Everything You Need to Know About the Parlor Guitar

parlor guitar

Everything You Need to Know About the Parlor Guitar

What is a Parlor Guitar?

best parlor guitarYou’ve probably heard the term before, but exactly what is a parlor guitar?

In this article, you’ll learn that they’re small guitars. And they’re cool. They can produce surprisingly high-quality sound. And there’s a lot more of ’em out there than you think.

You’ll also find a Buyer’s Guide section, where I take a look at 10 of the most interesting parlor guitars on the market today.

Choose a topic in the box below if you want to skip down to a particular section, or just continue on reading the article.

Size and Shape

The term “parlor guitar” has been used by many different people to describe many different guitars, but the basic definition is a small-bodied acoustic guitar, smaller than a size No. 0 concert model, often with a short scale length and nearly equal-width upper and lower bouts (known as the peanut shape).

Parlor guitars were the most popular and widely available type of guitar from the late 19th Century through the 1950s and into the early ’60s.

The neck often meets the body at the 12th fret, and they usually have a nut width of around 1.75”.

vintage parlor guitars

Many vintage parlor guitars were made in America by the Washburn and Martin guitar manufacturers.

The parlor guitar has experienced a renaissance in the 2000s, as many people have become intrigued by their tone, portability, and cool historic vibe.

They have long been popular with women and children along with beginner guitarists, as the smaller size and weight makes them easier to hold and play, and also easy to bring along to the beach or the campfire.

Technically speaking, the term “parlor guitar” should probably refer specifically to vintage guitars produced prior to the 1950s.

However, many modern guitar companies are producing new parlor models due to increased interest in these unique instruments, small guitars have always come in different shapes and sizes, there’s the “travel guitar”, which often refers to the same thing, and …

… well, it can all get a bit confusing.

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A Brief History Lesson

Some quick history…

In the past, Parlor guitars provided a cheap and easy way for people to create and play music, as they were more affordable than larger guitars, and certainly cheaper than buying a piano. They were often played by blues and folk musicians, and also used during live performances of waltz and polka music.

They got their name because people often used them to entertain houseguests in the “parlor” room of their homes.

parlor guitars

The smallest guitar today would have been one of the biggest available until around 1870. Parlor guitars are generally considered to be a bridge between the classical guitar and the larger modern steel-string acoustic dreadnought.

They were not made to be cheap throwaway guitars.

These days, they are built to sound good for pretty much any style of music.

And through clever design, they produce a precise, high-quality sound despite the smaller body.

And that certainly does make them a good beginner guitar.

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Cool Facts

Parlor guitars received some notoriety in 2013 when astronaut Chris Hadfield played David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ in zero gravity on the International Space Station, using a Larrivee parlor guitar (a P-01 replica).

Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and Steve Howe (Yes) are well known for using parlor guitars frequently in their music. Other people often associated with them include the legendary Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan, folk singer Joan Baez, country artist Marty Robbins, and composer Mark Orton.

grey-cat-1262684_640Parlor guitars were initially played using catgut strings in the 1800s. You’ll be relieved to hear that these strings were not actually made from cat parts. However, you will now immediately be horrified to hear that they were often made using horse or sheep intestines instead (and sometimes other animals).

As manufacturing techniques improved, nylon and steel became the mainstream material used for the production of guitar strings.

It’s easy to understand why steel strings became quite popular in the early 1900s. They produced a louder sound, and more importantly, they weren’t made from animal intestines!

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Features and Sound

In addition to their size and look, parlor guitars also have a unique tone. They’re good for songwriting because they generally have a nice balanced sound between the bass and treble strings.

They are universally considered excellent for fingerpicking and plucking.

When it comes to strumming, your mileage may vary. Each parlor guitar has a different sound depending on its design, along with the style of music being played, the strings used, and of course, the skill of the player.

They have long been used to play blues, jazz, country and bluegrass music.

