ken parker new yorker

ONV/ARDAND Up\/ARD VITH THEAIITJ ounces.Youpickupaguitaranditwgighs seven pounds. Hasn't anyone*ondered what a four_pound guitar sounds likel,, JTRUTJ AND FRE]J ,.ol*j..i;#-Jt*;iT*5."l Buirdingaberterguitar ;'^1,,tlT::H'f;HxHl"I:l_ By BURKHARD DTLCER ;T[#:i;i.rT[?:.;ffii:.,.,:f:: I1 'n Parker's workshop lies an hour products, designed for assembty rines in ffi:1Xff::i?.1iffiil';il$:ff:tl l\northofNewYorkci$r'onawind- ilullerton or ilJazareth or Karamazoo, patents, paraded on the covers ofguitar ing forest road that skirts the highlands staffed by "lrdi., *iil-;;';.y. glasses magazines, and exhibited at the Smith- of the Hudson River' Its a trap"ezoidal ut'i hrhor' {r,.-"tiq to .o*uoyi^aio,' .";;-G the Fly's sales fell far short of structure of concrete and glass, set into asParkerputsit.rnig4g,aformerradio .rp..iu,iorrr. (Fender makes as many a steep slope like a piece of_qtartz, and repairman namedLeo Fender took a slab g"i;;; *.ek, parker says, as he made serves Parker as a kind of Fortress of oiash' bolted "" -..r--l"J s...w.d i' in thirteen years.) some rovedits thin, Solitude' "r'm in hiding," he told me' "I ;;; Tgl.tic pickups to ampli$, the *irfi ,;;p.. ,,It looks like something *1J;:#,13,f|jHI'" vears that sound.;d;', ild.,t.r.- il;;;;" the beach,,,Joni Mitcheri tars,andatieasttwoth-ou_\ryru€toldParker.Therestjust :EG ..r \G$rcG rrJ< rcnr,rtcJir .,ii,t "R,,* kels work tends to attra _E IIE =- J- il- T- -I- 5,--- =- -- fr-'rG:t - - - --- -. - rE_- =, .'- rvr(-r -rLdrdBU. Nen raftier .r-fffur. \r- Z 'l .-!.1 ' arru uq6a, ro DLu-ro iff- -r f ..(4||u\!:lUicliiil|il\Tccta*fu*.il.rl|Lrr|ji\ttulI!tni t.rI.uithbroad.ronr,'hotrl_re:il/L!,.-I'h.-,rr.cJutl.,nhi-\\ih.ire. Z. U.}tduUttIlUIctnanex_@:.w-+q#tg'{s4rru4lu5|ltvd5|''U|'l|'looKeo -EH $withhisspinestiff,hischest..,i...'...*];;ffifloatabovethebody,sup- ; |ffiltr "r?*lt1ff* Ken parker says, ,A good guitar is inagreement uitbitsetf ,, ported only by a golden -*ingbehindhim, likeanJd 'r-) ^-6""w64'14' LJLrruEtterneu'attoxtsef. post.Thesoundholehad been narrowed to a crescent E sailor with a tender back' and speaks in a casters are still made the same way. and movedto the side, whereit hung rike f boomy baritonethat sometimes rises to a Acoustic guitars with steel strings. have a waning moon. parker called his instru- ! high' sweetgiggle' His manner is more beenarou"nd lo.rger-thef *.rJdeu"l- -;;;4f,. orive Branch,,, but as design ! than genial' though it can't disguisehis opedin 9. 9+ ii"'rru.rar.a, *a ,;;;. go it looked more rike a dec- I impatience with fools' refined by th. M".tir, .o-prny rn tt. Tantion of war. It looked like something 9 Guitars are often foolish devices, nineteenlthirties-and haue chrrg.d ,h;;-pi;sso orJuan Gris might have ! Parker says'Their bodies are ungainly, wen less. "so-. p1.t11ioilaou, ,rung, painted: an old, familiar form made sud- $ their necks easilywarped, int#aaJn hru. ,-ro, b..., tri.d,,, lark r says. ,you ienly, startlingly modem. = unreliable. The great majority are factory pick up a violin and it weigh, ,i*r..r, -"'ii..6fr". Branch is an a6empr ro THE NEV YORITER, MAY 14,2OO7 iti i i i il t1 ii jl il il il i1 1l ii

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Ken Parker Interview


Page 1: Ken Parker New Yorker

ONV/ARDAND Up\/ARD VITH THEAIITJ ounces.Youpickupaguitaranditwgighsseven pounds. Hasn't anyone *onderedwhat a four_pound guitar sounds likel,,JTRUTJ AND FRE]J ,.ol*j..i;#-Jt*;iT*5."l:il:

Buirdingaberterguitar ;'^1,,tlT::H'f;HxHl"I:l_By BURKHARD DTLCER ;T[#:i;i.rT[?:.;ffii:.,.,:f::

I1 'n Parker's workshop lies an hour products, designed for assembty rines in ffi:1Xff::i?.1iffiil';il$:ff:tll\northofNewYorkci$r'onawind- ilullerton or ilJazareth or Karamazoo, patents, paraded on the covers ofguitaring forest road that skirts the highlands staffed by "lrdi., *iil-;;';.y. glasses magazines, and exhibited at the Smith-of the Hudson River' Its a trap"ezoidal ut'i hrhor' {r,.-"tiq

to .o*uoyi^aio,' .";;-G the Fly's sales fell far short ofstructure of concrete and glass, set into as Parkerputsit.rnig4g,aformerradio .rp..iu,iorrr. (Fender makes as manya steep slope like a piece of_qtartz, and repairman named Leo Fender took a slab g"i;;; *.ek, parker says, as he madeserves Parker as a kind of Fortress of oiash' bolted ""

