5 Best Parlor Guitars: Great Sound in a Small Package
By Mason Hoberg
The weapon of choice for finger-style guitar players the world over, parlor guitars show that great things really do come in small packages. Parlor guitars have a couple of really specific uses, making them an invaluable addition to any musician’s rig.
The question is: Which parlor guitar is right for you? Well, if you’re not sure how to choose the best parlor guitar for your needs you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you all the information that you need to make in an informed purchase, as will as give you five great recommendations to help aid you in your search!
- What Is A Parlor Guitar?
- What Should I Look For In A Parlor Guitar?
- The Top 5 Parlor Guitars
What Is A Parlor Guitar?
While there’s no set rule on what is and isn’t a parlor guitar, generally anything smaller than a Martin OO (which features a 14” lower bout) is considered a parlor guitar. Of course some people are going to have a different set of qualifications as to what is and isn’t a “true” parlor guitar, but it really is a matter of debate.
Going by the most widely accepted definition, a parlor guitar is a small bodied guitar with relatively streamlined bouts (the curves of the guitar). This elongated body type actually came about as an attempt to increase the volume of the instrument while keeping it as close as possible to the diminutive dimensions that were preferred at the time. For an example of the body shape check out the Recording King RPH-P1.
A parlor guitar really only has one advantage over the larger members of the guitar family. A lot of musicians don’t really know this, but smaller bodied acoustic instruments require a lot less force to play. This is why finger-style musicians generally gravitate towards smaller instruments. For example; a dreadnought has a much larger capability for volume but it also requires more energy to resonate effectively. This is less of an issue if you use finger picks, but if you use the flesh of your fingers to play it can be difficult to get enough power to reach an acceptable level of both tone and volume. Don’t get us wrong, it can definitely be done. There are tons of examples of finger pickers who sound great on a bigger instrument, it’s just more difficult to do so.
Also, parlor guitars are actually pretty great for flatpicking in a recording session for a similar reason. Think of acoustic guitars like a tube amp, you have to have enough volume going through both if you want to get the best sound possible. You can actually try this yourself if you have an acoustic guitar on hand. Strike a really soft note, then compare that to the tone you get when you pick as you normally would. You should notice not only a difference in volume, but a difference in the frequency response as well.
Parlor guitars are so small that it’s incredibly easy to always get the optimal tone when using a pick. This can actually be a bit of an issue with larger guitars for more complicated techniques or passages.
What Should I Look For In A Parlor Guitar?
Like every acoustic instrument, make sure you get a parlor guitar that’s made from solid wood if you can. A solid wood instrument will sound miles better than a laminate one in almost every circumstance. Thankfully, it’s really simple to tell whether or not an instrument is made from solid wood when you’re shopping through an online retailer. If the specifications list “solid wood, or solid top, back, or sides,” then it is a solid wood instrument. However, if they don’t specifically say solid wood then they’re made out of laminate. So be wary of that and always make sure that you read the specs of any instrument you’re considering purchasing very carefully.
Apart from that, buying a parlor guitar is just like buying any other acoustic guitar. Check for any warping in the neck or top, make sure that every note on the neck frets cleanly without any buzz, and check for signs of damage like cracks or any sort of rattling noise.
When you’re looking for a parlor guitar odds are you’re going to run across a few that have a different headstock than what you’d typically see on a larger body guitar. This type of headstock is called “a slotted headstock” because the strings fit into bars that are mounted in slots on the headstock. There’s some debate as to whether or not this affects the tone of the instrument, but if it does it’s not by an overly significant amount. For visual reference of a slotted headstock check out the Washburn WP55NS.
Top 5 Parlor Guitars
As always, the recommendations on our articles are intended to be applicable to as many of you as possible. Keep in mind that the best option for you may not be the best option for your peers, and vice versa. If you’re still unsure how to choose the best parlor guitar for your needs, you’re in luck! The five recommendations below are all great buys, and if you pick one up you definitely won’t be sorry.
Gretsch Jim Dandy
Though Gretsch may not have the lustrous of Gibson or Fender, you would be hard pressed to say that they haven’t had a transformative effect on the music industry in their own right. The company has produced some of the most iconic instruments ever, such as their innovative line of electric guitars wielded by everyone from Chet Atkins to Jack White.
