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The ToneQuest Report
March & April 2001

Ken Parker, Parker Guitars

When you play and hear a Parker Fly, it’s easy to picture Jimi moving between the liquid tone of the Fly’s magnetic pickups to the piano-like chime of the Fishman piezo in the bridge. Parkers can’t be confused with anything that came before, can they? Way out there… Now, can you see yourself strapping one on? Time after time when we took our two Parkers out for reviews we heard the same comments. Pulling them out of their cases we’d hear, “I could never play one of these out.” Then we’d plug them in and wait while our reviewers worked out with them. Five or ten minutes later, smiling, “Hmm, maybe I could play this.” Then the inevitable follow up question – “How much are these?” No matter what your gut reaction is to the visual effect created by Parker guitars, when you play one we believe you’ll quickly form a deep respect for Ken Parker’s creations, and we urge those of you who haven’t tried one to do so soon. The fretwork will absolutely spoil you rotten, nothing sounds or plays quite like them, and as you’ll discover in our interview with Ken Parker, a lifetime of experience and careful reflection went into the creation of the Fly. These guitars were not designed and built by a guy who just wanted something to sell. So settle back and enjoy the following conversation with Ken – one of the most interesting and thoughtful “guitar people” we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the ToneQuest faithful. Quest forth… and go play a Fly.

 TQR:        Ken, let’s start with the genesis of your fascination with the guitar. When and how did it occur?

 Well, I’m 48, and for me it was really hearing The Beatles. I wasn’t in a position to have had the classic R&B influences I’d liked to have had (laughs), so I had to get it distilled through rock groups like so many of us did. It was compelling stuff being 12 years old and getting my socks blown off by music that bore no resemblance to what my parents told me was music.

 TQR:        The Yardbirds …

 Yeah, all of that.

 TQR:        So did you start out playing guitar in garage bands?

 I played piano at first until the guitar player in our band got me turned on to it, and I built my first somewhat functional guitar when I was 13. I made it from cardboard and wood, but it had strings on it.

 TQR:        Where did you learn to work with tools and wood?

 My grandpa was a good craftsman and I grew up working with him in his shop. He built furniture – mostly wood and sheet metal projects. My father wasn’t way into it, although he was a very mechanical guy, but I’d have to wait until we went to grandpa’s house to get into his shop.

 TQR:        How did that initial interest in building guitars evolve?

 In college I got into making jewelry… a geodesic dome… started building things and getting excited about that. I took a furniture-making course, and my brother had a short-scale bass from Japan that was a piece of junk and he needed a better instrument. I looked at it and thought, “Well, there’s nothing too complicated about this,” so I built him a bass that he still plays today. I never looked back after that, really. I got so excited about it that I couldn’t really keep my head in my college career. I did a non-resident course in Rochester, NY with a really good furniture maker and I never came back to school after that. I ended up staying in Rochester for another five years and that’s where I did my apprenticeships that prepared me to become a real instrument maker.

 TQR:        Let’s talk about your apprenticeships…

 Yeah, this is where it gets interesting. The first furniture maker I’d worked with closed his business and I had started building solidbodies in my basement, but it became real obvious to me that I didn’t have the command over the tools, and furthermore, that I couldn’t find the right tools. So I got the idea that I wanted to learn to be a toolmaker… that was probably the most important thing I ever set my sights on.

 TQR:        How did you go about doing that?

 Well, at that time there were some pretty interesting manufacturing plants in Rochester, so I’d just walk in and tell them I wanted to learn toolmaking. Of course, they’d just laugh and tell me that I didn’t understand – you have to go to trade school and work years at it, but that’s not what I wanted – I wanted to just dive right into it. So I lucked out and got a gig working for a company that made these fantastically complicated grandfather clock movements. There were over 600 parts in one clock and they were all made at this factory. I got to study for almost two years with a wonderful toolmaker and fabricator who was in his sixties – a very patient and gentle teacher. It was an amazing gift. After that, I wanted to go back to furniture making, and I worked at a company that built very extravagant and expensive furniture for wealthy people. There were only two of us, so again, it was this one-on-one scene where I got to work with someone who was extraordinarily gifted. We took on some very ambitious projects building furniture with inlays, curved veneers, some kinetic stuff like tables that adjusted for height, and we also built some 5-string banjos… It was at that time in 1973-74 that I started moonlighting taking in repairs, and I also became friends with a guy named Robert Meadow who was building renaissance lutes at the time. We ended up leaving Rochester and setting up a shop together with me building archtop guitars while he was building lutes. That was a great time.  

TQR:        So the archtop was the first style that you really poured the coals to as a builder?

 Yeah, I had built other guitars in the early ‘70s, but at that time I was just trying to figure out how the darn things worked – how to get frets in. There was really very little material available back then – no supply companies, very few books, and certainly no specialty tools for instrument makers. 

TQR:        How about the wood supply?

Since I was making furniture, I knew how to get wood – that wasn’t a problem. Those were the good old days – you could go down to a lumberyard and buy Brazilian rosewood in Brooklyn. Think about that.

TQR:        Building furniture, you must have also learned quite a lot about finishing fine wood…

I have to say that finishing was always the last thing I was interested in. Most of what we did was specialty finishes – hand-rubbed private recipes for oil-based finishes. That was the look on high-grade pieces, and when you think about it, it is kind of sad to embalm wood in plastic finishes.

 TQR:        Well, I guess the traditional practice of applying French polish is long gone…

 Oh, no, not at all. You can get your classical guitar finished in a French polish all over the place. It’s a simple finish that takes a quite a knack to apply, and anybody with reasonable dexterity, judgment, and patience can learn to apply it – especially if somebody who knows how to do it shows them how. 

