Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Parlor Guitars

Martin 0-16MY
I once owned a Martin 0-16NY (New Yorker). It was this sweet little guitar that piqued my interest in Parlor guitars.

In older times, the main gathering room in the home was the parlor, which was a sitting room where one could read, spend time with others, play cards or play music.  Since the surroundings were usually small, the instruments did not have to be loud. 

From its beginnings, the guitar has usually been rather small instrument. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that gut string guitars became larger. And it wasn't until the early part of the 20th century that guitars gained steel strings and morphed into fairly large instruments. Martin guitars started building Dreadnought guitars in 1931.

A few years later, 1934, Gibson began offering the Super 400.

In the late 1990’s I saw a trend in which guitarists, and collectors, started to seriously gain interest in those smaller instruments known as parlor guitars.  Not long after manufacturers also caught on to this trend and again began offering parlor guitars for sale.

So what exactly is a parlor guitar?  The sizing procedures that the Martin Guitar company uses may be a good way to answer this question.

Martin 2-17
Martin has made style 5, 3 ½, 3, 2 ½, 2, 1, C (classical) and F (archtop) before they made the style O. By 19th century standards, a size "0" Martin was a big guitar. This style Martin is 13 1/2 inches across the lower bout compared to a Dreadnought which is 15 5/8th".

It goes without saying other dimensions on a parlor guitar are much narrower than one would find on a larger instrument.

Most parlor guitars have the neck join the body at the 12th fret. There are some exceptions, such as the Seagull Grand. I believe there is something different in the sound of a “12 fret” guitar. Perhaps it has something to do with the body being extended. It does not make the guitar sound louder, but in my opinion it sounds sweeter.

Many people, including myself, look on sites such as eBay under vintage guitars to find older parlor guitar. But please be aware that some of these older instruments were constructed much differently than today’s guitars. Many times they were ladder-braced; instead of the X bracing that Martin developed and is found on most modern parlor guitars.

Martin 0-42
Also please understand that many 19th and early 20th century guitars were not made for steel strings. They may have pin bridges, instead of classical guitar bridges, but because of bracing and neck construction they may not stand up to the tension of steel guitar strings.

For instance, my Martin 0-16NY was braced for only silk and steel strings. When I purchased it I was not told about the required strings. And when I put light gauge acoustic strings on it, the neck pulled dramatically. Silk and steel strings are not as bright as regular steel strings, they are sort of flimsy and in my opinion they are great for finger picking, but not strumming.

Older parlor guitars may require some repairs, such as a neck reset, fret work, a new bridge with saddle and nut or crack repairs. The neck/body joint may have to be reset. 

Additionally be aware some vintage parlor guitars may have a triangular shaped neck. This was a pre-truss rod way to prevent warping.

Stella guitar from 1960's
There was no CNC technology back in those days. Everything was done by hand. Some of the guitars listed on auction web pages or from dealers may include budget brands such as Stella or other brands that were made by the Chicago Musical Instrument Company.

These guitars are made of birch for not just the top, but the back and sides as well. These may be parlor guitars, but they were never built to be quality instruments.

By contrast there are plenty of well made small body guitars available and some start as little as $200 USD. Because they are made using computerized machine technology, the build will be better, the set up will be better and they will play in tune.

Recording King is a company that makes parlor guitars in several different sizes and versions.  The least expensive is the Recording King Dirty Thirty.  This guitar puts me in mind of an old Stella guitar. However the top of the Dirty Thirty is made of solid spruce. The sides are made of ‘white wood’ and the neck is made of nato. The description says “Satin Finish”, but like the Stella it just appears to have a coat of spray paint.

This guitar even has a bone nut and saddle. Recording King makes three models, but only one model would qualify as a parlor guitars. This is the size "0". I have played one and honestly it sounds pretty good and it plays pretty good.  It sells for $199 USD, although I have seen them cheaper on eBay. I wish I had such a nicely set up instrument when I started learning to play the guitar.

Godin Guitars was founded and is run by Robert Godin. His company manufacturers and distributes six different brands of guitars. All are manufactured in North America.

One of the brands is called Arts and Lutherie. The parlor sized model under this brand is known as the Arts and Lutherie Ami guitar. The Ami is a 12 fret guitar that is very easy on the fingers. The guitars top is made of solid cedar while the back and sides are 3 ply laminated cherry.