Something many people don’t know about Gretsch is that they also produced a wide array of instruments aside from their electric guitars, including: banjos, mandolins, banjolins, archtop guitars, drums, and acoustic guitars. A lot of these instrument lines have been revitalized in recent years due to the boom of Americana based genres. They’ve received a lot of critical acclaim, which is fitting considering Gretsch’s legacy.
Though it’s not a reissue of a previous line, the Gretsch Jim Dandy has carved out a niche as a solid entry-level parlor guitar with a great vintage voicing. The first thing to note about this guitar is that it’s made entirely from laminate agathis, which while it does have pleasing tonal characteristics it’s not the most desirable tonewood around. The main reason for this is that agathist has a tendency to show green streaks, which is why the Jim Dandy has a relatively thick finish.
The guitar is 12-frets to the body, with 18 frets in general. This gives the guitar a shorter scale, which while that does lessen the high-end response it does increase its warmth somewhat. The neck shape is a pleasing “C” shape, which should feel pretty familiar to the majority of guitar players. The nut width is also pretty modern, which while that may not be ideal for those of you who are looking to pick up the guitar for finger picking applications it does mean that musicians who have smaller hands and/or are just looking for a solid travel guitar will feel right at home playing this instrument.
The Jim Dandy does come with a truss rod, which for a guitar at this price point isn’t necessarily a given. The position inlays are pearloid dot, which serves its purpose well. The guitar also ships with vintage style frets, which while smaller than modern style frets aren’t dramatically different from what you’d find on any other instrument.
The main advantage of the Jim Dandy over similarly priced parlor guitars is that it’s a bit warmer, which is definitely going to be pleasing for those of you coming from a dreadnought background. With that being said, the guitar doesn’t have the mid-range honk of Recording King’s similarly priced parlor guitar. However, it is more versatile overall. Also, this guitar doesn’t have a ton of volume on hand. This is to be expected from a parlor guitar in this price range, but it’s still something you should know beforehand.
There’s nothing about this guitar to suggest that it’s going to be any more prone to structural defects than any other mass produced instrument. Because of the price point you’re probably going to have to invest in a set-up, but considering the price of the guitar that’s not unreasonable.
The Gretsch Jim Dandy offers a great value for the musician looking for a structurally sound parlor guitar with a vintage voicing.
Recording Kind RPH-05 Parlor Guitar
Recording King is arguably one of the most interesting manufacturers of musical instruments currently on the market. The company actually started as a house brand for Montgomery Ward in the 1930s, and some of these early instruments were thought to be on par with some of the most classic instruments ever (such as their 1939 jumbo model, which was considered to be just as capable an instrument as the Gibson Advanced Jumbo).
The brand was discontinued in 1939, but in 2007 was relaunched by Johnson Guitars. The company’s current lineup is a throwback to the pre-war designs of their heyday, and many of these instruments are the only affordable option for musicians on the hunt for a vintage voiced instrument that isn’t plagued by the issues common to the originals.
A perfect example of the company’s ethos, the Recording King RPH-05 Parlor Guitar is a modern day successor the parlor guitars wielded by early acoustic blues musicians.
The first thing to note about this guitar is that it’s intended to fulfill a very particular purpose. This guitar is meant to be a blues machine, and an affordable one at that. It has the honky sound exclusive to the genre, and doesn’t have the wider more mild tone of instruments today. While we’re going to get into the tone in more detail below, keep in mind that this guitar isn’t as versatile as other parlor guitars.
The Recording King RPH-05 features a solid spruce top and white wood back and sides. While white wood isn’t as desirable as other tonewoods it’s no less durable. The wood is also covered by the finish, so it’s not going to impact the overall appearance much either. The guitar is available in both a sunburst and black finish, both of which are satin based (less glossy than other finishes).
The guitar has forward x-bracing and the bridge and fretboard are both made form rosewood, which while that isn’t a very notable inclusion it is nice to see at this price point.
The tone of the Recording King RPH-05 isn’t really all that much to write home about, unless you’re using it to play blues. It’s thin, and it’s really not all that loud. However, if you are using it to play blues we can confidently say that you’re not going to find anything that accurately captures this sound without spending many times more than the cost of this guitar. It’s perfectly voiced for playing blues, and with the proper technique and strings is arguably the best guitar on the market for fulfilling this purpose.
The Recording King RPH-05 Parlor Guitar is the best guitar on the market for capturing the tone exclusive to early acoustic blues recordings.
