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Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Wizard of the Strings (Vintage 1968 Harmony Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar)

I’ve seen—on the news, because I certainly wouldn’t know from experience—that Polynesian Tiki bars are becoming “hip” again in places where hip people congregate. “Again” because they used to be popular in the 1950s, well before I would have been able to go into one. Dried grass above the bar. Fruity drinks in fancy glasses with little umbrellas stuck into them. And, of course, Hawaiian music, preferably with a little combo, but at least on the jukebox, played on a lap steel guitar like this Harmony Roy Smeck.

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Hawaiian music actually had an extraordinary run of popularity in America that predates even me. Hawaii has been important for the U.S. since the mid-19th Century. Situated halfway between the Americas and Asia, it was a natural stopping point for sailing ships. Guitars and banjos were common possessions of sailors, so some of each ended up on the Islands. (Any musician in the crew of a ship captured by pirates was automatically spared and recruited into the pirate crew.) Both guitars and banjos figured in Commodore Perry’s opening up of trade with Japan in 1854, when sealing the deal included several blackface minstrel shows…and lots of champagne. Minstrelsy and Kabuki theater have more than a little in common, after all! Hawaiians quickly developed open tunings (“slack key”) and playing with a slide, probably by around 1880, give or take.

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Hawaiian musicians had come to the U.S. mainland by late in the 19th century and figured prominently in a number of World’s Fairs, where Americans were often regaled by various “ethnic” exhibits on the surrounding midways. There was a Hawaiian show at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. By around 1910 Hawaiian music was big on Broadway and with college students (Boola-Boola was originally the Hoola Boola). It was probably—at least in part—the rage for Hawaiian music following the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that inspired Sears to purchase the Harmony Company in 1916 and introduce a number of Harmony-made Hawaiian instruments the following year. And, don’t forget, it was Hawaiian music that led directly to the first successful electric guitars in 1931-32.

Among the popular performers of Hawaiian (and most other types of) music on the Vaudeville music hall circuit was Roy Smeck (1900-1994). Smeck was a talented instrumentalist who played guitar, banjo, ukulele, and lap steel guitar, earning the sobriquet “Wizard of the Strings.” Smeck made quite a few recordings and starred in part of the first “sound on disk” movie that was released in 1926. Like many other performers, Smeck endorsed a number of instruments by various manufacturers over the years, but is probably best known for the line of Harmonies introduced in 1927 with the pear-shaped Vita-Uke. Smeck’s name would be associated with Harmony instruments until near the end of the company’s run in 1973.

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Including association with this late example Harmony Roy Smeck H7 Lap Steel that dates to about 1968. This modern take on the lap steel was originally introduced in 1955 and sported Roy Smeck’s name on the handrest. In around 1958 these came with optional legs, which this example has. At some point in the 1960s Smeck was still the endorser in the catalog, but his name had been removed from the guitar. Like many lap steels, this is pretty basic, with one single-coil pickup and volume (black) and tone (white) controls. Still, it’s quite serviceable for playing Yellow Bird or Aloha-Oe on your next gig at the neighborhood Tiki bar and I’ve always preferred legs to holding a guitar in my lap.

There can’t have been many of these Smeck lap steels made in 1968. Hawaiian music had become mighty passé in the face of the onslaught of The White Album and Jimi Hendrix, although nascent Country Rock was just beginning to emerge, but with pedal rather than Hawaiian lap steels! (I recall there was a Tiki bar in Toledo into the 1970s, but it was something of a dive by then and you were more likely to hear Dolly Parton than Jerry Byrd on the juke.) The H7 became the H607 in 1972 in the catalog, but Harmony’s lap steels would bite the dust the following year.

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

Vintage 1968 Roy Smeck Lap Steel Guitar

There remains a small group of devotees of the Hawaiian lap steel. Since I’ve never been accused of being hip (the only hip I know about is the new one I recently got!), I haven’t much followed the Tiki bar revival. (Don’t care much for fruity drinks with umbrellas either.) There may be a concomitant resurgence of Hawaiian music and the lap steel, for all I know. But I doubt it. Still, the ukulele hasn’t done badly over the last few years, so maybe it’s time has come!

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Nectar of the Gods (Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe 2235 Electric Guitar)

One cool thing about liking oddball old guitars is they always contain hope…and a challenge. By which I mean, no matter how obscure or exotic, you always live with hope that you’ll someday figure out what the heck they are and thrive on the challenge of trying to do so. At least that’s been my repeated experience over the last quarter century or so of playing guitar detective.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

That being said, this Apollo Deluxe was kind of the exception that proved the rule, in that it followed a reverse pattern, sort of backing into discovery. While I didn’t really know what it was when I found it, I did have some idea of what it might be, or at least ought to be! I knew that the Grecian-god-themed Apollo brand was a part of the St. Louis Music (SLM) family of instruments, so all I had to do was locate it within the pantheon (SLM’s better-known brand was Electra, another Greek god).