The neck is made of silver leaf maple. The nut and bridge saddle are made of a synthetic material called Tusq® that emulates bone. The Ami guitar comes with a variety of painted satin finishes. It is also available with a spruce top.

Godin also makes Seagull guitars including several versions of the Seagull Grand.  The Excursion Grand features bare wood. The Excursion features a laminated cherry top, three ply laminated back and sides and silver leaf maple necks.

To make this guitar unique, the rosette surrounding the sound-hole is burned into the wood.

The headstock on all Seagull guitars is tapered. Mr. Godin designed this feature that he calls the "Straight Pull Head Stock." This eliminates much string bending at the nut to the tuning pegs.

The upscale version is called the Entourage. It is the same guitar, but with a solid cedar top that is bound with white trim. The back and sides are once again three ply laminated wild cherry wood. This comes with a red sunburst finish. The guitar can also be equipped with built in Fishman electronics. 

The next model in the Seagull Grand line up is the Coastline Grand. The wood and features are the same. It is hand polished with a satin finish and natural cedar top. The three ply laminated cherry back and sides feature a dark stained finish. Both top and bottom of the guitar are bound with white trim, as is the instruments head stock. It too can be ordered with Fishman electronics.

All Seagull Grand guitars feature a 14 fret neck even though the body is exactly the same dimensions as the Arts and Lutherie Ami.

This is accomplished by moving the bridge forward.  All the guitars in the Seagull Grand series have a 13 inch lower bout, as does the Arts and Lutherie Ami Grand. The body on Seagull Grands seem to come with a better finish. (FYI, regardless of the manufacturer, a guitar with a painted top may use paint to cover up flaws.)  Depending upon the model the Seagull Grand comes with either a satin smooth finished natural body or a three colour gold to red sunburst finish.

Last but not least in the Godin market of parlor guitar lines is their Simon and Patrick Woodland Pro guitar.

This guitar has the same body shape as the Ami and Seagull, 13” across the bout, and comes in a three colour dark brown sunburst or a high gloss natural finish.

The headstock is flat and resembles a Martin shaped headstock.  Like the Ami, the Simon & Patrick’s neck joins the body and the 12th fret.

Godin guitars are manufactured in five different factories in Quebec and New Hampshire. Necks and bodies are all made in Quebec in the small town of La Patrie

Alvarez AP66B
Alvarez Guitars offers some very nice parlor guitars in the mid $400 USD range. Their AP66B features a solid mahogany top with laminated mahogany back and sides. The workmanship is exquisite. The body is bound on the top, the mahogany neck is bound and it features a slotted head stock.

Alvarez AP70
Their AP70 model is available with a natural or sunburst finish. The top is A+ solid Sitka spruce. The back and sides are laminated rosewood and the neck is mahogany. Both models are available with electronics.

The manufacturer of Alvarez is Yairi Guitars. Yairi offers versions upscale versions of both models. These are upscale instruments made totally of solid woods and features. Unfortunately I cannot locate prices or companies that sell these specific Yairi guitars.

Vintage Recording King
Recording King was the brand name that the Montgomery Wards Company put on its line of acoustic guitars in the early part of the 20th century..Montgomery Wards was a department store, but the company was far better known for their catalog. As a kid, I recall receiving that hefty book in the mail and looking for guitars and other musical instruments. 

The store went out of business ages ago, but a company from Hayward California now owns Recording King brand name. They design guitars in the United States and have them built by outsourcing to Asian and Pacific Rim nations.

Recording King offers different grades of guitars, all based on what you are willing to pay. This company offers parlor guitars that are based on Martin 12 fret 0 through 000 models. The price tag is from $450 to $1100 USD and is dependent upon the materials used, such as solid rosewood or mahogany back and sides or laminated back and sides. The tops or soundboard are solid spruce, but some models have a higher grade of wood than others.

I have already mentioned the size O Dirty Thirties model. The other models that I would consider parlor guitars are all size O and include the RP-06.

The top of the RP-06 guitar is made of solid Sitka spruce, while the back and sides are laminated mahogany. The neck is mahogany topped with a slotted headstock. It is a very plain guitar, much like the ones from the 1900’s era.


The next model is the RP-10. This guitar is a step up from the previous one. It features a solid Sitka spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides.  The neck is mahogany. Instead of a slotted head stock, this guitar has a solid head stock. The fret board is made rosewood and features 5 dot position markers.

