Copyright © 2015 by Larry G. Overton
I posted last week about the guitars my Granddad and Dad had back in their early days. I’m still trying to find out as much as I can about those guitars, but I do know that both of them would be called parlor guitars by today’s standards. So for now let me talk briefly about parlor guitars.
It is a relatively easy task to pigeonhole certain guitars into the parlor category, but it’s a lot harder to actually define them. Different makes of guitars have differing standards for what they call a parlor guitar. So, what makes a parlor guitar a parlor?
Though the name “parlor guitar” is actually a more recent designation, it derived from the trends of the 19th century. These guitars were generally played in…wait for it…the parlor (or parlour if you are from the UK or Canada). They were used in the playing of the parlor music of the mid to late 19th century and beyond.
Generally speaking, parlor guitars were made with a smaller body, with the neck joined to the body at the 12th fret. There were and are a variety of instrument companies that made and/or are making parlor guitars, and their dimensions vary. Since C. F. Martin was one of the first, if not the first, American company to make what we now call parlor guitars, going by their standards is a good gauge for what a parlor guitar is like.
But Martin didn’t use the term “parlor” guitars. Their “size 1” was their “standard” guitar made in the 1840s. It had 12 frets to the body and a width at the lower bout of 12 1/2″ or even a tad less. Martin introduced their 0 size guitars in the early 1850s, designed for “concert” use. The overall length of the two guitars was pretty much the same, and both had 12 frets to the body. The main difference was that Martin’s 0 sized guitars had a lower bout that measured–and still measures–13 1/2″, about an inch wider than the size 1.
There were other makers of parlor sized guitars. In the late 19th century (and into the 20th) companies like George Bauer of S. S. Stewart & Bauer, Washburn, a division of stringed instrument makers Lyon & Healy, were major players (pun intended). Other companies, some with their origins in the late 19th century but primarily in operation in the 20th, include names like Regal, Harmony, Kay, etc.
The parlor size guitar has been making a comeback in recent years, being favored by fingerstyle and acoustic blues players. Of the guitar manufacturers mentioned above, only Martin and Washburn are still in business and making parlor guitars.
And Martin still doesn’t use the term parlor. Their 0 size body they currently describe on their website as “petite,” and as “the smallest full size body we offer.” They do have a smaller guitar called the “Little Martin.” They describe it as a “Modified 0″ size, and the body width at the lower bout measures 12″ and a body depth of 3”, which is about the size of their 1840s “standard.”
As for Washburn guitars, they have continued to make guitars, and they have embraced the term parlor. Washburn has a dozen parlor models listed on their website; some are reproductions of the models they offered 100 years ago, others with more modern appointments. Some are strictly acoustic guitars, others are acoustic/electric.
In closing this article, let me provide another visual. I currently own one parlor sized guitar. It is my Wechter NV-5413E, and is pictured here beside my Hohner G-940 dreadnaught sized guitar to give a point of reference. I plan to write more on my individual guitars in future articles, so for now I’ll only provide specs of these two, again to give reference points for comparison.
The Hohner is a dreadnaught, a size and shape that has been an industry standard for decades. It measures at its widest point on the lower bout at 15 7/8″, and measures 5″ deep at the tail end of the lower bout, by the end pin/strap button. The Wechter parlor size guitar is just 13 11/16″ wide and just 3 7/8″ deep.