This is an extract from my interview with Ken Parker for my book Electric Guitars: Design & Invention. These days, Ken is back to making great acoustic archtops, but our chat centred on his design for the Parker Fly electrics first seen in the early 90s.
TB: The headstock design of the Fly was one of its important elements, I think.
KP: OK, let’s go back to Turkey, whenever it was, a thousand years ago. They were building uds, or the precursor to an ud, and because they didn’t have Monster cables and amplifiers, they had to do everything they could to get the thing to bark and speak so it was useable. And one of the things that you need to do is to reduce the weight of the vibrating object so that you can accelerate it with the very small amount of energy that you have in a little bitty string. If you can’t accelerate it, then it’s not gonna move any air, and nobody’ll buy it. So these things were built very lightly, and if you look at their heads, they’re tiny, as small as they can get. You look at a lute, the pegbox is this little arts & crafts project, where a million little pieces of thin wood are stuck together, just barely enough to hold the tuning pegs.
TB: What’s the reason for that?
KP: Weight is completely unwanted in that area. Also, when a guitar player or bassist puts their hand on the neck, whether they’re sitting or standing with the instrument, you’ve just made a gigantic modification in the physical attributes of that instrument. You with your boney bag of protoplasm that we call a hand, you have just colossally modified the structure. And every time you move your hand, you reconfigure that modification in a very important way. The influence of this bag of protoplasm with bones in it is gonna change where the nodes of vibration are on the neck. Everybody that I know talks about instruments as if they’re on a stand somewhere, or in some anechoic chamber; nobody says we lean over them, fat people envelop them, skinny people don’t, lightweight people and kids have little hands, giant men have giant hands … these are huge differences.
TB: How do you allow for that, though? Because there are so many differences and potential changes.
KP: I would submit that the guitar is possibly the most complex design project in instrument making. And I know people are gonna laugh and say what about a harpsichord. Yes, but a harpsichord, you only want it to do a certain kind of music, nobody’s doing hip-hop on a harpsichord.
TB: Let me make a note to get my harpsichord hip-hop project going.
KP: Yeah, ha ha. You have a certain repertoire you’re gonna play. If you have a guitar, you can play anything. So many different ways of playing a guitar. It’s what makes it so viable. In furniture – I used to make furniture – in furniture making there is nothing as hard to build as a chair. For the same reason. You’re gonna have a little kid sit in it, and the next person might weigh 350 pounds, and they’re gonna sit in it and lean back. People with different length limbs and torsos: it’s just really complicated. It makes designing a dresser look really simple. Or a dining room table. But the chair is really a bitch. In the world of instrument making, I submit that guitar design is really a bitch.
TB: The guitar is the chair of the instrument world.
KP: Yeah, exactly. So if you go to a good trade show for hand builders, like the Holy Grail show or something like that, you’ll see so many different approaches to solving these problems, to try and address the guitar to meet the needs of whoever. If you’re copying an L-5, well, you’re in no danger of having a shred guy fall in love with you. But to me it’s always seemed really important to build the most versatile instrument that you could build, so that people could do anything they want with it.
TB: That was part of the Fly. Even aside from the design and intention of that instrument, one of the most significant things about it was that it was aimed to be mainstream, and to me that’s one of the most interesting things about it. Looking back now, that’s why it was such an important instrument in the history of the guitar.
KP: Well thanks. I didn’t really think about it that much until I did the ’14 and ’15 Holy Grail shows, and I had a lot of builders come up to me and say: Your work sat me on my ass and gave me the inspiration to know that I could scratch my head and change things and it was OK. And I just loved that. I don’t have any letters, people didn’t write me … well, maybe a couple of letters. But mostly you don’t hear that stuff. It just happened over and over again in this group, and I thought wow, that’s … how great is that, you know?