St. Louis Music reflects one of those hazy back-stories in American (and actually international) guitar history that involve the murky world of distributors, which few people really understand. Distributors—or “jobbers”—were part of the middleman structure in the music business that bought instruments from the manufacturers (usually what we call “mass manufacturers,” like Kay or Harmony), marked them up, and got them to the music stores,department stores, and studios where they would be retailed to you and me. They’re the wringers because the guitars they bought might say Kay, but they might just as well say Cromwell or Custom Kraft. This latter was the brand used by SLM on guitars produced for them by Kay during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

A roughly equivalent—though somewhat more Byzantine—business model developed in Japan following World War II. How much that was a result of American governorship would be an interesting subject to study. Guitar manufacturers—some of whom had been active before the War—sprang up, similar to a Kay or Harmony. They sold their products to “trading companies,” whose job was to distribute domestically and to interface with foreign importers, who would then either be a distributor in its own country, or sell to other distributors, or both. (To make things worse, the trading companies may or may not have owned an interest in the manufacturing companies; can you say CMI and Gibson?) You can see why sorting this all out is not always easy!

Japanese guitars made significant inroads into the American market as the 1960s progressed. And not coincidentally, American mass manufacturing declined accordingly, although I think this was more a combination of management stagnation and cultural chauvinism than anything else. The global economy was still emerging and Depression-era-trained managers didn’t get it. There’s very little difference (read “improvement”) between a 1962 and a 1967 Kay, Harmony, or Valco guitar.

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

Vintage 1967 Apollo Deluxe Electric Guitar

SLM had sourced guitars from Kay for a long time but it, too, was drawn to the Japanese makers. SLM was big enough to be important players in the music industry, big enough to see the writing on the wall. They may even have had inside information that all was not rosy at Kay, which was purchased by Seeburg in 1965 and then Valco in 1967. By 1968 both Valco and Kay had gone belly-up.

Anyhow, this model shows up in an undated SLM catalog probably from around 1967. Or at least a two-pickup version does, called the Deluxe 2235. Clearly this was inspired by—or actually meant to compete with—a Burns Bison. At that time the Japanese were copying the European guitars that had been the “budget” alternatives earlier in the ‘60s. Thus, this is an early “copy” guitar. If you’ve overcome the usual prejudices of many older guitar enthusiasts, you know that this is a pretty decent guitar, once it’s properly set up. Poor set-up was the common problem of the time for these guitars. Look, these pickups ain’t DiMarzios, the switching is kind of sucky, and Japanese wiring was really small gauge, so it may not survive well, but these have their own sound and are great fun.

Even though Kay went out of business in ’68, SLM continued to offer Custom Krafts until 1970. Whether or not those were left-over stock or assembled by SLM from parts is unknown. By 1968 they were already pretty dated designs in any case, so probably not selling well. The SLM Apollos were probably not imported in large quantities, based upon how many you see: not many!

SLM, of course, would go on to introduce The Electra guitar, a copy of the Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexiglas guitar in 1970, and Electra would be their primary brand for electrics (Alvarez for acoustics) until 1984, and they would be a major force in the importation and distribution of guitars from Asia. This Apollo represents a fascinating clue in deciphering that process!

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Hot For Rare Birds (Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar)

It has always amused me that one of the great tempests in the teapot of guitardom has been the legendary “lawsuit” of the 1970s. You know, when Norlin (aka Gibson) sued Elger (aka Hoshino, aka Ibanez) in 1977 over trademark infringement based upon “copying” Gibson’s headstock design. There are tons of ironies in this story, but one of the most amusing aspects is that companies such as Gibson have been one of the most egregious copyists of its own guitars over the years. Witness the Korean-made Epiphone Firebird 500 seen here:

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

In a general way, the guitar business has always been about copying. It was just usually a bit more subtle. Kay’s and Harmony’s first solidbody electrics in the ‘50s were loose copies of Gibson’s Les Paul. Many of the guitars made in Japan during the 1960s deliberately emulated European guitars. They were the competition, after all. When Gibson started sourcing guitars from Japan in around 1970, the guitars included some Epiphone copies of classic Epis, such as the Coronet.

The apocryphal story about ‘70s copies related to me by the folks at Aria when I was doing that history was that company president Shiro Arai was visiting the NAMM show in 1968 when Gibson re-introduced its Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.” Mr. Arai thought, “Hmm, so that’s a copy of the original Les Paul Custom, eh?” He went back to Japan and the first bolt-neck Les Paul copies appeared shortly thereafter. That may or may not be true, but it is a good yarn.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Most copy guitars from the ‘70s through the early ‘80s were associated with Japanese manufacturers. But by the mid-‘80s the dollar-yen conversion was increasingly unfavorable for Japanese guitars (meaning they cost more than Americans would pop for). Simultaneously, the Korean guitar business had been slowly evolving, with companies such as Samick (Hondo) and Cort producing better and better guitars. The Japanese were markedly superior, but Korean product was coming on strong.

