The parlor guitar. Designed by Mr. Parlor? No. First manufactured by the Parlor, Inc? No. Endorsed by the well-known recording artist, Parlor? Now don’t be silly, of course not! Then why call it a parlor guitar? The answer is more complex than it sounds, but a parlor guitar was played in the parlor.
Let’s start again. The development of the guitar from its fretted and strung antecedents led to an instrument that was rather small and used almost exclusively for vocal accompaniment in rather intimate settings. We’re talking about guitars measuring maybe 10″ to 11″ across the lower bout. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the size of guitar bodies started to increase, and it began to be used more as a solo instrument or in ensemble playing, where the larger size allowed it to be heard more easily. But there was still a range of smaller-bodied guitars used in the traditional manner and strummed for vocal accompaniment.
Most houses around the turn of the century had a parlor, forerunner to today’s “living room,” which served as a place to receive and entertain guests. Small-bodied guitars were generally called parlor guitars because the setting for their use was often entertaining singly or for small groups in the parlor. Today we find nearly any small-bodied guitar is called a parlor guitar.
In the ’90s, most guitars players have a living room and dreadnought guitar as standard equipment. But the resurgence of interest in acoustic instruments, vintage and new, has led to a revival of the parlor-sized guitar. Manufacturers including Tacoma, Larrivee, Santa Cruz, Bourgeois, Collings, and even Cort, have new small-bodied guitars. On the other hand, the vintage enthusiast has a variety of choices, many with no brand markings or label of any sort, and ranging from 80 to 120 years old.
Our feature parlor instrument is a high-quality offering from Bay State. According to Gruhn and Carter’s Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments, Bay State was a brand name of the John C. Haynes Co., of Boston. This company produced (or contracted with others to produce) a variety of fretted instruments including banjos, guitars, and mandolins. The line was particularly successful in the populous Northeast U.S. and no doubt arrangements were made to supply instruments to music teachers and schools.
Distinctive markings on the headstock and fretboard, as well as fancy herringbone trim, make this a rather desirable small instrument. While most manufacturers did include fancy abalone-trimmed models in their offerings, the ones that show up most often now are rather plain. Buyers should be aware of several factors if they are interested in playing them. Many of these guitars are over 100 years old. They may need structural work or crack repair.
Most were designed for gut strings and may have suffered from the tension of modern steel strings or from poorly executed repairs. Some are very fragile and need careful handling. On the other hand, they can be enjoyable to play. Easy to hold, and with comfortable necks, the parlor guitar is suitable for soft accompaniment, but works equally well for blues or ragtime fingerpicking. They are numerous in more plain varieties, and their prices generally run less than $700. Fancy ones can cost substantially more, but don’t necessarily play or sound better.
Best of all, you can play a parlor guitar in any room of your house!
Photo: Michael Tamborrino/VG Archive. A 1900 Bay State parlor guitar, likely made by Ditson. The herringbone trim and distinctive markings on the headstock and fretboard make this a desirable small instrument. Though fancy vintage parlor guitars can cost much more, they don’t necessarily sound or play better.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’00 issue.