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May 2014
more... Builder ProfileArchtopAugust 2011Ken Parker

Builder Profile: Ken Parker Archtops

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Builder Profile: Ken Parker Archtops


This view of the Fig reveals its Douglas fir neck core, as well as the Waverly
gears set into Parker’s custom- made anodized aluminum strip.

Wooden Boxes
Arguably, one of the sexiest things about the Parker archtop is the way he’s cut the soundhole into the shoulder instead of putting f-holes on either side of the bridge—although he’s certainly not the first luthier to shift the soundhole or change its shape. “Now, I realize I said Lloyd Loar is my hero, and it was his idea to [put f-holes on the top] in the first place. Having said that, it still doesn’t look like the right place to me, because that’s valuable real estate—that’s part of my ‘speaker cone.’ I put the soundhole in what I call the least-worst place. It’s as far away from the bridge as I can get it, and it’s as close to the player as I can get it. It delivers this immediate sound that makes people feel so confident. A lot of low end is available to the player.

“I have been able to create a guitar that has very, very even output, note to note and string to string, and very, very good separation within chords. You can play a chord with consonant or dissonant notes, and you can hear all the notes. It doesn’t turn into a bunch of stirred-up warm ice cream. Note separation, clarity, and evenness— those are big targets for me.”

Parker’s optional pickup was designed by Scottish archtop builder Mike Vanden, who collaborated with Larry Fishman to create the Fishman Rare Earth soundhole pickup. For his archtops, Parker takes the pickup apart and puts the coils in an ebony-veneered box that rests unobtrusively at the end of the fretboard. He hides the batteries, 1/8" jack, and controls under the pickguard. The whole assembly weighs 100 grams, and it serves these guitars beautifully through a variety of amps. With an L.R. Baggs Core 1, it sounded stunningly clear, brilliant, and full. Plugged into a Vox AC15, it produced a wildly satisfying growl while retaining the richness that defines the guitar.

As for the main “box” on a Parker archtop, it’s gloriously empty. Look inside the soundhole, and you see nothing but hand-bent kerfing and an X-braced top with two delicate pieces of spruce. “When I brace a guitar, I put in two braces,” Parker explains. “They’re off-center, for nefarious reasons of my own, and they don’t touch. I glue one brace on first and tune it, and then I glue on another brace that hops over the first brace. They taper out to little tiny whiskers at the glue line. If you don’t do that, you won’t get a big, supple low end—period. The braces are there not to keep the top from collapsing, they’re there to unify the behavior of the top so that it doesn’t get out of phase with itself and create dead spots and wolf notes. If there’s a trick, if there’s a secret, it’s getting those five pieces of wood—the two sides of the top, two braces, and one bridge—to work together to be an efficient structure so that you can get some real dynamic range out of the guitar.”


The soundport offers a look at Mrs. Natural’s immaculate interior.

As for the wonderfully natural-looking and satin-soft finish on his guitars, Parker says it’s clean, easy to apply, and environmentally safe. He first applies an epoxy sealer, wipes it off, and then applies an old-fashioned oil varnish that’s designed for gun stocks. “If you put on a few coats, it looks kind of satiny and dry, and if you put on twenty coats it looks glossy and wet. And it’s repairable in a way that other finishes simply aren’t. If you get a dent in the top but you haven’t busted any fibers, you can pretty much take the dent out with an iron and a wet cloth.”

The Goose Bump Dance
When all is said and done, it’s no exaggeration to say that Parker doesn’t just walk the line between artist and scientist, he dances along it. His archtops are handmade, utterly unique masterpieces—from the strap button to the tuning-gear strop. He sums up his motivation and mission statement by saying, “I want to build instruments that give people goose bumps—and I don’t really care that it takes me a long time. Because when people play my archtops they say, ‘This makes my Martin sound like there’s a blanket over it.’ And that’s what I want to hear!”

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