My recent bout with G.A.S. ended beautifully. I got my hands on a sweet parlor guitar from Steve Chipman of Vintage Parlor Guitars.
I can’t say enough good things about the process of working with Steve. Dealing with him reminded me of what ‘the good old days’ must have been like. His approach was super laid back, he was adamant that I end up with a guitar I love and there was absolutely no sales guy pressure during the order process. Steve wanted me to meet my perfect match and took the time to make sure that happened.
Of course, I fell in love with my guitar and owe Steve much more than the guitar cost. Specializing in vintage parlor guitars, he is a wealth of information on the subject and was kind enough to answer a few questions that I want to share with you.
[John] When I first began looking for a parlor guitar there seemed to be some confusion as to what is and is not considered a parlor guitar. Can you give your take on what makes a parlor guitar a parlor?
[Steve] I define a true parlor as an acoustic guitar with a lower bout of less than 13″. This is based on the CF Martin “sizing” of acoustic guitars, wherein an 0-size body has a lower bout of around 13.50-13.75″. A “parlor” guitar would be smaller in size than an 0-size guitar.
How did you get started working on parlor guitars? Anything that attracted you to this particular style of guitar?
As a player, I experience shoulder pain when playing larger bodied acoustics. The more I played smaller body acoustics, the more I liked the 12-fret(vs. 14-fret) neck. My search for an affordable 12-fret, small body was frustrating as I couldn’t find the right combination of fit, feel and tone. After playing a vintage parlor for the first time, I was hooked. When I decided to concentrate my vocation on acoustic guitar repair/restoration, the choice to focus on vintage parlor guitars from 1900-1960 was easy.
What are some of the typical repairs needed to bring an older parlor up to a playable state?
Most of the early parlors that I work with require a neckset, new bridge and some degree of fret/fretboard work.Collapsing tops, bridges pulling up and warped fretboards are the visible symptoms. The common cause of these repairs is the use of strings with too high tension on a small body guitar that was never built to handle modern day strings.
On the Harlin I bought from you, you mentioned that you reset the neck. That sounds incredibly tricky. What is involved in a neck reset?
A neckset performed on an acoustic guitar with a dovetail joint requires removing the neck and reshaping the joint between the neck and the guitar body to achieve a specific angle and then a specific string height(action) for a specific player.
Understanding the nature of the woods involves, having experience with the proper geometry of the neck and body and then finishing it all by setting the proper intonation makes so much easier than it sounds. I sue steam to soften the glue and remove the neck from the body and titebond glue to rejoin the two once the dovetail and neck joint are shaped to the proper alignment and angle.
I’m sure you’ve seen guitars with their share of battle scars. Tell me about the guitar in the absolute worst shape that you have overhauled. What did you do to revive it?
Exposure to sever moisture or temperature changes, over time, generally do much more damage to an acoustic instrument than dropping the guitar on the hard wood floor or even cracking the headstock. I’ve worked on pre-war parlors that were “barn finds”, which showed all the signs of having been left outside year after year without care. In most cases, these guitar require total disassembly and reassembly to ensure that all glue joints are secure and prepared to accommodate modern string tension.
When looking at an older parlor guitar, what do you look for to know if the guitar is worth repairing or better off as firewood?
I’ve never meet a parlor that wasn’t worth saving. Some may require replacing tops and backs, new fretboard and neckset. But if the age, pedigree and expected tone of the guitar is worth the effort, there’s no reason not to bring the old gal back to life.
Of the guitars you’ve rehabbed, which one stands out as your favorite and why?
There’s a pre-war Regal made 00-size 12-fret in spruce/mahogany that consistently delivers a wonderful, warm tone. This model Regal was the CF Martins & Co. competition to their 00-18 model. They are really hard to come by and I’ve had only three through the shop since day one. My perennial favorite is the pre-war Harmony made Supertone in a parlor-size, 12-fret body. They are much easier to come by and have become a favorite of blues playing customers all over the planet.
What guitars are you working on now?
I’m concentrating on a nice group of vintage all-mahogany guitars, all from the 1930-1945 period. They range in body size from parlor to 000- and promise to offer a nice, woody tone to satisfy most playing styles.
About Vintage Parlor Guitars
If you want to learn more about parlor guitars, check out VintageParlorGuitars.com and shoot Steve an email. I have to warn you though, once you get your hands on one of these vintage instruments, one might not be enough.