Parker Fly

Parker Fly Electric Guitar at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

The Parker Fly was designed by Ken Parker (1952 – ) and Larry Fishman (1954 – ), and first made in 1993 at a factory in Wilmington, Massachusetts. The instrument’s appeal has to do with its 1) lightness (2 kg) achieved by using composite materials; 2) resonance, largely due to the use of wood; and, 3) multiple pickups – magnetic and piezoelectric – increasing the range of tones available.

In an ideal world, I would have discovered the Parker Fly on my own. This is not an ideal world, and so I am indebted to Brad Laesser (1947 – ) for introducing me to it. Without him, I probably would have found inspiration in some other electric guitar. Perhaps, it would have been an off-the-shelf Fender Telecaster from 1949, or even a Stratocaster from 1954, possibly Tom Morello’s (1964 – ) modified version, Arm the Homeless. But it would not have been Kurt Cobain’s (1967 – 1994) Jag-Stang, that combined a Fender Jaguar with a Fender Mustang. Gibson holds absolutely no appeal. Thus, it would never have been a Les Paul and especially not a Flying V. Even an ESP Explorer leaves me numb. It would not have been anything referred to as acoustic. I may not know much about Guitars, but this does not stop me from forming prejudices!

In addition to Laesser, my insights into guitars come from one other major source, Chris Buck. Unfortunately, there are (at least) two guitarists with that name, including a country and western player from Vancouver, born as far as I can discover ca. 2001, world famous in Cloverdale for Giddy Up. However, the one I am referring to is Welsh, from Cardiff, born on 1991-01-05. He provides insights into guitars on his YouTube channel, Friday Fretworks. If you search the channel, you may even see that he has influenced my opinion about the Flying V guitar, and other technical aspects of guitar playing.

Ken Parker

Ken Parker is responsible for everything on a Parker Fly, but the pickups on the instrument. The success of the Fly is its carbon fibre/ glass/ epoxy exoskeleton about 1 mm thick. This provided sufficient rigidity and strength to the instrument body, neck and fretboard. Initially Parker experimented with hardwoods, but these proved too difficult to work and resulted in an unsatisfactory product.

Parker studied furniture making at Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont. He then worked for two years in a grandfather-clock factory in Rochester, New York. This experience is one source of his appreciation of arcane machinery. In 1979 he took a job as a guitar repairman at Stuyvesant Music, in New York City. Here he met an increasing number of improperly constructed guitars.

In an interview with Burkhard Bilger, appearing in the New Yorker in 2007-05-14, he states, “The Seventies were the Dark Ages, I don’t know of any analogue in American manufacturing where quality went so low.”

As a toolmaker, Parker mills most of his own metal parts, and invents devices to speed construction. He regards his guitar construction activities as toolmaking for musicians.

Lutes were most popular instruments of the renaissance. They were teardrop shaped, with fifteen or more strings, headstocks with ebony veneering, perpendicular to the neck. With bodies held together with parchment, they were made of paper thin wood. Yet, their construction was the result of an equation, where a miniscule instrument had to fill a room with sound. To get that volume and projection one had to make them light. Thus, the lute became Parker’s inspiration for a guitar.

This approach increased the sustain, and gave the instrument the added benefit of a smaller, lighter, more efficient body. The composite exoskeleton was critical to the success of the design.

Parker does not regard a guitar as a difficult instrument to make. Yet, for him, it has to be strong, to withstand string tension. It is also dependent on the wood resonating well, which means it has to be thin. With magnetic pickups and amplification, a guitar cannot be allowed to resonate too much. Leo Fender (1909 – 1991) solved this by giving guitars solid bodies, in the late 1940s.

The Fly body has a wooden core, covered with carbon fibre for stiffness. The neck is more like an insect’s exoskeleton. This approach provides a neck that is thin, allowing it to be played comfortably, but it is also light and stiff, preventing it from bending. This contrasts with conventional guitar necks, made out of hardwood, but with a steel rod acting as a spine.

The body’s wooden core varied with the model. It could be made out of poplar (Populus alba), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), mahogany (Swietenia ssp.), or big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Most necks were made of basswood (Tilia americana), although some models also used mahogany.

In 2002-10, Parker began to make Fly bass guitars, these were available with 4 or 5 strings. It had a more complex body made from 21 pieces of Sitka spruce sandwiched between maple veneer on the front and back. The headstock was made of curly maple. The neck consisted originally of 15 layers of laminated mahogany but was later changed to a solid mahogany.

