1959 Harmony Meteor H71 restoration
‘from Chicago to Sheffield, via Hong Kong'
In 1961 at the tender age of 9 I moved to Hong Kong with my parents. Soon after we arrived my dad bought a Harmony Meteor guitar, a Supro 1606 amp, and a Dearmond Tremolo 60B from his music teacher.
Over time my dad’s interest in playing declined, and I started strumming. From my early teens I began jamming with schoolfriends – Ventures, Shadows, Beatles, Monkees, Stones, Kinks, Hollies, and later on the Who, Cream, Zeppelin, the Doors, and Santana. There were occasional gigs. The Colony Club, where the cockroaches stampeded off the dance floor when the lights went on at the end of the evening. The YMCA on Nathan Road. St George’s school, where I went, and the other school – KGV. Over time I fell out of love with the Meteor. It wasn’t very cool. My heroes played Gibson and Fenders. Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, SGs, and I was stuck with this archtop thing that was more suited to an ageing jazzer. The pickups looked more like microphones than pickups and the body was huge and hollow with ‘f’ holes.
I took it to bits, and sanded off the lacquer, intending to refinish it in solid black or red, impersonating a 335. In the end I just painted the neck black, and sprayed clear varnish on the body. I screwed on a Hofner tremolo – sort of a low cost Bigsby-esque thing. That didn’t turn out well because the bridge wasn’t fixed to anything – it just sat on the top of the body and wobbled alarmingly when I used the tremolo. Playing at KGV with Tony and Chris – long boring pentatonic improvisations trying and failing to emulate Santana, the Allman Brothers and Cream, someone asked me if I’d made it myself. How very embarrassing!
I soldiered on with the Meteor at Durham University. while waiting for salvation, a John Birch custom, which took forever to build. Someone dropped the Meteor, so that the jack mount tore into the body. And my credibility continued to decline. How could I become a rock god while playing an old geezers guitar? At the end of the first year I got my John Birch, and permanently consigned the Meteor to its battered case.
Sometime in the late 70’s I unearthed the poor neglected thing and decided to ‘improve’ it, inspired by a series of articles in a magazine called ‘International Musician and Recording Studio. I dismantled it again, pulled out the wiring harness, took the neck off, extracted the frets, and removed the machine heads, and the pickups and prized off the rather pleasing metal headstock logo. In a spirit of optimism, I decided I would re-wind the pickups. I mostly destroyed one in dismantling it. I’ve no idea what happened to the other. I sanded the fretboard flat, sanded the body, and then gave up.
I put most of the bits back into the case, and dragged the corpse around through house moves for the next 45 plus years. Every now and again I would open the case, inspect the sad remains, promise myself that one day I would fix it, and put it away again. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. I wasn’t competent to restore it, and when I talked to any guitar restorers about it, they sucked their teeth like pessimistic plumbers and changed the subject.
Then I discovered Gatling Guitars. During a long conversation with Stephen about guitar trivia, and missed opportunities to acquire valuable instruments I mentioned the Meteor. Much to my surprise, when I brought it in for diagnosis, he didn’t declare it a complete write off. But there was rather a lot to do:
- Replace the broken truss rod – which involved removing the fretboard and binding to gain access, fitting a new truss rod, and putting the neck back together.
- Refret in stainless steel – I like stainless steel frets – my fingers, or body fluids, or both seem to wear away conventional frets very quickly.
- Replace the pickups - all I had was one destroyed pickup.
I’d lost the other one, and the metal base plates. Turns out that these ‘Gold Foil’ pickups are now somewhat prized. You can buy replicas (sort of) or used originals. They cost about the same. I could have had my surviving one re-wound and replaced the missing one. In the end I bought two originals at horrific cost. Stephen made the pickup surrounds. Luckily I still had the original subtly shaped wooden mounting blocks.
- I had binned or lost the wiring harness long ago, but kept the pickup selector switch. On eBay original wiring harnesses are now a crazy price. They were very chunky, with all the wiring enclosed in a flat metal spiral binding.
- The tuners were worn beyond salvation. They weren’t very robust to start with. I had decided at the outset that I wanted a playable guitar, not an unusable relic so we replaced them with a set of Gotohs.
As the work progressed, I did some research on the web. Harmony was a huge manufacturer up to the ‘60’s. They made budget guitars in Chicago under a variety of different brand names, often for the US mail order market.
They never reached the glamour of Guild, Gretsch or Gibson, but they made a lot of guitars, and a dizzying range of models. Like all ‘vintage’ brands, in recent years they’ve been re-evaluated, and have become a niche interest.
I’m not sure the advert would stand up to modern advertising standards. Although I had a Harmony guitar, I never got dragged off by a woman as pictured in the advert. Maybe I should have worn a tie more often.
I found the serial number and manufacturing date inside the guitar. It was made in Spring 1959, and it was an H71 model – more about that later. Here’s a picture from the 1959 catalogue. Only $175 for a Blonde Meteor with a Torque-Lok truss rod, Ultra-Slim neck, and a Speed-Fretted fingerboard. And mine has a Synchro-Sonic bridge as well. Mid 20th century marketing in the good old US of A involved a lot of hyphens.
The pickups are DeArmond Golden Tone Indox pickups. DeArmond pickup history is really quite complicated. They made pickups for many different companies. There’s a great site about them here. There are many different ‘gold foil’ pickups, of dramatically different construction, and sound characteristics. To add to the confusion, Japanese companies also made look-alike products. The whole ‘gold foil’ thing is not a useful classification – it only refers to the metallic cardboard underneath the pickup cover - though it seems to have gained currency on the web.
The Melita Synchro-Sonic bridge is a mystery. I can’t find a picture of a Meteor with a Melita. They mostly have simple saddles with height adjustment. Was mine a replacement, or a different batch? Melita bridges have a fascinating history. Sebastiano ‘Johnny’ Melita - what a great name - patented an adjustable bridge, with adjustable intonation. Gretch took it on and fitted them to their guitars. It may be the first commercial bridge which is adjustable for height and intonation. It pre-dated the Gibson Tune-o-Matic. Gretsch Melitas were stamped ‘Gretsch’, but Melitas were also available without Gretsch branding. Melitas have been revived on some current Gretsch models.
There are a couple of notable Meteor users. Dave Davis of the Kinks used a pre 1960 H71 on ‘You Really Got Me’ - with the revolutionary mechanically distorted guitar sound from a slashed speaker cone.
Keith Richards used a sunburst H70 in the 60’s. His was a slightly later 60’s model, with different De-Armonds. Meteors came in two original finishes – Blonde and Sunburst. Mine and Dave Davis’s were Blonde.
If you are a Harmony expert, you’ll challenge the H71 identity. When it came to choosing a finish I decided against the original blonde. I had never liked it, and it wasn’t a good option for covering up the inevitable blemishes. So I went for the H70 sunburst finish. So maybe it’s a sort of H70.5. The controls are the ‘wrong’ colour for an H70, but I like the way it looks.
Was it worth it?
Allowing for inflation it would cost about £1,400 today. But more importantly, I now have an entirely playable guitar instead of a nostalgic pile of junk. It sounds, feels and looks like nothing else I’ve got.
Thank you Gatling.