Art & Lutherie Ami
A subsidiary of Godin (founded in 1972 by Robert Godin of La Patrie, Quebec), Art and Lutherie is arguably one of the most innovate manufacturers of budget acoustic guitars in the world. The company made its name on manufacturing instruments that utilize native Canadian woods, and surprisingly for this price point the instruments are also made in the company’s native Canada.
The company’s mission is to introduce quality hand-craftsmanship into instruments that any musician can afford, utilizing local labor and experienced employees in order to realize their goal. This gives the guitars a level of quality that’s incredibly surprising for their price point, and results in an instrument with an excellent level of attention to detail. Without any doubt, the Art & Lutherie Ami Cedar Antique Burst Acoustic Guitar is a quality instrument.
The most important thing to know about this instrument is that it’s intended to be a mid-level guitar, suitable for both more advanced musicians and those who are just getting their start. It’s very affordable, and it’s well-appointed for its price range.
The back and sides are made from a laminated wild cherry, and the top is solid cedar. This is an interesting pairing of tonewoods. We’ll get into the specifics of the sound later, but while the woods utilized aren’t the most traditional they aren’t objectively worse than traditional pairings like spruce and mahogany or spruce and rosewood.
The neck is made from silver leaf maple, which is prized for its strength and durability. The fingerboard and bridge are both made from rosewood, which while that’s pretty standard is a great inclusion none the less. For the price point, this guitar obviously comes with a truss rod. It’s a standard inclusion for just about any guitar on the market (with the exception of most classical guitars), so it would be pretty shocking if it wasn’t included here. The guitar also comes with a compensated saddle, which helps to ensure accurate intonation up and down the neck.
Unfortunately, the guitar does not ship with a case from most retailers. However, considering the price that isn’t too unreasonable. It is inconvenient that you’ll have to purchase an aftermarket case, but it’s not uncommon in this price range. The guitar does ship with a gig bag though, so at least you’ll have some protection for your instrument until you can purchase a case.
For the price, this is really an extraordinary sounding instrument. The tone is very deep and resonant for a parlor guitar, a body style that typically suffers from sounding “boxy”. It doesn’t have the volume or boomy bass response of a dreadnought, but that’s more a defining trait of parlor guitars rather than a flaw. Parlor guitars will always have a more focused tone than a comparable dreadnought, and the tradeoff to that is that they don’t have as much volume or low end response.
Compared to other parlor guitars, the Ami is a bit darker voiced. The guitar has a mellow tone, well suited to accompanying vocals or working in a small ensemble setting. It doesn’t have the mid-range honk of a spruce topped instrument, so it’s not going to be as good of a fit for acoustic blues (a genre commonly played on this instrument).
The great thing about every company that’s involved with Godin is that they all come with a level of quality control vastly superior to similarly priced instruments. The company prides itself on this, and it really shows. You may still need to invest in a set-up depending on the seller, but unlike other instruments in this price range it’s not a given. And of course this instrument is also going to hold up to regular playing and practice, so should you choose to purchase it you won’t have to worry about running into any issues for years (provided that you take adequate care of it).
The Art & Lutherie Ami Cedar Antique Burst Acoustic Guitar provides an excellent value to any musician looking for a mellow sounding parlor guitar.
Though the company is known for its electric guitars, Fender has actually produced a wide variety of instruments. They produced the venerable Malibu and Villager, and they even made a few banjos (a line which has recently been revitalized).
Their recent acoustic guitars have also been making waves. Fender’s entry level acoustic instruments are arguably one of the best values on the market, and for those of you who require a more refined tone they’ve recently introduced the Fender Paramount Series (these are made from all solid woods, and have received rave reviews on a wide variety of different online storefronts and websites that review instruments).
A great example of the company’s dedication to producing instruments that any musician can afford, the Fender CP-100 offers a great value for your money. To learn more about how this guitar stacks up against its competition be sure to read the specifications below.
The key thing to note about this instrument is that it fills a similar niche to that of cheaper Epiphones. It’s built like a tank, which makes it perfect for musicians intending to use it as a travel guitar and for beginners who don’t really know how to care for an instrument. While we’re going to get into the tone of the instrument in the next section, the design does somewhat limit the tonal capabilities of the guitar.