In 1986 Gibson began to shift sourcing of its Epiphone guitars to Korea. Some of these early Korean Epis were nothing to write home about, but others, like this Firebird 500, weren’t too bad.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to contemporary electric guitars during the 1980s. I found this about a decade later in a “cheap guitar stall” at one of those antique malls that seem to come and go like raves. (Does anyone throw raves anymore?! To quote the great Oz, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.”) I’d never seen this model and it obviously had neck-through construction, which I was into at the time. Also, it was silver. I never got the ‘80s taste for greybursts and silver, which I think is ugly, and which, of course, made it all the more attractive to me. I recall buying this on my lunch break and schlepping it about a mile back to the office in summer heat.

This is actually a pretty cool guitar. It’s made of mahogany. The fingerboard is synthetic ebanol, a kind of interesting alternative to disappearing ebony. Of course, you’d rather have wood, but you don’t build budget guitars with premium materials. At least the inlays are real pearl! The Steinberger KB-X vibrato was new at the time, and a pretty good unit. It took ball-end strings without clipping and you could also adjust spring tension with a lever. You could also lock this down to have a stop-tail with the flip of a switch. I’m not sure why you would want to do that, but it’s still a neat idea. The pickups are stock EMG Selects. I never really warmed to Selects. They had a good frequency response and were exceptionally clean, which made them good for pumping through effects, but they lacked essential character, in my opinion. They came in red, black, sunburst, and this silver.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

The Firebird 500 and a downscale 300 were offered from late 1986 into 1988. There are no serial numbers, so this could be from anywhere in that timeframe. No production numbers are available for these models, but scuttlebutt suggests that these are relatively rare guitars. They listed for $825.25, which was pretty pricey for a Korean guitar in the 1980s.

Today, of course, it’s routine for guitar companies to offer all sorts of “copies” of their own lines sourced from any number of factories, usually Asian, sold at various price points. (And sue the pants off anyone else who comes close to copying anything they consider theirs.) There have been numerous subsequent Epiphone Firebirds, but these were the first. And always give me a chuckle when I recall the original brew-ha-ha over the “lawsuit” guitars that started it all.

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Guitar Assessment Checklist

I have a friend with a cool little music store here in St. Louis. I pop in from time to time since he always has a great selection of vintage lap steels, as well as an ever-changing assortment of oddball pieces to check out. As I was on my way out the door after one of my most recent visits, I spotted an early 80s Harmony “Flying V,” and immediately stopped in my tracks. The guitar had no price tag, and as I picked it up for a closer look, my friend told me to make him an offer. I was pretty interested in the guitar, so I quickly went through the complete assessment checklist I use when I’m considering buying a used piece. Following are the things I look for to determine whether a used guitar can be made playable, or if it’s destined to spend the rest of its days as wall art.

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Usually, if you’re interested in a piece, the seller is nearby, carefully watching as you look it over…game on. The first thing you need to do is calm down. I have purchased more than one instrument that turned out to be a big old can of worms simply because of my initial eagerness to take it home. I have since learned to put that excitement on hold until I can really check it out, and know exactly what I’m dealing with.

Starting from the top and working my way down, I give the guitar a general inspection. I’m looking for cracks, dings, dents, signs of impact (has the guitar been dropped?), or any broken pieces. I will look especially closely at the headstock area for signs of a repaired break.

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

I’ll then turn my attention to the tuning gears. The “V” I was looking at had one tuning gear that looked crooked at first glance. Upon further investigation, I found that the gear was not an exact match, and that one of the mounting screws was missing. These were cheap, dust covered, geared tuners, so I figured they would most likely be replaced anyway…not a deal breaker.

I also noticed that all of the pickup ring screws were rusted. Rusted screws can equal more shop time trying to get things apart, so be sure to consider the possibility of having to extract broken or stripped screws.

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Once I determined that, aside from some rusty screws and a mismatched tuner, the “V” was in good shape, I started step two of the inspection…the nut. I have found that on guitars like this, the nut can be anything from rough to absurd. With this particular instrument, the latter was the case. This nut was an ugly yellow material, with huge string slots that were filed way too deep, and someone had cut up business cards to use as shim stock underneath. With most used guitar purchases, I’ll typically fabricate a new bone nut anyway, so this wasn’t a deterrent for me, and it even made a nice bargaining tool.

Next on the checklist come the neck and the frets. This is usually the make-or-break point for me when deciding whether or not to buy. I will start by sighting the neck, on both the bass and treble sides, for bow and possible twist in the neck. Too much bow or back bow may be correctable with a truss rod adjustment, or even a heat pressing if necessary, but twisted necks can be more complicated. When I sight the neck, I look straight down the edge where the frets end. I look at it as a continuous plane, all the way to the bridge. I can see back bow, forward bow, and I can spot unlevel frets. The “V” in question had a surprisingly straight neck, with fairly level frets…score!

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980's Harmony Flying V Electric Guitar

After determining that the neck itself is in good working order, I’ll look carefully at the neck joint, where the neck meets the body. If the guitar has a set neck, I check the area for cracks or previous repairs. The “V” had a bolt-on neck, which I prefer so that I can shim the neck if necessary to get a proper neck angle. I’ll usually push back and forth a little on the neck to make sure there is no movement. Neck movement can mean loose mounting screws, which will cause tuning problems. Side note: if you haven’t checked your neck mounting screws in a while, you should. Necks can work loose over time and cause problems.

