The Magnificent Millicent (or, how to fill a guitar-shaped hole)

Until I discovered bicycling, I used to take a guitar with me everywhere. I bought a Martin Backpacker travel guitar some years ago, an ungainly, club-shaped thing with horrible sound. After selling that, I still had a small-guitar-shaped hole in my life.

Parlor-sized guitars were originally intended to fit a woman’s smaller hands, and these instruments were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Guitarists later found that they were ideal for certain kinds of non-flamenco fingerstyle playing, and also that they were great guitars regardless of whether or not a musician was equipped with a pair of women’s hands. A quiet and sometimes treble-heavy sound kept parlor guitars from being as popular as larger-sized acoustics.

The first parlor guitar I played and liked was an Art & Lutherie Ami I found at a store in Pennsylvania. Probably remembering the money wasted on the Martin Backpacker, I wrote down the model name and left it in the tiny shop. After some research, I found that A&L was owned by Godin, a maker of some pretty high-end acoustic-electric guitars; the Ami is a budget version of the Seagull Grand. Seagull has a reputation for making excellent and excellently-overpriced guitars.

After a search for someone who sold A&L and Seagull guitars, a salesman at Loria Music in Rahway sold me a Seagull S Grand for $299 with a case. I didn’t spring for the acoustic/electric version of the instrument, a pickup would have added another $150 to the price. Either Seagull guitars aren’t as overpriced as I had heard, or the Grand is an amazing bargain.

I soon found that practicing on this more delicate guitar was changing my playing style. My heavy strumming and picking technique started to give way to a lighter, gentler touch. This translated to breaking fewer strings on Kate and my other guitars. A friend decided that “Millicent” sounded like the name of someone who’d have a parlor in her house. Generally, once a guitar gets a good name, it’ll stick around. (Leslie, a stage-acoustic guitar I sold to a friend, is a notable exception to that rule.)

Millicent was my practice and travel guitar for years. Despite her wonderful, full sound, she gets out of tune if you strum on her with a pick too vigorously, and the lack of a pickup prevented me from gigging with her. After putting some scratches in the face by daring to use a pick, I installed a transparent pickguard within a few months of buying her, preventing any more damage. But that lack of a pickup bothered me.

As it turns out, pickup technology has advanced quite a bit since 2003. L. R. Baggs made the Micro EQ, the pickup system that was what you got if you went for the option of a Grand with a pickup. A gentleman at the company brought me up to speed on the Element, their successor to the piezo pickups in most modern guitars. I bought a system that combined a microphone and a pickup called the iMix, which I bought despite the terrible name.

I’d intended to install it myself, but it’s a harder job than I had thought, and three repair shops refused to do it. I picked up one of the tools I’d need from an online action in England, and I ordered an inspection mirror to see inside the guitar while working. Next: I cut holes in the guitar and install the pickup myself.

(This post was originally a page in the old, and was written in 2003.)


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