Evan here. On stage and on our forthcoming LP, I do a lot of playing on a beat-up old archtop guitar with a blank headstock and a sizable crack or two. I wanted to share some words about my beloved Garbage Guitar with you folks, and start what might be a very boring series of posts wherein we wax poetic a bit about the woods that make our sounds.
One cold December night back in 2009, I was walking with a friend down St. Mark’s Place in Brooklyn, NY when I saw a headstock sticking up out of a pile of trash. Always one to horde parts, I decided this might make for a nice project one day, and I went to lift it out from the garbage bags and broken furniture around it.
There was a guitar attached.
The lower bout was covered in the little stickers you get from a photobooth. There was a thick tar on the cutaway shoulder and down near the controls. The whole finish was cloudy and felt like sandpaper to the touch, and there were no strings on it. It looked like absolute crap. There was a note taped among the stickers that read “Be careful w/ me, I am old and cracked.” I was pretty psyched.
I took her home, strung her up, and, well, she made sounds. The nut was worn out, the strings buzzed like crazy, and the action was abominable, but it was a guitar. Over the next few months I did some research to try to ID my find. It took a while, but eventually I discovered I had an H56 Harmony Rocket, built in 1965 in Chicago, Illinois. My first American-made guitar.
Harmony guitars in the 1960’s occupied a similar market position to Fender Squire guitars of the 2000’s. Reasonably well made instruments made for students on a budget. Here’s the thing though: Take a Fender Squire, toss the electronics, swap in a set of Fender Custom Shop pickups, and you have a real workingman’s guitar that will sing (I’ve got one of those, too). In the 1960’s, they just didn’t know how to build shitty pickups. The Rocket, like many of its cousins at the time, received a set of strange pickups made by Rowe Industries in Ohio and designed by a man named Harry De Armond. They are riveted together, and rumored to be based around a plastic magnet like those you find on your kitchen fridge (taking them apart to find out would kill them). They also sound amazing, closest to a mellow P-90, but really unlike any mainstream pickup out there.
The Rocket didn’t go the way of the Gibson Les Paul Special, the Fender Mustang, or other 60’s student guitars, however, because of a few things. Their electronics might sound amazing, but the guitar they were mounted on was downright quirky. They had concessions to price point, like most student axes: through ’65, they had no truss rod with which to adjust the neck and counteract string tension; they had cheap open-back tuners; they had a three-bolt, bolt-on neck, which was thicker than a baseball bat. But they also had a neck that remained constant in width from nut to body, and a matching narrow string spacing at the bridge (1 7/8″ as opposed to 2″ on my Les Paul and 2 1/8″ on my Strats). Couple that with the short 24″ scale length and you had a guitar that just didn’t feel right to someone hoping to graduate to that shiny seafoam green Stratocaster.
None of this, however, accounts for someone throwing one away.
It took some time, but, with the help of a luthier friend, I had a new nut carved from bone and the neck shimmed to lower the action (thank god for bolt-on necks). I spent hours scraping away tar and polishing oxidation out of the finish. I unpinned the bridge and set it all cockeyed to get the intonation right (-ish).
It’s a really quirky guitar. It feels like nothing else I’ve played. There’s lore amongst luthiers that guitars that are left unplayed will sound worse than those that are played daily. A kind of break-in period that wood needs to “wake up”. I’m not sure how true that is, especially for pressed, laminated maple. But I do know that the more I play this guitar, the better it sounds, and the more it’s quirks steer me to play differently and bring sounds to Otsego that I would not have before.
Come out and have a listen sometime.