TQR:        But it isn’t practiced in the guitar industry…

 No, because for the industry it’s an impractical finish. For one thing, it takes a very highly skilled person to apply it, and secondly, if you spill your gin and tonic on it the finish will just slide off in your lap because it’s alcohol-soluble. It also provides virtually no protection.

 TQR:        Sounds as if it would allow the wood to really breathe, however…

 Well, we can get into that – wood doesn’t really breathe…

 TQR:        Good, we do have other questions about that. Back to your apprenticeships…

 Well, my partner eventually took off to teach a woodworking program in New Jersey and I was stompin’ around Manhattan trying to figure out what was going on in archtop guitar making in the late ‘70s. There was nothing going on except for Jimmy D’Aquisto out in Long Island, but I was trying to figure out if anybody was going to buy my guitars. It was a tough time, because back then you could buy Gibson archtops and D’Angelicos for very, very short dough – often a grand or less. I was feeling a little frustrated with that, and I’d gotten to know Jimmy D’Aquisto, who was a great inspiration and help to me, and I’d been in touch with John Monteleone, so I knew the grand players in guitar building at that time but I wasn’t quite sure where to go. There just didn’t seem to be a clamoring for the kind of guitar that I’d fallen in love with making. I didn’t know how to make a living at it. So I ended up taking a job at Stuyvesant Music at 48th and 7th Avenue. That was another series of master classes in which I worked for thousands of musicians as part of a very large staff. There were seven guys doing repairs and adjustments plus a couple of guys doing electronics in a 3,000 sq. ft. shop right in the middle of Manhattan. I got to meet and hangout with all of my heroes – Joe Pass, Jim Hall, John McGlaughlin… playing my instruments and just hanging out, it was an amazing time. I also built some custom solidbodies for people like Andy Summers, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed… it was a wonderful place to be. I still wanted to get out and build my own guitars, but the idea of opening a shop in New York staffed by one guy who was intent on experimenting was pretty far-fetched. I needed a low-rent place to work, so I wound up moving out to Connecticut for the rest of the ’80s and living with my grandpa, bless his soul. He put up with me and really supported me while I was developing the Fly.

TQR:        Ken, you state in your literature that “Having worked with thousands of musicians, you asked  them to define their instruments best features and worst failings.” What are the features we should note in the current Parker line that best define those lessons you learned working with so many musicians?

 Well, the glib answer is just look at a Fly guitar. But you know, this isn’t rocket science… when you handle so many instruments and talk to so many guitar players, you can distill the wisdom of the group. What I found was that the best guitars tend to be light and responsive. There is room for heavy musical instruments… they do serve some purposes, and they definitely delight some players who won’t have it any other way – they need something that weighs eight or ten pounds and just sits still, and I have no quarrel with them. It just seemed to me that many of the most enlightened players really preferred the lighter guitars. For example, in the world of Telecasters, somebody that really digs them will pick up a heavy one by the neck and just set it back down because they know it’s not going to turn them on. So there’s a kind of a lively, spirited response that you can only get from an instrument that is relatively lean. It’s not hard to see how instrument making goes in a lot of different directions. For example, how much less material could you use in a violin and still have something that wouldn’t just fall apart when you tuned it up? On the other hand you have a piano which takes six guys to move across the room, so it depends on what you’re trying to do and how much energy you have to put in. One of the things that I come back to over and over again is that the guitar has these little bitty strings on it that aren’t as long as you’d like them to be, and you only get to hit them once per note. You haven’t got a bow in your right hand to drive them berserk, or in the case of the piano, you haven’t got three strings for many of the notes and a soundboard that connects those three strings to dozens of other strings that are tuned in octaves and fifths and fourths and every other interval that can resonate with those notes that you’ve just struck. So when you play a piano and you hit a key, it excites a jillion other strings and the whole thing gets going… For a piano that sits in your lap like the kind I make, it seems that you need to be careful with that little piece of energy that a guitar player can put into a string by plucking it, and efficiency counts.

 TQR:        You’ve certainly succeeded there with your guitars. We were recently conducting amp reviews at a manufacturer’s shop and after using several different guitars we switched to a Nitefly, which prompted one of the employees working in an adjacent room to run in to see what kind of guitar we were playing that “sounded like a piano.” It was the Fly with the piezo mixed with the single coils, and it did sound like a piano.

 That’s very nice to hear. When I first started building guitars I built solidbodies first, and I got away from them because it seemed to me that there wasn’t a whole lot to them – I wanted to build something that was more complex and challenging. In guitar making, there is no more complex and challenging instrument than an acoustic archtop. On a carved instrument you can control the stiffness and distribution of the stress on the top and that’s what makes it so interesting.

 TQR:        The carving of the top, the bracing pattern, the thickness of the braces…

 Yeah – any time you’re building an acoustic guitar, you’re building a speaker. You’re building a transducer that takes the vibrational energy of the strings and turns it into the vibrational energy of air, and you’ve got to do a good job to avoid having a lot of losses and unevenness in there. It involves a very complex set of decisions and the list of variables is almost infinite.

 TQR:        We recently interviewed a builder who was talking about tuning his tops and finding the fundamental frequency within each guitar that he builds – tuning the structure for a specific outcome. Since that’s what you build today, can the same philosophy be applied to solidbodies as well?  

Sure… every object has a fundamental resonant frequency, including the chair you’re sitting on. It’s not something that’s unique to musical instruments. When a builder starts to build an instrument, the first thing he or she does is start listening to the material.

 TQR:        How do you do that?