Larry Fishman

Larry Fishman (1954 – ) studied and trained as a cellist and bass player, and played professionally in New England orchestras and jazz bands. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, jazz bass players were having difficulties amplifying acoustic basses to match the sound levels of electric pianos and guitars. The solution for many was to use an electric bass. This did not appeal to Fishman.

Fortunately, he also had a background in materials science and mechanical engineering as well as a basement machine shop, that allowed Fishman to analyse existing devices that could be fitted onto an acoustic bass, and to experiment with design modifications until an acoustic bass pickup emerged from his efforts that “took it to the next level.”

In 1981, Fishman started a company, Fishman Transducers, and began producing a range of acoustic pickups. This work has resulted in him being granted more than forty patents. It also allowed him to build up a company that employs engineers, machinists and other production staff,

In an interview, Fishman explained his:

1) design philosophy. “The driving factor for design engineering is just a love for the exciting discoveries that you make when you dive into a new arena of some product or idea you have, and you have no idea how to do it. You get some hints, you get some techniques and tricks that you’ve pulled together over the years.”

2) opinion of acoustic guitars. “[W]e’re wanting to enhance that beautiful voice of acoustic instruments, instruments that feel alive in the hand. It’s much more personal than a piano. A guitar you have on your lap. You can feel the vibrations in the neck. You’re touching the strings. You’re not hitting a note, a hammer or something on a guitar. So, you’re really attached to it. The pursuit is to enhance that experience so that the technical aspects of what you bring to the design, never, ever get in the way of that organic feeling that you have when you’re just playing the instrument without the additional electronics.”

3) on music and engineering: “Engineering by itself will not produce inspiring beautiful products. Musical intuition by itself will not produce complete engineering designs…. So you have to have a real strong material sense, a real strong engineering background, and really strong musical sense to put it all together so that it works.”

The main advantage of this engineered approach was that the guitar was maintenance friendly, but not maintenance free.

Beyond the Parker Fly

In 2022, it is 29 years since the Parker Fly came into production. In 2003 Parker sold the company to Washburn Guitars, part of Washburn International. Even before this, Washburn International had agreed to acquire distributor U.S. Music Corporation (USM), in what amounted to a reverse merger. After this, most Parker Fly guitars were manufactured abroad. In mid-2009, U.S. Music was purchased by Jam Industries of Montreal, Canada.

In 2010, a MaxxFly model replaced the original Fly. It had a modified headstock, which allowed it to be hung from a standard guitar wall hanger, a more ergonomic, some would say traditional, top horn, standard pickup cavities, 22 frets (instead of 24) and a thicker, heavier body. The new owners ended Fly production in 2016.

If someone is interested in acquiring a Parker Fly today they have three choices.

First, they can buy a used instrument. Many guitar players prefer old guitars. They seem to find satisfaction in older instruments, that is largely a function of age. They often claim that time transforms a guitar’s materials: Wood stiffens and becomes more resonant; pickup magnets weaken, rust and in the process produce deeper and mellower tones; neck and body, bridge and fretboard mould themselves together.

Second, they can make themselves a copy using subtractive techniques, much like the original Fly was made.

The Fly Clone Project claims that it began to address the need for Parker Fly guitar replacement parts and services. It has been in operation since 2018. However, there is nothing in its description to prevent it from making new Parker Fly clones. More suspicious minds could conclude that this is its real purpose, but are afraid of retaliation from trademark holders. The project envisions four phases:

1. modelling/ sourcing every component on the original guitar including bridge, electronic, fastening components with CAD models, to allow part fabrication using 3D-printing and machining methods. are

2. determining how best to make the cloned parts available.

3. creating advanced and specialized tooling for specific Fly components, including the fretboards and stainless steel frets.

4. adapting existing parts for new functionality and operation, as well as experiments that lead to new innovations.

Depending on their skills there are concerns that this second approach may result in an inferior product. A common complaint is that the quality of wood has deteriorated over the years. Then again, there are technological advances occurring continuously, so it might result in a superior product. One approach would be to use a CNC mill to sculp the body, then to reinforce it with carbon fibre and resin. Today, there would be no need to use fibreglass in addition.

