Ken Parker's $30,000 archtop guitar

There's a great piece in the new New Yorker about guitar design and Ken Parker, who founded Parker Guitars, making carbon fibre guitars in the late '80s with funding from Korg. He sold the company to Washburn in 2003, and is now making Ken Parker Archtops, which are made from wood, carbon, composites and gold leaf. And cost $30,000. Along the way, we meet:
The Tonequest Report, super high-end guitar mag
Tom Murphy, who's paid by Gibson to 'age' their new custom shop guitars ("To imitate years of belt wear, he held an old buckle aainst the back and whacked it a few times with a hammer")
Juha Ruokangas, a Finnish guitar maker who makes expensive and ugly guitars using the shinbone of a wild moose as the nut
This guy who makes guitar parts from fossilised walrus ivory
And finally, the history of the lute.

Umm, Ruokangas guitars ugly? I'm trying really hard to detect sarcasm here, failing. I know that as a finn my opinion is somewhat biased, but comparing a Duke or VSOP to pretty much anything out there is just unfair - to the other guitar.

And that's just the looks to start with. They're pretty much the best guitars I've ever used in every respect from playability to level of craftmanship. And yes, unfortunately that shows in the price too...

If there's a fault in them, I'd say it's the lack of originality. The design of the guitars is so firmly rooted in the classics, it might lack some personality making them just another Really Well Made guitar. Then again, nothing wrong with that though. I'm just planning on buying my first Ruokangas (naturally, one of the cheaper ones, sigh...)

But well, I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
I'm sure they're great guitars, but all that gold hardware and glitter and flamed maple and OTT inlays? Euch.
I really enjoyed that New Yorker piece--it's rare you can read an article about music geekery in a general interest magazine that doesn't feel massively uninformed.

I think the reason Parker's guitars never became popular is that the kind of refinement he values in the instrument is not generally compatible with most people's idea of rock and roll. Personally, I'm a gear geek, but most rock musicians value straightforward tools and direct emotional engagement over precision craftsmanship.

That said, I play mostly Fenders and Gibsons anyway...
Having had the pleasure of playing Ken's new archtop, as well as playing some of his other handmade guitars, AND having a collection of Flys...

These guitars are just light years ahead of anything anyone else is building - even people who live in Finland. In a league of their own. Spend 5 minutes with a pre-2003 Fly, and you'll understand. Most people sell all of their other guitars. Ken's designs are THAT good.

Anyway, it's not really clear where the link to Ken's site is in this blog, so I will add it here:

Go and be amazed.
You know, it's kind of funny. There was a time when having an original voice and using the most modern tools WAS rock and roll. It's kind of a shame that not only the music has become a charicature of itself, but that the musicians' ultimate deams are to be clones of those who were brave enough to push boundaries, try new things and create something original. Whomever said that Ken Parker values precision over rock and roll gets it backwards. Ken has made the rock and roll tools for next generation that finds the balls to save the genre. And now he's doing it for jazz...
LOL, Thanks Bob, as a guitarist, I've often wondered when the exact turning point was... When did guitarists stop wanting to be original and start wanting to sound just like EHV...

(Oh, and of course, EVH broke all the boundaries anyway...)

The worst thing is, with more and of the shoegazers out there, the sound these guys are looking for tends to be that shrieky metal distortion that sounds god awful.

Makes you appreciate the Everly Brothers.
When civilization fails all these fancy guitars will either be converted to weapons, or used as firewood.
I don't want to seem like I'm dissing Ken Parker, but innovative instruments are NOT synonymous with innovative music. Period. You do not need a thirty thousand dollar instrument to be awesome. I would rather hear, say, Leo Kottke play my $40 Yamaha than some lameass sucking on Parker's new axe. People like strats because they work, they feel good, and you can play any style of music you like on them. And personally, I don't give a rat's ass how cool or not I look when I play.

There is always room for a brilliant instrument maker in an otherwise staid market, but don't confuse a nice guitar with actual musical ambition.
Tired and trite... Yes the player always figures into the equation, but great players need and deserve great guitars. While I'd rather listen to Kottke than any lamer, it would be a true shame to have all of Kottke's great tone and dynamics ruined by an inferior instrument.

Anyone who wants to sit there and tell me any piece of $40 slab is going to compare with a Benedetto Arch-Top is well beyond high.

Is hand built better than machine routed? Yes. Is one dedicated craftsman going to do a better job than assembly line drones? Yep.

That's what your paying for, a finely crafted instrument to compliment your talent, not amplify or supplant it. Would this be that much better if Parker had made it a CNC'd deal out of Korea that still costs $5,000?