The CP-100 is made from laminate woods, with a laminated spruce top and laminated back and sides. Laminate woods are actually one of the better choices for travel instruments, because laminate is very resistant to changes in temperature and humidity. Laminate wood generally do not have the tonal breadth of solid wood, so when compared to a solid wood instrument this guitar has less volume and a weaker response across the entire frequency range. However, it will serve a beginner really well. The size is more manageable for musicians of smaller stature, which is an important thing to consider if you’re looking to get your kid into playing guitar. It also helps to boost its utility as a travel guitar, because it’s small enough to be easily transportable.
The guitar has a dual action truss rod, which while this is a pretty standard feature there are companies who omit its inclusion at this price point. For those of you who weren’t already aware, a truss rod allows you to adjust the relief of your guitar’s neck. This is a very important feature, because if you don’t have a truss rod and your neck happens to bend you’re pretty much going to be out of luck.
The guitar also comes with a compensated saddle, which helps to reduce intonation issues. The CP-100 also features scalloped X-bracing (scalloped bracing helps to increase the flexibility of a guitar’s top, which increases its resonance and volume), open-geared tuners, a 20-fret rosewood fingerboard, and a satin finish.
As far as quality is concerned, there aren’t really any reports of the guitar not functioning as advertised. According to all reviews it holds up very well to the stress of regular play and practice, which a lot of guitars in this price range are unable to do. The durability is also enhanced by the laminate construction.
Surprisingly for the price range, the tuners are actually one of the stronger points of the instrument. The action of the tuners is very smooth and they manage to hold they’re tuning very well so long as you properly string your instrument.
The Fender CP-100 is a great choice for beginner musicians or those looking for an affordable and durable travel guitar.
Alvarez AP70 Parlor Guitar
As a brand, Alvarez is relatively unknown. The company hasn’t received the widespread notoriety of other companies who produce instruments in this price range, which is dreadfully unfair because they’ve arguably been producing some of the best mid-level instruments around.
The company is Yairi’s equivalent to Epiphone, adopting the designs and approaches famous to Yairi and marketing them at a more affordable price point. Yairi is one of Asia’s premier manufacturers of musical instruments, having proved themselves to easily be on par with the likes of Eastman and Guild.
The most notable line of Alvarez guitars is the Artist series, which is an attempt to bring the playability of high-end instruments to a price point that’s more reasonable for the majority of musicians. The guitars are generally made from a solid-top with laminate back and sides, but in general they’re considered to be incredibly impressive sounding instruments for the price. A perfect example of the Artist series, the Alvarez Artist Series AP70 Parlor Guitar is just as solid a buy as any other guitar in the price range.
The most notable feature of this instrument is that it has a slotted headstock. A slotted headstock has a noticeable effect on the tone of an instrument, significantly improving both its resonance and sustain. It’s the equivalent of a set-neck in an electric guitar.
The AP70 features a solid spruce top with laminated rosewood back and sides. We’re going to get into the tone of the instrument in the section below, but suffice it to say that the combination of these tonewoods and the body style results in an instrument with a clear and strident voice with a great frequency response for a parlor guitar.
Another notable feature of the guitar is the bridge, which helps to increase both volume and sustain by utilizing a unique design. It’s not the most traditional design, but it doesn’t stop the guitar from having the capability of producing an authentic vintage style tone.
Lastly, this guitar does come with electronics if you’re willing to shell out a bit more cash. Alvarez’s electronics have been well received, cited as having a natural and organic tone. The guitar is not advertised to ship with a case, though it may from some retailers depending on where you chose to purchase the instrument.
The AP70 has a bold and dynamic tone, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what you intend to use this instrument for. If you plan on playing blues exclusively the Recording King may actually be a better choice, even though the line does have quality control issues. However, if you plan on playing a wider variety of music the AP70 is hands down the better instrument. It’s capable of approximating a vintage tone depending on your playing style, but it’s also capable of sounding good in other genres that are primarily finger picked.
The general consensus of reviews across a variety of platforms is that the AP70 is an articulate instrument. That’s the main thing every reviewer agrees on, the due to the body style and woods utilized the guitar retains a clear voice under the vast majority of circumstances. The guitar is also considered to have a substantial amount of volume on hand for the body style.
The overall quality of the instrument is highly regarded, but many musicians cite poor nut work. While this is unfortunate, it does happen. Nut work tends to be the downfall of most budget or mid-level instruments, so if you choose to purchase this guitar you may want to put aside another $30 or $40 to invest into a set-up at your local guitar store or with a local luthier.
The Alvarez Artist Series AP70 Parlor Guitar is an incredibly articulate sounding instrument with a pleasing tone.