Saturday, July 2, 2011

Harmony H1203 Sovereign - Sunday Morning Serenade

Back in 2009, my wife and I spent a long weekend visiting with friends at the Sycamore Haven House Bed & Breakfast.  In case you're not familiar with it, this is a wonderful getaway location, in the small Chesapeake Bay town of Susan, Virginia.  As with most long weekend pleasure trips, Friday and Saturday were spectacular, and Sunday morning came way too quickly.


After a nice breakfast, we said goodbyes to our friends and the innskeeper. Before the ride back home, my wife and I made a stop in town to pick up souvenirs.  While waiting for one of the small shoppes to open, we spent some time in a consignment shop.  That's where I first saw her, cleverly leaning against an armless Victorian occasional chair.  It was love at first sight, and at once I felt as if a greater reason for my trip to the southern Chesapeake area had been revealed.

I picked her up and looked her over, carefully checking out the features and overall condition of this old guitar.  Her size, shape, coloring and construction details were all similar to that of the legendary pre-war OOO and OM Martin models.  Her chunky ladder bracing and pinless bridge told me she was about 50 or more years old, and it was clear she had seen some use, abuse and neglect over the years.  Although I wasn't entirely sure of what I had found, thoughts of making some minor repairs to transform an under-valued diamond-in-the-rough into a rare and playable vintage instrument raced through my mind.  Except for a few character marks, dings, dents and some buckle rash, her finish was in great condition and she had no visible structural cracks or damage.  Her neck had a bit too much relief to be playable, she had some top bulging behind the bridge, and there were signs of some slight neck/body joint separation.  But, a truss rod cover on her headstock gave me some hope that a neck adjustment might be enough to bring her action down to something playable.  I carefully tuned her well-worn strings, about three half steps down from concert pitch, just long enough to finger a few licks and some open chords.

Almost completely lost in her warm even tone, I realized I also had an audience, as I recognized the sultry/sweet southern accent of a mature woman's voice telling me my playing sounded "real nice".  The woman identified herself as the store owner, offered to help me with anything I was interested in, and encouraged me to keep playing while she watched and listened.  Recognizing she was interested in making a sale, I thanked her for the compliment and countered that this guitar would take a lot of work to truly be playable.  The tag stated a firm but reasonable asking price, and the woman continued to appear less interested in making a sale than being serenaded.  Considering my options, I decided to not let this one get away, and convinced myself, if nothing else, this guitar would make a great wall hanging.  After the long ride home, I placed her on a wall hanger, letting her acclimate to the less humid air of the North Carolina Piedmont while I started looking into identifying the model and age of this mature beauty.

Thank god for the Internet!  After doing some research, I realized what I had found is a Harmony H1203 "Western Special" Sovereign.  A combination of solid tone woods and mass-production techniques gave Harmony instruments a practical blend of rich sound quality in an affordable price range.  These instruments are part of a long list of guitars with similar tonal range referred to as "blues boxes", commonly used by delta blues musicians that made popular music in the early to mid 1900's.  Popular musicians since then have borrowed heavily from the delta blues style.  Most notably, we find a lot of the delta blues in the blend of styles we commonly refer to as rock and roll..  Rumor has it that Jimmy Page used a Harmony H1260 "Jumbo" Sovereign while recording "Stairway to Heaven".  With lineage like that, I once again felt justified in my purchase of this old guitar.

Figuring out the age of this old guitar was my next challenge.  According to the information I found on the Harmony Database, she appears to have been built in the late 1950's or early 1960's.  I have not found any date or model number stamps inside the sound box, but a date stamp on the top panel might exist, covered by a brace, end block or neck block.   If so, I hope I will never need to disassemble her enough to find out her true age.  Suffice to say, this old guitar appears to have been built no earlier than in 1956 and no later than in 1966.  I moved on, looking into what it would take to repair this old guitar.  I cleared off my work bench, laid out a clean towel, and took a good, long look at this old guitar.

Her action at the 14th fret was close to double what it should be.

I put a straight edge up to her neck and could see a huge amount of relief.

In this light it was also easier to see how much her top had deformed over the years.

Now that her woods had acclimated to the lower humidity, I could see separation at the heel of her neck joint.

Some of her back bracing appeared loose as well.

But, my biggest surprise came when I removed her cover plate, and found a broken truss rod.

Convinced that this old guitar needed much more repairs than what I could do myself, I brought her to the folks at Hanson and Crawford's in downtown Raleigh.  This is a small shop that does repairs and custom work by appointment.  Walking in to their basement unit entrance, I was greeted by the smell of freshly cut wood, glue and paint.  The two owners were both working hard, and looked up briefly enough from what they were doing to ask if they could help me with something.  After carefully looking over what I had brought, they politely said it would cost more than this old guitar was worth to make the necessary repairs.  However, they took the time to come up with a laundry list of repairs and associated costs, and a grand total of just over $1,000.00.

Given that I had spent less than $100 to buy this old guitar, and that I could buy a good quality new or used instrument for $1,000, I did not entertain the option of paying someone to fix this one for very long.  Seeing the reaction in my face, one of the owners confessed that he has owned a few Harmony guitars over the years and had repaired some in worse shape than this one was in, just for the fun of it.  Then, he gave me some tips on how to do some of the work on this one on my own.  Listening to his explanations, remembering some of what I had done building that classical guitar in the early 1980's, and thinking about some repair techniques I had come across recently on the Internet, I began to believe that I actually could do most of her repairs, if not all of them, on my own.


  1. Sure did, and she's my go-to guitar:

  2. Here's one i just picked up it sounds great.....