-..r--l"J s...w.d i' in thirteen years.) some roved its thin,Solitude' "r'm in hiding," he told me' "I ;;; Tgl.tic pickups to ampli$, the *irfi ,;;p.. ,,It

looks like something*1J;:#,13,f|jHI'" vears that sound.;d;', ild.,t.r.- il;;;;" the beach,,,Joni Mitcherita rs ,andat ieas t twoth-ou_\ ry ru€ to ldParker .Theres t jus t

:EG..r \G$rcG rrJ< rcnr,rtcJir .,ii,t "R,,*kels work tends to attra

_E IIE=- J-


T- -I-5,---=- --

fr-'rG:t -

- ---- -. -rE_- =, .'-

rvr(-r -rLdrdBU. Nen raftier .r-fffur. \r- Z 'l .-!.1 ' arru uq6a, ro DLu-ro

iff- -r f. . ( 4 | | u \ ! : l U i c l i i i l | i l \ T c c t a * f u * . i l . r l | L r r | j i \ t t u l I ! t n i

t . r I . u i t h b r o a d . r o n r , ' h o t r l _ r e : i l / L ! , . - I ' h . - , r r . c J u t l . , n h i - \ \ i h . i r e .

Z.U . } t d u U t t I l U I c t n a n e x _ @ : . w - + q # t g ' { s 4 r r u 4 l u 5 | l t v d 5 | ' ' U | ' l | ' l o o K e o


$ w i t h h i s s p i n e s t i f f , h i s c h e s t . . , i . . . ' . . . * ] ; ; f f i f l o a t a b o v e t h e b o d y , s u p -

; |ffiltr "r?*lt1ff* Ken parker says, ,A good guitar is in agreement uitb itsetf ,, ported only by a golden-*ingbehindhim, l ikeanJd

'r-) ^-6""w64'14' LJLrruEtterneu'attoxtsef. post.Thesoundholehadbeen narrowed to a crescentE sailor with a tender back' and speaks in a casters are still made the same way. and moved to the side, where it hung rikef boomy baritone that sometimes rises to a Acoustic guitars with steel strings. have a waning moon. parker called his instru-! high' sweet giggle' His manner is more been arou"nd lo.rger-thef *.rJdeu"l- -;;;4f,. orive Branch,,, but as design! than genial' though it can't disguise his oped in

9. 9+ ii"'rru.rar.a, *a ,;;;. go it looked more rike a dec-I impatience with fools' refined by th. M".tir, .o-prny rn tt. Tantion of war. It looked like something9 Guitars are often foolish devices, nineteenlthirties-and haue chrrg.d ,h;;-pi;sso orJuan Gris might have! Parker says' Their bodies are ungainly, wen less. "so-. p1.t11ioilaou, ,rung, painted: an old, familiar form made sud-$ their necks easilywarped, int#aaJn hru. ,-ro, b..., tri.d,,, lark r says. ,you ienly, startlingly modem.= unreliable. The great majority are factory pick up a violin and it weigh, ,i*r..r, -"'ii..6fr".

Branch is an a6empr ro



i lt1i ij li li li li11li i

Page 2: Ken Parker New Yorker

tdo for acoustic guitars what the Fly tried

to do for electrics, but it's in every sense

an even riskier venture. It's a virtuoso's

instrument for a PoPulist music; an

acoustic device for an amplified age; a

radical reinvention of a design all but

abandoned decades ago. When I first

saw it, I asked Parker what he was

thinking as he built it. Did he imagine

that sorieday everyonewould make gui-

tars like thii, or that no one else in the

world could make such an instrument?

He was quiet for a moment' seemingly

,t r-p"d. Then he shrugged' "Both,"

he said.

rFhese ouqht to be excellent t imes

I fot guitar designers. Theirs are the

rnort pof,.ilut instmments in the world,

,rr.d by .ontttry crooners' gothic rock-

ers, and African soukous players alike'

Some three million guitars were sold in

the United States last year-as many as

all other instmments combined-and

the best vintage guitars are extraor-

dinarily valuable. Twenty years ago,,a

oristine 1959 Gibson Les Paul might'have

sold for ten thousand dollars;

todav. it can fetch four hundred thou-

,uttd. Attd yet, along the way' guitars

have become deeply conservative' Most

electric guitars look like Les Pauls or

Stratoca=sters, and three-quarters of all

acoustic guitars are dreadnoughts-

a fat-bottomed design from 1916' "This

is rock and roll!" Parker says' "You

would think that guitar players would be

open and brave and experimental' And

they are not. As a group' they are not'

Thatguywith the Puryle Mohawk? He

*orrt piuy anlthing made after 1960'

Wait a minuie, dudet. You were made

after 1960."One afternoon this winter, I watched

a man named Tom MurPhY sYstemat-

icallv beat up a brand-new Les Paul'

Muiphy, who is fiftY-six, works for

Gibson s custom, art' and historic divi-

sion. He has thick forearms and ruddy

features and a boyish devotion to the

guitar heroes of his youth. Everyweek

i , t *o, the comPanY sends ten or

twenty guitars to Murphjs workshop,

in Marion, Illinois, and he sends them

back looking as ifthey'd been played

for fiftvvears.'v\4ren I visited, he began

by some lines into the lacquer

vntharazorblade, to mimic the crackle

of an old finish. He shaved the edges

offthe fingerboard, so that theylooked

worn by iountless earsplitting solos'

Then he took a bunch of keYs and

shook them over the surface, like a spi-

der skittering over glass. To imitate

vears of belt wear, he held an old buckle

uguinrt the back and whacked \t a few

tines with a hammer' Then he fliPPed

the guitar uPside down and slowlY

ground the headstock into the concrete

floor.A "Murphvized" Gibson sells for

twice of u regular Les Pau| and

Murphy's signed Jimmy Page replicas

(complete with cigarette burns) have

go.r.'fo, as much as eightY thousand

Iolats. Fender's aged gr,ritars have been

eouallv successfirl. Customers can choose

from"various degrees of wear, from

Closet Classic ("played maybe a few

times per year and then carefully put

"*"y'') to Heary Relic ("playedwig-

orously on a nighdy basis") to the Rory

Gallaqher Tribute Stratocaster ("worn

to th; wood"). When I asked Matt

IJmanov, whose guitar store has been a

fixture in Greenwich Village fot forty

years, why people buy these instruments,

he made an impatient noise. "Ninetyper

cent of this buiiness is male-oriented,"

he said. "In my opinion, most purchases

are governed by four words: the zipper

is down."Vintage guitars, authentic or not'

are hard to judge on their own merits'