 You uhhh… (laughs)… I’ll answer the question with a story, if I may. In 1976 I went on a pilgrimage to the mountaintop, so to speak, to meet Jimmy D’Aquisto… Here I was with butterflies in my stomach, holding my first acoustic archtop in a case, hoping for some criticism and encouragement, and one of the things that happened was that I approached him in what I’ll portray as a small, weenie-like voice and said, “Gee Mr. D’Aquisto, what do you do when the wood isn’t perfect?” To which he replied, “Let me show you how to make a guitar.” He runs across the room to his wood stash, picks up a rough top that had been glued up, blows the dust off of it, holds it up on the fingertips of his left hand like a waiter carrying a tray, holds the top next to his ear, and starts whacking it with the thumb of his right hand. Then he says, “First, I listen to the wood.” Then he runs back across the room, picks up a hand plane and starts cutting into it, and says, “Then, I cut into it.” It was such a moment for me (laughs). You work with what you’ve got and you listen to it. Listening is the end, and listening is the beginning. When you start making any instrument out of any material you start out by listening to it. When a violin maker builds a violin or a viola, the first thing he or she does is take the bridge and drop it on the table and listen to how it sounds, over and over again. You let the wood speak to you – you get an idea of how bright that little piece of wood is, and it helps you make some decisions about what to do with it – how to proportion it. I’m thumping on everything all the time (laughs). I’m always interested in hearing what something sounds like. So can you tune a solidbody to a note? You can, and in acoustic instrument making tuning a top or a back is one way to unify your work and to have a touchstone and a basis that you can carry from one instrument to the next. In and of itself, tuning a piece of wood to a note has no value – it’s only after you figure out what you’ve done and whether you like it or not or you want to change it that it has value. In the violin world, for example, they weigh the top and back pieces… I never went that far because I was always trying too many things… it wasn’t as if I had a perfect model and I was trying to make them all exactly like that. I have done some work with Carleen Hutchins, who is America’s foremost acoustic researcher in the bowed instrument world. Carleen had a little school in Montclair, NJ and we would try to add to and learn from the body of scientific data that she had gathered on bowed instrument making, so I do have some familiarity with that approach to instrument making. People took such good care of the best bowed instruments that we know quite a lot about how they were made. There’s a huge volume of literature and recorded experience related to the quest of copying the best Italian instruments of several hundred years ago.

 TQR:        Let’s turn to your guitars as we know them today… It seems as if you set out to design an ergonomically driven instrument that also cannot possibly be mistaken for anything else – no one can accuse you of having borrowed from the past in designing the Nitefly…

 That was a design goal.

 TQR:        I’m sure it was, but what were you thinking,   Ken?

 That’s a really good question. I toyed with going to art school but it never seemed like the right place for me somehow. As a result, I was never guided as a designer, and every time I drew a line it was extremely painful anticipating cutting out that headstock, because I was never really sure if it was the right one. Let’s just start with the headstock… in the classical world the headstock and the rosette are pretty much the only places the guitar maker has to sign the guitar visually. Even the headstock… unless you do something a little startling, it’s going to be really tough to tell one from another unless you make it really blunt or really ornate. Neither one seems to sit right on the guitar, so people are drawing all kinds of mustaches and whoop-dee-doos at the end of their headstocks to try and sign them. I guess that worked better when there were just a few dozen people building guitars compared to however many there are now. So in order to distinguish your instrument as something that’s memorable that won’t be confused with the guy down the block, you have to do something with the headstock. What I wanted to do… back to ergonomics… one of the things that bothered me about electric guitars – one of the reasons why it took me so long to take them seriously as a project, was that they just seemed to be so carelessly designed by people who were trying to make a buck on something that was easy to make and cheap to make. Not that those are criticisms, but coming from where I was coming from it just didn’t look like the most exciting project in the world. Now, let me back up and say that I’m not casting aspersions on the best work of my predecessors. I admire the best work of all types of guitars – certainly Leo Fender and Ted McCarty made huge and lasting contributions to the world of instrument making, but one of the things that bothered me about electric guitars was that they wouldn’t sit peacefully on your lap. I couldn’t figure out why people thought that was OK. Your triple O isn’t trying to commit suicide… it sits on your lap quite nicely, while the Strat wants to fall one way and the Les Paul wants to fall another. I didn’t get it, so that was one of the first design goals, and I thought we should start out by making the part that wants to fall on the floor really light, hence the minimalist six-in-line headstock on the Fly. That’s the beginning, and people ask, “Gee, how do you make such a light guitar out of wood?” The answer is, you don’t use a lot of wood – just the wood that you need to do the job, and as far as visuals are concerned, you try and tie it together. I won’t rant about design, but suffice it to say that we are used to looking at the designs of the ‘40s and ‘50s and they look familiar and normal to us, whereas if we could go back in time and view the initial reactions to those guitars when they were introduced, people were excommunicated for buying Fender musical instruments – driven from their bands…

 TQR:        Sure… the Telecaster was referred to as a toilet seat cover by some, no question. Back to the Parker, however, where in the world did you come up with the idea for carbon glass fibers?