At this point, I take a good look at the body, bridge, controls, and general set-up of the instrument. I’m looking for more rusted screws and parts that may cause problems later, when I do a set-up. For example, bridge saddles can seize up over time, no longer allowing for height or intonation adjustments. While checking the set-up, be sure to check the height of the bridge and individual saddles to determine if the guitar has simply been set up poorly, or if a bigger problem, such as a bad neck set, is present.

My final step in evaluating a used guitar includes plugging it in and playing every note on every fret, to see if I get any buzzing or rattling caused by unlevel frets. I want each note to be clear and in tune. I also check the pots and switches for noise or malfunction. I don’t usually get too bent out of shape with bad electronics, because I will usually upgrade the switch, pots, and sometimes the pickups to a better quality part. This is an area where I usually find that the cheapest products have been used, and a little investment in better electronics can go a long way.

Once I’ve decided what needs to be fixed or replaced, I can begin the bargaining process. My checklist for the “V” revealed a bad tuner, rusty screws, some wonky electronics, and a nut that needed to be replaced. With a bit of haggling, the guitar was mine at a killer price.

I quickly made a new nut, replaced the pots, switch, and jack, and found a Fralin P-92 humbucker to put in the bridge position. After just a few hours of work, I had a killer new “Flying V.” I even had it up and running in time for my wife to play at a show the next night. Looks like I may have to find another one of my own sometime soon.

Happy hunting!

– Dave Anderson

Scott Baxendale

Scott Baxendale Guitar & Harmony Conversions

Scott Baxendale has been building custom hand made guitars since 1974. Recently he settled in Athens Georgia where he is currently building custom guitars, restoring vintage guitars and teaching the art of lutherie to aspiring craftsman.

Baxendale Guitar

Baxendale Guitar

Harmony Conversions

Harmony Conversions

Scott Baxendale’s legacy of building custom instruments began in 1974, when he arrived in Winfield, Kansas to work for Stuart Mossman, owner and founder of Mossman Guitars. Scott joined Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, In l978, where he specialized in the restoration of classic vintage instruments. During this time he repaired or restored guitars for such professionals as Billy Gibbons, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Steve Howe, Elvis Costello, John Hartford, Marty Stuart, Norman Blake, Roy Acuff and many others. Here is the Mick Jones Custom.

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott Baxendale Acoustic Guitar

Scott purchased Mossman Guitars, in l985, moving the company to Garland, Texas. He manufactured over 250 acoustic guitars, averaging five instruments per month, some of which are owned and played by Carl Perkins, Joe Walsh, Willie Nelson, Donovan, Greg Lake, Jorma Kaukonen, John Mellencamp, Chris Hillman, James Burton, Travis Tritt, Dave Alvin, B.J. Thomas and Ray Wylie Hubbard.

Scott’s work on Harmony conversions was brought to my attention by long time friend and customer of Eastwood, Dewitt Burton, guitar tech for R.E.M. If you have ever owned an old Harmony guitar, you’ll know how cool they are, but Scott can take a mediocre instrument and turn it into a world class guitar.

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

The Harmony conversion is a process by which they take old USA-made Harmony and Kay guitars and remanufacture them using our proprietary bracing and internal design, giving the guitars a new life and a world class tone that compares to vintage guitars of the highest order. This re-manufacturing process allows them to create a guitar that is also green, recycling and repurposing by starting with an existing guitar that was originally made with quality woods, and requiring no finish work. These are great guitars that retain their vintage patina and mojo at a price that the average musician can afford.

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Vintage Harmony Guitars Catalog

Many musicians have an old Harmony or Kay laying around that was their first instrument. Some have sent them to Scott to be rebuilt, and these guitars subsequently became their favorite instrument! Many of his customers are professional recording artists and musicians. If you would like to purchase a remade Harmony or Kay, have one rebuilt, or have one to sell, contact Scott baxendaleguitar@att.net

Scott Baxendale

Mick Jones - The Clash

Walk, Don’t Run! (1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Electric Guitar)

What is it about the Japanese and the Ventures? I mean, I cut my teeth with the Ventures. They were the perfect band to learn guitar from. The Ventures took songs with often complex harmonic structures—like the wonderful Johnny Smith classic—and stripped them down to their basic melodies, gave them a simple rock groove, and played them clean. I had the sheet music to Smith’s song, but there was no way in you know where I was gong to play off that. But follow along with the Ventures’ single? You bet! Maybe that was part of their appeal in Japan. Or maybe it was just that they were one of the few popular American bands to bother to go to Japan to perform. That simple gesture got the band generations of loyal Japanese fans and kept the group afloat during those lean years of the late ‘60s when their sharp, clear sound was out of phase with pot-smoking kids who preferred to get lost in the purple haze of Inna Gadda Da Vida.

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

Whatever the reasons for their popularity in the Pacific, it should come as no surprise that when the Japanese guitarmakers hit on the strategy of copying popular guitar designs, the Ventures’ Mosrites were near the top of the list. Which partially explains this ca. 1967 Heit Deluxe V-2.

