Harmony Guitar Restorations
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
Harmony,much less known than the other big American brands,was possibly more influential than any in establishing the guitar as the preeminent popular instrument of the 20th Century.
Founded by Wilhelm Schulz in 1892 they made guitars,flat top,gut,archtop and tenor,violins,ukes,mandolins,banjos drums etc all according to the fads and fashions of the time.
The guitars followed European construction and differed from most Martins,Gibsons etc in being ladder-braced throughout production.Made of native woods,largely birch with "ebonised" maple frequently for fingerboards and bridge they were lightly built and rapidly assembled to meet the catalogue sales market of the time.They were badged for many retailers.....Silvertone was the Sears house brand and so successful that Sear bought Harmony in 1916 and owned it until 1941.Stella is another famous badge Harmonies carried,usually the cheapest models.
For rural communities,catalogue buying was the only way and Harmony along with others met the demand.They were,as Harmony expert Ron Rothman titled his recent book on the brand,The Peoples Guitar.They sold to keen players who could only dream of a Gibson or Martin and were used to make some of the most legendary blues of the pre-war era as well as in bluegrass and cowboy music.
Post war Harmony continued to churn out instruments...one estimate is around 10 million before US production ceased around 1975.
They were also one of the main builders of "Cowboy Guitars",small,simple instruments with vivid stencils of western scenes on their tops. Aimed at young people trying to emulate the Singing Cowboys of the time they were of marginal utility as instruments and probably ended more budding singing cowboy careers than they enabled but they are nowdays very popular(and overpriced) as nostalgic folksy collectibles.
With the explosion of folk and rock in the 60's Harmony added an upmarket range,the Sovereigns,using more traditional woods but still ladder braced.Nicely crafted,these were used by significant players like Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page,particularly in the studio.They also began to introduce electric models but we are staying unplugged here!
Eventually, like many US makers the influx of Japanese, and particularly fatal for Harmony,Korean,guitars aimed at the beginners market saw the Chicago factory close its doors around 1975 .By then the basic,ladder braced,flat fingerboard Harmonies were out of step with what popular music had become.Though some imports still carried the Harmony name,essentially a whole distinctive acoustic sound,particularly suited to rootsy blues and Americana,vanished from the marketplace.
And getting it back is difficult...they have become rare in playable condition even in the US...time has not been kind to these old USA Harmonies though the higher quality and original cost has helped the Sovereigns survive a bit better.
The birch guitars vanished rapidly after the 70's,no longer near what even beginners expected and unfashionable in how they sounded to most professional players.The light,hide glue/birch construction and ladder bracing saw them belly and twist,already poor neck angles got even worse with time and they went under beds,into damp basements,into landfill,into the fire and into dust.....yet the survivors are now becoming sought out by a small coterie of specialist players.They are the antithesis of the modern Taylor/Takamine piezo sound.... a niche instrument for sure but valued by some players,either because they are perfect for their genre or because they represent musical history in playable form...
The wide,flat fingerboard and small brass frets are suited to picking blues though again its most suited to old school players.Probably all need a neck reset if its not been done already and most of the narrow pinless bridges used for a while have cracked or shot off into the unknown.....
Here is a brief look at the restoration of two,one a late production Sears the other a c72 Harmony.....
This Harmony needed a new nut,neck reset and bridge reglue. The finish had not been fully scraped from the top before the bridge was glued down so it had probably never been secure.
The action hardly permitted cowboy chords but the guitar had left the factory like that....a reset allows full action adjustment.
The bridge is one of the later adjustable types which Harmony seem to have adopted from Gibson just as Gibson learned from their mistake and abandoned them.I've left it alone for now with its original heavy Nylon saddle though they can be fitted with fixed inserts.
The nut was missing so a new one was made from bone and that was about it apart from a cleaning and freeing up of the strip tuners.
Finally the very narrow,low brass frets were polished up...it would be interesting to hear it with modern mediums but they are part of its particular sound.The fingerboard on this was unfinished with inlaid pearloid dots.I restained it slightly as much to clean it up as anything.
The next one we look at was built for Sears,former owners of Harmony.Towards the end they had dropped the Silvertone label and were using a weird little round,metallised badge often called "the space dot"
It was missing from this when I got it,though a dark circle on the headstock showed its former location.
More seriously, the pinless bridge and the tuners were absent,both just leaving footprints.Even without the bridge it was obviously going to need a reset.Further examination showed two loose braces,in front and behind of the soundhole,and two small cracks in the thin solid birch top where they no longer supported it.These were easily reglued and then I began to make a new bridge from cherrywood,nice and tight grained.
I made this a bit larger all round than the footprint of the missing bridge "ebonised" it and then fitted it.The neck reset could now be measured and with the neck reglued the next step was a bone nut and new tuners,cheap but solid open gear types in the same style as the originals but singles.
A Silvertone decal was added to the headstock as I couldn't track down a dot logo....
It was now on the home straight....intonation could be set and a slot cut for the saddle then a nice thick bone saddle made and installed.
There is loads of room for action adjustment and as this guitar was by now spoken for and intended for largely slide use with a vintage converter at the nut I kept the action med/high and the saddle sloping very very slightly down towards the bass side just to keep the strings a bit flatter...it plays nicely as is,slightly louder and fuller than its Harmony cousin and the wide,flat neck is great for bluesy picking.
This has the classic painted on position markers,small brass frets and a thin finish over over an stained or baked maple board.
So it was done.I strung both with 10's,you could probably use 11's but the ladder bracing combined with nearly 50yrs does incline to light strings. It would be interesting to try some old school monels or flats on these!
Here is one in original condition for comparison...
Just do note if you are looking at buying a Harmony that the Korean models closely resemble their US ancestors at times...the first giveaway is under the Harmony logo on the headstock...a tiny "Since 1892".....that indicates a Korean build and won't sound like an original. It is also indicated on the label inside if it is still in there.
So there we are,two neat examples of Americana restored to play and sound better than the day they left the factory.....
This guitar was sold "off the plans",€170