 This is a good story… it’s no secret to an engineer that if you have something you want to make high-performance in terms of strength-to-weight ratio, you put all the strength in the skin. This is how the airplanes we fly in are made… this is how a cockroach is built. How about a lobster? Same thing – you put all of the important material on the outside because that’s where it gets its leverage – it’s strength. This was first demonstrated by instrument makers many hundreds of years ago in Turkey with the oud, and later in the Renaissance and Baroque periods with the lute, which was a descendent of the oud. When the Moors took over Spain they brought the oud and actually the word oud was corrupted into lute. This instrument came from the eastern Mediterranean to the western part, people started building it a different way, and over hundreds of years it morphed into this series of incredibly ornate, difficult to build and play instruments with as many as twenty strings on it. The lute was literally the electric guitar of that period – there were many, many of them made, and they were made so lightly in order to respond and sound like something that they all eventually got crushed or broken. Only a few survived, but of those that did, they demonstrate a very high degree of craftsmanship and problem-solving. For example, lutes of a certain period when the necks started to become big and long so people could get lower notes out of them had the following two features; they had truss rods made by your local blacksmith that were driven from the inside of the instrument while they were red-hot, through the neck block, into the neck. Obviously they were non-adjustable (laughs). The other thing they did was make the necks out of soft, light material and they veneered them in very hard, stiff material. The neck might be made of spruce, and it might have a thin layer of ebony or rosewood glued on the outside of it. This gave a long-wearing surface that was handsome, easy to embellish, and it provided a huge amount of strength right where you wanted it – on the outside of the neck. Now fast-forward to the Fly guitar – the neck is made of basswood which is a light, stiff, good-sounding material, then a thin outer layer of composite material, which just means any material that’s made up of two or more things that has better mechanical properties than either of the two materials alone. The composite that most people have experience with is paper mache – that’s an example of something that’s much stronger than anything you can make out of just paper or just flour. The kind of composite that we use in making guitars then for the “flour” is epoxy resin, and the “newspaper” is glass and carbon fibers.

 TQR:        That is oriented “triaxially.”

 Yeah, exactly… the glass fibers wrap around the neck diagonally and the carbon fibers run along the neck vertically. Some people have described our instruments as being incapable of holding up to string tension without the composite reinforcement, but that is just not true. Basswood is an OK neck by itself, but it’s apt to have funny resonances simply because it’s so lively. The composite material that we glue on the outside of the guitar and also down over the body and the headstock on the Fly is there for sound – to change the way the wood responds sonically.

 TQR:        So it wasn’t just to come up with a radical, different look. We’ve reported on our fondness for vintage Japanese reissue Strats made from basswood in the past – we love them.

 Basswood is great material – it’s stiffness to weight ratio approaches that of Sitka spruce, which has the best stiffness to weight ratio of any vegetable material.

 TQR:        Are you the only builder that has ever built a production guitar with a basswood neck?

 I think so.

 TQR:        How do you get the fingerboard and fret work to be so consistent and so flawless?

 You know, the name of game is to consistently hit a midpoint in guitar building that is going to make the majority of people happy. In the early ‘80s I had done hundreds – probably thousands of fret jobs. I’m not the type to count them, but not only have I replaced frets that were installed by manufacturers, but I’ve also replaced those that were put in by other repairmen, and I promise you that there are very few people that do superb fret work, and most people who claim to do superb fret work hardly improve the guitars that they work on. I don’t mean to be mean-spirited, but this is simply a matter of record. So many of the guitars I received looked like they had just come from a bar room brawl after the frets were leveled or replaced, or god forbid, a new fingerboard… It just seemed like the whole way it was done was flawed. If you’re making a handmade instrument, you find the perfect piece of wood, you dry it out for a long time, you apply your considerable chops to it and you come out with a damn nice neck that stays straight with a nice fret job, if everything goes well. But in production, that simply isn’t the way it works. They have to get wood that they can get, it comes in on a truck, they cut it up and make guitars out of it. Some of them are better than others… you know…

 TQR:        Yes, we do know. We’re always talking about those “magical” guitars that for some reason just come off the line with a tone that’s uniquely fine and all their own. But you have to get very lucky to find one, and play as many as you can get your hands on in the process.

 Yeah, and who wants to sell ‘em? It seemed to me that in order to do really terrific fretwork you had to be part machinist, part jeweler, and part psychic. Then on top of that, if you didn’t have at least a few hundred fret jobs under your belt, the likelihood of being to handle the next one, whatever it was, was pretty low. Everybody’s guitar neck is different – some of them have bound ebony boards, some have lots of inlay, and those have their own unique problems. Some are maple, and those have their own issues, and then there are the frets that are available, which are not very precise, and in my opinion they are far too soft as a group. The temptation today is to make fret wire softer and softer, and that’s what the whole industry is succumbing to.

 TQR:        Because it’s cheaper?

 Because it’s easier to deal with. Yes, it is cheaper – the material isn’t cheaper – the cost of the four feet of wire required to do a fret job is pennies – but it’s handling the frets and getting them in right and then leveling them and polishing them and re-crowning them and all of that stuff. And standing behind them if the neck goes wonky afterwards. That’s where the expense is, and every guitar manufacturer struggles with this. And it seemed to me that if I was going to start a guitar company, I needed to solve this problem. I didn’t think it was fair for an unsuspecting guitar player to go purchase an instrument from a premium builder and then have to refret it. It just seemed cruel (laughs). And it seemed to me that there was no other product in life in which people would put up with that. I mean, let’s say you’re a trumpet player and you bought a trumpet and the middle valve didn’t come back all the time. You’re laughing, but if you go buy a premium guitar, you will have that experience quite often, and guitar players will just put up with it! It just made me mad.

 TQR:        Well, not only fret work – we’ve talked with people who work on new guitars that see inconsistent neck angles, humps in the fretboards… it’s like anything else – you need to know what to look for in a car or a guitar.

 Sure, but the fret thing really bothered me. I mean, frets are not that well-attached to begin with, having been driven into slots at the factory.

 TQR:        One of our pet peeves is when someone takes new fret wire with a nice high crown and just files it down so that now you’re playing on railroad ties.