The term parlor guitar is sometimes associated with 00 guitars that have 14 vintage parlor guitar frets to the body, often referred to as parlor-style guitars. Generally, the 12-fret models sound a little smoother, whereas the longer 14-fret options have a little more punch. People sometimes also use the term to refer to OM (Orchestra Model) and OMG (Orchestra Model Grand) guitars, which provide a little stronger bass response and acoustic volume for live performances.

Parlor guitars can sound surprisingly good, but are definitely quieter than the dreadnought acoustic guitars you’re likely more familiar with.

If you’re concerned about a potential lack of volume, note that you can find acoustic-electric versions with a pickup, so that you can play acoustically when you’re entertaining guests in your “parlor”, and amp up whenever you need a little more volume.

The pickup may not provide enough volume boost by itself (especially when it comes to the bass), so make sure it includes a quality preamp. Some models include a built-in tuner as well.

Style and Build

Parlor guitars can be made from a wide variety of tonewoods, although the most popular wood of choice has long been solid Sitka spruce. Modern parlor guitars are made using cedar, mahogany and koa, and many other types of wood.

 parlor guitarThe Fylde Guitar company actually produces the ‘Single Malt Ariel’ parlor guitar out of used whisky casks.

One of the reasons the larger dreadnought style of acoustic took off in the 1950s was because of volume. These larger guitars simply projected better, which was helpful for live performances and anyone in search of added volume.

Despite the dreadnought’s dominance, there are still many small guitars available today, including half-size, three-quarter size, mini and baby guitars, etc.

The parlor guitar is often confused with the travel guitar, though there is a slight difference in size and functionality between the two.

Generally speaking, a travel guitar can come in many shapes and sizes, and is a blanket term used to describe any small guitar that you can easily transport, whereas parlor guitars have a more defined set of characteristics. However, these terms have basically become interchangeable.

Like most acoustic guitars, you want to choose a model with a solid wood top whenever possible to ensure higher-quality sound.

If you plan to do a lot of fingerpicking, you may want to choose a solid cedar top for a richer plucked-string sound.

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PARLOR GUITAR BUYERS GUIDE

There are a surprising number of high-quality parlor guitars on the market right now, but I’ve narrowed it down to a list of 10 excellent parlor guitars in varying styles and price ranges.

Alvarez AP70

The Alvarez AP70 parlor guitar is part of the Alvarez Guitars Artist Series, where all components are carefully designed and crafted to blend together for maximum quality and tone.

Alvarez AP70 – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

The AP70 was designed as a true representation of what a modern-day acoustic parlor guitar should be.

Using a traditional size and structure including 12 frets to the body and 1.75” nut width, it’s made with hand selected quality wood, using a solid Sitka spruce top, and laminate rosewood back and sides for added warmth. The tops are finely grained, enabling them to be cut just a little bit thinner, adding extra vibration and a richer tone.

This guitar’s vintage style, comfortable shape and open headstock provide a cool look, and they are just plain fun to play, with balanced tone and good projection. They’re slightly lacking in bass (an issue you’ll find with most parlor guitars, due to their size), but the mid-range is nice and rich.

There’s really not much else to critique here. This is simply an outstanding sound, look and build quality for this price range.

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Seagull Coastline Grand

Seagull Coastline Grand – Click Pic to Check Price

The Seagull Coastline Grand parlor is a pretty guitar with a semi-gloss finish, and is crafted with Seagull’s renowned attention to detail for quality construction. It has a nut width of 1.72”, but defies parlor guitar convention by using 14 frets to the body.

It’s got a select pressure-tested solid cedar top with a compound curve, using 3-layer laminated wild cherry wood for the back and sides. The neck is made of silver leaf maple, and it has a rosewood fingerboard and bridge.

Like most parlor guitars, it sounds better for fingerpicking than strumming, and projects well with surprising volume and quality tone.

It’s got a balanced, mellow sound, with average bass. You can improve the sound quality slightly by changing over to silk and steel strings.

Overall, this is a classy, comfortable, high-quality parlor guitar.

