Ken Parker’s Fig model features a Sitka spruce top, Big Leaf maple (on the back, sides,
and neck), ebony bridge and pickguard, and an anodized aluminum tailpiece.

Though most players know Ken Parker because of the innovative guitar he and Larry Fishman designed and introduced under the Parker Guitars brand in 1993—the Fly—he has been obsessed with archtops for decades. Given the Fly’s striking ergonomics, composite-covered body, carbon-fiber fretboard, and proprietary, multifunction tremolo—all of which made it one of the most unique and successful new solidbody designs of the last 20 years—it should come as no surprise that Parker’s obsession is now advancing the art and science of archtop guitars. But that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he does it all because he’s striving to inject the playing experience with real joy: “To me, if a guitar isn’t fun to play—if it doesn’t put a grin on your face and beckon you from the corner of the room—what is it for?”

Though Ken Parker still uses the same headstock shape found on the Parker Fly, the simiarlities to his current archtop designs end there, and he no longer has a stake in Parker Guitars.
To provide insight for this article, Parker sent a guitar for us to spend some time with and get the hands-on Parker archtop experience. The first touch is extraordinary. It’s featherlight and incredibly comfortable to hold. The neck is smooth, wide, easy to play, and devoid of anything that might create tension. When I played an Em chord, there was so much . . .everything—so much bass, so much liveliness, so much sustain. Everything we think the opposite of when we think archtop. And yet, it’s all archtop.

Parker trained as a toolmaker for a grandfather- clock making company before he started building guitars. “This beautiful guy kind of took me under his wing, because they didn’t have somebody to do all the tooling they needed—not the wooden parts, the metal parts. It was like going to grad school. I did four years worth of training in a year and a half.”

That training and facility for machining custom parts would play a vital role years later. Today, Parker handbuilds almost every piece of his archtops. “That is really a huge ingredient of who I am now—it was an incredible playground,” says Parker. “I was a sponge. It was just thrilling to me. I had dropped out of college, because I was studying philosophy and physics and I didn’t know what I was going to do with that. But I sure knew I liked to build things. I used my brain, my imagination, my body, my coordination, my balance, my eyes—all that stuff. It seemed so rich an endeavor—I just loved it.”

Parker also did serious repair work as a guitar tech in those early years. One of the first and most troubling things he learned on that job was the appalling state of fretwork on even guitars right off the shelf. “It’s better now than it was 30 years ago. I was doing refrets on brand-new, made-in-America guitars that were unplayable. I wasoffended. I felt that those companies weren’t taking musicians and their needs seriously, and it really bothered me.”

That eventually led to the now-legendary stainless-steel fretwork on the Parker Fly. “I had done thousands of fret jobs by the time I started that company. And one of the original design goals I told my partner, Larry Fishman, was “If I can’t build a guitar that doesn’t need fretwork, I don’t want to do it.”

Evolution of a Revolutionary
Parker got serious about playing jazz guitar when he was 22, and he took group lessons with a teacher named Dick Longale. One of the most important things that happened in those lessons was that they gave him his first exposure to a good archtop—Longale’s Gibson L12. “It was beautifully balanced, rich sounding, complex . . . We were all trying to turn the knobs on our guitars to try and sound like Dick, but we couldn’t. So I was intrigued.”