RP 1-326
The RPI-326 is a professional grade guitar that is decked out with a solid Adirondack spruce top and solid African mahogany back and sides. The V shaped neck is mahogany and the headstock is slotted. A decal on the back of the headstock proclaims it is a Recording King. The ebony fretboard has dot markers. The guitars upper body is bound in herringbone trim.

The companion guitar, the RPI-327 features similar accouterments, except the back and sides are solid East Indian rosewood.

RP 1-626
The RP1-626 is the top of the parlor guitar line. The top is solid AAA Engelmann spruce, the back and sides are solid African mahogany. The neck is one piece mahogany topped with a solid head stock. The fret markers are diamond and square patterns. The body is bound with 5 ply alternating black/white trim. Expect to pay $1100 to $1400 for this guitar.

There are no dealers in my area so I have never played a Recording King guitar. They seem to have great reviews and appear to be not just beautiful instruments, but also well constructed.

If you are interested in buying a Recording King guitar, check out eBay or Amazon.

Saga Music Brands
Saga Musical Instruments started out as a company that sold guitar kits. And though they still sell kits, the Saga company has blossomed and offer many lines of different imported guitars which are mostly manufactured in Asia and the Pacific Rim. One of their best brands is Blueridge.  The are guitars that carefully pay tribute to old Martin and Gibson instruments. I have played a half dozen Blueridge guitars and can honestly say the more expensive ones sound awesome.

And by more expensive I mean in the $700 and above range. And thought the company offers at least 79 different models under the Blueridge label. I am going to concentrate on the line of their three size "0" parlor guitars.

The BR-341 has a manufacturer suggested retail price of $1100 USD. The top is select solid Sitka spruce. The back and sides are solid mahogany. The neck is solid mahogany with a traditional slotted head stock. The top is bound with B/W/B binding and the finish is high gloss.

The BR-361 features a solid Sitka spruce top with solid Indian rosewood back and sides. The mahogany neck has the diamond Martin-style volute at the break in the neck and head stock, which is slotted. This is a beautiful guitar and retails at $1500 USD.

The BR-371 features more workmanship than the other guitars. It has a select Solid spruce top with handcarved parabolic shaped and scalloped top bracing in the authentic pre-war forward X position. The back and sides are solid Indian rosewood. This guitar also has the diamond volute on the back of its mahogany neck. The fingerboard is ebony. The body is bound in abalone in the Martin 45 style as is the top and soundhole. The neck is bound. This is one fine guitar. Its manufacturers suggest price is $1700 USD.

Washburn was the brand name given to stringed instruments made in Chicago by Lyon and Healy. The firms main emphasis was on pianos and harps. In fact Lyon and Healy still manufactures fine quality harps. The Washburn name is an old one going back to 1883.

Washburn Guitars 1896
These days the Washburn brand has been revived by U.S. Music Corporation which operates out of Buffalo Grove, a Chicago suburb and distributes and imports many well known brands of music related products. 

Washburn Guitars features a line of acoustic and electric guitars, basses, banjos, ukuleles and amplifiers. Many of its instruments are imported from Asia, but made according to the company’s specifications.

Washburn offers a line of seven parlor guitars. The guitars are fancy with intricate carving on the bridge and inlays on the neck and headstock. Even the low end models feature fancy body binding.  As nice as they look, the lowest priced models are made of laminated wood.

The Washburn R319SWKK is made with a solid spruce top and solid trembesi back and sides. It has lots of bells and whistles. Street price is around $550-599 USD.

The Washburn R320SWRK features a solid spruce top and solid rosewood back and sides. What sets this instrument apart is the ‘tree of life’ inlay on its bound neck. Amazon offers this guitar at $599.

Washburn also offers some models that are not quite as fancy.

The WP11SNS has a solid cedar top. The back and sides are laminated mahogany and the bound neck is also mahogany. The headstock is slotted. The rosette is abalone. The nut and saddle are bone.

Model WP21SNS has similar features, except the back and sides are laminated rosewood.

Model WP26SNS is similar to the previous model, but has fancy inlays on the neck.


The top of the Washburn parlor guitar line is the WP5234S. It has all the features of the WP21SNS and WP26SNS. However the solid cedar top is embellished with fancy gold leaf designs.

The Eastman Company was started by a Qian Ni, who came to the US to study music and subsequently began a musical instrument import business.

The Eastman Company offers two parlor sized guitars.

The E10P features a solid Adirondack spruce top with black binding and solid mahogany back and sides.