(If you’re in the market for a great sounding acoustic dreadnought guitar, check out our Seagull S6 review.)

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Breedlove Passport Parlor

The Breedlove Passport Parlor Satin Mahogany model is a really sweet guitar. It’s also got 12 frets to the body, but a slightly smaller nut width of 1.69”.

Breedlove Passport Parlor – Click Pic to Check Price

It’s made with a solid mahogany top, and laminate mahogany back and sides.

It’s got a nice, intimate feel and tone, with balanced sound, good projection and outstanding build quality.

It can be pretty forgiving for mistakes as well.

And that mahogany finish looks great.

The action can sometimes be a little high out of the box (although this is unpredictable), and it’s a little heavier than some other parlor guitar models.

The Passport Parlor is an acoustic-electric guitar that uses a Fishman USB-compatible pickup, along with a tuner and preamp. While it can be a little thin on the low end when used acoustically, the amp is great and the electric sound shines, including improved bass and mid-range response for a big, clear sound.

It comes with a free gig bag as well.

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Washburn R320SWRK

The Washburn r320swrk is part of the Washburn Vintage Series, and simply looks gorgeous.

It’s the first model on our list to feature an all solid wood build.

Washburn R320SWRK – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

It’s got a solid spruce top and solid rosewood back and sides, along with a mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard and bridge, and bone nut and saddle.

The Washburn R320SWRK has a cool open headstock design and is light as a feather, featuring the standard parlor setup of 12 frets to the body, though it does use a slightly wider nut than some other parlor models (1.89”).

It’s got some scratches and imperfections build right into the design to achieve that “old” vintage look of Washburn guitars that were crafted in the late 19th & early 20th Centuries. However, rest assured that Washburn’s Vintage Series guitars were built using modern techniques and materials, so you still receive the benefit of Washburn’s attention to detail for quality design and build.

It’s not a loud guitar, but it’s got a fantastic tone and is pretty easy to play, staying in tune all the way up the neck. It’s got a bit of a funky sound, great for fingerpickers who love playing the blues or slide guitar. It’s also good for strumming.

If you’re into the blues, enjoy fingerpicking and dig that vintage look, get ready to fall in love.

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Taylor GS Mini-e

There have been a number of different Taylor parlor guitar models over the years, but they haven’t released a new one for a while, and as a result, they’re a little hard to find. So we’re going to cheat a little here with the Taylor GS Mini-e. Consider this one more of a “parlor-style” guitar.

Taylor GS Mini-e – Click Pic to Check Price

Smaller than the Taylor Big Baby, it’s basically a shrunken-down version of a Taylor Grand Symphony body shape, and while similar in overall size, side-steps conventional parlor guitar specs with 14 frets to the neck and a smaller nut width of 1.69”.

It has a solid Sitka spruce top, with layered rosewood back and sides, ebony fretboard and sapele neck. It’s great for songwriting and live performances.

Call it a 3/4 guitar, a travel guitar, or a couch guitar, the name doesn’t really matter once you hear how it sounds. Taylor does offer an acoustic-only GS Mini as well, and it’s definitely a quality guitar. But the mini-e includes Taylor’s Expression System 2 pickup with onboard volume and tone control knobs.

Once you plug it in, it comes alive with a grown-up guitar voice and “that Taylor tone”.

The electronics used provide excellent projection and smooth as silk waves of sound.

Note: Taylor also offers the Mini-e in mahogany and koa editions, in addition to the spruce version featured here. They also offer the acoustic-only GS Mini in mahogany.

(If you’re interested in a really cool full-size acoustic-electric Taylor guitar, you can also read our Taylor 110e review here.)

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Simon and Patrick Woodland Pro Parlor

Next up on the list is a parlor guitar made by a company you may not have heard much about, but the Simon and Patrick Woodland Pro Parlor is a really great guitar.

Simon & Patrick Woodland Pro – Click Pic to Check Price

Simon and Patrick is a subsidiary of Godin Guitars, and they’re crafted in Canada by people who clearly have a passion for building guitars.

