Thursday, September 17, 2009

Instruments antique road show

As a musician, it's inevitable that you end up having a lot of instruments pass through your hands over the years. Some are quickly forgotten, while others are unique enough to stand out from the pack. There's always a eureka moment when you realize you've discovered something a little special. And in the case of older instruments, you have the added bonus of knowing that this is an instrument with history and a story all its own.

Thanks to some kind members of my extended family, I've uncovered an interesting guitar that certainly has an interesting back story. I was told that the guitar had been taking up basement space for several decades and was actually used by my mother-in-law when she was learning to play guitar in the 70s. Was I interested? Despite the less-than-promising description, I'm never one to pass up a potentially exciting find. Of course I'd take a look!

I won't lie: my first impression was a bit iffy. It looked its age, was covered in stickers, and I certainly didn't recognize any of the detailing. It was a hollowbody guitar with a black and gold-sparkle finish, and there was some significant structural damage around the output jack. But it felt pretty good in the hands and I decided to give it a shot based on that.

Once I got the guitar home, I removed all of the stickers, washed off the residue, cleaned and oiled the fret board, and finally put some fresh strings on it. And you know what? It sounded really great. Despite the damage to the body, the output jack seems to still work reasonably well, the action is very playable, and the neck doesn't have any severe issues.

But what the hell is it? I had no idea. My only indicators were an unusual "A" logo on the headstock and an atomic music note logo on the pickguard. My assumption was that it was most likely bought from a catalogue or department store. I started by poking around to see what kind of guitars Sears sold in the 70s and discovered some Silvertones that bore vague resemblences to what I had.

The rest fell into place quite easily. I learned that many of the Silvertones sold by Sears were made by Harmony. As it turns out, they also produced their guitars under several other brand and store names, including Airline, Montgomery Wards, Alden's, and others. And they all had similarities to my mystery guitar. And then I found it: a picture of the exact guitar I was looking for. The "A" on the headstock stood for Alden's, a catalogue retailer.

The guitar is an Alden 9908 Tuxedo single-pickup electric hollowbody -- a replica of Harmony's own Stratotone "Mars" H45. Interestingly, all the websites I saw claimed that it was originally produced from 1962-63, although several web commenters claim the parts on their guitars have date stamps from later in the 60s. That's a little earlier than I was expecting to find, but then again I don't currently know exactly when and where the guitar was first purchased. But I do know that later versions of this model supposedly had a modified pickguard that protected the area around the tone knobs and no longer had the gold sparkle over the black finish, so I'm guessing this one must be from the 62-65 range.

Most importantly, the guitar sounds great and definitely still has some life in it, so I would definitely qualify this as "an awesome find." And as a final piece of trivia, I discovered that the Harmony H45, which this is nearly an exact copy of, was an early guitar used by folks like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Here's a photo of the band from 1964, including Brian with his Harmony Stratotone (front, left).

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