What Is a Parlor Guitar?

by Alasdair Smith
Parlor guitars are typified by their small size.

Parlor guitars are typified by their small size.

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Guitar players are seldom satisfied with only one guitar. At a bare minimum they might have one acoustic and one electric guitar, but guitarists often collect guitars for their many different qualities. Everything from the type of wood to the size of the body and the type of hardware can affect the sound and feel of a guitar. Parlor guitars, with their dynamic, bright tone and short scale length make an ideal addition to any guitarist's collection.


Parlor guitars have their origins in the small-bodied classical guitars that came to America from Europe in the early part of the 19th century. They were initially strung with gut, but as manufacturing techniques developed, steel strings became the norm. Their name refers to the fact that they were played in people's homes -- in the parlor when receiving and entertaining guests. Larger "dreadnought"-style guitars came later to deliver extra volume for entertaining in larger rooms. The name is now synonymous with any small-bodied guitar with a shorter scale length.


Early parlor guitars typically measure 11 to 12 inches across the lower bout -- the widest part of the body -- but the dimensions of modern instruments follow a less rigid definition, with the name indicating any body smaller than concert size. The scale length on parlor guitars is shorter too, allowing for a loose action that makes playing more comfortable for novices. A scale length of anywhere below 25 inches is common.

Sound and Tone

The smaller body size means that sheer volume is not the strength of parlor guitars, but with amplification readily available this should not put any prospective buyers off. What a parlor guitar does offer is a surprisingly balanced tone with a tonal richness to the sound. Parlor guitars also offer a more even reproduction of volume across the strings from bass to treble, which ensures a clarity in their voice.


Parlor guitars' small size makes them an ideal choice for travelers who want to be able to keep playing without having the inconvenience of carrying around a full-size guitar. They're also great instruments for children to learn on as the smaller proportions suit smaller arms, hands and bodies perfectly. Despite this, the lessons learned on a parlor guitar transfer perfectly to larger guitars as children grow. Finally, the springy action on parlor guitars, which is a function of the smaller scale length, makes them perfect for finger-picking style bluegrass and blues playing.

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