I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A SOFTIE FOR OLD KAY AND
Harmony guitars, and when I spotted this no-name beauty
hanging in one of my favorite L.A. guitar stores in the early ’90s,
I instantly fell in love with it. The small Les Paul-ish body, the fat
neck, and the cool-looking pickups all spoke to me. The store
owner thought it was a ’50s Kay or Harmony Stratotone. We
lamented that someone had tried refinishing the original copper
finish (thus eliminating the name on the headstock) and the
result came out kinda funky looking. When I plugged it in, I was
treated to a smorgasbord of cool blues tones. I ended up playing
it for over an hour. It had a price tag of $275, but I worked
out a trade for a guitar and a pedal I wasn’t using anymore.
Kay and Harmony built a lot of guitars for other companies
in the ’50s and ’60s. The model H88 has cousins made in the
same era, like the Harmony H44 and the Kay K-142. The H-
88 was made from 1955 to 1957. What I really like about
this model are the pickups. They’re a single-coil design
with a bar running the length of the pickup, as opposed
to some I’ve seen with just the plain chrome covers.
These seem to have a little more kick to them. They
look adjustable in height but are not—what appear to
be adjustment screws on each end are really rivets bolting
the pickups to the pickguard. Weird! Luckily, the
pickups are locked in at a very good height. I was also
lucky that when I restrung it with a set of .010s, the
neck had just the right amount of relief, because the
neck is non-adjustable as well.
The H-88 sports concentric Volume and Tone
controls and cheap but decent open-back tuners.
The action is pretty good, which is nice because—
you guessed it—the bridge is non-adjustable both in
height and intonation. These guitars were made for the
entry-level market, but were quickly scooped up by blues players
because of their size, tone, and ruggedness. In pristine condition, it’s not
unusual to see these go for $2,500 or so in today’s market. Crazy! The point
here is that you don’t have to pay ridiculous prices to own a cool vintage
guitar. Just look for one that has some flaws you can live with. They’re usually
much cheaper yet still possess the vibe of the more expensive ones.
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