By Barry Cleveland
Few instruments have broken the conventional molds of guitar design as thoroughly and successfully as the Parker Fly. Introduced in mid-1993, Ken Parker’s brainchild was so well received that although new models were added during the intervening decade, the Fly’s primary design and feature set remained largely unaltered. Nonetheless, on the occasion of the company’s tenth anniversary, Parker and his design team resolved to build an even better Fly—or at least one more finely tuned to the needs of present and potential Fly enthusiasts. To that end, they took stock of user and dealer feedback, consulted numerous newsgroups, and otherwise did their homework before implementing refinements that amount to a mini-overhaul of the line.
To get a broad sampling of the updated instruments both in terms of cost and appointments, I examined three very differently priced models—the Fly Supreme ($5,798 retail/$4,599 street), Fly Mojo ($3,498 retail/$2,499 street), and Fly Deluxe ($2,998 retail/ $2,199 street)—and I also took a look at the more affordable NiteFly-M (see sidebar) to see how it factored into the equation.
The three Fly guitars are more-or-less identical, except for the choice of tone woods (and pickups, in the case of the Mojo), so I’ll deal with their features collectively and then briefly describe each guitar’s individual characteristics.
On the Fly
Though some major improvements were made to the line, many of the Fly’s core features remain unchanged. For example, the guitars continue to be constructed of solid wood, with an ultra-thin layer of carbon-glass-epoxy applied to the back, neck, and rear of the headstock. This approach is designed to strengthen the structures, and to “tune” them by helping to control the vibration of the neck and the headstock, thus minimizing energy loss. Energy conservation is further enhanced by the guitar’s multiple-finger neck joint, which provides additional gluing surfaces and fits precisely into a pocket in the body.
The Fly’s unique fretboard also remains unchanged. The carbon and glass composite board is based on a conical section form—such as fingerboards found on violins, violas, and cellos— rather than the typical cylindrical or so-called “compound radius” form employed by most other manufacturers. The frets, too, are unusual. Constructed of hardened stainless-steel, they have no tangs, and are instead attached using a high-tech adhesive. According to Parker, the combination of increased neck rigidity, geometrical accuracy, and uniform fretwork results in better intonation and overall playability, with no dead spots or muting-out while bending notes. Even the trussrod mechanism is unorthodox—you access it from a tiny opening at the base of the headstock, rather than having to remove a cover.
The Fly’s vibrato system has always been one of its coolest features. With its selection of three operational modes—fixed, down only, and up/down—it covers all the bases, and the fact that you can rest your hand on it without changing the pitch is an invaluable benefit. But on the original system, you adjusted the tension of the flat spring mechanism by turning a wheel that protruded through openings on both the front and rear of the body, and you adjusted the step stop (which sets the bridge’s “home” or neutral position) using a similar device that protruded through the rear panel. Some guitarists found that they were inadvertently altering the settings by accidentally brushing against their instruments, so both controls are now recessed behind narrow openings in the rear panel, while remaining easily accessible using an included tool. As an added bonus, Parker’s new-and-improved trem arms are now identical for all Fly models, and the bushings have been redesigned to complement the curve of the instrument’s lower body.
Significant changes were made to the Fly’s electronics and controls. There is no longer a separate tone control for the piezo pickup, and the remaining three knobs—mag pickup volume, mag pickup tone, and piezo pickup volume—have been relocated to provide more convenient access. Internally, the original high-tech jumper cable arrangement has been replaced by traditional point-to-point wiring, battery access has been simplified, and there is now a “smartswitch” output jack that automatically senses when a tip/sleeve or stereo tip/ring/sleeve plug is inserted, and switches to mono or stereo operation accordingly. The preamp circuit has also been updated, resulting in increased headroom, doubled battery life (200 hours using a standard alkaline 9-volt), and improved audio performance overall, particularly in stereo mode. Finally, there’s a push/pull coil-tap switch built into the tone control.
Because the three models of Fly are identical in many respects, and production tolerances so tight, certain characteristics were naturally common to all three. For example, the necks and fretboards felt and played exactly the same, with no buzzes or dead spots, and only musically negligible imperfections in the intonation (on the low strings at the first fret and seemingly random spots on several strings above the 14th fret) that required a high-quality tuner to detect. In other words, these things are about as close to perfection as any guitar neck is ever likely to get, and the consistency is remarkable.
The guitars are electronically similar, as well, and all offer an amazing range of sounds. From traditional neck/bridge/combo humbucker tones, to thinner and funkier coil-split sounds, to acoustic-flavored piezo textures—with the ability to combine them in various proportions, and in stereo using different amps if you choose—the possibilities are truly mind-boggling. And, in all cases, the operation was exceptionally clean and quiet, which is no mean feat when working with such a complex arrangement. The trem systems, tuners, and other hardware functioned flawlessly.
I tested each guitar through Fender, Marshall, and Bad Cat amps (with the piezo routed to a Trace Elliot TA 100R acoustic amp during stereo operation) and achieved excellent results with each—from full-bore distortion to crunchy rhythm to jazzy clean tones, each Fly delivered the goods on all counts.
The Fly Supreme is constructed of solid big leaf maple with a basswood neck, giving it a bright and exceptionally clear sound. One of the volume pots on this example mysteriously began to stick during the evaluation, but otherwise the guitar performed perfectly. This instrument had the most distinctive sonic
personality of the three, which is not surprising given its flagship status.
The Mojo’s body and neck are both constructed of solid mahogany, giving it a warmer and deeper tone than the other two instruments. Combined with the Seymour Duncan Jazz (neck) and JB (bridge) humbuckers, the mahogany body-neck combo will no doubt appeal to Les Paul/PRS fans who may have been intrigued by the Fly, but wanted an instrument that more closely approximated their existing tonal tastes. Apart from some static in one of the pickup switches, this guitar performed beautifully.
The Fly Deluxe sports a solid poplar body—used for centuries in the construction of Italian upright basses—and a solid basswood neck. Tonally, it fell somewhere in the middle of the Supreme and the Mojo, with slightly less brightness and upper clarity than the former, and less darkness and warmth than the latter. There were no problems with any of its controls.