Actually, the first “copy” guitars by the Japanese were of their European competition. European guitarmakers from Italy, Germany, and Sweden were among the first to begin supplying the beginner-grade demand of American post-War Baby Boomers, just hitting adolescence as the ‘60s dawned. The success of EKO’s violin-bodied guitars and basses—a not-so-subtle nod to Paul McCartney’s Hofner—yielded a host of Japanese knock-offs by the mid-‘60s.

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

Once the notion of “copying” took hold, it didn’t take long for the Japanese attention to turn to other models. And it didn’t take long for them to begin eyeing those swell Mosrites played by their beloved Ventures. Perhaps as early as 1966, but certainly by 1967, a variety of Mosrite-inspired guitars were coming off Japanese production lines and making their way to American shores carrying a variety of brand names, including the Heit Deluxe seen here. These Mosrite-style guitars ranged from vague tributes such as those by Humming Bird and Guyatone to the first really exact copies like the Mosrite Avenger by Firstman.

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

This Heit Deluxe is almost certainly a version of the V-2 made by Teisco. It is identical to those shown in the indispensable book ‘60s Bizarre Guitars‘, except for the two-way sliding selector switch instead of the usual three-way toggle. Most guitar fans automatically think “Teisco” for anything Japanese, but the picture is far more complicated, of course! When you actually study Japanese guitars, you find a remarkable consistency in pickup use. While there are a few exceptions to prove the rule, Japanese manufacturers almost always used distinctive and exclusive pickup types. The ones shown here are variants on the little DeArmonds used by Harmony and are almost always found on Teisco-made guitars. As you might expect, there’s a lot of variability in the output of these pickups, but they can be quite excellent, as here on this guitar. This particular guitar is a little more reminiscent of the Mosrite Joe Maphis or Mark I than the Ventures model, but the inspiration is absolute. These are great guitars, with nice slim necks that play swell if you set them up right. As with many ‘60s solids, this has a mahogany body, although a lot of these guitars used sen, a native timber related to mahogany.

Less is known about the Heit brand. It was used on a number of Japanese and possibly early Korean acoustic imports in the late ‘60s marketed by G & H Imports (GHi) located at 475 Westminster Place in Lodi, New Jersey, a small town not far from Passaic near the junction between the Garden State Parkway and I-80. Presumably G and H were partners in the venture, but their names are unknown at this time. You can find their 1968 catalog and price list at www.vintaxe.com (a subscription site). This model is not shown that year, which is why I suspect ’67, but it could be slightly later. ‘60s Bizarre lists these as “c. 1968,” but that don’t mean it’s necessarily so. Other models shown in the Heit are not Teiscos, but could be Kawais. Other Kawai guitars have been spotted carrying the Heit Deluxe brand. The Deluxes were Heit’s better models, but that’s almost one of those distinctions without a difference. Pickups ranged from one to four. The acoustics look dreadful which is why I suspect a Korean origin. GHi apparently distributed to other retailers because in ’68 a half dozen Heits would set you back between $18-35 each!

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

1967 Heit Deluxe V-2 Vintage Electric Guitar

Of course, you won’t find your Heit Deluxe for $35 any more, but you’ll still pay a heck of a lot less than for a genuine Mosrite! And, you’ll have a sweet little ‘60s guitar (well, not really so little; these are pretty substantial) to chomp down on whichever version of Walk, Don’t Run you prefer to play!

Let me know if you know anything more about GHi or who G and H were!

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

One of the very cool (for gear heads) fallouts of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was the great amount of small, oddball guitar makers trying to strike it rich in the 65-68 era. Plenty of small makers from all over the world got the idea that they would go into the guitar business. 1965 was, by far, the biggest year in guitar production up to that point. But then a strange thing happened. Even though garage bands were cropping up all over the place, guitar sales started to shrink (slowly at first). Then, by the late 60’s, you started to see cheap imports from the Asian market competing with the lower end US made guitars (Kays, Danos and Harmonys and so on), putting a serious hit on the US budget brands. And these new makers (budget and high end) who started in the wake of ’65? Most went belly-up within a few years, but left for collectors some very neat-o guitars for our collections.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

Check out, for instance, this rare bird. A 1966 Wurlitzer Gemini, made at the Hollman-Woodell guitar factory in Neodesha, Kansas. Part of Wurlitzer’s THE WILD ONES series (which included the more pedestrian-looking, but still pretty rad Cougar and Wildcat models), these were made to compete with the best of the domestic market. High end tuners (Klutsons), a wonderful chunky bound neck (like a Fender V shape, but a bit thicker), and a great look highlight the Gemini.

Other cool features include stereo pickups. That’s right – the guitar is wired in stereo, so that the neck pickup is one channel and the bridge pickup the other. With a stereo cord that has a “Y” splitter, that means you can send your bridge pickup to one amp and your neck pickup to another. There’s a traditional 3 position toggle to select the pickups, or set it for both and use the blender knob on the treble side horn. It’s a trippy sound to stand in between two amps with the split signal. Put the tremolo and reverb on one of them, and it’s a great sound. You can also run both pickups, of course, into one amp with the proper cord.

