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Parker PJ14 Archtop Guitar

The original Parker guitars have to be the most, if not the only, beautiful things ever birthed in Rochester, N.Y. (apologies to Steve Gadd). When Ken Parker began rolling these solidbody electrics out of his upstate New York workshop in the 1990s, they instantly achieved an iconic identity. Parker’s designs had no clear antecedents in looks or construction, and that uniqueness led to popularity, which in turn led to the company’s inevitable sale, leaving Parker Guitars in the care of U.S. Music Corp., the parent company of Washburn guitars, since 2004.

With the creation of two new Parker archtops, it seems those holding the reins at the post-Parker Parker are trying to maintain the brand’s market identity to a certain extent. The more purely “jazz” model of the pair, the PJ14, sticks to convention where it counts most, but breaks from traditional ideas about shape and construction.

Take a look at the PJ14 and you might recognize lines vaguely recalling the famed D’Angelico Teardrop. Or perhaps you simply see the original solidbody Parker Fly, evolved into a 16 1/2-inch archtop. Yes, it’s a big guitar with a big personality, looks-wise, and it has a price tag to match. $4,500 is Parker’s list price. Here’s what the money gets you:

The top is a solid piece of carved spruce adorned with a curvy, bound soundhole; the back is a carved piece of solid maple that matches maple sides. The five-ply rock maple and rosewood neck gets capped with an ebony fingerboard that extends to a mother-of-pearl inlaid headstock framed by gold Grover tuners that play off the body’s Art Deco-ish shape. There’s more inlay down at the tailpiece, an asymmetrical slab of dark abalone that looks and feels rock-solid sturdy. A floating mini-humbucker made by Egnater rests at the end of the neck, and two control knobs hide quite well beneath the plastic pickguard. The PJ14 more or less toes the standard archtop line in terms of tonewood and accents-it just looks different.

As far as playability goes, the PJ14 will please anyone who either spends some time to adjust it or pays someone else to do the same. The guitar arrived with surprisingly good setup out of the box, but improvements in action and string suppleness could have been made. The neck has a thick feel, and the fretboard offers generous room all the way up the neck. With a pro setup, the PJ14 could indeed be a contender-that is, if it weren’t for the rest of the story.

Something about the PJ14 just doesn’t add up … not to $4,500, anyway. A hefty price for any guitar, it’s especially high for a Parker ax built a long way from Rochester (they’re made in China), and I think that certain cost-cutting measures made in construction aren’t translating to savings at the retail counter.

Aside from some reservations I have concerning an inelegantly affixed pickup and not-so-lovely inlay work, it’s the guitar’s electronics that confuse the hell out of me. This Egnater pickup buzzes like a beehive. With different cables, different amps (solid state and tube), in different rooms in different buildings and on different power outlets, the guitar outputs a noticeable buzz that’s unacceptable on instruments one-tenth its price. The only way to get rid of the buzzing was to turn the tone control way down, dulling the tone in the process. Now, perhaps the guitar sent to JazzTimes was a dud. But consider this: We were sent two PJ14s and each one had this problem. Moreover, I have to assume that the electronics quality control will be spotty across the PJ14 production run because the difference in control-knob sensitivity and response between the two guitars I test drove was like night and day. The first seemed about right; the second’s volume control didn’t offer nearly enough range.

So it’s curious that Parker markets the PJ14 as it does: by implying luxury. The guitar comes at a premium price and in a hardshell case outfitted with plush cushioning, a light satin sheet to further protect the guitar’s surface and a built-in hygrometer to monitor humidity. A guitar worthy of this protection shouldn’t suffer the PJ14’s obvious shortcomings. And a guitar worthy of any connection to Ken Parker shouldn’t get into anyone’s hands, let alone a reviewer’s, without careful attention paid to quality control-for Pete’s sake, the upper strap button was screwed in at a cockeyed angle! But the fact is that the PJ14, and perhaps the future of the Parker Guitar company, is not without promise; it just needs a better shepherd in order to deliver on it.

Originally Published