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Parlor Guitar Buyers' Guide
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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

Parlor Guitar Buyers' Guide, from Riverboat Music(tm) Throughout the 1800s, especially in areas of "westward expansion," the guitar became the "poor man's piano," a way to have music no matter how poor you were or how far you were from civilization. It's no wonder that so many hundreds of photos from the 1800s show people holding guitars.

There were many experiments, of course. Longer bodies, shallower bodies, deeper bodies, more strings, drone strings, and so on. But by 1900, if you went to the store looking for a "guitar," chances are you'd come back with something like what we call a "parlor guitar" today. The name "parlor" actually became popular after bigger types were invented, because it's loud enough for the living room, but not as loud in concert venues as jumbo or dreadnought guitars.

When I was a kid during the Folk Revival, parlor guitars were far more common than dreadnoughts. By the early 1970s, though, the dreadnought had quite overtaken smaller guitars in popularity. The previous standard became a sort of also-ran, often lumped in with sort of "starter guitars" that were made for children who weren't big enough to play dreadnoughts.

But in recent years, there's been a revival of sorts. In part, many musicians have realized that, equipped with even the best pickups and pumped into even a decent PA or "acoustic amp," a well-made parlor guitar sounds almost exactly like a well-made dreadnought guitar. And it's, frankly, easier to drag around and or store. Some folks prefer what they consider a more focused tone.

Unfortunately, there is no real standard for what constitutes a parlor guitar. The name has become a sort of "catch all" description for any steel-stringed flat-top guitar that is smaller than a dreadnought or jumbo. That said, many guitars that are called "parlor guitars" today are very nice guitars, period.

Pros of Parlor Guitar as a Starter Instrument:

  • Easier for smaller students to hold than dreadnought or jumbo guitars.

  • If student is very young, the guitar can be equipped temporarily with nylon strings, then changed back to steel when the student is ready

  • A parlor guitar takes up less space than a dreadnought or jumbo.
  • If it is a nice instrument, the student can keep it indefinitely, even if a bigger guitar comes along eventually.

Cons of Parlor Guitar as a Starter Instrument:

  • Given the same quality, a parlor guitar is not quite as loud as dreadnought or jumbo guitars.
  • In some circles, a parlor guitar generally doesn't generally have the "cool" appeal as a dreadnought, so if peer pressure is an issue. . . .

I've come back to these descriptions, pros, and cons many times since I started this project, and the more I think about it, the more I think there's a lot to be said for starting younger students out on parlor guitars (not to be confused with the so-called "starter guitars" you can buy in supermarkets every Christmas season). If they can hold the thing properly, they can grow into it without outgrowing it.

US-built or Imported?

The good news is that you can still buy professional solid-topped parlor guitars that are made in America. The other good news - for folks without a "pro" budget - is that you can get a relatively decent imported parlor guitar without spending too much money. As with all imports, if you wind up buying online, you must have someone who knows what they are doing check it out and set it up while it is still in the return period. When I've ordered off-brand import instruments online, I have to return the first one because of manufacturing defects or shipping damage about 60% of the time. When I've ordered "brand name" import instruments online, I have to return the first one about 40% of the time. When I get a good one I have to restring and set it up 100% of the time. If you don't believe me, look at the 1-star reviews for any Chinese-made instrument. Ninety percent of them are complaining either:

  • That the strings are too high, or some other "problem" that simply requires a setup, but they don't know enough about the instrument to realize it, or

  • That there really is something wrong with it, but by the time they figured that out, it was too late to return it.

On the other hand ninety-five per cent of the 5-star reviews are from people who know nothing about the instrument and just know it's pretty.

The reviews you need to look for are 4-star reviews from experienced players who have ordered an import just to have one to take to parties or whatever, and realize it's nearly as much fun to play as their pro instrument. Again, the first one you get may fall short of your expectations, but the next one you get may far exceed them. That's the "upside" - such as it is - of poor quality control.

Acoustic-Electric Options

If playing "out" is an eventual goal, and you can get a pickup-equipped parlor guitar for just a tad more than the non-electric version, it might be worth considering. In fact, the sound of a $400 parlor guitar, run through a built-in piezoelectric pickup and appropriate preamp, is almost indistinguishable from the sound of a $1400 dreadnought run through the same setup. (Don't hurt me until you've done a blind sound test yourself.) I believe that's one reason you see pros who used to take dreadnoughts everywhere going to parlors.

The typical electronic ingredients of an acoustic-electric guitar are:

  • One or more piezoelectric pickups under the bridge. A piezoelectric pickup is based on a little ceramic crystal, similar to the pickups on old record players. Basically, it picks up the same vibrations that the bridge is transmitting from the strings to the guitar face.