 That’s one of the big problems, but there are unfortunate reasons for doing that. For example, the hump that you referred to – suppose that when you prepare the fretboard for fretting you don’t prepare it properly. When you’re all done and you string up the guitar that hump is still there – what do you do? Well, now you have to take that hump out of the frets. A perfect fret job occurs – and can be done – when after putting all of the frets in, you don’t have to level them. It’s a rarity, and it almost never happens, but it has happened with some of the guitars I’ve built in the past, but it’s very, very rare. The frets can go in unevenly, a little crumb of wood can lodge underneath the fret where it’s supposed to be touching the fingerboard – that’ll goof you up. You can hit the fret too hard and crush the fingerboard so that the fret seats too deeply. You can bend the fret wrong or hit it too hard so the ends pop up… It’s not like doing fret jobs is going to make you rich. I mean, here you are working in all this nasty dust, grinding someone’s chicken salad sandwich off their fingerboard with sandpaper… it’s kind of disgusting work, really. The fingerboards are falling apart and chipping… it’s not that a good job can’t be done, but it requires the patience of a saint.

 TQR:        For a couple of hundred bucks…

 That’s what you pay down there? Well, I’m thinking about those guitars with lots of binding and inlay – you get that for $200?

 TQR:        Not if you want to keep the nibs…

 Let’s say that you do a good fret job – then what happens? The owner takes it, plays the shit out of it and wears the frets out again. Not fair. This is a nineteenth century system and it’s just not OK – it’s not OK that it’s expensive, and it’s really not a long-lived system. And then once you replace the frets again you start taking chips out of the fingerboard slots, and before long you’re either putting puddles of epoxy in there or thinking seriously about replacing the fretboard. Those were the things that motivated me. Of course, everybody wants a fret that doesn’t wear out, and I explored this a long time ago. No wire company is going to talk about rolling really hard wire. Fretwire that looks like a mushroom on cross-section starts out round. It passes through a very precise set of hardened roller dies, and the dies form the wire into that funny shape with the tangs and the beads. That’s a tough project – not an easy wire shape to make and one of the more complicated production wire shapes, so the last thing the wire guy wants to do is roll hard material. It’s hard on the equipment, it’s hard to hold dimension, and at some point the metal just will not flow into that shape. It’s not like you’re squirting metal out of a hole – you’re trying to crush it into this other shape. So to do that, the metal has to flow, and metal can only flow so much before it work-hardens. Work-hardening is what happens that enables you to break a coat hanger with your hands. And it’s not enough to make fret material hard – you also have to make it tough, and stainless steel fills the bill. It has moderate hardness – not as hard as the pocket knife blade in your pocket – but its toughness is unsurpassed in metals. Its resistance to wear and deformation is huge.

 TQR:        So what you’re speaking of is pure stainless – no other alloys present?

 How much silver do you think is in nickel silver fret wire? Zero – never was any. It’s just a trade name that the Germans came up with – it’s a bronze, which is primarily copper and nickel, while brass is primarily copper and zinc, so when they say 18% nickel silver, they mean that there is roughly 18% nickel added to the copper and some other things. The difference in toughness between bronze and stainless steel is enormous. Nickel is hard stuff and reasonably tough when it’s by itself – a pretty formidable material, but you could never make fret wire out of it – it would be way to hard to deal with and it wouldn’t roll. They put as much nickel in the wire alloy as they can, but it just never gets hard enough and tough enough to behave the way we would ideally like it to behave, and as a result, frets wear out depressingly quickly. So when we say that our frets are stainless steel it doesn’t mean that there is stainless steel in the bronze – it’s all stainless, primarily made of iron, and the thing that makes stainless steel stainless steel is chromium. Chrome is really hard, very tarnish resistant, and it’s really, really tough.

 TQR:        You have developed a patented process of bonding the fret wire to the fretboard, correct?

 Right…our fretwire is actually a D shape and it’s bonded directly onto the fingerboard without the need for tangs, beads, or slots in the fingerboard. Another thing that we haven’t mentioned – and this is depressingly common – the slots in the fretboards of many commercial guitars are not accurately cut and the frets are not in the places they need to be. Consequently, these guitars cannot be made to play in tune no matter how you set the intonation. 

 TQR:        Are we talking about cheap commercial guitars?

 No, we’re talking about “top quality” guitars. I have a whole bunch of letters from people who say, “I can no longer play my XXX style guitar because I can’t get it to play in tune like my Fly. There are so many facets to this…when you were talking about your pet peeve (and it’s not just yours), about people grinding off fret height and rendering an odd shape fret with a flat top on it – there are two issues there. First, a fret with a flat top cannot possibly play in tune because the string cannot possibly be in the center of the fret, and the flatter it is, the worse it is. When the frets are freshly flattened, the string will play flat because the takeoff point will be at the backside of the fret, and when the frets have some wear the string will play sharp because the takeoff point will be at the front side of the fret (laughing). Does that suck? So the only correct shape for a fret is half-round or ovoid, or whatever it is – a beautifully smooth curve that connects the height and the width so that when you press down on the fret, the string is stopped at the center of the fret. There was a guy by the name of Phil Petillo…I don’t know if anyone remembers this…who had an idea to fix that, and he patented a triangular fret that really felt terrible, but guaranteed that the string witness point was in the middle of the fret (laughs). So that’s most of the fret story. The other part is that the frets are only one component of this – the others are the surface of the fingerboard, which has issues of feel and smoothness, and the configuration or overall geometry of the neck. If you look down a neck…by the way, if you don’t know, I’ll tell you that the correct way to do this is by looking from the bridge end… 

TQR:        Really?

