Harmony was one of the most successful guitar makers in the USA, manufacturing most all of their guitars in Chicago during the peak years in the mid 1960s. They made many types of stringed instruments, including ukuleles, acoustic and electric guitars, and violins. Founded in 1892 by Wilhelm Schultz a German immigrant from Hamburg. In their day, they made more guitars than all the other guitar makers combined. They made different models, for each style of guitar popular during their history.
Wilhelm J.F. Schultz, a mechanic, came to Chicago and got work at the Knapp Drum Company. Knapp was bought out by a large instrument manufacturing giant, Lyon & Healy, and Schultz became foreman of the drum operation. In 1892, Schultz left Lyon & Healy and, with four employees, started Harmony in a loft of the Edison Building located at Washington and Market Streets in Chicago, later the site of the Civic Opera House. It is not entirely certain that the original company was called Harmony in its early history as it did not begin to really use the Harmony name until the 1920s.
Very little information is known about the earliest Harmony-made guitars. Probably not too many survived, but likely they were small acoustics that used with gut strings, and glued-on bridges. Very likely they would also have had three dots at the fifth, seventh, and 10th frets. Basically, markers at the 10th fret, versus the ninth (found on a few guitars and banjos before the 1880s), was a strategy employed by guitar makers who intended to sell their instruments into the immensely popular mandolin orchestras at the time. Mandolins had position markers at the 10th fret. The guitar of the 1890s was either used primarily for vocal accompaniment or as a continuo instrument in mandolin and banjo orchestras of the time. Harmony and its early main competitor, Oscar Schmidt, of New Jersey, continued to favor use of the 10th fret long after most other major manufacturers settled on the ninth fret (some, like the Larson Brothers, also continued to use 10th-fret markers).
By 1894 there were some 40 employees working at Harmony as Chicago was a hotbed of industrial manufacturing offering opportunity to European immigrants pouring into the country. Chicago was at the transportation crossroads of the nation as transcontinental railroad lines and sitting on the Great Lakes, and just over 100 or so miles from the mighty Mississippi River. Due to location, Chicago became the supplier of goods for the Heartland of America. Chicago was the home of the mail-order merchandise business, which played a major role in the dissemination of the guitars across America and the rise of the guitar makers there.
Montgomery Ward pledged to sell only American-made guitars in their 1894 catalog, which they claimed were of superior manufacture, made “scientifically,” and guaranteed not to warp or split…as long as you didn’t use steel strings! They abandoned the sale of imported guitars because they could not withstand the climatic changes they were subject to in the New World. Likely, these guitars were from German makers.
Ward’s was selling Lyon & Healy-made Washburn guitars and probably some low-end Bohmann guitars that featured birch wood with fake wood grains.
When Sears, Roebuck and Company entered into the picture, they were selling the exact same guitars in their catalog. Since Sears was formally a watch and jewelry company these were the first guitars they marketed for sale. By 1897, Sears was doing business with the fledgling Harmony company offering new guitar models. These were mostly small bodied parlor guitars which were popular at the time.
Seen in the ’97 Sears catalog was early Harmony made guitars like the No. 7102 “Euterpe,” a standard-sized guitar with an orange top (wood unspecified) and a body of quartersawn oak. The top was bound with a light/dark block marquetry purfling, as was the soundhole. The neck material was also unspecified, but often these had cedro or “Spanish cedar” necks, a wood like mahogany. The Euterpe had an 18-fret ebonized fingerboard, and our telltale three dots at five, seven and 10. The pin bridge had little elevated squares on the wings, typical of some Harmony bridges. This cost? $5.75, with money-back guarantee!
The No. 7106 “Troubadour,” at $8.65, was another standard with an orange top, this time made of solid mahogany. Unlike the Euterpe, this had a “convex” or ovaled ebonized fingerboard (5/7/10 dots), and a colored ring rosette. The top was unbound. The bridge was the same as on the Euterpe. For $.30 more you could get the No. 7107 Troubadour, which added white celluloid binding to the top. The Euterpe and Troubadours were offered until 1899.