Their sound comes to us as a mixture ot

memory and acoustics, musicianshiP

and wish-firlfillment. Without "Purple

Haz.d' or"Yoodoo Chile," the squeal and

moan of a Stratocaster might seem less

appealing; without "Tangled UP 1"

B1,r.," u Martin might sound merelY

pretty. Still, the best old instruments'hut"'^

harmonic richness that tran-

scends subjectivity. Vintage Telecasters

have been hooked up to oscilloscoPes

and found to generate more oveltones

than newer guitars, and even the small-

est old Maitins can ring as loudly as

church bells. 'You could put a blindfold

on and you would saY' 'Oh mY God'

that is so beautifiil,'" T. J. Thompson, a

guitar-maker in Concord, Massachu-

ietts, told me. "It sings, it's balanced' it's

musical. Every chord you play sounds

magical."Thompson restores vintage acoustlc

zuitars and makes exceptional new ones'

iP*k t calls him "an angelically gifted

builder.") He estimates that only about

one in twenty prewar Martins has that

mesmerizing sound' but that those alone

could drive the vintage craze' "They

should comewith awaming"'he told me'

"IfI out one ofthose old &eadnoughts in

vo.ri h"nd, yotill never forget it' Yotill

io.rg for it' and youll sell any holdings in

ref estate you have, and your marriage

s*/?l F lts

* R A

-t:.'Andjust hous do you ex?ect to beco?71e -a tndn' son'

uith out i s o lid^ Iib eral- arts e ducation?"

Page 3: Ken Parker New Yorker

will end, and your kids worit go to col-lege. But you'll be happy, because youhave a dreadnought."

Guitar-makers, or luthiers, as theylike to be known, have tried to isolatethe magic in older instruments, only tofind that itlies largelyin age itseH Timetransforms a guitar's materials. Thewood grows stiffer and more resonant.The lacquer develops hairline cracks, re-laxing its straitjacket grip on the wood.The magnets in pickups weaken andrust, deepening and mellowing the tone.A new guitar is like a novice choir: agathering of disparate parts, held to-gether under pressure, straining to carrythe same tune. The more it's played, themore it settles into its true voice. Theneck and body,joints and braces, bridgeand fingerboard stop fighting one an-other and start to sing in unison.

A good designer can duplicate someofthese effects. But the sound ofa vin-tage guitar is partly an echo of what'sbeen losr Brazi\an rosewood, elephantivory, old-growth spruce and mahog-any-the worlds best acoustic materi-als, now all but unavailable. "I havea piece of veneer from the twentiesor thirties," Thompson told me. "I pickit up and I'm just in awe. I can hardlybend it. It has the weight ofwood but itfeels like ceramic. And I'm supposed tofind a piece ofwood in the world todaythat's forty-thousandths ofan inch thickand that stiff? You know what? Itdoesrit exist."

NTo,long before I met Parker, myI \ wife's uncle Ken offered to buildan elecffic bass for my son. Ken is a re-tired economist in Virginia with a firllyequipped wood shop in his basement.He built a lovelyversion of a'59 Les Paula few years ago, and he seemed happy tohave another project. My son, a vintagebufflike any other, decided that the newinstrument should be a copy ofhis teach-els bass: a hollow-bodied Gibson fromthe nineteen-sixties, with Fholes like aviolin and a huge, echoey sound. (Itspickups are sometimes called "mudbuck-ers.") My job was to buy the materialsand send them to Ken.

Ive probably spent a couple ofhun-dred hours in guitar stores over theyears. Even a megamall can't seem torob them of their charms: the flam-boyance ofthe instruments, the studied

scruffiness of the stafl the eager racketof half a dozen noodling guitarists-

John Cage for boneheads. I usually tryto find the most expensive guitar in theshop, then I whale away on some riffswidely considered kick-ass when I wasin high school. Sometimes, one of theclerks comes over and asls me to stoD.

The bass project unloosed this com-pulsion. The longer I looked for parts,the deeper I ventured into a realm ofgearheads and guitar fanatics, acousticsavants and reverse engineers. Everytrick of modern science and forensicca{pentry, it seemed, was being used toreproduce the sound of nineteen-fiftiestechnology. One luthier, on an island inPuget Sound, dipped his pickups in aCrockpot firll of wax and wound themwith a sewing-machine motor to mimicthe handiwork of the old Gibson fac-tory. Another froze his metal pickups tothree hundred degrees below zero, in-sisting that the molecules would realignas they do with age. Some builders blastedtheir instruments with giant speakers tosimulate the effects of years of playing.Others swore by "timeless timbel': old-growth maple and otherwoods, dredgedfrom the bottoms of northern riversand lakes.