 Everybody looks from the wrong end. Sight down the frets from the bridge end, and because of the beauty of mathematics and perspective, the frets will line up in a sheet if you hold the guitar at the right angle. They’ll look like a solid surface and it’s then pathetically easy to tell whether they are lumpy, or whether there’s a bump in them or a divot or an S curve or anything else. If you get good light from on top and you get the guitar aligned perfectly and you look from the bridge, you can tell everything about the guitar at a glance. Looking from the headstock is just an extra hurdle – it’s really hopeless.

TQR:        But if you wanted to detect a neck twist…

 It’s the best way to see any problem with a neck. Actually, all things being equal a neck twist is not a defect. It’s the one thing that a neck can do and still be made to play correctly, although the likelihood of this happening by itself is pretty slim. If you brought me a guitar with a big twist in it I could make it play to your satisfaction – even better. The reason for that is the neck needs to be correct for each string and each string is a separate entity and has its own frets of reference. In fact, there are a couple of people that build instruments that deliberately have very twisted necks – as much as 25 degrees of twist, which is hysterical. It’s a little bit of a brainteaser, but it works especially well on basses. Because of the length of the neck on a bass, as you move your hand down the bass your hand starts to unwind and twist away from you, and as you move your hand the other way towards the upper regions of the bass your hand naturally twists towards you.

 TQR:        That’s true, and the effect is even more pronounced if you’re a guitar player playing a bass like a guitar player.

 Yeah, exactly. But anyway, it can be done and a couple of people have patents on it.

 TQR:        How did you arrive at the fretboard radius for your guitars?

 On any stringed instrument where the string spacing is wider at the bridge than it is at the neck, the surface of a correct fingerboard is a cone and not a cylinder. It’s a section of a paper coffee cup, not a soda can. In that event, the arc on the fingerboard is different everywhere. It changes.

 TQR:        You’re saying it should change, ideally…

 It has to change…in order for it to be correct. The big manufacturers have never used conical surfaces – they never have. One of he reasons to refret a guitar is to flatten the end of the fretboard so it doesn’t fret out when you bend strings. They fret out because they’re too curved up there and if they are built correctly they won’t fret out. So in common guitarspeak, there are two phrases that are used to describe the arc of a fingerboard. Geometry is pretty cut and dried…how about the phrase compound radius? This is a term of nonsense – it has absolutely no meaning. A radius is the straight line measurement between the center of a circle and the outside of a circle, as you know. It is no more or less than a straight line, and you cannot compound a straight line. It’s geometrical nonsense, like saying a flat curve or a straight circle. What it’s intended to convey is the notion of a conical surface. Every violin that was ever made has this combination of shape. On a guitar that’s correctly set up, the arc is from a smaller circle at the nut than it is at the bridge, and that’s what people are trying to say when they use the term compound radius.

 TQR:        So what are you using on the Fly? I was at a shop earlier today and asked what the fretboard radius on a Strat I had with me was, and the guy just pulled out a Stew-Mac plastic template gauge – I was expecting something more interesting and complex as an answer…

 If you had a good guitar repairman and he refretted your guitar, when he was finished you would have a conical section. Not because he would get out templates necessarily (although if you subscribe to the Stew-Mac style you have to have a template to blow your nose), but just to accommodate the string. If you corrected the fretboard surface so that all the strings were happy, you’d end up with a conical surface. The reason is that there is no string on a six-string guitar that is parallel to the centerline. 

TQR:        So getting back to the Fly…

 At the 12th fret on both the Fly and the Nite Fly, the arc is that of a 12-inch radius circle – sort of in the middle, where a Gibson is. The old Fenders were very, very curved – ridiculously curved by modern standards. They’re odd don’t you think? It also causes difficulties with the magnetic pickups, which are not curved… Anyway, the Gibson standard is a 12-inch radius arc all the way from one end to the other, and Fenders or Ibanez or whatever are also the same from top to bottom.

 TQR:        Well, it’s too time consuming to cut a concial surface on a production fretboard, right?

 Right, it’s too much work, unless you’re the guy that says if I can’t create a perfect fretjob with frets that won’t wear out, then I don’t want to start a guitar company. We have a fixture that puts a conical surface on the guitar before the fretboard is glued on, and we do it under string tension. In other words, every single guitar that we have ever built has had a set of strings on it, and then has been frozen in that position in a special fixture and sanded to this conical surface. Then that conical surface is transferred through to the top of the frets by pressing a thin, conformal, fretted fingerboard to this perfect surface. That’s why we don’t do any fret work. If you do it right the first time, you don’t have to apologize for it, warranty it, and when we send you two guitars to review they both play great.   

 TQR:        You devote quite a bit of space in your literature to tone woods – a fairly new term in commercial guitar speak…