For the body, Picea sitchensis, as it is available from many local sources throughout the world. For example, the species is endemic throughout Cascadia, it was introduced into much of northern and western Europe, including Norway in the early 1900s, where it now occupies an estimated 500 square kilometers of land, spread along the coast. However, in Norway it is considered a high-risk invasive species. Environmental factors aside, it offers a high strength-to-weight ratio and its regular, knot-free rings make it an excellent conductor of sound.

If sustainable materials is a goal, there are many products available that are suitable to make a neck. In Europe it could be constructed out of Tilia cordata, the European equivalent of the Eastern North American, Tilia americana.

Third, additive processes can also be used to make guitars. Because materials would deviate totally from those used on the Fly, this would not be a clone.

One design for a new guitar appeared on Kickstarter for funding. Previously, I have criticized a person without the necessary technical skills attempting to attract financing, without knowing how to engineer the product. Here, it is someone with technical skills, but lacking an understanding of marketing/ sales/ public relations. The result in both cases was a failure to finance projects. In this second case, that person received less than 0.3% of his funding goal, despite writing that his “beautifully designed electric guitar [is] crafted with cutting edge eco-friendly materials, built to play as good as it looks.”

The first challenge with his approach was that he makes disparaging comments about wood, alienating potential purchasers who react positively to wood as a sustainable material. He then refers to PA-12, a granular form of nylon, as an eco-friendly material. However, he did not produce any supporting documentation in his product advertisement supporting this contention.

This approach, using selective laser sintering (SLS) equipment and additive processes based on PA-12 or related materials, holds considerable appeal.

The major problem with this product was its price. He was expecting people to pay £620 = US$ 803 = CA$ 1 058 = NOK 7 327 just for guitar body parts, unassembled; £850 = US$ 1 100 = CA$ 1 450 = NOK 10 045 for body and other parts, unassembled; or £2 300 = US$ 2 980 = CA$ 3 936 = NOK 27 180 for an assembled guitar. These products were available only in a single colour, grey. A purchase requires a supporter to take a chance on an unknown, and untried product, in a potentially unwanted colour. This is not going to happen.

Despite this, some inspiration for experimentation with guitars comes from Jack White/ John Anthony Gillis (1975 – ). His 1964 JB Hutto model Airline guitar, was cheap and made of fibreglass. White chose it primarily to demonstrate that one didn’t need an expensive guitar to produce an acceptable or even great sound. The guitar was made by Valco, and distributed through Montgomery Ward department stores. White modified his guitar, but only slightly to improve its sound quality.

In a perfect world, I should be able to push a button starting computer numerical control (CNC) equipment for subtractive processes, wait a couple of hours and have a clone of a Parker Fly emerge. What I am currently missing apart from the production equipment and machining ability, is a 3D model of the Parker Fly guitar. Then again, I have not acquired any wood or other materials, or any other components. This is not a promising start.

2 Replies to “Parker Fly”

  1. Brock, Well done! I didn’t expect a narrative so thoroughly vast on “Electric Guitars,” from the style, electrical components, and especially to the species of wood materials. Of course, you put in many hours of thought and research. I can’t say enough of how impressed of how you simply did the math, (Major in Economics) indicating a cost prohibited product. Does it really have to be perfection?

    1. Thank you, Brad.

      As you may have witnessed, some people divide the electric guitar universe into two archetypes: Gibson Les Paul, and Fender Stratocaster. My cosmos is more varied, with room for divergence and individuality. Thus, I am very happy to see that some people, such as Ken Parker, have an ability to make something different.

      The Parker Fly was doomed the moment the Maxx Fly was envisioned. This effectively wing-clipped the Fly into mediocrity.

      Words can be powerful, but often have meanings that lie hidden. Max – no matter how it is spelled – is a word like Great. Most people probably think they know what both words mean. Unfortunately, when used by manipulators, these words take on new connotations, and the original denotations are lost.

      I hope, Brad, that you – and many others – will bring new insights and (in)sounds to the world of electric guitars, by making new inspired models, that refuse to be copies of 70 year olds. The Les Paul was first made in 1952, the Stratocaster in 1954.

      Hopefully, luthiers will learn from Henry Ford. His Model T was named the most influential car of the 20th century in 1999, but it was only produced for less than 20 years, from 1908-10-01 to 1927-05-26. Its replacement, the Model A, was not as influential, but it was better.

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