Some ofthe worlds finest electric gri-tars, I read in a newsletter called TheToneQuest Report, are made in the townofHyvinkdii, in soutlem Finland. Theirdesigner, a mad young Finn namedJuhaRuokangas, uses flamed Arctic birch,pickups wound by a German guitar guru,and inlal's as exquisite as Faberge eggs.(One shows a scene from the Finnish na-tional epic, the Kalevala.) The wood isthermo-treated-slowly heated, in a pro-cess patented by a Finnish university, tomimic the curing effects of time-andcoated in a lacquer designed to crack andcraze like a fifty-year-old finish. Thecrowning glory of a Ruokangas, though,is the nut-the thin strip at the top oftheneck that lifts the strings above thefingerboard. In some of the best old in-struments, the nut is made of elephantivory and is said to lend an ineffabie res-onance to the tone. In a Ruokangas, it'smadefrom the shinbone ofawild moose.'\Me skin them, chop them into pieces,and boil them in mv vard on an oDenfue," Ruokangas toldthe edtor of Ti ne-

Quest."Moose bone is the best."The Finn was an inspiration. My

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Page 4: Ken Parker New Yorker

son, I'11 admit, was showing signs ot

wanins interest, but the bass project I bought thick boards of

Afican black limba-"the holy grail of

tone woods," according to one builder'

I ordered Dark Star PickuPs, hand-

made to replicate a Swedish design

used by the bratefirl D"ad' I found the

origini patent d.t"*t"g: for the Gib-

son bass, and a basstst tn

Louisiana who could wire

the controls with vintage-

correct comPonents. For

the nut, I did Ruokangas

one better. I located a man

in southern Alaska with a

cache of fossilized walrus

ivory, five thousand Yearsold. When I had a chunk

drill press, lathe-stood with clamps

and b-lades at the readY'One of Parker's first jobs was in a

grandfather-dock factory in Rochester,

ind he's never lost his love fot atcane

machinery. 11. srills most of his own

quitars for Pat MethenY,, Iold me when she visited

one daY.) Most luthiers

wax almost mYstical about

wood and the hand-built

qualities of their instru-

ments. Parker comPares

his to speedboats and race

cars-engineering chal-

lenges as much as artistic

ones. "I'm a tJolmaker," he says' "I

it has to be strong. Things dont alrruays

work out. Even iflhe neck doesn't bend,

the bridge doesn t poP off, the strings

don'tbvzz, the guitar maY resPoncl

poorly to playing. Its wood may vibrate

well only at certain frequencies, so some

strinqs souttd weaker than others' It

*"u f,"'u. dead spots or "wolf tones" that

sound muffied or unPleasant' In some

{uitars, the neck and body, top and bot-

t"om, produc. sound waves that are out

ofphase: their peals and troughs flatten

on. "rroth.,

witen th.y collide' In oth-

ers, the sound builds up' wave on wave'

"A good guitar is in agreement with it-

self," Parker said.

T T ow best to achieve that isn t clear'

.f-IA ceflo is a cello, a sousaPhone is

a sousaphone, but the guitar has yet to

find itsbhtonic form. In the three cen-

turies since Antonio Stradivari and Giu-

seppe Guarneri perfected the violin, the

guiiut ft"t moryhed from a thin-hipped

fittt fig*. to a plump matron' trading

double strings for single strings,,in sets

of four, five,iix, or more. Tricked out in

tortoiseshell or mother-of-pear1, it has

been good enough for aristocrats and

warbli"ng ladies, strumming coyly be-

tween v-erses. When cheaply made' it

has been an instrument of the people'

"The guitar is no more than a cowbell,"

the Sfanish Inquisitor Don Sebastidn

de Covarrubias Orozco complained in

1611, "so easy to pl"y' . ' that there is

not astable tad wtro is not a musician"'

That much hasn't changed'

Classical guitars with gut strings hn-

ally found tieir Stradivari in the mid-

nineteenth centur/, in the Spanish lu-

thier Antonio de Torres Jurado, whose

designs are still used. But steel strings

demanded a stouter structure' bome-

time in the eighteen-seventies' a shoe-

store clerkin K^u^ ^o named Orville

Gibson began to wonder whY guitars

weren't -ud" tttot. like violins' A vio-

lin's arched top is inherently stronger

than a guitar s flat top. It needs less brac-

ine, solt canvibrate more freely and give

" irorrg.., more focussed tone' Gibson

mad. f,is first archtop guitars in his

spare time, then quit his job and hired

siaff as orders increased' In the nine-

teen-twenties, a brilliant luthier named

Llovd Loar refined Gibsons designs'

"ddine f-holes and other violinlike

touche"s. By the thirties, archtops were

shipped to Ken's house, he

,.r,r'*. a digital picture of it-black-

ened with "g.

tit i the tip of a charred

spear. Hewa-s getting alitdeworried, he


T told Parker about the walrus ivory the

I fust time I visited him. He gave me a

look of mild pity, like a doctor who'd

seen these ryrnptoms before, then disap-peared into thi back of his workshop' he returned, he was holding a

larse grayish bone. He'd done some

.r,rf.*"o.ti*.nts of his own, he said, in

the early nineteen-eighties' "I thought'

O.K., I'il make one out of every conceiv-

able material, then see if I can tell the

difference. I triedwood, brass, nickel sil-

ver, elephant ivory-eveq'thing'' The

bone in his hand was an ostrich femur,

from a bird raised by a friend in Califor-

nia. "He thought itwould make superior

nut material,-so I cut it up and made,a

couple of parts out of it," he sai-d'."And'.rrou kno*' it's iust a bone' It barelY

Lakes a differenie." He handed it to me'

"Changing this is like a girl thinking

that if ;he"changes her nail polish she'll

be beautifi'rl."It was late morning, and a Pale win-

ter sun had risen outside' The light

came slanting through the workshofs

hieh windows, kindling the sawdust in

th! air. Parker had populated the shop

with his preoccupations: wood bins and

tool cabinets, tube amplifiers and bass

scrolls, a tandem bicycle and a wooden

rowing shell suspended from the raf:

t"rs. Along the walls, a battalion of cast-

iron machines-band saw, table saw'


make tools for musicians."

