Monday, August 1, 2011

“The Blues Sovereign”

Did you wake up this morning with the Monday Morning Blues?  If so, I think you may find the cure on Robert Frost’s Banjo!

For some time I’ve considered writing a series of posts discussing the different guitars used by different well-known blues performers, & I’m kicking that series off today by discussing musicians who used a brand of guitar that’s close to my heart: Harmony.

But although various Harmony models were used by some very noteworthy performers (for instance, Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell & Blind Willie McTell), this post is about one specific model (& no, it’s not the Harmony model I own, which is a ’58 Master, an archtop.)  That model is the Harmony Sovereign.

Harmony began producing the Sovereign in 1947, when it came out with the H1203, a flat-top acoustic guitar with “pinless” style bridge.  The Sovereign H1203 was available in at least two sizes, auditorium & grand concert—which correspond to the Martin sizes 000 & 00.  For those who aren’t guitar aficionados, a few points of clarification:

A flat-top guitar has a flat soundboard, unlike an archtop, on which the soundboard is curved.  When folks think “guitar” these days, they most likely picture a flat-top.  Guitars also come in different sizes, & there are various classification systems for that.  Martin mostly uses a system of zeros, as well as the letters M & D.  The other system uses names like “grand concert,” & in all honesty, I tend to think in terms of the Martin system & always have to remind myself what “grand concert” or similar terms mean in relation to that!  The 00 & 000 are mid-size guitars, & both are considered good sizes for fingerstyle playing.

The Sovereign H1203 had a solid spruce top with mahogany back & sides.  Early models weren’t equipped with a pickguard, but this was added later on.  Interestingly, given the model’s popularity with blues players, Harmony billed the H1203 as their "Western special.”

Several different Sovereign models appeared over the years until the Harmony Guitar Company was dissolved in 1975.  One of these models that found its way into the hands of a couple of very noteworthy blues musicians was the Sovereign H1260, a jumbo sized guitar (yes, “jumbo” is an official size category—you get the idea!)  The H1260 also featured a spruce top & mahogany back & sides.  When it was introduced in 1958, the H1260 had a sticker price of $69.50; the H1203 was introduced in 1947 for $45.00 (it retailed for $59.50 in 1958.)

The following were some of the noteworthy musicians who played these guitars:

  • Mississippi Joe Callicott: Sovereign H1203
  • Sam Chatmon: Sovereign H1203
  • Mississippi John Hurt: Sovereign H1260
  • Mance Lipscombe: Sovereign H1203
  • Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson: Sovereign H1260
  • Robert Curtis Smith: Sovereign H1203
  • Big Joe Williams: Sovereign H1260

Howling Wolf also played a Harmony Sovereign flat-top, but I can’t find out the exact model.  Now these guitarists didn’t play Harmonys exclusively, but all of them used the Harmony Sovereign as a performing/recording instrument; & Lipscombe, Williams & the undeservedly obscure Robert Curtis Smith all used their Sovereign as a “main” instrument.

Harmony made some wonderful guitars in their day.  Obviously, these were never “top-shelf” instruments, but Harmony was known as a company that delivered “bang for the buck,” & old Harmonys that are in good shape are still very good guitars for the money, even at "vintage" prices.

The proof, of course, is in the hearing (& playing, but that’s up to you!)  In the following videos, Mance Liscombe & Big Joe Williams each give a Harmony Sovereign a workout, Lipscombe playing an H1203 & Williams an H1260.  Enjoy!

The image of the Harmony H1203 Sovereign links back to the Harmony Guitars Database site.


  1. Above and beyond anything else, it is such a perfect shape. Classic shape - and such an informative post as well.

  2. Hi Alan: That particular example is a fine looking guitar indeed. Glad you found this informative!

  3. Nice post! I have fond memories of Harmony guitars - my first guitar was a Harmony. I played it for a good 10 years before the neck had warped so badly it was unplayable.

    The reason why Harmonies made it into the hands of so many poor blues musicians (and kids like me in the '60s) is because they were sold exclusively by Sears Roebuck, the great distributor of American culture.

  4. Hi Roy: Yes, some of the necks got out of whack--no truss rods back then. The ones that have survived this long usually are stable enough to be in good shape, unless the action is very high to begin with. The importance of Harmony/Silvertone/Stella etc. being distributed by Sears (& Montgomery Ward) can't be under-estimated, tho that probably doesn't apply to most of the specific performers I mentioned here, as they using their instruments in the midst of reasonably successful careers. A number of folks who became well known started on the mail order models, however.

  5. Good info again. Do you happen to know if Emmy Lou Harris likes the jumbo? I've seen some clips where her guitar looks too big for her.
    Thanks too for the W.C. Williams poem titles. So far I'm liking everything, especially some short but killer passages.

  6. Hi Banjo52: Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, Emmylou Harris does play a Gibson jumbo at least as one of her guitars. The great fingerstyle player Reverend Gary Davis also played a Gibson jumbo, which he named, appropriately enough, "Miss Gibson." Glad you're liking the WCW poems!

  7. Coincidentally, I was very generously given a guitar this evening. It's sat next to me now: it's an old black Encore acoustic, with a pattern incorporating flowers, a humming bird and a butterfly on the pick-guard. Now I can go busking!

  8. Hi Dominic: Encore is a UK brand, so I'm not familiar with it, but it sure sounds like a busking guitar to me. Enjoy!


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