 When you start a company and you draw a line in the sand, you have to decide where you’re going to start, and we chose to start with a black guitar with a poplar body and a basswood neck. For a long time, it was a  handfull just meeting our own quality standards at that level. It took awhile before people started to ask why they couldn’t see the wood, and we started talking about using woods that were more demanding to put a finish on. The spruce material on the body of that Artist guitar that we sent you is very difficult to sand and finish, and although it may sound paradoxical to you, the softer the wood the more challenging it is to cut and finish the material. Try cutting a marshmallow with a dull knife. The term tone wood is almost meaningless… I mean, a weed in your garden could be almost anything… if you’re growing strawberries and a rose pops up, that could then be considered a weed (laughs). As far as wood is concerned, each kind of wood (and each board) has its own family vibe, and you start to find that out as you pick up the wood as a board. The more you work with it, the more you understand about it, but one of the things that you find out as a guitar maker is that there are so many things that make up the character of each type of wood that can’t be measured with a scale or a hardness meter. There’s stuff that’s happening inside the material – the way it bounces, the way it deforms and returns to shape pretty much on a microscopic level, all determines how the material is going to respond. Sometimes you want to choose a material that tends to be especially homogenous – particularly for a neck. Your are placing a huge set of demands on this little tiny piece of wood you are using for the neck, and you would like to depend on that material to behave in a predictable way – to resist the bending forces imposed on it in a predictable way that you can accommodate. For the body, you have more choices since the body is not as critical as an engineering member. For example, you could take one of our guitars and saw chunks off it and its character won’t change dramatically as long as the structure between the bridge and the neck remained intact. I know… so certainly the choice of wood has a major role in tone production, but in a way the neck is a sleeper – people don’t talk about the neck – everybody talks about the body as if it’s doing all of the work and the neck is just something you stuck on there and held in your hand. Consider that every time you move your hand on the neck and grab it in a different place, you are dramatically changing the physical characteristics of the instrument. The difference between holding it at the neck and not holding it with this big gooey bag of protoplasm with bones in it is dramatic. Listen to a guitar in a neck block being strummed versus a guitar up against a human, pressed against his belly, right forearm clamping the guitar up against him and his left hand damping the neck – it’s a huge difference.

 TQR:        We (and a lot of others) have often noted the relationship of the mass of a guitar neck to tone…

 Let me suggest to you that it’s not mass that does it – it’s thickness from front to back, and here’s why… Any mechanical engineer will verify that the stiffness of a beam (which they would call a guitar neck) is modified by the cube of its thickness. In other words, if you take a 2x4 and you lay it down flat and stand on it, then turn it on edge where it’s twice as thick, it’s not twice as stiff – it’s 2x2x2 times as stiff. The mechanical speak is that the stiffness varies with the cube of the beam depth. That means that when you take a guitar neck and add some material to it, you don’t make it a little bit stiffer – you make it hugely stiffer, and that’s what we do with the composite materials in the Fly guitar. It allows us to make a slender neck that behaves like a big, fat neck. 

TQR:        Without any variation from instrument to instrument?

 No, they are still handmade and there are little variations. We have CNC machines that cut them out, but the details are created by people and their hands. Up until Parker guitars was started, I had never made anything the same way twice in my life (laughs).

 TQR:        That’s the challenge in any manufacturing environment isn’t it – achieving consistency?

 Yeah, but also design. All those slab necks that everybody had to have in the ‘80s – where are they now?

 TQR:        So back to tone woods…

 Yeah, the neck, the stiffnesses and mass at the end of the neck (peghead) and the neck-to-body union, whatever that is – those things have a huge affect on the way that the instrument can respond and conserve energy, which is what sustain is all about – the conservation of energy. The energy has to go somewhere. If the string’s vibration is absorbed by the body of the guitar then we don’t have sustain. Physics again, but around the shop we playfully refer to each other as guitar scientists.

 TQR:        Your bridges are made from aluminum – again, not by accident…

 I’m often quoted at the shop for having said, “You can’t make an exceptional sounding instrument out of indifferent sounding materials.”  If you pick up a material and hit it with a hammer and it doesn’t sound great and put a smile on your face, don’t build anything out of it! When you take one of our bridges and whack it with your thumb, a piece of wood, or anything, it has to sing. Especially for the bridge – it has to be lively and conservative of energy. It can’t be an absorber of energy.

 TQR:        And the alloy that you use is crucial…

 Yep, and it’s not just the alloy – there’s heat treating stuff that we do – we played around with this for a very long time. Not to point out defects in other instruments, but let me just say in a generic way that many bridges in high-quality guitars are made out of material that doesn’t sound the slightest bit good.

 TQR:        They suck tone…

 Exactly – they absorb energy, which is the last thing you want from your bridge.

 TQR:        Pretty guitars in which the crucial hardware that influences tone is merely an afterthought driven by cost, cheaper being better…

 Yeah, like choosing your wife solely by how she looks in a bathing suit – nice if you can get the entire package, but generally not how it’s done if you want the best possible outcome.

 TQR:        But people eat with their eyes… Any other comments about wood?

 Well, like I said in our catalog, each type of wood has its own tribal song, and different boards of the same wood all sound like they know each other, even though they vary to some degree. We already make guitars out of basswood, poplar, mahogany, spruce and maple…

 TQR:        And ash…

 Yeah, for the Nite Fly, but the baby is the Fly, where all of the good stuff comes together from everything I developed in 1993. The Nite Fly was designed to appeal to different people. For one thing, you can install different pickups with no problem, or any number of pickups. The core in the neck is mahogany and it’s a little bigger, and we started out with basswood in the neck and switched to mahogany for reasons of sound. With the character of the bolt-on joint and the way the neck and body interact it just sounded better. I really feel strongly about this stuff. My group…my company could take any electric guitar made anywhere in the world and create drawings for it, create programs for a CNC machine, create a manufacturing series of steps and make the guitar to a standard that meets or exceeds the current standard by which that guitar is now made. And I can say with a great deal of confidence that no one could make our guitar – they couldn’t make one.       

TQR:        In part because you had been testing theories for so long prior to actually tooling up and building the Fly…

 Yeah, since 1981 – just trying to explore the form. I got hooked on poplar for these quick sketches because it sounds good…

 TQR:        Most people would turn their noses up at poplar.