The task that morning was to cawe

the top ofa new guitar. Parker began with

a thi& board of Adirondack sPmce-

flat on the bottom and Peaked down

the middle like a roof-and placed it in

what he called his "duplicating machine"'

This consisted ofan electric carver and a

dummy stylus, running along the.same

st"el beam. The carver moved back and

forth over the spruce, while the stylus-ral

over an archei mold that Parker had

made. As the stylus rose up and down the

mold, the carver moved with it' Sttip Pystrip, the board began to assume the

shape of a qende arch. "It's like mowing a

lawn!" Parker shouted, over the low roar

of the machinery.A zuitar isntt an especially hard in-

,mr*!nt to build-'Try a haqpsidrord,"

Parker said-but it leaves little room

for error. The mechanism is simple: six

strings, stretched taut across an oPen

chaniber. vibrate when struck This sets

the top moving, amplifying the vibra-

tions, turning the guitar into a pump

that pushes iund waves out through

the sound hole. The strings alone make

almost no sound, so everything depends

on the wood's resonance' There's no

bow to keeP the notes from dYing, no

mouthpiece or bellows to sustain them'

The plaver makes the smallest of ges-

t rr.rjtor, *hack the string and that's

it," Parker said-and hopes the guitar

will turn them into music'

To resonate well, the wood has to be

thin. To withstand the strings'tension,


..,:r!r,-4qsr i.ff i j

Page 5: Ken Parker New Yorker

the most popular guitars in the country'

They weie larger and louder than flat-

topr, y.t more articulate-Perfect for

fleet-fingered jazz solos that could cut

throueh a blare of horns' TheY gave

chordi a ringing punch and bass runs

a penetrating snap: Maybelle Carter

played an archtop on earlycounffytunes-[k"'\Mildl"ood Flower."

To a luthier in the thirties, archtops

must have seemed like the capstone of

quitar development. Then magnetic

ii.krrot .u*e along and the instru-

it,.nrt changed aga1n. An amPlified

guitar can't b. too resonant or it will

,"qrle"l with feedback. Fender solved

this problem by giving electric guitars

solid bodies; Martin kept most of its

flattops purely acousticl Gibson's arch-

toos fell-somewhere in between' Some

*"r" *ade with dull' laminated toPs;

others had holes cut in them for pick-

ups, or solid blocks of maple running

dt*n the center to dampen the sound'

"lf you had a Martin, a good one, and

then picked up a Gibson Super 400, you

*orlldr,, have the slightest idea whY

anyone would play that," Parker says'

"Iis qigantic, but it doesn't sound gi-

eant[.-Vvhere is the fun in that?" Park-

!1s new guitar was pardy an attemptto

reclaim tlat history-to see what arch-

tops miqht have become if the electric

zuit- nid never been invented' "They

,*ort of became dinosaurs," he saYs''Theywere labelled as the leastversatile

of all guitars. But in mY oPinion an

ar.htof properlybuilt is a chameleon' It

can do anltthing."When-Parker had finished with the

duplicating machine, the spruce board

*", u torrgh arch about a quarter inch

thick. He grabbed it with both hands-

his fingers were a good knuckle longer

than mine-and flexed itlike a Pizzapan. Guitar toPs are made from soft

woods, like spruce and cedar, thatvibrate

easilv: their backs and sides are made

from hardwoods, like rosewood and

maple, that are good at reflecting sound'

Pa.Lt held the board up to his ear and

tapped it with his forefinger' It gave a

duli tine. "Hear that?" he said' "It's a

minor second." He hummed the two

notes of the interval below his breath'

Then he Picked uP a hand Plane and

went to worlg shaving thin ctuls from the

inner surface. 'You want it to get excited

about playing every note," he said' "At a



Time can be told in the opening of a flower,

Trumpet of dawn, flugelhorn of the sun

Sinkine down. Noiseless explosionsGreet i-n attentive eye. And the ear

Is a flower, too, a welcome home for echoes,

Kisses, and cackles. Cauldron of starlight,

Tincture and blaring cry, whatever brushes

Your senses unlatches a doorwaY

Scoured by salt, vanishing as you plunder

The coffeis of sleep. So you will know

What it means to 6e utterly free, floating

Without a hope, floating in hope, a medium

Fit for the beingyou have become, $lvenThe bed you have made, the race you won'


quarter inch, it won't get excited about

playing one."' brr"t the next two weeks, Parker

would plane offanothereighth ofan inch

o, *o.., till the top rang at the faintest

touch. Itwas a perilous process. The thin-

ner the wood, the fuller the sound-

Parkels tops are less than half as thick as

some luthiers'-but a shaving too many

could destroy the top or suddenly dampen

it. "The real question is, when do you

stop?" he said. Stradivari seems to have

carved his violins so the tops and bottoms

ranewith the same note when tapped-

"r, F b.lo* middle C. But Parker had

given up on easyprescriptions' uEveryone

f,", u t..t t recipe," he said. "Everyone is

tqilng to do sciatch-for-scratch re-pro-

drr.t[ttt of ancient instruments' If you

had any guts, Youd make a nice new in-

strument-and iet the wodd beat it up for

three hundred years." He lifted the board

aqain, flexed, and tapped. 'You dont get

tier. bv secrets," he said. 'You get there

by doing er.t aY t h in g better."

parker came_of age. in the nineteen-

-F s.lrenti.s, when guitars were sorely in

need of a little idealism. He grew up in

Islip, on the South Shore ofl'onglsland,

the eldest son of a Methodist minister

notably more progressive than his con-

sreqation. The Parkers joined the March

6nWashington, in 1963, and received

-Phillis Lertin

death threats for taking on a black stu-

dent pastor. "On the spectrum from Bible

thumper to social helper, my father is way

on the social-helper side," Parker told me'

"No thumping at all." His mother had a

master's in religion and education from-

Columbia and was, if anything, more of

an activist. Until she died, two years ago'

she had a gold P\T nouth plastered with

bumper stiikers-"MyJob Is to Comfort

the Disntrbed and Distub the Comfort-

abldLthat Parker now drives. He took

me to lunch in it one day. "I wonder if

President Bush misses the letters he used

to get from Grace K. Parker, Methodist

Woman," he said.After graduating from high school, in

1970, Parker spent the better part ot a

year ̂ t Goddard, an alternative college

in northem Vermont. He took a class in

furniture-building and made a fretless

bass for his brother Alan. But the schools

long-haired h.yd"y had passed ('It Y"tafte-r the nude class picturd'), and Parker

found better fumiture-makers elsewhere'

