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.