7 Questions with Ken Parker
This photo of master builder Ken Parker gloriously sums up his charming personality and general outlook. While many who have been in the business as long as Ken have understandingly suffered some degree of soul crushery over the years, Ken seems to have immunity against a lousy time! Let’s learn more.
Like many, I’m a fan of your work from the ‘90s “Fly” days. The ethos and construction of an archtop seems almost as far from the ultra-modern, solidbody electric Fly as you can get; what aspects of yesteryears’ instruments have informed or helped with your archtop building?
That’s a great question that would take me two volumes to answer! Fortunately, you caught me right in the middle of trying very hard to answer it in depth, online, free of charge. “Archtoppery” is the name of this brain-dump, and it’s available at KenParkerArchtops.com, and on my YouTube Channel, “Archtoppery”! We have more than 130 videos posted, and many more to come. These are close-up looks at exactly what happens in my shop, accompanied by all the relevant origin stories, explained failures, and all the Down in the Weeds details you could ever want in excruciating detail – I walk the viewer through exactly how and why things are done the way they are. I’m trying to show you exactly how to copy my work, and explain why that might be a good idea!
The real story is that I started building Archtops in the early ‘70’s, so the acoustic archtop guitar was my first love. Unlike many, I don’t really see a hard line between plugged and unplugged guitars, to me, they are All acoustic instruments, and the keys to optimizing them is a deep understanding of the history of lutherie, the materials we have to play with, the forces applied by strings, and the desires of our beloved performers.
Short answer is I designed a solidbody inspired by my early Archtop Adventures!
How are your own requirements for amplification different between solidbody electric and archtop designs?
As I mentioned, in my work, I don’t think there’s a meaningful difference between guitars that are full of air and ones that aren’t. In any case, we’re looking for fidelity; something to deliver a full spectrum sound with all the sonic goodies and mysterious subtleties that fine guitars are capable of.
What are your absolute favorite and least favorite parts of the production process of the guitars you currently make?
That’s easy, there’s so many fun parts of building a guitar that I never tire of the variety!
I was able to design around and remove the only misery in guitar making by devising a finishing system that makes applying a perfect finish much simpler and better than ever, as you can see at Archtoppery.com
The only bad part now is parting with them, because I’d prefer to drag them all over the place and hear them in the hands of widely various players so I get a feel of exactly what I’ve created! I’m always goosing something or other in the spirit of learning, and often I miss hearing them open up and settle in, but then, that opening, the blossoming is part of what my customers get, so that’s OK. It is really fun to hear them open and settle, and I think if you’ve done the building properly, it shouldn’t take very long for most of this to happen!
Do you have any less conventional thoughts or practices regarding pickups and amplified string sensing for archtops you’d care to share?
Over the years I’ve worked with two luminaries in the pickup and sensor fields, first Bob Palmieri, and then Larry Fishman. It just doesn’t get better than that! Bob has designed a new passive magnetic pickup, the “Bronzeville”, to flatter the bronze strings on my acoustic guitars that is just over-the-moon fantastic. His company, Duneland Labs, provides this pickup and other magnetic devices to builders and top players. Larry Fishman continues to lead the field in piezo sensors for guitars and everything else!
What is the one thing you know now as a builder and businessman that you wish you could tell yourself 30 years ago.
Take more time off. Take it easy on the organism. Stay happy!
When are you happiest?
My workshop is the best playpen I could ever imagine, and I’m thrilled just to get through the door and start making dust & chips!
Whom would you most like to see one of your guitars in the hands of?
I love women musicians, and celebrate the unique wisdom and inspiration that they offer us all!
Maybelle Carter, Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Carol Kaye, these under-sung heroes broke new ground and changed our world of music! Sadly, I was born too late to be of any help to them, but I promise you I’ll never fully recover from the joy of building and delivering Joni Mitchell’s favorite guitar in 1996, the one she uses to this day. Talk about a hero!!
So, what I’m saying is that I already won this one!