Rochester, then as now' was a city fi'rll of

musicians and craftsmen-the Eastman

School of Music and the Rochester In-

stitute ofTechnology were there' Parker

worked at the grandfather-clock factory

for fwo y"att, then tried his hand at

making five-string banjos and kinetic

furniture. He took some group guitar

lessons, but was never more than a ser-


.:i r Plgagtt, Isouro

z "Atir€gD, BI

Page 6: Ken Parker New Yorker

viceable player,*,n " :::lg-Olldopp{ ation of gifted luthiers who were con_touch' still, his teachels guitar ent anc.i uinced thEy.o;d d" ;."*'i" co*n*

lffir.:JffiGibson ;hr"p;;H

1, i*rrr, Jean Laniv6e in British Co_F", " ;d; after that,parker did lr*'l#i;ffi*}.i,}l1nothing but build archt3gs. H. -o*J -oi.uing rh.i, work on prewar Martinsback to Long Island

""a irru,.a

" -tr.] .ti1":"t*tars. parkerhad with a rutemaker named Robert lilrr"*li.**d;:ffi;.quitandMeadow. when he'd finishe-Jhtr;;;; *i'ilo into his grandfathels house in

#j|''lt::f*:i},Y:: t1i1{; 3;"* connecticur He had rew ex-r store' in Greenwich vrrug.. u-"".' ;.iffi;:ffi:;r$lr#:l*ff$,told him that it rooked ur..i"*.J'i"f" :F "

,r;;r;;;;jyi.rig' and repairhippie had made' so?arr<etrrr"*.J'irt j.r, s", r"r"rr,;;;;;hry.ars, he qui_

{pxr",'*nxJtr til :i,l..,tT i*ifiqffi*H,it1,'"n; ;;.';,neighborins town on i*g rrr""a. a

-};q#iri'rr*rr.* scratch_ro

f:i-:*:-.1*"r:rrn"-i,?ffi*rf, go back,hot ouire to the hnr^..._r^_ ^_thedashingr.r".i,-yfi"#,il'fjff ff trJ:,ifi$:;ti",|T,,3-Jlnad apprendced under Iohn D'fs.ti9o, *lo* ,i6.rr,"iti.Jri_o "*., __the other giant of pos-nvar -.t to! a.J .Jrr'i r"r*_ents. He read manuals onffi-li:ffiff:J:H:# ffj::;"' ;*:s y rc- il ffi; (.,r, is n.i

1e64;DAqui""'"i-.pir.p,i.r.L*.,ffi-*i"dfirr{.r#:r"_"r',ln5in 1995.) When parker.iro#q:,

lt J""*.,f;d, ,first yoy irurt

"ppty an ex_shop, DAquisro was used to visiis from, and then ,poil ir.,,; Bu,acolltes. He told parker tfr"t fr. aa"{ *r*rn. thought aboutlutes.need an apprentice. Th,

rhat his archtop *, ,1.,..^1"1?j:li|11 - Lutes *.r.ih. St

"ro.rrt.r, of ,f,.that his archtop was the u*, n", g'rr* *."1T,.,'i"xrril',iil?ffiilr',:*:ilC Tl,*

You're *u'v irv',?.,op iltyl+:rd"y rh.y'*J,. teardrop-, .1yri* *"' **v-qq.,He rert as ir ;H.'i*Hf ffiilm*:: n:he'd been kt'ish*d' h*ora -., uu, r,.

".J p*r.., r,ad watctred Meadow make

[1fqf;I[ii',?l'::i:i:*fl:]T *'H ", r""glr*J";t.t,r'".r..a 1b.,itd''T'"'ra"is.;#.,t d," h.,rid. ffiH:T*.:#,'i;llru.Tja /#;r*:;:td

ao"*", n" otf,., p.opf.;, ffi by .bo'y yeneers, their bodies hetd lIn tgii,pa&n rook a ioh es o _,ir.- llg:lh.: parchm.rr. "frr.r. _"1 /rn 7eze, parker took a job as a suitar ;".ffilJrfiJ,1,TffiLl[.J:,il$repairman at StuwesantMusic, ""'W;; *lL rn. r.rrrt ofan equation. you had aFortv-eighth street in u""r'.l*. ri. rl'il,or.uro.- rrG ;i;li inr.rri.,.r,shop was a crossroads q,=ilhi"; ,lr'rr"a to fil'a;r";rh:rund, andplayers of every swte;{obertnttd ii.r"ry*y-;.,rhil"lr-e andpro-Andy Summ.rr, Ioi,r, n,.i"rghftffi n[r* ry": to make them light. Its likePass-and theiizuitars,"*ai.aiji.'"n'iro-rurt,oned

sports cai-ane*1s1*l;j,ffii ?;h::j:*1;; ;ilT"" s,.ii 9s.ioe. that's been rorgotten. you^a"*"ti.,?ffiHiit{il#+H.:i}T;*T,ql:;i#fyi1r,,,,#;;and standards had fa[enac;"; ili.,i] f"'" r"o. u guit", *or. rik

",*::Z (The ladies in cat s-eye glasses

raqe a g''tar more like a lute? /hadn't done such bad work,'^f,8,

"ffj /\Players -."ra ..-.lI *rrr brand-new UffJ"ll-of Parker's workshop is

guitars that were armost unplavabre: ;,.j'[*ffi ::f,f;'ftf.ffi$'ffi*,necks bent' frets uneven, i"*rioriffi rrl, "rroui.graphy in instrument fom."The Seventies were it. o*r.a*.rf; #nl1^, -i, r,#.;;"ud.rnoor,, r,..Parker says' "r dont knorvo t *iv;; p"'.i.n* 9re of the thinnest cases andlogue in American manufacturingwhere tr.r"a ,l +; ;il#I; .:mpressor.

