Posted on

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.

Become A Member to Continue Reading This Article

This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

If you are already a member, login for access or contact us to setup your account.
Posted on

The Two-Storey Dulcimer

The Two-Storey Dulcimer

by Roger Alan Skipper

Originally published in American Lutherie #101, 2010



I read John Calkin’s “Dulcimer 101” in AL#98 with interest, but with little expectation of practical application.

I’ve never built a dulcimer; I’ve never wished to build one (sung to the “Purple Cow” jingle). Within a month, though, my best customer and great friend Dr. Gerry Snelson asked me to do exactly that. Perhaps anticipating my reluctance to regress to such a basic instrument, Gerry came armed with photos of high-end dulcimers, video clips of accomplished players, and with his normal bundle of challenging demands and fresh ideas.

Become A Member to Continue Reading This Article

This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

If you are already a member, login for access or contact us to setup your account.
Posted on

Travel Lute

Travel Lute

by Ben Cohen

Originally published in American Lutherie #101, 2010



I am an amateur luthier and a lutenist. I recently attended a reunion of sorts with a number of singers from my old early music ensemble at Oberlin College, and I regretted not having a lute handy to be able to accompany some friends on lute songs. I travel with a mandolin because it fits in the airplane overhead bin and allows me to play Bach suites and choros while my flight is delayed. Lutes aren’t good for air travel. The funny shape makes them hard to fit in the overhead bin. While there are some small 6-course instruments that might squeeze into an overhead bin, most lutenists would prefer to travel with an 8-course instrument to cover as much repertoire as possible. Lutes are also delicate and expensive. Flying with a lute usually requires some kind of super-protective flight case, awkward and expensive.

Guitars do not make decent lute substitutes. The guitar has only six strings, and they are not spaced at all like a lute. The world needs a good travel lute.

A banjo approach struck me as the way to go, since the lute has such a thin top that it sounds more like a banjo than any other wooden plucked string instrument. I used a Remo 12" pretuned hand drum that I had on hand.

Become A Member to Continue Reading This Article

This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

If you are already a member, login for access or contact us to setup your account.
Posted on

Letter: Hurdy-Gurdy

Letter: Hurdy-Gurdy

by Wilfried Ulrich

Originally published in American Lutherie #68, 2001



Dear Guild,

Imagine a special magazine where famous and other pretty good hurdy-gurdy builders inform others to build better hurdy-gurdies. What would you think about a guy who got a parcel with a lot of scrap that makes you laugh when looking at the parts, but which are supposed to have the potential to become a guitar? But what the heck is a guitar? When he finished that monster, it had a beautiful big soundhole where you can hide your socks and underwear when traveling, and he showed it to his wife. “Look baby, that’s what they call a guitar! It makes noise when you scratch over the strings!” “Hah! Good one! What an awful long neck — you can wave that thing like a tennis racket. Why that strange corpus-form like an ‘8’? It cost eight bucks, eh?”

Imagine!

Become A Member to Continue Reading This Article

This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

If you are already a member, login for access or contact us to setup your account.
Posted on

A Special Guitar Neck Modification

A Special Guitar Neck Modification

by Ralph Bonte

Originally published in American Lutherie #103, 2010



Last week I was able to make someone very happy. Christophe contacted me through my website, in pursuit of a luthier who could help him with his problem. Four years ago he had an accident while cleaning up the bushes surrounding his house. He was working with a wood chipper and wearing safety gloves. To make a long and painful story short, had he not worn the gloves he would have lost the tip of his left thumb. Due to the gloves, his thumb got caught in the motor of the chipper and was torn out of his hand, causing troubles for the muscles and tendons in his arm. Christophe used to be a recording artist playing the guitar. It took him four years of physical therapy to overcome and adapt to the new situation.

In the past year, the urge to play the guitar again became overwhelming. However, he could no longer play a regular guitar since he lost the support of his left thumb. He tried a prosthesis, but that didn’t work. He found it too awkward. When I read his message, I immediately agreed to do the work, although I did not know how I was going to do it.

Become A Member to Continue Reading This Article

This article is part of our premium web content offered to Guild members. To view this and other web articles, join the Guild of American Luthiers. Members also receive 4 annual issues of American Lutherie and get discounts on products. For details, visit the membership page.

If you are already a member, login for access or contact us to setup your account.