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Ken Parker’s Uncut Personal Take on the Genesis of the American Archtop Guitar

Ken Parker’s Uncut Personal Take on the Genesis of the American Archtop Guitar

as told to Mike Doolin

Published online by Guild of American Luthiers, July 2023

First, let’s note that a well developed, centuries long tradition of plucked, fretted instruments travelled to America from Europe, just like CF Martin did in 1833. He was the key figure in the evolution of the 6-string American guitar, and the importance of his work as a ferocious, persistent, successful instrument inventor cannot be overstated. Although there were other builders who did exceptional work and have had some continuing influence, CF laid the groundwork for the flattop designs we still revere and copy today.

There is no analog in the field of archtops, which have kind of stumbled from insult to injury, as I’ll try to explain. It’s my view, and you don’t have to like it, but I’ve been obsessed, and paying a lot of attention for a long time, so I hope you’ll give me your ears.

Circa 1890, brilliant oddball Orville Gibson decides to try to improve fretted instruments for his own use as a hobbyist. He played mandolins, which were becoming very popular, and he saw room for improvement and his artistic expression. He didn’t care much about the guitar, and so didn’t make many of them, maybe a dozen, some think even fewer. Orville concentrated his efforts on mandolins and harp guitars. He turned out to be a talented and prolific builder, and was active as a musician and performer. Orville had no training as an instrument maker or woodworker. He grew up on a farm in Western NY state during the second Industrial Revolution, and we all know that farm girls and boys can do a lot with a little. He moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a fast growing manufacturing center ripe with opportunities, full of startups and others eager to make their mark in the modern world. He was self-financed, working day gigs as a sales guy in a shoe store, then in a restaurant, whatever it took. Sound familiar? He made a close friend, Thaddeus McHugh, an expert woodworker, who may have had some training in Lutherie. Thad had a great singing voice they performed together. More on this important guy later… Orville was a good musician and although I’m sure he knew about violins, when he designed his arched mandolins and guitars, he followed his own design instincts. Some of his innovations were good, and others… well let’s say there was very little that he took from violin family bowed instrument construction.

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