Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Love Guitar

I'm a minimalist and known by many of my friends for not really owning much stuff. I try to live life simply and not be encumbered by junk. I collect three things in my life...wrist watches, Pepsi Memorabilia, and Guitars.

When it comes to guitars you won't find the usual stable of Gibsons and Fenders in my group. You will find a more obscure variety of brands and models that appeal primarily just to me.

I played in a band with a great guitarist named James. James was a great guy who, aside from a couple of stints in jail, I admired. James took some luthier classes at a technical college and had become pretty handy at making guitars. Being too poor to buy a guitar he found a broken body of a Strat copy at a garage sale and bought it for two dollars. He used it all as a template to make a new guitar. His primary hunk of material for the new body came from an old coffee table. I'm not entirely sure it was even 100% wood.

When James finished that guitar it played very well. He sounded great every time he plugged it in. When I played it however, it sounded like a monkey playing table. It was at that point I realized that the brand of guitar you're playing doesn't really mean that much. Hence my unusual collection.

My latest guitar is a rare reissue of the 1958 Stratotone Jupiter by Harmony. The Harmony company was one of the big three American guitar makers after World War 2 and specialized in many introductory models. They also made many models of guitar for Fender including an 40 year old spruce top acoustic guitar I own. See the Jupiter below.

Aside from their own guitars they made under the Harmony name, they also manufactured guitars for Sears and Roebuck and created a similar model under the name Silvertone. This is the guitar thousands of boys ran out and got after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Since that time girls have not been able to resist any adolescent, pimple-faced boy plunking away on a Jupiter. That's a scientific fact.**

The Jupiter is unusual (cupcake knobs, floating wood bridge and a large gaudy looking pickup switch) in that it is hollow but has no f-holes like you'd expect to see on hollow body electrics (and violins for example). The result is a very low fat jazz box kind of sound in a bluesy Les Paul kind of body style. Very cool.

Harmony was also known for their knobs. Lots of knobs. I'm still not even sure what all these knobs do but I enjoy trying to figure it out. The more I play this guitar the more I enjoy playing in general.

I'm not a great guitarist. I stopped playing for quite a long time while battling chronic wrist problems. Most of those problems have gone away and I can now play for 20 or 30 minutes in a row without pain. Since my Junior year in high school playing the guitar has been a major joy in my life. I'm excited to begin playing more.

The Harmony guitar company was revived once again in 2008. They bought up about every model of vintage Harmony guitars off of Ebay and reverse engineered the originals to recreate all of the frequencies and wood densities of the instruments of that time. Their respect for the history of these great instruments resulted in some very unusual guitars. Since the economy has tanked they've cut production almost completely and possibly made the reissues more rare than the originals. Thanks to my wife, I have mine and I couldn't be happier with it.

I know a lot of guitar players that shake their head immediately when I explain how much I love playing a Harmony guitar. When they do I know they're dismissing history and dismissing instruments that have an unmistakable character and sound that are rarely produced in mass-production guitar factories around the world. They can go ahead and enjoy their special edition whatchamacallits from the major factories. If that's what they enjoy, more power to them.

I need to go now. Ed Sullivan will be on soon.


**I'm unable to back up this at all but it's still a fact.


Robert the Grump said...

Your story about not being able to play guitar due to injury...and then playing again years seems familiar.

Are you...Esteban?

Tracy said...

I bring to you the gift of music...from my heart to yours...please buy my fabulous rare special edition guitars made out of plywood.