Roaring into prominence in the late 1800s of a younger America, parlor guitars offered a way for everyday people to entertain each other with popular songs of the time. With classic American histories of companies like Sears & Roebuck, Washburn, Martin, all having their unique tales of crafting parlor guitars, they're closely intertwined with how music developed for those formative years. Influential musicians, such as Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and many others used parlor guitars extensively, probably also for their prevalence.
Knowing the rough backdrop, namely that parlor guitars come from younger time of America's history (in the late 1800s), this leads well into the actual "taxonomy" of parlor guitars. With so many codenames for guitar sizes, such as "dreadnought", "000", "0", "parlor", and so on, it's easy to get confused on what exactly is a parlor guitar.
From there, you'll encounter thoughts about key aspects of parlor guitars to pay attention to, as you're seeking to possibly add a parlor guitar to your collection of instruments. Certain specifications such as whether the parlor guitar is 12th fret-joined or 14th fret-joined to the body will be discussed, and it's possible impacts on the parlor's sound.
Finally, at the bottom, you'll find 8 of some of the best parlor guitars which you can find in circulation. Being an older, vintage "type" of guitar, it's definitely more challenging to locate and select a parlor guitar, because there's much less selection, and you may not have experienced many or any parlor guitars at local shops. Therefore, hopefully those 8 parlor guitars offer at least an entry point so you know what you're looking for in the best parlor guitar for you.
Briefly, the History of Parlor Guitars
During the days of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" trilogy, namely the late 1800s, when paying directly with gold was in, parlor guitars were roaring with popularity. At that time, physical instruments in the household, like pianos and violins, were forms of entertaining for friends and family, and generally having a nice, musical time.
Perhaps due to the expectation that users of parlor guitars would be everyday people, who simply desired the instrument for creating music and entertainment with friends and family, the body of parlor guitars is smaller than normal-sized guitars. That physical attribute of parlor guitars is possibly what has maintained their appeal among serious musicians.
For example, playing a Gibson Jumbo acoustic guitar, which is quite hefty, is actually challenging; you kind of need to play an acoustic guitar with enough "activation" energy to properly resonate the instrument and bring forth the full qualities of the sound. A similar analogy would be that of using a 1000W amplifier in a library, with the volume knob set at 0.1; rather than use the excessively powerful amp, it's better to use a 1W amplfier, and crank its volume knob to 7.
That is, in essence, perhaps what has made parlor guitars particularly appealing throughout the history of music. Formative musicians such as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson used parlor guitars extensively, also perhaps due to their prevalence.
Due to their continued demand from musicians, parlor guitars are still in circulation and production, though in less volume than normal-sized guitars. To emulate the sounds of historic recordings, or take advantage of their accessible physical attributes, there's reason for guitarists of all genres to consider adding a parlor guitar to their collection.
What’s the Definition of a Parlor Guitar?
Those oddball codenames which you may have already come across, such as "dreadnought", "000", or "00" adhere to an actual guitar sizing system. First organized and named by C.F. Martin & Company around the early 1900s, these names steadily filtered through the naming of nearly all acoustic guitar builders of the time, and thereafter.
For a visual representation of the Martin company's nomenclature for guitar sizing, and corresponding visual representations of the sizes, here is a diagram below. As you can see, the parlor-sized guitar is nearest in same size to the "00" guitar, and the smallest size featured in the illustration.
Pros & Cons: Why Use a Parlor Guitar?
In considering whether or not to add a parlor-sized guitar to your collection, it's worth first acknowledging that parlor guitars are typically sought after by players who already own "normal" sized guitars. For that portion of players, there aren't many cons, since you're only adding more options in terms of sound and instruments. This will try to be a tougher pros & cons list, as if you had to make a hard decision between a full-sized versus parlor guitar.
- Affordability: parlor guitars use less materials so their costs are often more accessible relative to the hardware you get
- Physical convenience: parlor guitars are smaller so they can be easier on your hands to play, and more convenient for travel
- Sound: parlor guitars tend to produce a mellower sound with their smaller body size, while also being easier to "pull" sound from
- Volume: In case you want to perform to a large crowd, you’ll probably need to invest in acoustic pickups
- Bass depth: Lower frequencies need larger instruments, such as tubas or big subwoofers. Parlor guitars will have less bass depth than larger guitars
Parlor Guitars vs. Travel-Sized Guitars
As a slight extra piece of information, there is a size that's smaller than parlor guitars, and that is a travel guitar, although that's more so of a "shrunk" full-sized guitar (in that even frets are less distanced), whereas parlor guitars have the smaller body, but actually have the same proportions, for example in the neck width, fret sizes, fret distances, as a full-sized guitar. That is to say, parlor guitars are smaller bodied, but it's in many ways the same experience as playing a full-sized guitar, because its other features aren't "shrunk" in proportion, like a travel guitar.
Ways Parlor Guitars Differ from Travel Guitars
- Nut width: parlor guitars have the standard nut width, while travel guitars usually have a smaller nut width
- Fret sizes: parlor guitars have standard-sized frets, while travel guitars are shrunk
- Neck width: parlor guitars are known for their comfortable, wide necks (strings can be more separated, so easier to individually access), whereas travel guitars have thinner necks
- Number of frets: parlor guitars tend to have a couple lesser frets, since the frets and fret layout is still standard-sized
Parlor Guitars vs. Dreadnought-Sized Guitars
It's tough to compare parlor guitars to dreadnought-sized guitars, since they're very different and serve different purposes, but it could be a question worth asking if one can only choose a parlor or dreadnought. Firstly, in terms of name, whereas "parlor" guitars are named after small "parlor" sitting rooms in one's house, the "dreadnought" was named after the HMS Dreadnought British battleship by C. F. Martin & Company, meant to be played for larger spaces. The dreadnought was first introduced in 1916, with its larger body, and Martin models today have the code "D" in them to indicate the size.
