Mass Appeal: Ken Parker’s Unconventional Archtops

October 5th, 2012

By Richard Bienstock

Ken Parker is best known as the man behind the Parker Fly. Upon its introduction in the early Nineties, the alarmingly lightweight instrument set the electric guitar world on its ear with its combination of magnetic and piezoelectric pickups, proprietary tremolo system, and most significantly, hard exoskeleton of carbon fiber and fiberglass.

Subsequently, Parker was seen as a harbinger of a more forward-thinking, less wood-centric six-string future. But as it turns out, Parker’s first love is that most conventional of guitars, the archtop. He built his first in 1974, well before his foray into the electric world. In 2003, he sold his stake in Parker Guitars to U.S. Music Corporation, and for the past eight years, he has focused solely on this classic form.

Like his electrics, Parker’s archtop guitars adhere to his almost evangelical conviction that lightness and rigidity are the best paths to superior resonance and low-end response. And like the Fly, his archtops are hardly what you would call traditionally minded instruments. The example shown here, Mira, was named in honor of the daughter of its buyer and, like all Parker archtops, handbuilt by the luthier himself as a one-of-a-kind instrument. While archtops are generally regarded as hefty, wide-bodied boxes, Mira measures just 16 1/8 inches across the lower bout and tips the scales at a scant three and a half pounds. According to Parker, however, this is more in line with what an archtop’s numbers should be.

“When I show my work to other builders who claim to build traditional archtops, they kind of giggle nervously and say, ‘Oh, this is really light,’ ” Parker says. “I try not be a snarky guy, but what I want to say back is, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ The [Gibson] L-5, which represents pretty much the pinnacle of archtop design, weighs four and a half pounds. It’s not a 12-pound, 18-inch monster that doesn’t have any low-end response.”

By Parker’s estimation, the lighter the instrument, the more efficient the transduction of string energy into sound. And indeed, the Mira is a phenomenally responsive instrument, with clear and cutting highs, powerful midrange, incredible bass response, and beautiful evenness across the tonal spectrum. He achieves this through a combination of modern and traditional construction elements. Mira has a top of gorgeous red spruce, with a back and sides of curly mahogany. The tailpiece is cast phosphor bronze, and the tuners are Gotoh.

From there, things get a little more esoteric. The guitar’s bridge is made of pernambuco and is incredibly light (roughly 20 grams) and nonadjustable. Parker keeps his bridges as thin as possible to maximize the amount of string energy that can pass through to the guitar’s top.

About that top: Mira’s soundhole, as on all Parker archtops, has been relocated to the guitar’s upper bout, where it straddles the front and side of the body. Parker’s reasoning here is twofold: “The top of a guitar is where the sound energy is created. Why would you want to cut holes in it, especially near the bridge?” he says. “So I moved the soundhole to what I consider the least-worst spot. And another nice thing about having it up there is that it behaves like a nearfield monitor, directing sound up toward the player as well as out at the listener.”

But the Mira breaks most radically with tradition with its neck, which features a core of soft Douglas fir, which Parker encases in a thin (roughly 1/32 of an inch thick) veneer of stiffer mahogany. “It’s a beautiful engineering solution,” he says. “You put the wood with superior wear characteristics on the outside.” He then introduces that most “Parkeresque” of materials: “In between the neck core and the veneer is a whole lot of carbon fiber and epoxy,” he says. “This does a number of terrific things. One is that it raises the resonant frequency of the structure so high that the neck cannot resonate at frequencies that interfere with the notes it is being asked to make. That adds significantly to evenness of response from note to note and eliminates dead spots.”

Carbon fiber and epoxy make a second appearance in the form of a solid, square block that joins the neck and body. This structure is, in fact, the only material connecting the two pieces of the guitar. On Parker’s archtops, the neck essentially “floats” over the body, a design elements that leads to several unusual functions. First, the chore of adjustability is transferred from the bridge to the neck, which is raised and lowered (through the use of a hex key that is inserted into the guitar’s back) to adjust the action on the fingerboard. Furthermore, the neck can be removed entirely from the guitar for storage, travel, or to be replaced with an entirely different Parker neck. Attempt this on an L-5 at your own risk.

Despite Mira’s innovative design elements, Parker insists he is not reinventing the wheel. “Sure, I use some materials that other people don’t use,” he says. “But I buy them online, and other people can too.” However, he does feel that he has something new to offer in the archtop realm. “The electric guitar thing—I kind of shot my wad,” he says. “I made 20,000 guitars, and I don’t have much else to do there. But I love the archtop. I’m devoted to the form, and I feel that I have something to add to it. When correctly proportioned, the archtop is the most versatile kind of acoustic guitar, and I think that can be demonstrated pretty easily with Mira or any of the instruments I’ve built.”

Photo: Massimo Gammacurta

  • Marco Sanches

    I’d be a happy man if I win a guitar like this, it’s a dream, it’s such a wonderful kind of acoustic guitar… OMG, please send me one for free ! LOL

  • I am the proud owner of a Nitefly-SA , a really wonderful instrument I just cant seem to get enough of playing.
    My experience with Parker instruments leads me to believe that this one is no less special and has some really nice surprises ( with regard to its’ particular nuances) in store for those who choose to buy it a fully “experience” it.
    Sound samples of my Nitefly’s versatility can be heard here:
    Thx for sharing