In 1899, Sears expanded the line of guitars, from Harmony and by Oscar Schmidt of Jersey City, New Jersey. Harmony guitars on the lower end, Schmidt guitars had the upper end. This arrangement was offered for decades.
Chicago’s Montgomery Ward & Co. had begun its catalog sales to Grange farmers in 1872, and by 1890, just two years before Harmony’s advent, had become the world’s largest retailer. Sears, Roebuck & Co., which had begun as a watch business in Minnesota in 1885, became a full merchandise mail-order catalog business in late 1893, offering its first catalog in 1894 and moving to Chicago in 1895. By 1900, Sears had surpassed Ward’s to become the world’s largest store.
In 1914, Sears adapted the name Supertone for its musical instruments (also using this name for record players and records they sold). The instrument offerings and suppliers remained the same, this was Sears’ first big brand name. Almost simultaneous, Sears’ crosstown rival Montgomery Ward introduced its Concertone brand. And this was used on an almost identical series of guitars!
By 1915 Harmony was the first large scale ukulele builder. Sears, Roebuck and Co. purchased Harmony in 1916 to corner the ukulele market. At the time Harmony was led by Joe Kraus, who was chairman until 1940. In 1928, Harmony introduced the first of many Roy Smeck models, and went on to become the largest producer in the U.S. They sold 250,000 pieces in 1923 and 500,000 in 1930, including various models of guitars, banjos, and mandolins.
In the late 1930s, Harmony began making violins again after a 19 year hiatus. They also bought brand names from the bankrupt Oscar Schmidt Co.—La Scala, Stella, and Sovereign.
These instruments were still mostly sold through big mail order catalogs like Sears Roebuck (Silvertone) or Montgomery Ward (Airline) making them easily accessible to everyone. These were the days way before the Internet, eBay and Reverb. Plus before Asian imports were available. Many towns in America did not have a music store nearby. Harmony supplied many of the big mail order catalogs through the years which were the same Harmony-made instruments except for the label in most all cases.
It is not unusual to see the same vintage Harmony guitar model with different branding. Some Harmony instruments, although were considered by many players the “poor man’s” Gretsch or Gibson. However they have their own unique tone and vintage vibe.
Several models have become sought after and popular in the vintage market like the mid to late ’60s Harmony H22 Bass, Harmony Rocket, Harmony H78 (Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys), 1967/68 Sovereign acoustic, Silvetone 1446 (Chris Isaak), Harmony H72 Meteor and Harmony Strattone H44 for examples. Interestedly, H1260 Sovereign was Jimmy Page’s main acoustic during the early years of Zeppelin. Any top-of-the-line Harmony made guitar are desirable in today’s vintage market, but generally priced way lower than Gibson, Fender or Martin making them a bargain, depending on condition and playability.
Harmony was, especially in the early days, capable of turning out guitars with pretty good workmanship. But these guitars were never positioned to compete with D’Angelicos, much less Gibson, Gretsch or Fender. Harmony built guitars were many times a players first instrument. Harmony made guitars were played by Howlin Wolf, Big Joe Williams, Elmore James, Elvis, Ritchie Valens, The Stones, Small Faces and others. However, there are more than nostalgic reasons to be interested in Harmony guitars.
Instruments were sold under a variety of trade names—Vogue, Valencia, Johnny Marvin, Monterey, Stella, and others. In 1940, after Kraus had a conflict with management, he left, but then bought enough stock to restart the company independently.
Harmony peaked in 1964-1965, selling 350,000 instruments, but low-end foreign competition led to the company’s demise 10 years later. Between 1945 and 1975, the Chicago firm mass-produced about ten million guitars. The company reduced their output over the years, later focusing on student models sold through JCPenney.
Note that some of the guitars sold in the Sears and Wards catalog where also manufactured by Valco and Kay companies.
In the 1930s, Valco was formed by three business partners and former owners of the National Dobro Company; Victor Smith, Al Frost, and Louis Dopyera. The company name was a combination of the three partner’s first initials (V.A.L.) plus the common abbreviation for company (Co.)
