Sunday, December 9, 2012

1950s Spanish Electric Guitars - early solidbody electrics

Well... maybe I set my sights a bit high for this blog - I wanted to do really detailed posts including everything I knew about each guitar or pedal or whatever, but that needs time and good photos, and I don't have the motivation for that anymore, so I will not be geeking out quite so much from now on, but I will be doing more blogging more often. You can find more pics of most of what I talk about here on my Flickr page

Ok - here we go with:

Older, more basic guitars

I got interested in old guitars because of their individuality. In the 90s, I basically got anything interesting that came my way that was cheap, mostly '60s guitars - some I've kept, some not. I was very influenced by a book called Bizarre Guitars that a friend loaned me  - it's a Japanese book of photos of weird MIJ guitars from the 60s mostly - Teisco, Kawai, Hummingbird, Guyatone etc. I wanted a Japanese 4-pickup guitar! But as time has gone by I've found myself moving towards older more basic one-pickup guitars.

The oldest guitars (and the most recently acquired ones) I have are also the most basic design, from the early to mid 1950s. Various companies added pickups to archtop guitars from the 1930s onwards, but solid body electric guitars were just being established in the 1950s. Flat top solids are often referred to as Spanish Electric Guitars.The ones I have are made up of three pieces of wood - a long middle piece that forms the neck, and two pieces attached on either side that make up the body. The necks are not adjustable, but they probably have some kind of metal reinforcement.

The Harmony Stratotone(s) 

The single pickup version (H44) was introduced in 1952, and was available until 1957 or '58. It predates the Stratocaster, a totally different instrument with a similar name. The Harmony company already had a long history of making stringed instruments up to this point, but this is their first solid body guitar. The earliest ones don't have the model name on the headstock, just the company name with a kind of 'wave' graphic underneath. In 1953 they switched to a stencilled design, incorporating the 'atomic musical note'. I think mine is a 1953 because soon after the edge of the body became a bit less rounded. I bought this a body only, and collected the rest of the of the parts on ebay. The scratchplate/pickguard and knobs repros. I had a repro bridge too, but decided I liked the sound of a solid metal bridge - the one on there is a modified Hagstrom micro-matic bridge without the saddles. This is what it looks like now:

In 1954 Harmony came up with a 2-pickup solid Stratotone, and called it the H88 'Doublet'. It was only made for 3 or 4 years. It has the same body as H44, but but different pickups, and an 'ebonized' fretboard with block inlays instead of dots. It was promoted as a top-of-the-line professional model, and has a smoother feel and sound to the single pickup mode. l prefer the feel of the H88 over the H44, but like the sound of the pickup on the H44 better. Too bad! The guitar is mostly original. It cane with the original bridge, but again I prefer a solid metal bridge - this one is brass - another modified Hagstrom part, shown here:

Kay K-125, 1952

The other guitar of this early solid 'through neck' design is made by one of Harmony's main competitors, Kay. Both companies were based in Chicago (as was Valco, another company whose guitars I like) and they are generally assumed to be cheap crap by most guitarists, who only remember their entry-level guitars and later import models. Harmony probably had the edge in terms of quality, but Kay guitars can be good too (though my direct experience of them is limited). This is the K-125, Kay's first solid, from 1952. Construction-wise it's pretty similar to the H44, but it has a longer scale length. It's not clear who came first.
1952 catalogue image showing original finish
The Kay also has a slimmer neck (more prone to bowing), and a different pickup. Unlike Harmony, who bought pickups from Gibson and DeArmond-Rowe, Kay made their own pickups - the one on the K-125 is usually referred to as a blade pickup, or as 'Thin Twin' pickup, after the hollow-body model played by Jimmy Reed. The tiger striped plastic pickup mount a control panel are the coolest things about this guitar is purely aesthetic terms, and they are in great condition, along with the original knobs and switch.

Mine has been through the wars a bit, and was the victim of a hippy refinish and headstock repair, probably in the 70s. I stripped it and tried to stain it a chestnut/rust red, with limited success. I think it looks better than it did before at least. I have the original wooden bridge, but put on a modified Bigsby bridge for a brighter sound with more 'attack'. The neck has a bow, which is not too bad, but may have to be addressed in the future.

It originally had a short lead hard-wired to a hole in the edge of the guitar by the tailpiece. If it had been the original lead I would have left it, but it wasn't. I found it irritating so I filled that hole and made a bigger one for a standard jack plug and plate in the side between the knobs. I got some oval-head wood screws and 'aged' them so they wouldn't look too shiny and a repro 1950s Gibson-style jack plate:

Why do I like these guitars? I like idea that they were built before rock'n'roll, that they are the first generation of solid body electric guitars and 60 or so years later they are still going and sounding great. The Harmonys feel very solid, they have huge necks by modern standards, but I learned to play on a big neck, even though my hands are on the small side. It feels comfortable and right. The Kay is lighter, and has a few problems, but it still sounds and feels good. If there were affordable new guitars on the market with something like this vibe, I would be interested, It's fun to tinker and experiment with old guitars, but a new guitar with no issues would also be welcome. I've been keeping tabs on a new UK company called Raw Guitars - they have some interesting ideas, but I suspect they will be pricey when they launch properly next year. In the meantime, check out the designs on their website.

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