The Pro Parlor has the size and shape of a traditional parlor, with 12 frets to the body and a 1.72” nut width. It’s made with a select pressure-tested solid spruce top, and solid mahogany back and sides, along with a rosewood fingerboard and bridge. It also includes a Tusq nut & saddle by Graphtech, and a high-gloss Custom Polished finish.

Simply put, this guitar looks and sounds great, with an excellent mid-range and high end, and a lot of sustain. The tone is crisp and clear, and it really projects a full sound.

In fact, it’s hard to believe this kind of sound can come out of a guitar this small, but it can hold its own against a lot of dreadnoughts for volume and clarity.

Like most parlor guitars, fingerpicking sounds great but where this model really impresses is the sound of the strumming. Some parlor’s have a flat, “boxy” sound, but the best way to describe the Woodland Pro is “big sound”.

A lovely guitar.

(Note: Simon and Patrick also offers an acoustic-electric version of this model with built-in electronics if you need it.)

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Blueridge BR-341

The Blueridge BR-341 is another cool parlor guitar to consider.

Blueridge BR-341 – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

It’s part of the Blueridge Historic Series, and was modeled after turn of the century parlor guitars, with an elegant look and vintage tone, 12 frets to the body and a wider than normal 1.87” nut width.

Another “all solid wood” option, it comes with a solid Sitka spruce top, and solid mahogany back and sides, along with a rosewood fretboard and mahogany neck.

Thanks to the mahogany and scalloped braces, it’s got robust resonance, with clean articulation, a crisp tone, and focused sound.

The Blueridge models provide stronger bass than most parlors, and as a result make good rhythm guitars.

(Note: You may also wish to consider the Blueridge br-371, a more expensive model with rosewood back and sides that provides an even fatter, thicker bass sound.)

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Eastman E20P

The Eastman E20P parlor guitar is another example using the classic parlor setup of 12 frets to the body, and 1.75” nut width.

Inspired by the parlor guitars of the 30’s and 40’s, it plays like a vintage guitar, with a striking look and rich tone.

Eastman E20P – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

It’s got a solid Adirondack spruce top, with rosewood back and sides, mahogany neck, and ebony fingerboard and bridge.

A comfortable guitar with a great finish, the Eastman parlors can sound a little different than some of these other options, with a more focused mid-range tone, and extra volume.

A lot of that comes down to the sound produced through the Adirondack top. Adirondack tonewood was used a lot more frequently in guitar construction prior to WW2, but manufacturers moved to different types of wood as it became harder and more expensive to obtain. It’s easier to get these days, and Adirondack tops are once again becoming more common.

The E20 has a fairly thick neck, which can cause issues for those with smaller hands or fingers, and is also a little lacking in the bass department.

However, it makes up for it with a unique tone and big-voiced projection. This model has a beautiful sunburst finish, and if you like the Adirondack sound and don’t mind a thick neck, it’s definitely worthy of consideration.

Larrivee P-09

The Larrivee P-09 parlor guitar is part of the Larrivee Recording Series, and is a true parlor in design and spirit, with 12 frets to the body and a 1.75” nut width.

Larrivee P-09 – Click Pic to Check Price

It’s a similar guitar to the one played by Chris Hadfield on the International Space Station, and is a great combination of build quality, tone and playability.

Made of all solid wood, it’s got a Canadian Sitka spruce top and Indian Rosewood back and sides, along with a mahogany neck and ebony fingerboard and bridge. It’s also got an elegant gloss finish, and a bone nut and saddle.

The sound provided by this little guitar is impressive. It’s resonant, loud, and has a nice rich tone thanks to the use of rosewood and a high-quality build.

It’s got an average bottom end, but the quality mid-range is well suited to jazz and the blues, and it’s great for fingerpicking.

A guitar like this will develop an even richer, more complex tone as it ages.

An excellent parlor guitar for songwriting and recording, and a lot of fun to play.

