Too Cheap or Not Too Cheap? When It Comes to Saving Budget Guitars, That Is the Question

October 22nd, 2014

Story and Photo By Flip Scipio

Any discussion of economy electric guitars seems incomplete unless it includes an example of the kind that a lot of folks remember as their first—the one that was stripped and painted Ferrari red on the porch and eventually replaced by the guitar they really wanted, only for the owner to realize, years later, that it was actually a pretty cool guitar to begin with.

Imagine locating a guitar like that 40 years later and you might be staring at a Harmony like the one pictured here, a guitar that has been known by many names, including Silvertone, Stratotone, and Tuxedo.

After all these years, the guitar has the same unplayable action that it always had, thanks to a bent neck that sits cockeyed in the body. It also has myriad duff notes due to the frets, which have popped out of the fingerboard, and the bridge, which has fainted.

The good news is that the guitar is hollow and therefore has a natural resonance. It also has an unassuming-looking pickup that was made by DeArmond. The pickup maker produced these units in a variety of housings but with the same basic design, which consisted of a wide, flat coil wound around a magnet. The magnet’s field has mellowed a little over its 50-odd years, producing a tone that could be described as soft yellow compared to the almost harsh-white sound of the average new magnet.

The bad news is that the excessively bowed neck does not have an adjustable truss rod. Then there are those frets, poking out of the soft fingerboard, and the collapsed bridge. The remains of the strings are black and tied with a Gordian knot to a tuner that’s missing its bushing and worm-gear screw.

Getting this instrument back to a place where its best qualities can be appreciated requires more than a technical knowledge of the parts involved that need repair. It also requires an understanding of what the guitar is actually capable of, so that the instrument can be revived to a level that it had never attained before. In this case, it requires straightening the neck and installing new frets, which by itself is not something for the faint of heart. The fingerboard is probably pear wood, grey with fatigue, and it crumbles when you sneeze out its irritating and badly smelling dust. Once the frets are pulled out, the slot edges need to be rebuilt, and when that’s accomplished, the fingerboard needs to be straightened. This is usually done with sandpaper only, since planing or scraping will do more damage than good, due to the fragility of the fingerboard.

Although the neck does have a single metal bar in it, it’s made of relatively weak poplar. The fretboard and poplar neck are not a particularly stable partnership, especially if you consider that the glue joint has probably weakened over time, allowing the fingerboard to stretch and bow forward with the string pull. Once the neck has been deemed appropriately straight, a new set of frets needs to be installed. I prefer to use glue to keep the frets firmly seated in the wood instead of the traditional wedging action of 20 pressed-in frets, since the fingerboard wood’s spongy quality is insufficient for permanent cohesion using that technique.

As the original bridge was in such sorry state, it seemed a good idea to brighten up the guitar with a new bridge that retained the happy-go-lucky leitmotif of the Harmony family. A few years ago, I had been sold some quite promising-looking hardwood at a guitar maker’s inconvenience store that proved to be virtually unusable due to its high silica content, which blunted my favorite plane in two strokes. It also was bright red underneath a coat of rosewood-colored dye. With the help of a new sanding belt, I managed to turn this very tenacious wood into a bridge that retained the two metal posts and thumbwheels of the original bridge.

Strung up with medium-gauge strings, this guitar sounds very good. And as long as you don’t mind the curiously narrow upper end of the neck, you’ll have a lot of fun with one of these rebuilt instruments.

Flip Scipio highly recommends Building a Spanish Guitar, by José L. Romanillos.

  • Bill

    Some pictures (bofore vs. after) would be a help, the article was too brief.

  • This might be off the subject a little but are the Kurt Cobain signature series Fender Mustang guitars worth $1,000 dollars? I have a made in Mexico Fender blacktop HH Strat.But I have never tried or had a Fender Mustang. Is the Fender Strat.that I have better than the Kurt Cobain Fender Mustang?

  • Anthony

    There are many of these type of guitars sitting in closets around the world. With a little effort they can be made playable. I had one and put in high quality machine heads and my pickups were bad so I put in DiMarzio pickups. I also had to add a new bridge. All my electronics were replaced. This guitar has the best playability of any guitar I have ever played! Oh….I also adjusted the truss rod just a little to stop some minor fret buzz.