Should you be concerned about string tension on vintage parlor guitars? Considering that very few of these instruments have truss rods, it’s a valid worry. Here’s some advice on string tension to keep your vintage parlor in top playing shape.
Q: I have several slotted headstock, ladder-braced parlor guitars of 1905–1910 vintage and am concerned about string tension. Some of the early makers excluded any warranty if steel strings were used, so I want to lean toward caution here. Should I try some period-specific strings like gut, silk, etc.? What options do I have? —Patrick Grant
A: You have good taste in guitars! Some of my favorite guitars that I have ever played have been small parlor guitars from this era—Lyon & Healy/Washburn, Howe-Orme, and Martin 2-series all come to mind. These instruments tend to be very lightly built, giving them both volume and dynamic range that is surprising for their size.
High action and intonation problems are quite common—and both can be made worse with the wrong choice of strings.
I appreciate that you are already keeping track of the overall load of your strings. It shows that you are considerate of the guitar’s needs as well as your own. Very few of these instruments have truss rods, and most have experienced some degree of top distortion over the last 100-plus years of service, so high action and intonation problems are quite common—and both can be made worse with the wrong choice of strings.
I always encourage people to explore lighter-tension strings with these older instruments. They are likely closer in overall tension to the strings for which the guitars were originally designed, and they will help prolong the life of these already venerable guitars. I’ve had good luck with the silk-and-steel style hybrid sets, which combine light-gauge steel plain strings with silver-wound nylon bass strings, similar to those in a classical guitar set. Some hybrid strings even combine thin steel cores alongside stranded nylon, with a silver-plated wind. These further blur the line between classical strings and steel strings, and often deliver a tone that is well-suited to the complex, almost vocal midrange that makes vintage parlor guitars so sought-after. If you can find the type of string for which the guitar was intended, the guitar will likely perform at its best, as the bracing and overall stiffness were designed with that string load in mind.
If you’re not playing the guitar for months at a time, there is no harm in slacking the strings for storage. It’s generally not ideal to slack and tighten strings too often, for the guitar or for the strings. If the strings are reasonably within the tension range for which the guitar was built, storing it tuned to pitch should be fine. If for any reason the instrument needs some TLC, tuning down a step or so when not playing can give it some relief. A trip to a qualified luthier or tech every year or two just for a checkup would also be a good idea. I plan to do the same each year after my 100th birthday!