Each pickup has a rocker switch labeled “Jazz” and “Rock”. Predictably, the JAZZ setting cuts the output and trebles, offering a m ore rounded mellow tone. The ROCK setting opens the tone up a bit, boosting the treble and volume. It’s a very versatile guitar, with a high end feel.

The vibrato, with its very stylish W cutaway feels like a cross between a Bigsby and a Mosrite. It has the position under the hand and sound of a Bigsby, but with a hint of the feathery lighter touch of the Mosrite. The bridge has separate plastic posts that intonate very well and allow for the vibrato to return to pitch consistently. The balance is wonderful as well. It’s an odd shaped guitar, but it’s very comfortable to play standing or sitting.

And, obviously, it’s one of the best looking guitars to come out of that king of all great-looking-guitar decades, the 1960’s (sorry all you pointy 80’s fans). If the Airline Reso-glass futuristic model most associated with Jack White earns the nickname of the Jetson model, well what is the Gemini? It out Jetsons the Jetson model itself. Maybe it’s the Spacely model. Or the Cogswell’s Cogs model.

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

1966 Wurlitzer Gemini Electric Guitar

So why didn’t they catch on, if they’re so great? Well, a lot of great companies couldn’t withstand the relative slump of the late 60’s and the birth of quality imports. Think of Danelectro, Valco and Kay all going south within a year of each other. Also, maybe they didn’t have enough capital to make enough noise outside of their Kansas factory. Maybe they just weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

But if you’re looking for any areas where the guitar itself hurt its own chances in the hyper-competitive guitar market of the late 60’s, there are a couple. Wurlitzer could have done better in the finish and the pickups. The finish on all three Wild Ones models had a habit of peeling and cracking. This white Gemini (all three models came in Red, White and Blue) is in surprisingly good shape. It does, however, have the same pickups as the other models, and this isn’t a great thing. While the pickups (the same as one the famed LeBay 2X4 – they were made at the same factory) look to be between the size of a DeArmond Silverfoil and a P-90, sadly they don’t share tone with either of those great pickups. They are clean and solid, tone-wise, but their output is very low and they can’t overdrive the dirtiest of amps. They can get a pretty good snarl going with a nice preamp or a good overdrive pedal, but they aren’t going to sound too tough going straight into most amps. Power and tone-wise, the popular guitar they sound most like (output-wise) is the Fender Mustang.

These are incredibly rare. Most estimates put the entire Wild One line at under one thousand guitars. Of those, the Cougar was the most popular, followed by the Wildcat, leaving the Gemini as the rarest of the rare.

Cool shape. Awesome retro vibe. Stylish. Super rare and hard to come by. And they could use a pickup upgrade. Maybe the more standard MONO wiring. Sounds like a guitar that might be just right for a cool company that re-issues rad guitars from the 60’s (hint, hint, Mike). If enough of you make enough noise, maybe this one could come back from the past.

1962 Harmony Silvertone 1423L Jupiter Electric Guitar

Once, I was teaching a writing workshop and we were doing a character exercise. It’s one that starts, “he/she was the kind of a person who…” and then fill in the blank. One of my favorite answers ever to that was one a guy wrote that read: “He was the kind of a person who wished he was the kind of a person who liked to walk on the beach.”

Judging by many of my last few years guitar purchases (on Ebay and elsewhere), I’m the kind of a person who seems to think he’s the kind of a person who likes guitars with a lot of knobs and switches. I’ve bought several multi-pickup guitars. Old ones, new ones, new ones made to look like old ones (not those stupid “relic-ed” ones, though…I’m an idiot, but I’m not stupid). Yet, as I look at the keepers in my collection, I’ve only kept one guitar with more than four knobs, and none with more than two pickups. Odd.

Many of them have been beautiful – for instance, a white 4 pickup Kawai model. Slider switches for each of the 4 pickups, plus one of ON/OFF. Which struck me as strange, at best…why, after all, would you need to turn your guitar “off” unless you were doing that cool Morse-code deet-deet-deet noise at the end of the Clash’s “London Calling.” Wait, I may have answered my own question.

But back to the Kawai. It was a creamy white like Fender’s Olympic White, the pickups were all shiny chrome, and it had a pretty cool whammy bar with a chrome bridge cover. Rosewood fingerboard. A pretty snazzy looking guitar. I saw it and had to have it.

But, like pretty much every three or four pickup guitar I’ve ever owned, it was a pain to play live. Plus, one pickup setting seems to always sound better than the others (to me, usually the neck pickup). But, damned if I don’t fall for the pretty temptress of the multiple pickups every time. I sold it a month later, realizing it wasn’t as good sounding or reliable or easy to play as my main stage guitars.

Pretty much, I play shows with my two main guitars: My 1969 Telecaster and I get a lot of tonal variety from its two pickups (a ’66 DeArmond from a Harmony in the neck and an original bridge pickup), three position switch, and the volume knob. My other main stage guitar is my new(er) Eastwood Airline H 44 DLX. Again, a two-pickup guitar with a single volume and tone knob. Through either my Deluxe Reverb, or my Silvertone 1484, I can get a nice rock clean by rolling off the volume knob, and a great overdrive by turning up. No need for pedals. Simple and awesome tone.