,t ,*:T$',::l';,*o o*ot 'itt 'onl ii." 11g1.9.out a Fryguita,, gr.u-r,,g

fl;;;;i'ffi; opening for a gener_ t,Tl#,1.ri.",,",11ls:.;'"

piece of

* * . . ail ;q'pu.;t'; maf kSThe New yorker promotion

Department invi tes youto look for this release.



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"Joining searing childhood rnernojrssuch as The 6lass CasileandRunning with Scissors canesthe impressive \riving withDead people, a fascinating,gritty, hilarious read ...,,*teslie Moryan Steiner.

Los Angeles &nes best-sellingeditorof MannyWars


Page 7: Ken Parker New Yorker

drifwood than like a modern dancer:

shoulders thrown back, thin arms con-

torted, every excess trimmed away' Its

headstock had been whittled to the

width of two 6.ngers. Its sides were bent

as if poised to leap into the air' When I'd

ordei.d materials for my son's bass, the

wood alone had weighed forty pounds

uncut. Ifwe were lucky, the finished in-

strument would weigh between eight

and nine pounds-about as much as a

Les Paul. The Flyweighed half that, yet

its lightness was less startling than its

balan"ce. "Let go ofa Stratocaster and the

headstock hits the floor," Parker liked to

sav. "f,et qo of a Les Paul and it hits your

."t." Tn."RY sat quietlY on mY ht1-

no hands requireJ-and waited to be

played.' Parkels guitar was made with fibre-

qlass and carbon graphite, rather than in-

iestines arrd parchment, but it follow-ed

the lutemaler's basic equation' Its

strength lay in its surfaces. The carbon

a.rd g'l"rs dbt"t *.t. impregnated with

resin and laminated onto a core of sprucet

Doplar, or basswood. Parker had discov-

.t a A. technique in the mid-eighties'

when he visited a maker of racing sculls

with Larry Fishman, the engineer who

later designed the Fly's electronics'

Within a iareek, Fishman had made a

pickup out of the material and Parker

irad made a zuitar. "Itwas almost like in-

venting a nJw sp"ci"s of wood," Parker

said. '{ou startwith the attributes ofthat

wood and then You add stiffness-as

much as you want' in any direction you

want. Idsquite the Paintbrush"'The composites helPed solve an old

luthier's conundrum. The neck of a gui-

tar has to be thin enough to be played

comfortably, yet strong enough to keep

from bending. It has to resonate with

everv note, but not so much that its os-

cillaiions interfere with the sound waves

themselves. "If changing a guitar s nut is

like using pink nail polish," Parker said'

"then ma'king the neck stiffer is like los-

ine forty-five pounds." Most guitar

,r.iLt "t.

made of a heavy hardwood-

rock maple or mahogany-reinforced

with a steel rod, like the sPine in a

human neck. The FIY was built more

like an insect, with an exoskeleton' It

was so light and stiffyet resonant that it

could sound almost like an acoustic gui-

tar when played with the piezoelectricpickups that Fishman designed for it'

br, *i,.n played with its magnetic pick-

ups, it could sound like an electric gui-

tar with er<cePtional sustain.

Parker uttd Fith*".t shopped their

protot''pe around in the late eighties and

qo, *;.tp funding from Korg, a maker

6fkeyboards and synthesizers' In 1990,

Parker moved to Boston, set uP a iac-

torv. and tried to retool his perfectionist

*"thodt for mass production' It &dnt

work The Fly's innovations made it eas-

ier to play but harder to build---carbon

fibre was fractious stuff-and Parker,

after decades ofrepairing factory guitars'

couldrit compromise on quality' After

thirteen years ofproduction delays and

budget dlficits, personnel problems and

hundred-hour week-"Never went out'

Never took a vacation. Always a knot in

mystomach over somethingLthe com-

p"r,y*"t still in debt.'The whole equa-

iion *"t off" Parker said. 'TVe were

building ten-thousand-dollar guitars for

twentv--five hundred. I thought that

people would naturally gravitate toward

ih"* b..urrte they played really, really

well. But thatwasn't the case. The fact is

most players dont need something.spe-

cial. They need something Proven"'When Washbum Guitars bought the

company, in 2003, it moved the factory

to lllinois, added more traditional guitars

to the Parker line, and had some made in

Asia. The line is nowmodesdyprofitable,

I was told. But the Fly is still too icono-

clastic for mass appeal' "People said,

lMhy does it have io look so wacky?"'

Parker told me that afternoon in his

shop. "And I said,'l cant possiblydesign

something that looks as wacky as the

Telecastei and Stratocaster did in the

nineteen-fifties' People were in flames

about them!"'He reachedup and rubbed

his eyes. Just talking about those years

save him a headache, he said' Then he

iook the Fly from my lap and put it back

in its case. "I'm still proud of this," he

said. "And when I look at it I never think

of that stuff. Yeah, sure, I could have

made something that looked like a Strat'

But. for better or worse' that's just not

me. lm not going to change something

a litde bit."