  • Piezos don't put out a very loud signal, and they're relatively weak in the bass, so 90% of the acoustic-electric guitars you see will include a little battery-powered preamp, usually on the side of the guitar above the heel (where the neck connects to the body). All preamps restore the bass that the piezo leaves out. Most acoustic-electric guitars today have preamps that include tone or equalization controls, and some even include built-in tuners.

The tuner option, ironically, appears on beginner-oriented guitars as well as better guitars, so don't assume that a fancier preamp automatically means a better guitar.

The actual electronic components are worth $30-$50, so if you're looking at a $200 guitar, you might be able to get the electric-acoustic version of the same guitar for $230 or so. The difference many not be worth it for someone who is a total beginner, but it might be considered if the player is in any danger of playing "out" in the next year or three.

That said, if you wind up with an acoustic-only guitar and later on wish you had bought an acoustic-electric, it is possible to retrofit them. You can even buy a piezo-only setup like the one here and use an outboard preamp, which significantly reduces the amount of carving you have to do on your guitar.

Cutaway Options

Lead guitarists used to playing way up the neck sometimes get frustrated when they get up to the fifteenth fret on a parlor guitar and can't go any higher. So manufacturers have invented the cutaway option to give those players better access to the higher frets. It does affect the tone a little when the guitar is not plugged in (most people can't hear the difference, to be honest). But most manufacturers only put cutaways on guitars that they are also putting pickups on, and as I said earlier, the difference in the sound going to the amp is almost identical. In other words, having a cutaway won't really hurt your guitar, but unless you're already used to playing on the fifteenth fret or so, or all your friends think it's cool, it's not worth spending extra cash on either.

Top Options

For about a century, the wood of choice for the face/top of parlor guitars has been solid sitka spruce. It's rated on appearance and on how close the grain is together (closer is better). The best rating is AAA; AA usually signifies a professional or near-professional-quality guitar as well. A or no rating at all is still almost always better than laminate, which is where they shave a 1/20th of an inch from a sitka spruce board, and glue it on top of who-knows what, and still call it a "spruce top." (Notice the lack of the word "solid" in that phrase.)

A few manufacturers have experimented with solid mahogany tops, which aren't as loud, but are more reliable in damp conditions. Unfortunately, the look caught on, so a number of low-end guitars now have laminated tops with mahogany as the only visible layer. And yes, they are advertised as "mahogany guitars."

Another experiment is cedar, the kind of face usually reserved for classical guitars. Even though cedar-topped parlor have steel strings, the expectation is that you'll fingerpick them to get the best use of the unusually rich tone. (Think James Taylor style.) You'll note that cedar-topped parlor guitars usually have no pick-guard. That lets the cedar vibrate more freely, and actual guitarists almost never really need the pick guard anyway. However, it also means that if a drunk buddy used to banging on steel-stringed guitars with a flat pick borrows your guitar at a party, you might get it back with a hole dug in the face. So if you get a cedar-topped guitar of any kind, keep your eye on it.

Length, Scale Length, and Number of Frets?

Spanish-style Classical guitars, which Parlor guitars were based on in the first place, tend to have the 12th fret right where the neck joins the body. Dreadnought guitars tend to have 14. Parlor guitars often get caught in the middle. All things being equal, the 14-fret version should be longer and possibly have a longer scale length. But that's not universal.

If you're used to big guitars like dreadnoughts, you'll probably be more comfortable with a 14-fret guitar. If you're used to classical guitars or just starting out, a 12-fret guitar should serve your purposes just fine. If you are small, you may find a 12-fret guitar easier to adjust to.

Fingerboard Width

Most parlor guitars being made today have necks about the same width as most dreadnoughts being made today (1 11/16" to 1 3/4" - about 43mm to 44mm), But, remember, parlor guitars were based on Classical predecessors, and you'll occasionally find a parlor guitar with an usually wide neck. This is one place that reading reviews and specifications helps.

If you're used to classical, and just want a parlor to take to parties, you can probably find one with a neck you're comfortable with. If you are new to guitar, small-handed, or used to dreadnoughts or electrics, you'll probably be more comfortable if you avoid a wider neck.

What if I Want a Retro-Look?

As you shop for these, you'll notice that many at the lower end of the price range are deliberately "retro," copying the look of "starter guitars" from the 1930s-1960s. That's deliberate. Several American brands (like Fender) have discovered that the bottom-of-the-line undersized guitars they order from miscellaneous Chinese factories actually sell better if they look like obsolete starter guitars - apparently many boomers who started out on the real thing still have a soft spot where it comes to baseball-bat necks, furniture-wood construction, and spray-can "sunbursts."