But this piece is about the keeper. The one eBay find that has stayed in the rotation, yet is labored with a series of knobs, some of them even downright confusing knobs!

The multi-knobbed guitar I’ve finally found that’s plenty simple for live playing, and yet full of tonal options for the stage or studio is the 1962 Harmony Silvertone 1423L Jupiter model.

1962 Harmony Silvertone 1423L Jupiter Electric Guitar

1962 Harmony Silvertone 1423L Jupiter Electric Guitar

For those unfamiliar with Harmony guitars, in their rough heyday from the 1940’s to the late 60’s (they did limp to a close in the mid 70’s, but most of their cool advances and designs in guitars are from the earlier years), they were, for my money, the most underrated American guitar company going. While, yes, they mass-produced guitars more than anyone else (in one year alone, they made more guitars than all other American guitar companies combined in that same year), they were frequently great playing and great sounding instruments.

There are a variety of great and affordable vintage Harmonys, and many of the top of the line models are great professional guitars. There are exceptions to the general rule, but most Harmony collectors like to go after the models with the block inlay necks. There are some knockout dot-neck models though that have recently gone through the roof, price-wise (such as the original H44 Stratotones popularized by Rick Holmstrom, Junior Watson, Tom Waits now going for over two grand a pop). But, as I said, those are the exceptions – most of the collectable Harmony guitars are the block inlay neck models, such as the H62’s (big jazz box), H75-78’s (thinline archtop three pickup models), and the Silvertone 1446L (Chris Isaac models), among others.

Vintage Harmony H44 Stratotone Electric Guitar

Vintage Harmony H44 Stratotone Electric Guitar

And also, to add to that list of great guitars, the Silvertone 1423L Jupiter and its sibling with the Harmony label, the H49 Jupiter. These are remarkably versatile and great sounding guitars. They sport two DeArmond (Rowe Industries) pickups, with a volume and tone for each along with a three position selector. The difference? There’s a fifth knob – the rare ‘blender” switch, engaged when the three-potion toggle is in the middle (both pickups) position.

And what is a “blender” switch? It’s like having a wah-wah knob when the two pickups are engaged. It has at least a couple of uses. One is as a standard wah-wah sound. Play a note while wrapping your pinky around the knob, spin it back and forth and you have a classic wah. OR, set it wherever you like in its tonal sweep and come up with a stunning variety of tones from the two pickups blended. A truly wild feature of the blender is that it seems to tone down the hotness of the pickups, so that you have a slightly cleaner, groove tone on the two pickups, and more of a rock and roll/blues bite and grind on the them when they’re used separately.

And the sound of those pickups when used by themselves! A booming, bluesy grind on the neck pickup, with a ton of aggressive bottom and lush mids along with the bite. The bridge pickup is one of the truly great rock and roll sounds. And these tones are really easy to access when playing live. One of the few multi knob guitars ever made that is user-friendly and easy to dial in when you need a great tone as there’s really not a bad setting to be found on it. These guitars can go from rolled-off mellow jazz to snarling rock with very little effort.

Add to this a very easy playing neck and an astoundingly light guitar (these are semi-hollowbody, yet not neck-heavy), and you have one of the great values in vintage guitars. Another nice feature of this model is that it isn’t prone to the same squealing feedback some of the Rockets and H-series thinlines are at high volumes. Great as those guitars are (and my H72 is maybe my favorite thinline ever), they can be very sensitive to higher volume playing. Not so with the H49/Jupiter.

And on top off all this, both versions, the Silvertone and the Harmony, are great looking guitars. The H49’s are Spruce or Maple-topped in a golden natural wood grain with one of the coolest tortoise shell pickguard schemes, ever (just around the pickups and for the five mini-knobs in gold and the white three-way toggle). The 1423L Jupiters are finished in a sparkle-black top with a white pickguard only around the five mini-black knobs and the three way toggle. Both are lookers, with the H49’s seeming to go for more on the vintage market than the Silvertone. This may be for no other reason than supply, as the Silvertones show up on eBay about two to three times more often than the H49’s.

Either way, if you can find one for a decent price (currently the $500 range for a player and more for a mint show piece, of course), they are a far more versatile and better looking and sounding guitar than a new Strat that would set you back a similar amount of bucks. Plus, they’ll go up in value.

And, of course, they have a blender knob!