As you can guess, the key differences between parlor guitars and dreadnought-sized guitars are in aspects such as volume, size, number of frets, and so on. Here is a fuller list:
- Volume: parlor guitars are “softer-spoken”, having less volume than dreadnought guitars
- Numbers of frets: parlor guitars have less frets than dreadnought guitars
- Tonal range: parlor guitars don’t have the powerful mid-range punchiness, and the basses, of dreadnought guitars
- Price: Using less materials, parlor guitars are usually fairly less expensive than dreads
- Size: parlor guitars are obviously much more compact in size than dreadnought guitars.
Key Specifications When Choosing a Parlor Guitar
Especially since it's harder to find parlor guitars at local guitar shops, it can be challenging to actually pin-point the best parlor guitar for your needs. For example, maybe one's local guitar store only has a cheap parlor guitar that gives a poor impression of the instrument, or no parlor guitars whatsoever. For this type of situation, it's handy to have some guiderails to know what exactly you're looking for in your parlor guitar. Here are a few facets of parlor guitars so you can fine tune your search.
1. Fret Joining
Like all other acoustic guitar sizes, parlor guitars have their necks joined at the 12th fret and the 14th fret. At first glance, this factor of where the neck meets the body may appear to only be a "playability" factor; for example, players who enjoy using the upper ranges of the guitar may lean towards the 14th fret model, since there's more accessibility reach there.
There's, however, another, possibly more important factor, to do with guitars being joined at the 12th, versus 14th fret. That is the sound of the guitar. Guitars joined at the 12th fret, and therefore having less "neck" at a further distance from the body (since it's joined closer than at the 14th fret) are typically thought to have a "warmer" or "mellower" sound. On the other hand, guitars joined at the 14th fret have a slightly "brighter" or "sharper" sound.
2. Wood Materials
Another important aspect to consider, as always for acoustic guitars, is the wood used for construction of the body. Different woods have noticeably different sounds, and this is best appreciated by visiting one's local guitar store, and comparing for example a guitar built with an all mahogany body, versus and all rosewood body. For instance, mahogany bodies can be characterized by their "woodier" sound, being very "thumpy" and pure. On the other hand, rosewood produces a much "brighter" or "shimmering" sound, with plenty of overtones "glowing" around the actual notes one strums, and this is perhaps due to it being a much denser wood.
With the wood used for the body being so crucial to the sound of the instrument, it's worth spending some time researching the body woods of the guitar you're looking for. Explore how others have characterized the sound of the wood, for example being more mellow or more bright.
As well, another wood materials factor is whether the wood is solid, or laminate. Laminate woods means many layers of separate woods pressed together; the lack of homogeneity is thought to inhibit the possibility for the guitar to properly resonate, therefore solid woods are usually more sought after and therefore more expensive.
3. Neck Type
For parlor guitars especially, the neck profile is important. Typically, for normal-sized guitars, "C" profile necks are most common, and almost taken for granted. However, since parlor guitars are often like Porsche Carreras, with many original designs preserved, sometimes "reissues" of parlor guitars today have "V" profile necks.
That means as you would expect, the neck, as you handle it with your fretting hand, actually has a jutting point of the neck which is that "V" profile. Many players may not like this older style of neck profile, so it's something to pay attention to if that is important.
4. Nut Width
A physical feature that often attracts players to parlor guitars is their (usually) larger nut width. Especially since acoustic parlor guitars are frequently used for fingerstyle guitar picking, the wider string spacing can make it easier to individually access the strings.
Also, for players with larger hands, parlor guitars remain playable. If a wider nut width is desired, then it's worth using that as a comparison between shortlisted instruments.
5. Fingerboard Material
For the sake of rounding out this list of specifications at the number "5", another factor is the fingerboard materials. Though, it's probably less important than the body material. The fingerboard wood (which is the layer wood on which the frets are pressed into) is almost always a very hard, dense material. That density allows fretted notes to ring out, undampened by a softer material, which produces a clearer sound.
That's why materials such as rosewood or ebony are often used for fingerboards; they're hard and dense. With that in mind, it's worth doing research into shortlisted parlor guitars based on their fingerboard material, ensuring the wood is sufficiently dense.
Finding the Best Parlor Guitar
Your hunt for the best parlor guitar may lead you on all sorts of offline and online rabbitholes. For example, perhaps you're actually interested in a true vintage parlor guitar, such as an old Washburn, Stella, or Harmony guitar. In that case, the criteria become different; are the frets still relatively playable (if not, would a $500 fret job be okay to tack on), is the neck bowing, is there any sagging or cracks on the body, and so on. The risks are greater, but many would say the rewards are as well.
To keep life simpler, there are great guitar builders today, many of whom probably create a much more structurally sound parlor guitar, than vintage mail-order guitars that you can find at auction. The benefit of knowing that the frets are in tact, the neck isn't bowing, and the body has no cracks helps to keep the blood pressure lower. Many fantastic parlor models are in circulation today, probably dozens of which aren't included here, however the following is a list of crowdsourced suggestions found on forums like Reddit and Youtube to get the search started.