With an enormous spectrum to its definition as time and culture have evolved, a parlor guitar's only imposed description is that of a relatively compact and narrow six-string guitar.
Simply put, it's a very portable and comfortable instrument, preferred for its convenient size and distinctive sound.
In this post, we’re breaking down a few key aspects, history, and overall virtues (such as being great for travel) that parlor guitars have to offer.
Parlor guitars derive their name from the places they'd be played in during the 19th century, referring to the reception halls and small rooms that would fit these narrow-bodied instruments' natural amplification. Typically, these were designed for the wealthy to entertain guests during social gatherings.
Manufacturers built these types of six-strings to fit women like a glove. Given their smaller bodies, parlor guitars would provide a comfortable option for ladies to fit the smaller instrument on their lap easily. Additionally, these have always sported smaller, more comfortable necks, translating into more accessible reach for the frets.
Soon enough, they became a part of the folk sound that washed over the United States during the 1950s. Why? Well, the reason was both their top-notch sound and a middle finger to upper classes.
These small-bodied guitars became the blueprint for the bulkier acoustic offspring of dreadnought acoustics. Needless to say, many musicians would start migrating to the perfected volume and design of dreadnought guitars.
Nevertheless, history decided that the word parlor would simply refer to compact, narrow bodies, usually even a bit smaller than Martin's single 0 sizes. The latter, however, has been regarded as the final evolution of this type of instrument for some time now.
With a brief historical introduction, it's worth answering a common question for those unfamiliar with the term "parlor guitar".
Just like any other six-string, you'll find common tonewoods in their build. Solid spruce, rosewood, and mahogany are the top three choices for parlor guitars.
Up-and-coming brands, however, have dived deeper into the idea of a smaller scale guitar. Some brands even presented their own reinvented version of the parlor, made out of carbon fiber to endure weather shifts and to provide a truly enduring instrument.
This is perhaps the easiest way to identify one of these guitars. Usually smaller than a concert guitar and with an elongated body, it is an attempt to amplify volume without expressly sacrificing the vertical size of the instrument.
Parlor guitars vary widely in their scale length, so it's a tough call to impose one in particular. Still, the vintage parlor guitar would have the neck joining the body at the 12th fret, with a 24' scale length.
As for their neck, both vintage and modern renditions usually feature a "U" shape. Mainly this is made to save up some space and keep things on a smaller scale than the average larger acoustic guitar.
With folk giants Bob Dylan and Joan Baez wielding parlor guitars during the height of their career, many aspiring musicians from the time decided to follow in their footsteps. This would inspire many brands to keep the tradition and sound of the parlor guitar alive.
The early 2000s saw the parlor guitar renaissance due to players seeking their midrange tone, vintage vibe, and travel-friendly size.
Not long ago, at the 2015 Winter NAMM Show in California, local manufacturer Santa Cruz Guitar Co. stole the show with their modern take on their "Little Parlor Guitar". This isn't the only major manufacturer diving into the marke. Gretsch also recently released its own G9515 Jim Dandy Flat Top model to its Roots Collection.
C F Martin Guitar Co. is yet another manufacturer that has been keen on promoting the best of the antique parlor guitar with both modern and vintage cosmetics. Their prolific partnership with Ed Sheeran and his X series has stolen the beginner acoustic market for some time now.
Many artists covering a lot of genres do. From its roots in folk sound to Bob Dylan, who was a catalyst that propelled the commercial success of the parlor guitar, as we mentioned before.
Robert Johnson, as mysterious as he may be, is known to have played and recorded with a Gibson L-1, and a Kalamazoo KG14. So, one may argue that Rock music as we know it was sparked by this pair of parlor models.
In recent years, songwriters have taken to this instrument as a songwriting and performance tool. For example, Ed Sheeran and his signature Little Martin lines, Taylor Swift with her Baby Taylor models, and even John Mayer, who moved from dreadnoughts and OMs.
What Size Is a Parlor Guitar?
Modern times have no particular measurement for this acoustic guitar style. Typically, however, these sport smaller than 13.5-inch bouts, making for a longer, more narrow instrument than a concert guitar or steel-string dreadnaught.
Companies such as Taylor, Martin, and Gretsch present these as fun to play instruments capable of a superb and all-rounder tone at a much more affordable price. Noting that parlor’s make for excellent tone accuracy, many started to develop their take on the smaller forebear.
They've also been reinvented as travel, small-bodied guitars. All of these features come with contemporary tonewoods built to last and to sport traditional-looking appointments. From solid mahogany to Sitka spruce and the exotic Brazilian rosewood, the market has never been so vast for this small music vessel.
Nevertheless, one has to consider that the modern parlor guitar spectrum is pretty wide. Some manufacturers and luthiers have reinvented the looks to fit the present enthusiast. Many times, you can find nylon string as well as steel string parlor guitars, as manufacturers take to it in a broader fashion, they want to assure that all preferences are covered.
These companies have a straightforward approach to the instrument. It basically consists of adapting the parlor guitar's comfortable size to a modern sound and instrument and in terms of amplification, they often include microphones and pickup systems, making for a modern parlor electro-acoustic.
For manufacturers, the market started to value sound quality over volume, not to mention the amenable size and playability. As a result, these are now a great alternative to a regular guitar.
Their smaller, compact size.
Parlor guitars are great companions for the traveling guitar player. Additionally, their comfortable neck makes a great pair for small hands, beginners, and fingerstyle players alike.
In terms of tone and sound, parlors are designed to define with truer accuracy without much finger strength needed from the player.
Due to their smaller bodies, these guitars round up the tones to emphasize mids without sacrificing much low or treble frequency response. This is why historically, these guitars are a perfect fit for blues, folk, bluegrass, and country.
Before deciding whether you should get a small guitar or a regular-sized one, you should consider what your intentions are with the instrument. The biggest pro in favor of parlor guitars is their portability in relation to their tone quality, typically 15% smaller than your regular six-string.
However, many people tend to favor Full-size guitars due to their rich tones and traditional presence, but this is where the sound technicalities come in.
When recording, traditionally sized acoustics tend to be troublesome when mixing, mainly because of their rich tone that typically highlights lower notes. Parlor guitars, as aforementioned, have a mid-focused sound and it simply cuts through better when recording. This is any beginner engineer's dream.
As for playability, the travel guitar, as some may dub it, has been designed to be played by anyone, from large and small hands to beginners and professionals.
Classical guitars in contrast tend to require a little extra effort for you to get to a sweet spot around the neck. Not that there's anything wrong with effort, but all sorts of players will praise swift playability from the bat.
Now that we’ve answered, “what is a parlor guitar?” you’ll need to learn how to play. Check out our online lesson platform reviews to find one that suits you.