well be missing is the diamond in the rough known as a parlor guitar. Indeed, while it may be less widely played today, until around 1870, the compact, narrow-waisted, gently articulate parlor guitar was the only game in town, generally thought of as a woman’s instrument meant to be played in parlors and salons, where it wouldn’t have to compete with other instruments for volume, and where it made a proportional complement to the female voice.
While dreadnoughts and other larger guitars would eventually rule the roost, smaller-bodied guitars like OMs and OOs are increasingly bothering the guitar market again, and recent parlor models by Breedlove, Collings, Ibanez, Lowden, Taylor, and other makers have quickly become up-and-coming stars of their product lines.
Enter the PRS Tonare Parlor SE P20E acoustic-electric, and its fully acoustic sibling, the SE P20, which evoke the spirit, sound, and form factor of a classic parlor while bearing the undeniable imprint of PRS’ signature aesthetics and playability. Our SE P20E arrived in a PRS soft case, and opened with a flash of deep, dark, grainy chocolate brown on the all-mahogany top, and the same groovy natural grain around the laminated mahogany back and sides. (The P20 and P20E are also available in Charcoal and Black Top finishes, though I prefer the Vintage Natural finish, as reviewed.) The body depth is 3-15/32 inches at the neck block, and 3-7/8 inches at the tail, so the P20E will feel considerably shallower than, say, a full-sized dreadnought, which is typically 4-7/8 inches deep at the tail.
Birds of Play
Touches of class abound on the Tonare—the lovely crème herringbone binding and rosette; the nicely flourished ebony bridge and its compensated bone saddle; and, of course, those signature PRS bird inlays on the ebony fingerboard, from the third-fret peregrine falcon to the 12th-fret Cooper’s hawk to the 19th-fret hawk landing. The butterbean buttons on the vintage-style tuners are a high-flying touch, too. The wide and fat mahogany neck, a popular shape on many PRS electric models, feels satiny and balanced with a 1.69-inch bone nut and at a 24.72-inch scale length. One is unlikely to feel this as an especially small guitar, at least in terms of fretting-hand technique and overall playing posture. (Nevertheless, at just 19 inches long and 14 inches wide at the lower bout, the P20E certainly feels compact on the lap.)
Do make sure your nails are properly filed, and perhaps consider a heavier pick than you normally use when you begin to play the Tonare. This is not a guitar you go to for those zingy high-end strumming parts—where you point a C-mic at the 14th-fret neck joint—and it’s no booming balladeer’s acoustic ammo machine, either. Instead, the Tonare Parlor is all about articulation and finesse, though it won’t mind if you give it a good smack now and again. Which is to say, this is a midrange-focused instrument, which happily reveals both its velvety, firm character with strong fingerstyle playing, and its presence and rounded punch with a flatpick over 1.00mm. What’s more, because all of the body’s efforts (distributed through PRS’s hybrid X/classical bracing) are directed at low- to high-mids, you’ll get an aggressive bite when you strike the strings with requisite force.
Now, all that said, with the SE P20E’s onboard Fishman GT1 undersaddle piezo pickup system, the general wisdom about parlor guitars’ modest volume and understated low-end goes somewhat out the window. Plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic amplifier, as well as a Fender Hot Rod Deville 4×10, the Tonare not only displayed plenty of low-end character, but that character came minus the kind of 200–500Hz frequency feedback that often drives electrified dreadnought players into the madhouse (probably in a straitjacket that features an X-bracing). With the Tonare SE P20E and Fishman GT1, I was able to turn up quite loud, finesse my top end, and accentuate lows (and manage my volume) with the easy soundhole-mounted preamp with tone and volume dials, and get that vivid parlor sound along with a nice dash of modern impact. The woomph effect. On a parlor. And no endlessly scanning the amp’s feedback notch to identify the guilty Hertz. Over it!
Perhaps the only buzzkill on this otherwise charming and solidly built guitar is the decidedly un-vintage machine imprint on the back of the PRS headstock which reads: “Built by Cor-Tek Musical Instrument Co, LTD, China. Under exclusive license for PRS Guitars.” Cor-Tek, for those unaware, is the official name of the Cort guitar company, with plants in Seoul, South Korea, China, and Indonesia. Now, clearly it would be difficult, if not impossible, to produce a similar guitar in the U.S. for the $579 street price that the SE P20E offers—though going with laminated mahogany back and sides, rather than solid wood, must also help keep the price affordable.
Despite its overseas pedigree—or perhaps because of it—the SE P20E, with its sweet sonic character, instantly playable neck, and lovely aesthetics, is a fine example of how PRS’s design methodology, quality control, and choice of materials translate extremely well into fine guitars, regardless of where in the world their instruments are actually made. Sure, you could spend a lot more to make sure your acoustic collection has all the key boxes ticked, but given that the PRS SE P20E is as easy on the eyes and ears as it is on your bank account, this lovely, scaled-down acoustic is well worth zooming in on.
BODY Solid mahogany top with PRS hybrid X/classical bracing; laminated mahogany back and sides; ebony bridge
Get stories like this in your inbox
NECK 24.72″ scale; 20 frets; solid mahogany with ebony fretboard; 11.81″ radius; adjustable truss rod; 1.69″ bone nut; vintage-style tuners with butterbean buttons; PRS bird inlays
OTHER Fishman GT1 preamp/undersaddle pickup system with soundhole-mounted tone and volume controls; light gauge strings (.012–.053); gig bag
MADE IN China
PRICE $579 street ($499 without electronics)
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.