Valco manufactured Spanish acoustic guitars, metal-bodied resonator guitars, electric lap steel guitars, and vacuum tube amplifiers under a variety of brand names including Supro, Airline, Oahu, and National. They also made amplifiers under contract for several other companies such as Gretsch, Harmony, and Kay. In the 1960s they began producing solid body electric guitars.
Kay Musical Instrument Company, USA musical instrument manufacturer also started its operations in the 1930s in Chicago, Illinois by Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer, from the assets of the former Stromberg-Voisinet, which was founded as Groeschel Mandolin Company in 1890. Kay offered their first electric guitar in 1936—five years after the Rickenbacker Frying pan, and the same year as the Gibson ES-150.
Valco merged with Kay Musical Instrument Company in 1967, however the merged company quickly went out of business in 1968 because of financial difficulties.
Harmony guitars, although they were mainly marketed to beginners, also built some guitars to attract professional players. The H78 was one of Harmony’s better quality guitars. Note that all Harmony guitars these were mass produced. Inexpensive rock and roll machines. Harmony produced so many different models under various brand names.
Harmony’s higher-end archtops can be quite resonant, as most all of the early guitars – at least those made in America, as opposed to subsequent imports – were made of solid woods like solid spruce or mahogany and not plywood. The lower end models were usually made of birch and have the binding painted on. Instead of inlaid fret markers, the markers were merely painted in the appropriate places. The tailpieces on some of the lower end models were made of pressed metal. Some have the tailpieces or pick guards screwed into the wood.
The necks on many of the Harmony guitars did not have adjustable truss rods. Instead the graphics on the head stock announce, “Steel Reinforced Neck.” Many Harmony guitars have retained a straight neck.
Old DeArmond single-coil pickups gracing the solids and Rocket thin lines which can sound great into a cranked up amp.
The pickups on almost all Harmony electric guitars and basses were manufactured by Rowe Industries Inc./H. N. Rowe & Company/Rowe DeArmond Inc./DeArmond In. in Toledo, Ohio. Many of the instrument amplifiers badged with the Harmony name were manufactured by Sound Projects Company of Cicero, Illinois.
The Harmony solid body electrics in the late 1950s and early 1960s were mainly aimed at the beginner market with names such as Stratotone and BobKat models. The better instruments were the thin line hollow body electric guitars such as the Harmony Rocket or H78.
Some models even had up to three DeArmond pickups each with individual volume and tone controls. Harmony guitars generally did not have the quality of Gretsch and Gibson. For the money these were quite nice instrument and have their own unique sound due to the way they were build and the pickups they used. Have to love the tone of a gold-foil pickup.
Interesting fact is that when Fender was trying to break into the acoustic guitar market, the first guitar line they offered in their catalog was actually made by Harmony with the Fender brand on the head stock. Baldwin after purchasing Burns and Gretsch brands, did not have a classical model, so they had Harmony manufacture “Baldwin” classical guitars.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were not good times for U.S. guitar makers with Vietnam War and cheap Asian imports rushing in to the marketplace. None of the American guitar makers were doing well in this period and it soon spelled the end for USA Harmony guitars.
In 1975, the Harmony Guitar Co. in Chicago ceased operations and had a three day auction. The auction was huge since it was two city blocks under one roof. Must have been some event! Later in the 70’s the Harmony name was sold to be used on Asian guitars. Keeping with their tradition of selling through catalogs and department stores, the 1990’s saw Harmony sell most of their guitars to J. C. Penny stores. The Harmony trademark and all intellectual property was acquired in 2009 by Westheimer corpoaration in Northbrook, IL. In 2011 they debuted the New Harmony Vintage Reissue series.
Some Harmony Guitar Demos
Dan Auerbach Harmony H78 on Bridge Pickup
Dan Auerbach Harmony H78 Playing Clean
Rig Rundown – The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach
Whitehorse Passenger 24 Live