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.
Visit Will Ray at www.willray.biz and on Facebook.