 Yeah, it’s believed that poplar isn’t a wood that a real instrument maker would use, but it’s cheap, it’s real easy to get wide boards, it’s easy to work with… when you try and make something fast like I was for sketching out prototypes, it’s really nice when the material doesn’t fight you. The only thing you can make fast out of curly maple is a fire – it’s the most ass-kicking stuff – it’s just awful. Poplar is kind of medium density, medium hard, and while I was making the prototypes to prove concepts on the necks I was thinking, man, this stuff goes! I fell in love with this amazing poplar material. That was the kind of encouragement I was getting for using poplar in the early ‘80s. We make no apologies for using poplar. I was making long-scale basses that weighed five pounds… and they were singing. Guys would just hold them and their jaws would drop, and that was the kind of encouragement I was getting in the early ‘80s. Now, the problem with making guitars for guitar players is that unless you’re building something that looks like a Stratocaster or a Les Paul, it’s really an uphill battle – even from world-class musicians who should know better. “I don’t play anything that was made after 1960.”

 TQR:        Well, the guitar world is like that and we do tend to get stuck in that groove of what’s vintage and cool. Guys from our generation like the old classic designs – me included.

 Yeah, you know, when I was in New York I was working for guys with the wackiest haircuts, hardware on their lips, stuff on their faces, trying to be as different as they possibly could, yet they wouldn’t play a guitar built after 1960. Hell, they were built after 1960, so what’s up with that? I felt like saying, “You’re not paying attention.” But the bass players didn’t have that problem – they usually had their eyes closed listening to what was going on while the guitar players were busy looking in the mirror, dressing up cute, you know. Working on a look, while the bass players were working on creating a groove with the drummer that was so good that no one would ever want to play without them again (laughs). And also, the guitar players didn’t have their eyes closed and they weren’t looking at the guitar – they were looking at this tangled mess of crappy little stompboxes on the floor in their quest for tone. They didn’t know what their guitars sounded like, which was not the case with the bass players, so it was natural to start with those guys. It’s not a criticism, and I’m not mad about any of this stuff – but it made me start with focusing on the bass –if you can build a great sounding bass, you can build a great sounding guitar. 

TQR:        Why aren’t you building basses?

 Well…back in the day when it was just me and a shop full of junk and you wanted a 5-string bass, I’d say great. That’s an easy job as a one-off or in small production, but for manufacturing there are huge problems. Here’s one of the problems – now, what is a bass today? Does it have five, six, or seven strings? How do you design the string spacing? Should the neck be narrow or wide, and what about scale length – 34” , 35”, 36”?

 TQR:        How about a two string bass and lets just encourage all bass-playing brothers to stay down there on the bottom. Seriously, the market for bass doesn’t present the same economic potential, does it?

 Sadly, no, and it’s a shame because I love the electric bass, and it has huge potential for further development that hasn’t really been looked at.  When I got started with all of this it was clear that the bass players were the most open and they also had the biggest problems. Like Anthony Jackson was trying to play this bass that weighed 5,000 pounds and his main complaint to me was that he’d go to a session and his leg would literally fall asleep after 5 minutes. Then he’d put it on his left leg while his right leg woke up, you know? I just thought that was nonsense – this isn’t the way to solve this problem. The difference between mass and rigidity is an important difference.  

TQR:        Isn’t there also some element of magic that can occur – and element that no one fully understands? 

I’m there – I would always agree with that. I had a couple of friends in Rochester who were interested in basses, and one of them was the son of a very famous guy who was the principal bass player in the Rochester Philharmonic. His father had a beautiful gigantic Victorian house and there were 300 year-old basses literally in every corner of the house. Well, one night a group of us gathered there and we had perhaps one hundred old bass bows from around the turn of the century and the 19th century, and we were weighing them and measuring their point of balance and percussion, playing them with different basses…talk about magic. I was stunned – I was literally speechless at the end of the night at how different each bow made the basses sound.          

 TQR:        For no explicable reason?

 None – completely inexplicable – there are all of these variables and who knows how to sort them all out? I think that really great instruments of any kind exhibit a complexity that almost makes them anthropomorphic… It’s like you’re walking down the street and here’s a person that looks like this and another one like this, and here’s one that is your best friend…someone who will see you through thick and thin – that kind of magic. The more people tune into subtleties, the more subtleties there are to experience, so for guys like you and me… yeah, whatever you want to call it, there is something that you aren’t measuring that people aren’t going to be able to measure.

 TQR:        And you have to try to listen to as many instruments as you possibly can. Are you happy with what you’ve accomplished with Parker Guitars?

 Yes, I am, but I’m glad that I wasn’t ten years younger when I started this, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been happy.

 TQR:        Why?

 Because I didn’t know enough then. I can still look at the Fly today, but earlier I didn’t know how to connect the dots. Remember me telling you about drawing a peghead and gritting my teeth? I probably wouldn’t have been happy with it. Some of the elements of this instrument are verging on 20 years old and the whole is at least 10 years old and it still hangs together – I like it. I’m under no illusions that everything about the guitar is perfect, but it’s a very high-quality instrument and it’s consistently built to higher specifications than other people aspire to.

 TQR:        We found them to be extremely versatile as well.

 That’s Larry Fishman – 80% of the world uses his products for good reason.

 TQR:        What would you like to achieve in the future?

 It’s a little frustrating because I can’t really discuss what’s going on, but the people that have been exposed to these new projects are very excited about them.

 TQR:        How long will we have to wait to find out?

 Answering that is always a loser – I’ve been promising people basses for seven years (laughs).

 TQR:        Do you ever walk over to the line and just pull guitars off and look at them?

 Oh, yeah, all the time. I’m here every day. One of the things we’ve managed to do is reduce the time required in the manufacturing process by improving our efficiency, so we’ve actually cut the number of employees we need over the years and also raised our pay scales. It’s all about the people – in the end they make the products that have made the company successful.