T t has been thirty years since Parker

I hrt d.*rot.d himseHto archtoPs, and

the market for them hasn't much im-

oroved. "Ids flat as a fuckin pancake,"

Matt Uma.tov told me, as we were driv-

ing along the Hudson one morning'

Uianov is fifty-nine now, with gqnth-

white hair that hangs nearly to his shoul-

ders and an excitable Brooklp accent'

. He loves archtops, but says they have

limited appeal.'You can pickup a good

fattop for fine thousand dollars and pre-

tendio be a cowboY-PlaY'Freight

Train' and impress yourself' But you

can t pick up an archtop and pr-etend to

be a jazzPlaYer. Can t be done"' thit seems to worry Parker'

His new guitar takes much longer to build


than amuchvdollars-violins,guitars.have toto outpbe morrr you

John GBranchrecord lfurtherknew tGuths

B y 1an imp:virtuosblond lofthe lhis 194sidemaandJacthe Olia stunrmade ffifty thhad evtan S.Uof his rlitde stframessmall vto himbe thresummi

Theone enhung fstands,rack olmentsary lin,one enlin thesculptethe Flyth.g*a half 1more shid a tloffigurand inrthat prcomp0nothinthe D',

Evcfi.rl sou

"There's gotta be an easier usa! to 7et candyfrom a baby"'

Page 8: Ken Parker New Yorker

than a flattop, requires three times asmuch wood, and sells for thirty thousanddollars-less than the cost ofthe best newviolins, but a fortune compared with mostguitars. To succeed, as parker says, it willhave to do eveq,thing better. It will haveto outperform the best old archtops andbe more versatile than the finest flattops."Ifyou're really brave," a guitarist .ru-.d

*hr 9?m told him, .you'll

put the OliveDranch rn a room with a D'Aneelico andrecord them both." So parkerwint a stepfurther. He invited the best players h'eknew. to bring their favorite guiturc toG{h r studio, for a daylongpl{,off

By the time Umanou u"a i impromptu trio had formed. Theiazzvirfuoso Charlie Hunter was playing ablond D'Angelico from D+O;ioe SeIy,of the Klezmer Mountain noyr, *u, o'nhis 1947 Gibson L-5; and Joh n Hart, artd:Tr: for iazz greats like Clark TerryandJackMcDuff, was playing rhlthm onthe Olive Branch. Um",ror, f,ad b.orrght

comes from a hollow log or a digital key_board..As the_players p'"sr.d ,ti gui,-,around, some basic differences emirged.The archtops projected their voice"s_they threw them across the room likeBroadway singers-while the flattopsenveloped you in them. The throa!bark ofthe old Gibson -.htop w"s p.r'_fect for a standard like ,,S#eet

Sue.,,But nothing could match Thompson'sflattop on a Civil War ballad like ,,So1_diers Joy'-its ringing sustain seemedto suspend you in the air. parkels zui_tar was like a hybrid of the two. It"wasthe loudest guitar in the room, despitebeing the lightest, and its solo lir,., ongout more clearly than any others. DeIpending on where itwas picked, close tothe fingerboard or downby the could play chiming chords, p.r.rir_r1u. rlIhT.r, or quick_footed arpeg_gios. "It 's l ike an endless processionof Bu,1!1 Berkeley girls, disguised asnotes, Umanov said. It was an instru_a stunning archtop that DAquisto riad ment that neve....-.J ro lose its voice,made for him in 1989, worth more rhan thai played .".;t-;;

""J do*., th.fifty thousand dollars. T. J. Thompson

"..r.-u guirar in agreement with itse*had even driven down from concord in,".4 i;;.ilffi1he playersan S'U'v. firll ofprewarMartins and one stool around ln Gutts-ki;h..r, ..ti'gof his new guitars. He looked ,rou.rd,

" *irrlnrrr

rd .gg sarad. They tord sto-litde stunned, eyes brinking behind wire .i.r lu*t Duk'hilingt""'.;a Djangoframes. "Ken doesn't do anything in a R.i'hurJi, dr. jd-'""ffi;by (Brue)small way," he said. 'lAlhen i ntrt iuru.a grand, "ro,rt

giil Mor,rollr,r'g i.rroto him about this, I thought it wourd just rur i^, bager (,,Dangl This is the worstbe three of us. Now idssummit-an archtop o,r|."'/-po"u*, " ff:fiU:.l ffi*i":ll|);n.,,:T*The srudio was a coiverte d. galage at ft,fibil;;.'xd"rt."i roffi."rio" i,one end of Guth's ranch houselGu]tars no recipe for success, they knew, andhung from the wans and leaned against -.rirri'r, -;;t";;riiri or*o.a.stands, an arm's reach from

" btildi'g ;iao"t have a rove

"fia;#; I #?l'jtrack of preamplifiers. As more instrul p.t Torr,rh.;J,;;;i.:i ao,',pot_ments came our of cases, an evolution- ish it after every p;;;;. r pray theary lineup seemed ro form: flattops on fucking thing.,,' '

one end, bully as Neanderthars; ,t.htop, B.{r.e hl g^u. up his workshop onin the middle, thinner and_more finiy Long Island ?" nJ'ri"."ti.., purk.,sculpted; and then the olive Branch. Like ,riJ,'n. brought hislast guitar to Jimmy*t

oI: it w€ighed about hdf as much as ocq,, aJe had the?rst. DAquistothe guitars that came before it-three and looked "t

ir fb; ;loii'ir-..'u. rurneda half pounds-but its refinements were ii "r"""a

i" hi, h;;?;,-oir*.tting utmore seamless, subcutaneous. The neck its ingenuities-the adjustable tailpiece,hidathinlayerofcarbonbeneatravenee-rr. u'ry--.rrical top, the unorthodox:llX:1 5:l

wood; so did the pick guard br*i.,g_tr,.n gave it back to parker. ,Aand inner lining' The post' barely ui"sibt., ,rr. ao.rn , exist for this guitar,,, he tordthatpropped up the neckwas made of a hi-. 'c;;.;;;#ilb.

inventedcomposite covered in sold leaf There was for it.,", .Thirry y;";;;;;i;ker said,

i"t:g flashy aboutit, yer ir made even h. ,titt wasn,t sure whether he shouldthe DAquisto lookoutdated h"*'f.f, .rr.o*ug.J'or'ior.*"rn.a.Evolution can be overrated. A beauti-', urrr.".i .n* rrt .ry, *ourafi.rl sound is a beautifirl sound, whetherit n*i..n ,.Both.,, I

Tastier than chocolate, longer_lastingthan a bouquet of flowers, andguaranteed to be just her srze.

B00t( 0F M[)MS$24.95