True, the Chinese imitations are no longer built from furniture wood, and most of them have more playable necks. But an unfortunately high percentage of the under-$300 retro-looking parlor guitars have quality control issues that would have kept the US-built originals off the streets. (In fact, I just removed one that I liked personally, because so many folks have had serious problems with it.) And, like the old Kays and Harmonies they're copying, ANY under $500 guitar (and most under-$900 guitars) will all need set up to be made playable. I did include one retro guitar below that has gotten a relatively high percentage of good reviews. If you try any of the others, and you get one that's too far from playable, or has manufacturing defects, send it back and try again - the next one might be exceptionally nice - that's the "up-side" of poor quality control.

The model I of my first guitar, with the pick guard painted on.  Just an example of what's still out there if you're going for a retro look.If you want retro, consider buying used. - Here's a thought, if you want a 50s-looking undersized guitar, check Craig's list for the real thing. I just found about 15 worth checking out within an 80 miles radius of my house in Springfield, Ohio, in the $60-$200 range, mostly under $100. Chances are you'll have to sand down the nut and replace or modify the bridge. If you're lucky enough to get one on which you can adjust the neck, you'll need to do that, too. But at least you can see what you're getting into before it arrives at your house. And - guess what - most under-$300 parlor guitars you buy new from China will require about the same amount of work. And brand-new laminate guitars do not sound as good as 60-year old laminate guitars. This is one case where "buy American" make a lot of sense.

Kay Steel Reinforced Neck Logo, Circa 1955Here's one caveat: If you DON'T see a place to adjust the neck at all, and the neck is pulled up or warped at all, skip it. Kay's little "Steel Reinforced Neck" logo, shown to the right, means that a v-shaped piece of heavy sheet steel was shot up the neck lengthwise to add a little strength. It worked more often than you'd think. But when it didn't work and the neck bent anyway, the guitar became a "wall decoration," and no amount of work will change that now.

Examples

To give you some idea of what you can expect, I've listed some guitars that may be worth checking out in the table below.

Here's an irony: I know that there there are high-end parlor guitars out there, but there aren't NEARLY as many high-end parlor guitars online as there are mid-range instruments, so that's what most of our chart below reflects. On the bright side, you can get an upper-midrange parlor for about what a mid-midrange dreadnought costs in some lines.

I also more-or-less left Elderly Instruments off of this chart because they don't have an easy way to search for parlor guitars. They just classify them in with all the other "flat-tops," which is a pretty big class including dreadnoughts, and jumbos. Plus they use the term "concert" for one class of guitars that most people would consider parlor guitars. This is valid, since, before the dreadnought arrived, what we might now call a "large parlor" guitar was called a "concert-sized" instrument. But they don't have a separate section for those either. So if you want to see what they have, click here and do your own searches on "parlor" and "concert." Among their "concert" guitar listings, they include several Breedloves, which compete pretty closely with the Alverez guitars in the same price ranges.

I did drop a Martin 000 in at the very bottom. Not that I expect you to buy a guitar worth more than my truck online, just to show an example of a top-end "concert-style" guitar.

When you do buy, whatever you buy, please either:

  • Buy from a shop where every guitar is set up by a pro, or
  • Have a pro check it out and set it up for you as soon as you get it.
If you follow any of these links, you'll see dozens more I didn't profile, but hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.also available in a vintage-style
Acoustic-Electric

Guitar ModelIllustration (If available)
Solid or
Veneer Top
# of Frets atHeel
Where
Made
Online Availability
Fender CP-100
Click a button in the right column for details
Laminate
14
Indonesia

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Martin LX1
"Little Martin"
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce
14
Mexico

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.
also available as Acoustic-Electric

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.
also available as Acoustic-Electric

Washburn WP11SNS
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Cedar
12
China

also available as Acoustic-Electric

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Seagull Coastline
Grand Guitar
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce
14
Canada
Alvarez Artist AP70
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce
12
China

also available as acoustic-electric

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Alvarez Masterworks
MP70
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce
12
China
Martin 000
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce
14
USA
Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.
also available in a vintage-style
Acoustic-Electric

Conclusion

Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.

Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."


Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*

Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.

Note about Buying Musical Instruments New: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the vendor.

Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online catalog until I can find a replacement or another supplier. For more detailed information about why products seem to come and go and why I have stopped listing prices for most products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."

*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.

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