The E20P is similar, but has herringbone binding and solid rosewood back and sides.  The suggested price is $1395 USD and $1500 USD. Like the Recording King and Blueridge guitars, Eastman guitars are made in China.

Larrivee Guitars is a Canadian company that makes marvelous instruments.  Currently they offer the P-09 Rosewood parlor guitar.

This guitar is all solid wood with a Canadian Sitka spruce top, rosewood back and sides. The neck is made of one piece mahogany with an ebony fretboard. The headstock is solid with chrome tuners. Unlike prior models this comes with a beveled pickguard. It also includes an archtop case. It is a beautiful instrument. The street price is around $1600 USD.

Tanglewood Guitars, a United Kingdom company, is known for quality and fair price. Most of their instruments are designed in the U.K., but manufactured in Asia. Tanglewood offers the Java series of affordable guitars and among them is the Tanglewood TWJP. This guitar comes with a solid cedar top. The laminated back and sides are made of a wood called Amara*. As a plus the Amara wood on the back is spalted and it is beautiful. The binding is made of mahogany.

The neck with a slotted headstock is Nato. The fretboard material on this guitar is sonokeling. The manufacturers suggested retail price is £329.95 UK. The sister version called the TWJP E comes with a Fishman Sonotone transducer and sells for £399.95 UK.

The Epiphone EL OO is out of production but may be available through some dealers. Though the lower bout is 15.5” and bigger than what I would consider a parlor guitar, it is a small instrument and a copy of a 1930 Gibson L 0.

The Epi version comes with a solid Sitka spruce top, with laminated rosewood back and sides. Like most Epiphone acoustic guitars, this was manufactured in Asia.

Sigma Guitars* offers the OOM-15S, based on a Martin OO-15S. This 12 fret guitar comes with a solid mahogany top, but the back and sides are laminated mahogany. The neck is also mahogany topped with a slotted headstock. The fretboard is made of Indian rosewood.

It has a Martin-style pyramid bridge. The list price is $540.00 USD, which is much less expensive than the Martin version. Sigma guitars are not yet distributed in the U.S. and hard to find. My suggestion is eBay.

* FYI, Amara  a species of tree found in the rainforests and savannahs of South and Central America and the in the Caribbean. The tree is an evergreen, however it produces a new set of leaves once a year. Nato is also known as Eastern Mahogany. It is an Asian hardwood with similar qualities of mahogany.  Sonokeling is a medium to heavy weight hardwood that has characteristic streaks of ash gray, black, dark purple or light brown.

 * You may recall that in the 1970’s C.F. Martin created an inexpensive line of Japanese manufactured guitars under the Sigma brand name.  The brand rights were purchased in 2011 by AMI Musical Instruments GmbH, which is a German company. Ed Golden is a retired Martin employee and has acquired the rights to sell Sigma Guitars in the USA using the brand name Kindred Guitars.  The company is launching this year.


Macyn Taylor


Marc said...

I just ran across this article. It is quite interesting. There is a pretty young lady, Macyn Taylor playing Sebastapol; a descriptive fantasie for the guitar on a beautiful Petros parlor guitar. You can have one just like it for $14,000 USD!!!

Chris W said...

Interesting article. I grew up playing a parlor guitar that belonged to my dad, although I didn't know this or that about guitar sizes. I recently bought a used Alvarez parlor guitar, and am really enjoying it. Much more comfortable that my dreadnought, and still has a pretty "big" sound.

Caroline said...

I own an Eastman Parlor E20P, and I love it. It has a nice base sound and is quite loud for a small guitar. I also own a Rainsong Parlor guitar for travel. It has a lovely but different sound. It doesn't have much of a base sound in comparison to the Eastman, so at first I thought is sounded tinny. Still, it is a really enjoyable guitar to play.

tos14 said...

Very helpful article. Thanks!
Right now looking into an Eastman E10P and Breedlove Premier Parlor. Yet to find a local place to play either, though.

Tony said...

Correction: Yairi does not manufacture Alvarez guitars. Alvarez sells Yairi guitars in the US under the Alvarez-Yairi name. Yairi guitars are handmade in Japan by expert luthiers. Alvarez guitars are made in China and Korea on assembly lines. Both brands are fantastic, though.

Josh said...

Great article! I put together a similar list of my favorite parlor guitars and it was interesting to see the kind of overlap between what you and I have.

Thanks for sharing!