If your playing doesn't sound any different on a $40 Squier or a $4,000 Breedlove, the Ken Parker isn't building these for you.
do you think that those guitars are ugly? check this!
yeah, it would've been great if charlie christian ran a benedetto through better equipment. and it would totally rule if wes hadn't played all those darn beatles covers too. it's true---some of my favorite recordings are marred by really bad equipment and production.
That's what I'm saying--it's great that sophisticated tools exist, but they are not necessary for the making of great music.
Inverse Room sez: "It's great that sophisticated tools exist, but they are not necessary for the making of great music."

That's what MT is all about...
id be really interested in finding out how much of that 30$K goes to production costs

seems a tad over-inflated.. you know, just a bit

It's just him, alone, in his basement, making one guitar at a time. I'm assuming that the olive branch isn't exactly a quick thing to produce. He has to make a living.

Also, there is such a thing as underpricing. Price gives an inherent sense of quality: if someone tried to sell you a violin for $5,000 and said it was a Stradivari, you'd call them nuts. I'm not saying price is the only determining factor; obviously there are steals and deals, but at the same time you don't make a cello a high-end factory prices and expect Yo-Yo Ma to buy one.
im a sound engineer so believe me , im familiar with "strategic pricing"

but still.. IMO its ridiculous - but then again Im not pulling down a 10 million yearly income.. if I was, it might seem more reasonable
you should check this guy out. He makes guitars from hemp pulp....
What everyone here seems to be missing is that archtop guitars ARE expensive. Way more expensive than your garden variety mass produced guitar. Check out the prices on a D'Aquisto New Yorker and you'll see what I'm talking about. Go to the Mandolin Brothers or Gruhn guitars site and price them. You'll see that 30k is not out of line for one of these guitars.
duly noted - i had no idea there was that kind of a market for guitars

(im a keyboard player)

Yeti backed down and almost apologised?

Damn, this blog has lost it's edge...
that's great that there's innovation, but parker guitars are, as far as I'm concerned, some of the least aesthetically pleasing I've ever laid eyes upon. Really, from headstock to saddles on this one (and the entire fly line), they just look "wrong" and not in an interesting way. Yes, they look unique, but with that uniqueness comes the consciousness of the brand and how much it cost.
And in my opinion, the Parker Fly is THE most aesthetically pleasing design ever made. Let's face it - the geometry on the Tele and the Strat was WAY outta whack. Gibsons were always the most pleasing from a design point of view. The geometry on the Fly is just incredible. Add the fact that it's the best playing guitar on the planet makes it a no brainer. As far as sound, sure it's subjective. But I haven't found a sound yet that I wasn't able to coax out of a Fly.

With regard to cost - when you guitars one at a time, and only make 8 to 10 a year, and have to advertise, maintain a website, attend shows and conventions, etc, etc, etc, you begin to see that a max gross of $300K doesn't go terribly far.

Anyway, suffice to say that either you get it, or you don't. Anyone who can say Fender or Gibson or PRS or whatever in the same breath as Ken Parker Guitars and not see a tenfold increase in the value of the latter is simply not getting it. And if you don't, that's OK. There are a lot of folks who don't. Kind of like Neumann mics - the choice of those who can hear the difference.


Not much remains to be said so here is my 2X6=12 cents...

Mostly except headstock (but perhaps it's functional) and rim on soundhole/port hybrid (bloody show business, and not very good at that)
Moderately, but there are luthiers 40 times less known then Ken and asks 4K! The math of fame favors Ken.
Uniqueness in instrument?
Ken was supposed to make 8 of these per year, so there will be 80 such instruments if Ken works for 10 years.
Quite a few GOOD improvised features, none justifies the price though. Some features half cooked though, like non-adjustable bridge, even if neck and tailpiece are adjustable - it's got to be there.
Unique features?
None at all that justifies itself, let alone the price
Excellent, but again doesn't justify price - or may be it does solely on it's own.
I have played Ken's guitars and spent time with him in his workshop. First of all, I believe that he is the most knowledgeable person about guitars that I have met in my 50+ years. Second, he builds everything, his tools, his jigs, his forms to get the results he wants. Third, he has very specific ideas about the way a guitar resonates that requires his personal attention to most of the details of the instrument. He works alone at this point.

Finally, one of his instruments, which he calls "brownie" a spruce top and mahogany back and sides guitar, is hands down the best guitar I have ever played. It is legendary among people who have played it. There are clips on his website, but obviously they are not very revealing because of the sound quality.

Great instruments, and cheap as dirt compared to violins, celli, etc.
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