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Bedell Earthsong

Bedell Guitars’ founder Tom Bedell is really into guitars. A relatively new company, they are very environmentally conscious and always send a team to personally inspect the wood they are considering using for guitar construction in advance. Sometimes Tom goes on these trips himself – now that’s dedication!

Hand-crafted in Oregon, the Earthsong line was created as an homage to the folk/rock acoustic sound of the 1960s.

Bedell Earthsong Parlor (Root Beer Finish) – Click Pic to Check Price

The Bedell Earthsong parlor guitar was designed using the traditional parlor guitar shape. It’s got 12 frets to the body, with the smaller 1.69” nut width.

It’s made with all solid wood including a Sitka spruce top, Bigleaf maple back and sides, mahogany neck and a walnut fingerboard, along with bone nut and saddle.

The sound is punchy and strong, but well-defined with excellent tone and projection. This guitar is very light, has a good feel, and is great for flatpicking in addition to fingerpicking. It’s also quite solid on the low end.

It’s equipped with K&K DuoTone electronics, providing a high-quality pickup.parlor guitar reviews

The guitar also comes with a Bedell kit, which includes a lovely brown leatherette case with built-in humidity gauge, and also provides strings, picks, and a few other odds and ends.

While the Earthsong parlor is also available in a “natural” look version, we had no choice but to go with the Root Beer Burst model pictured here. The finish on these guitars is stunning.

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Bonus Option: Gibson L-00 (1932 Reissue)

That’s our list of 10 amazing parlor guitars, but it just wouldn’t feel complete without mentioning the Gibson L-00 1932 Reissue acoustic.

Gibson 1932 L-00 Reissue – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

This guitar was meticulously recreated from the original 1932 design, and it’s a beauty with its cream tuners and vintage sunburst finish.

It’s a parlor-style guitar with 14 frets to the body and standard 1.75” nut width.

It’s built with a solid Adirondack red spruce top, and solid mahogany back and sides. The neck is also mahogany, and it uses a rosewood fingerboard and bridge, and black Graphtech nut.

It has excellent playability with a crisp, focused tone and good resonance. It’s also got a rich and strong low end, and is perfect for playing ’30s-style blues. It sounds great for fingerpicking or strumming.

It’s certainly not cheap, but may appeal to the distinguished gentleman with a keen interest in classic blues music.

All in all, it’s a beautiful guitar in both design and construction.

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Verdict

So What’s the Best Parlor Guitar For the Money?

best parlor guitar for the moneyObviously that is a very difficult question to answer. With such a wide range of styles, sounds and prices to choose from, you need to determine which features you absolutely can’t live without.

It’s easy to say the expensive Gibson is the best, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great guitar. But it wouldn’t be fair to expect much lower-priced items to measure up. Plus, the law of diminishing returns has to kick in at some point. It’s as much about prestige as it is about anything else at that price.

The most important factor when choosing a guitar has got to be the sound. There are definitely differences to be heard amongst these models, but they all reach a certain threshold of good tone and build quality.

The list has been whittled down to the point where these are all great options.

Since there is such visual appeal to owning, holding and showing off a guitar like this to your friends, the look has got to be given strong consideration as well. And of course, price also pays a role.

Among the lower priced options, the Alvarez AP70 has a certain sonic and visual charm. And we really love the balance of cool look and great sound found in the Washburn R320SWRK.

Moving up in price, the sounds that come out of the Taylor GS Mini-e and Simon and Patrick Woodland Parlor Pro are very impressive.

And it’s hard to resist the beautiful root beer burst design of the Bedell Earthsong.

If we were forced to choose right now, taking all factors into consideration including sound, look, and price, the Washburn R320SWRK Parlor (view on Amazon) is pretty much irresistible.

If you’re interested in an acoustic dreadnought with great sound AND price, check out my article on the Best Beginner Guitar Under $500.

And if you’re thinking of learning how to play, you’ll find lots of detailed info in my Best Beginner Guitar Guide.

Now it’s your turn. Which parlor guitar is your favorite?

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