Harmony and Kay Guitars…a love affair.
First off, I would like to say that I’m writing this article with a little trepidation. In writing this, I fear that I may be driving the prices of some of my favorite guitars up from where they are at the moment.
Harmony and Kay electric guitars have often been overlooked pieces in the vintage market. While most collectors and players are looking for vintage Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and even vintage Ibanez guitars, very few have been on the hunt for old Harmony and Kay electrics. For years I even found myself ignoring these beautiful tone machines, only to later be enamored by them. So…what changed? Well…nothing.
Back in the day, one could purchase these guitars at hardware stores, automotive stores, and even department stores. Harmony and Kay guitars were sold through a lot of distribution channels, under a plethora of names, from the well-known Silvertone brand, the Airline brand, the Old Kraftsman brand, to the more seldom seen Barclay brand. For the most part, these guitars were built quickly, in large quantities, and simply received a different name on their headstock, depending on what store was receiving them. An inspection of the inside of one of the hollowbody electrics like the Harmony Rocket H-53 will show plenty of glue squeeze out that was not cleaned up, overspray of the finish into the F hole, and other shortcuts that were taken to get these guitars produced as quick as possible. The pickups were even directly mounted to the top of some of these guitars, without a hole being drilled for the wire to be routed inside of the body. This means that the wire is only hidden by the pickguard (and a lot of times, the pickguard on these old guitars is simply missing). Most of these guitars also do not feature a ground wire to the string claw, which results in a lot of buzz until that is remedied. Some of these guitars even have neck pocket alignment issues, and to be honest, they don’t all intonate very well. So, there’s your list of negatives. Please just avoid these guitars…ok…I’m kidding. But I know you’re wondering…why does this guy like these guitars so much? Well…it’s simple. All of the above issues are fixable, the necks are often chunky and super comfortable (these aren’t shredder guitars, so it’s best to accept that the necks are beefy in a good way), and the sound that one can achieve with these instruments is something to behold.
In my personal stash, I have two Kay Vanguards (one is an Old Kraftsman brand), a Silvertone 1413, a Silvertone 1410, a Barclay branded Harmony Rocket H-53, and a Harmony Bobkat. Each of these guitars has the unique voice that only Harmony and Kay electrics have. Their pickups were made fast and cheap, just like the rest of the guitar, and in different styles, too!
The Kay/Silvertone guitars in my collection feature the following pickups: there’s the “pancake pickup”, which is flat on top, and features a magnet that is riveted to a back plate with a coil wrapped around the magnet. The “cover” of the pickup is held on by the wax the pickup was potted in, and it features two little wings by which the pickup mounts to the pickguard or the body. Then, there’s the “cheese grater pickup”, which was built the same way, but in my experience is a little bit hotter than the pancake pickups, and has a pattern stamped into the top of metal of the cover that is almost diamond like, but does resemble a cheese grater in some ways. These two pickups styles are seen on both the Kay guitars and some Silvertone guitars. They have a very specific sound to them that makes a solid body guitar almost sound like a hollowbody guitar. It’s really unique, and I hope that one day someone makes a reproduction of these pickups, even down to the questionable construction…they just sound that good.
Most of the Harmony guitars that I’ve seen have not featured these pickups, instead they have “goldfoil” pickups. These pickups are seeing a resurgence in popularity, and are built in a similar way, are a different shape and size all together, and have their own unique voice to them—they have a clarity that is unparalleled, with great top end chime, and a big bottom end, with a slightly relaxed feel in the midrange. Currently, with the renewed interest in these pickups, many manufacturers are making reproductions of them. It’s a good time to be alive, people…you can get these kinds of pickups from Lollar, Novak, Mojo, Mojotone, and a handful of other pickup makers. Each manufacturer has different styles of these pickups, some of which are modeled off of the Rowe/Dearmond style goldfoils that are on the Harmony guitars, others that are based on Teisco’s goldfoil design, and now, you can even snag a reproduction of the rare Guyatone goldfoil from Novak pickups…and yes, it is very good.
I’ve found myself scouring the internet for these guitars time and again. They always have a great feel to them, and they’re starting to gain a following. They’re gorgeous vintage pieces, that are often beat up, with no need for the faux relic work that is en vogue at the moment, they were made (some have veneer on the top and back, but it usually looks great), and the sound alone is worth the prices they are currently commanding. In talking with Scott Baxendale (owner of Baxendale Guitars), who specializes in remanufacturing vintage Harmony and Kay guitars, about my love for these old guitars, I found out that his all time favorite electric guitar is his Silvertone 1446 “Chris Isaak” model. These guitars are unique in that some of them featured Gibson mini humbuckers straight from the factory. They command a higher price on the market at the moment, but they are truly amazing instruments.
If you’re looking for something to scratch the itch for a vintage piece in a price range that doesn’t require a second mortgage, and has an amazing sound, go find a Harmony or Kay and plug it in. Play the thing, and see if it speaks to you. You may end up surprised, like I was…just don’t start hoarding them—that’s a slippery slope, trust me…