Losing It in TV? (1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar)

How would you feel if you got a gig playing on your local television station and your gear didn’t work? Well, in a way, that’s what happened to me and this 1965 Teisco TRG-2L guitar! Sort of.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Like in most major TV markets, the stations where I live have a roving reporter who gets to go around and do stories on the strange and unusual. You know, pieces about people obsessed with carving pumpkins at Halloween and guys with like 8,000 Lionel trains their basements. I guess I fell into the latter category. Somehow one of these reporters found me out and called to do a story on the weirder parts of my guitar collection. Some might argue that’s the whole thing, but he meant the old Kays and Harmonies and Teiscos he remembered from his youth. I reluctantly agreed and he said “Ok, bring a couple hundred of them into your living room.” Right. You gonna carry them? Expletive deleted. But I picked about 30 or so and spread them around.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Anyhow, on the appointed day the reporter showed up, interviewed me, and started making fun of my guitars. As he worked the room he got to this Teisco with the built-in amp. He threw the switch and hit a chord. Vroo-crackle, crackle. It crapped out. On TV. Ho, ho, ho. More mirth. Oh, great. Doh!

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Then again, maybe having an amp built in to your guitar is something to laugh at. The idea isn’t new. Back in the 1930s both National and Harmony, at least, built cases with amps for their lap steels. But it was left to modern transistorized electronics, and the Japanese application of them to the earliest consumer products, to put the amp into the guitar itself. The result was this TRG-2L, one of several models introduced in 1965 that had a small amp and 3″ speaker built in, operated by two 9-volt batteries. These came in a kind of Stratish shape and a sort of Tele-ish shape. One or two pickups. These were the first of their kind.

Ok, the TV performance aside, these actually do work and are kind of fun to play. You can walk around the house and strum without the tether of a cord. Wanna go to the beach? No need for a plug to entertain that campfire circle. Louie Louie, Oh yeah, we gotta go now. (Or were there other words?) And, like most Japanese guitars from this period, they’re really quite well made – and play well – once you set them up properly. The body is solid mahogany (maple neck), and, in case you’re not at a pig roast, there’s even a headphone jack if you want to use this as a practice guitar.

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Vintage 1965 Teisco TRG-2L Electric Guitar

Of course, practice and Pignose amps came much later. But guitars like this Teisco were revolutionary in their time and are still fun to play. You can even run them through a regular amp if you want to make a different kind of impression.

Although you might not want to do it on TV. If these early Japanese guitars have a flaw, it’s in the use of extremely thin wire and economical use of solder. Easy to get that crackle, crackle when you least want it. I’m told the video of me trying to salvage some respect for my goofy guitars still circulates occasionally on late-night Philly airwaves (and cable whatever they are). At least it wasn’t me who lost it on TV! Blame it on time and the Teisco. And that darned cynical reporter.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger (1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar)

What were they smoking when they dreamed up Messenger guitars? Such an exquisite combination of the revolutionary and banal. Well, it was San Francisco in the Summer of Love, 1967. Imagine a Cheech and Chong routine. “Like, wow, man. What if we made the neck out of a magnesium-aluminum alloy so it wouldn’t warp and then continued the block of metal on through the guitar to cut down on feedback?” “Yeah, man, we could put cool Ricky catseye soundholes on it.” “Groovy! And we could wire it so you could play out of two amplifiers at once. Like stereo, man.” Have another hit. “Then we could make it a ‘peoples’ guitar and put crummy DeArmond single-coil pickups on it like on really cheap Harmony guitars.” “Like, wow, man. Right on.”

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

I don’t remember exactly when I’d heard about Messenger guitars. But many years later, having a nice collection of guitars with aluminum necks seemed like just what I needed! I needed a Messenger.

Sometimes these things are fore-ordained. No sooner had I decided to snare a Messenger than I scanned the ads in Vintage Guitar Magazine and turned up a minty Messenger for $750. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and got on the horn immediately. He was a nice chap, but he’d already had an offer of $1800. I didn’t want a Messenger that badly. (Little did I know what a good investment that would have been!) Crestfallen, I was about to hang up when he said, “But I’ve got this green pro refin I’d sell you for $350.” New paint or an extra $1500? You do the math!

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

Messengers were revolutionary. While early Electro Hawaiian laps were aluminum “frying pans” and the Italian designer Wandré Pioli had made far-out aluminum necks in the late 1950s, Messengers were the first really modern aluminum-necked guitars. Created by Musicraft, Inc., Bert T. Casey, president, and Arnold B. Curtis, head of marketing, they play like a dream – just ask Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, who used them (modified). The aluminum “chassis” eliminated the need for a heel, improving access, and it was actually tuned to A-440, supposedly to improve resonance. The M logo looked, well, like a big ’60s hairdo. The stereo concept was simple and great (two mono jacks for each pickup, but throw the switch and both pickups go through just one).

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

1967 Musicraft Messenger Electric Guitar

But, like so many cool guitars, the weak point in the Messenger’s armor was under the hood. Now, I love chintzy ’60s single-coils, even the microphonic units, but if you’re going to create a hi-tech axe, why would you put those DeArmonds on? Why not some Filter Trons? Or Gibson or Guild humbuckers, like John Veleno a few years later? Despite its alloy chassis, Messengers were hardly fit for the emerging heavy metal craze! In the end, it didn’t matter.

By 1968 Messengers had abandoned San Fran for the rarer clime of Astoria, Oregon, for “expansion” purposes. Shortly thereafter the Messenger had departed, if not shot with a smoking gun, certainly dead. And certainly rare. If you could find one, you’d gladly pay the $1800 I once passed on.