Parlor Guitar Revival

You call it the living room. Your great-grandfather called it the parlor. It’s where family and friends would gather to make music before phonographs, radios and televisions took over the room. With the advent of YouTube, SoundCloud and easy digital recording, it seems that the living room is once again a cool place to make music.

It should seem as no surprise, then, that parlor guitars - so named because of their presence in the parlors of so many early 20th century homes - are also cool once again. But is this merely a hipster-driven trend similar to craft beer, pushing manufacturers to take a simple and good idea and needlessly make it the realm of snobby boutique-ism? Or is this an example of a simple design being resurrected and distilled to its maximum potential?

Parlor Guitars 101

Parlor Guitars 101

Today, we have a very ingrained idea of what acoustic guitars look like. Dreadnought. Classical. Orchestra Model. But they weren’t always so big, so plain, or even six-stringed. From eight and ten-stringed models of the Renaissance to the ornately carved bodies of the Baroque era to emerging six-string templates of the 1790s that were refined in 19th century Spain and Italy, the guitar has undergone a three-century evolution.

Parlor guitars might be considered the Homo erectus of steel string acoustics, predecessors to the familiar models we see today. Slightly smaller than a concert-size (0) guitar, often with equally narrow upper and lower bouts and short scale lengths, the earliest models used gut strings before X-bracing provided the strength for steel strings. While today the term "parlor guitar" is thrown around somewhat loosely as a buzzword, we generally take it to mean a guitar that is smaller than a concert guitar, with proportions narrower overall than other designs.

Parlors were some of the first affordable large batch production guitars, made by emerging industry giants of the late 19th century such as Washburn (with Lyon & Healy) and Martin. The shorter scales and narrower bodies kept production costs low, making them accessible to most players. The design was still popular into the early '60s, as companies like Kay, Regal, and Harmony began producing affordable guitars in record numbers. In the late '60s and '70s, however, electric guitars, synths and larger dreadnought acoustics made parlor guitars seem like relics, quaint efforts that fell far short of the guitar's true potential as an instrument.

The Bandwagon

While some manufacturers continued to make small guitars continuously throughout the '70s and '80s (the Martin 0-18 comes to mind), the number of true parlor guitars on the market whittled down to near zero. In the past several years, however, the market has seen a resurgence of parlor guitar reissues, signature models and boutique builds. Maybe it's the "old is new is cool" mindset so many millenials have developed, embracing bygone things like Civil War Era facial hair, beer can designs from the '70s and actual corded phones that connect to your cell phone.

We'd like to think that there's more to it. That builders and players have finally come around to merits of parlor guitar design, that there's something addictive to that resonant mid-range and mellow projection, that there's undeniable intimacy in playing such a small guitar. It only took a day or two before a staffer's new Washburn parlor reissue went from Reverb office darling to permanent Reverb office fixture. Nobody could keep their hands off it, despite its modest $500 price tag. All romantic notions aside, a couple manufacturers probably looked at rising demand within the general acoustic market, saw parlor guitars as a low-cost market opportunity, and poof! Everyone caught on. We're not complaining.

Parlor Guitars: Then And Now

Some beautiful early specimens have no names on them at all, while some high-end contemporary models come from builders whose names most of us have never heard of. With nearly every big name manufacturer now producing at least one solid, affordable parlor model - often representing the best value within a company's lineup - we're living in a second golden era of the design. Here's a look the some current parlor guitars and the early designs they recall.

Unknown - ca.1900

This beautifully aged specimen is representative of turn-of-the-century parlor guitar design, with a narrow body and nearly equally widths for the upper and lower bouts. Ornate inlaid rosettes were common at the time, though many plain guitars were also produced. The lack of branding hearkens back to a time when there were far more independent manufacturers than today's auto-industry-like oligarchy.

Find an early 20th century parlor guitar on Reverb.

Hall Parlor - ca. 1900

In comparison to the previous specimen, this guitar has even more equity between upper and lower bouts, giving it a peanut shape. This design eventually gave way to inflated lower bouts to boost the bass, but the shoulders of later parlor models remained slim. Like most parlors at the time, it featured a slotted headstock.

Washburn R319SWK - 2009 to present

As part of Washburn's 1896 Reissue Series, this model is a reinterpretation of one of the company's early models from the 1890s. With aged hardware, a V-shaped neck and a satisfyingly smooth relic job, you really do get the feel of playing an old instrument, even though it was made in Asia during the Obama administration. Biggest surprise? This is an absolute joy to play and sounds great played finger-style or strummed hard. For a guitar right around the $500 mark, this might sneak its way onto my Top 3 Log Cabin Retreat Acoustics list.

Find a Washburn parlor guitar reissue on Reverb.

Seagull Coastline Grand Parlor - 2002 to present

This model may recall an old template, but this is a decidedly 21st century guitar. Seagull used computer analysis to optimize the internal bracing and sound hole placement for the best sound and then decided to use non-traditional sustainable tonewoods for its construction. The Coastline uses a solid Cedar top but Wild Cherry back and sides with a Maple neck, giving it a distinct timbre. For the price, there's hardly a more thoughtfully designed guitar.

Find a Seagull Coastline Grand on Reverb.

Fender Ron Emory Loyalty Parlor - 2013 to present

If the beginning of this article had you thinking parlor guitars were for passive noodlers sitting around a campfire, think again. Fender has a standard parlor model with their CP-100, but they partnered with True Sounds Of Liberty (and occasional Social Distortion) guitarist Ron Emory to produce a parlor with attitude. Available in two finishes, it uses a longer 25.3" scale with a narrow laminated Ash body and Maple neck (Butterscotch finish) or laminated Spruce top and Mahogany back/sides/neck with Fishman electronics. At the price point and size, this could make a great beginner guitar for a young person who might need a bit of flash for inspiration.

Find a contemporary Fender parlor on Reverb.

Luna Trinity - ca. 2005 to present

One of the advantages of playing a parlor guitar is that it fits smaller bodies well. This was not a fact lost on Yvonne de Villers, who started Luna Guitars with the aim to produce guitars that paired well with the female body. The Luna Trinity features a Celtic design sound hole on a solid Spruce top with Rosewood sides and back and a Mahogany neck. B-Band electronics make this guitar open mic ready, a place where this model would be sure to turn some heads.

Find a Luna guitar on Reverb.

Alvarez AP70 - current production

This Alvarez model is a great example of the high quality construction that's possible at this price point. With a solid A+ Spruce top, Rosewood back/sides/bridge and real bone saddles and nut, the AP70 is serious about tone. Add in Taylor-esque forward-shifted bracing, abalone inlays and precise open-back tuners, and you have a very clean and calibrated instrument. Onboard electronics are omitted, but we'd like to think of this as a dedication to purity rather than a drawback. Hard to believe these can be had for under $400 all day.

Find an Alvarez AP70 on Reverb.

Huss & Dalton Model O - ca. 2000 to present

We included this beautifully clean guitar to show the other end of the parlor guitar spectrum. Built by hand to exacting standards with a solid Spruce top and Indian Rosewood back and sides, the Model O has slightly larger parlor proportions with a 24.9" scale. Huss & Dalton started in 1995 when two friends (you can guess their names) decided they wanted to start a handmade guitar shop in Staunton, Virginia. While they produce a number of acclaimed acoustic models, they are particularly good with parlors.

Find a Huss & Dalton parlor guitar on Reverb.

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