The Mail-Order Blues

A look back at the department store guitar and its impact on modern music. Sears' retail Harmony meant way more to our culture than some giant big-box stores.

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, whose recent musical adventures—inspired by a certain piece he recently wrote—led him to dig deep into Big Retail’s musical soul. Check it out!

Today in Tedium: Every guitar player probably remembers their first axe, whether it’s a hand-me-down discard from a previous generation, the music store rental, the Pawn Shop special or the rare brand new instrument. For others, the first guitar may have been the Department Store Special—that is, a guitar from Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward. My first guitar was a 1963 instrument my dad purchased from Sears (then abandoned in a closet until I discovered it at age 14) and is long lost to time, though its replacement does have ties to the company (more on that later). In today’s Tedium, we’ll take a look at the legacy of the Sears guitar and the Harmony Company, along with a playing a few other harmonies of our own along the way. — David @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from a YouTube clip by the user jukeboxfun.

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1916

The year Sears & Roebuck Co. purchased Harmony Guitars. Sears-Roebuck acquired the guitar maker ostensibly to take control of the ukulele market, after the Hawaiian four-string instrument exploded in popularity the year before. They chose to team up with the Harmony Company—one of the largest manufacturers of stringed instruments in the world at the time. This partnership eventually led to a variety of guitar/uke offerings under the Supertone—later Silvertone—name.

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(via the Harmony guitars website)

How Chicago’s sweet Harmony found its way into houses and concert halls around the country

The Windy City has always played a major role in blues music, but it was also a hub of guitar manufacturing. With its close proximity to several manufacturers and the reach of their catalog, it probably made perfect sense for Sears to hop on board the musical instrument trade.

Ukuleles weren’t the first time Sears-Roebuck began selling guitars and other fretted instruments. Within the first few years of the publication of their catalog—around 1894—Harmony-made guitars began appearing alongside other fretted instruments in the catalog.

Previously dealing only in watches (1888), then adding jewelry (around 1890), Sears-Roebuck finally began expanding their catalog into “many new lines” that would help establish them as the mail order juggernaut they’d become. Fretted instruments were certainly a part of that success—a type of success reminiscent of the company’s later growth as a technology retailer.

The first musical instruments to appear in the catalog were American made guitars with names like “Our Kenwood” and “Our Columbian” and came with an instruction booklet.

In their 1897 catalog, Sears-Roebuck showed off their newest American-made guitars—those made by Chicago-based The Harmony Company. Established by Wilhelm Schulz in 1892, Harmony quickly became one of the largest manufacturers of stringed instruments in the world.

Harmony guitars were sold at around $6.00 - $8.00 early in that 1896-1897 catalog and were pretty high quality.

Harmony wasn’t the only manufacturer of Sears-Roebuck’s catalog instruments, either. Around 1899, instruments produced by a New Jersey luthier named Oscar Schmidt were sold through the catalog, and the brand itself was purchased by Sears in 1939. By purchasing the brands, but not the factories, Sears sourced the manufacturing to Harmony.

The popular Stella model was originally an Oscar Schmidt guitar, for instance but became a Harmony manufactured guitar after 1939. The guitar was easily accessible for many burgeoning bluesmen of the time and is the subject of adoration among many even today.

$2.50

The price Muddy Waters paid for his first Stella guitar. Purchased by Waters from the Sears catalog, this guitar would take him on a journey through the blues—first learning to play by studying Robert Johnson songs and then attending concerts from another blues legend, Son House helping develop the direction for his style. Some reports say Waters may have sold his horse to raise the money for his guitar, but regardless of the how he obtained it, one thing is certain—the man is a legend and one heck of a harmonica player to boot.

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Sears Silvertone guitars, as shown under their original name, Supertone, in 1938. (Harmony Database)

Tones of Silver: The house brand that may be a bigger icon than Sears in some quarters

It all began with a hand-cranked phonograph in 1915. After that, Silvertone was the official musical brand of Sears & Roebuck. Radios followed, along with ukuleles and other fretted instruments. The Silvertone name became the face of the Sears guitar—at least from 1915-1972.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Silvertone brand is how many different companies manufactured instruments under the name. Harmony was a major player until around 1940, when the company was sold back to Harmony executives and they continued manufacturing their own inexpensive guitars under over 57 different brand names.

They still supplied catalog instruments to Sears, though. Per Michael Wright’s Guitar Stories: the History of Cool Guitars, Sears went right back to relying on Harmony for their guitars. They also turned to other manufactures to keep up with demand.

Danelectro produced numerous amps under the Silvertone name before branching out into creating awesome-sounding, inexpensive guitars for Sears and Montgomery Ward. Kay guitars was another big manufacturer of Supertone and Silvertone guitars for both Sears and competitor Montgomery Ward. Per Wright, another guitar company called Regal was also tapped to manufacture guitars under the Supertone/Silvertone name.

The Silvertone brand was eventually retired by Sears in 1973, but was later acquired by Samick who has been doing some interesting things with classic guitar re-releases. According to the Sears Archives, the last Sears items to carry the Silvertone names were TVs and fancy stereo systems.

The brand is still quite popular today and has its own fair share of fans and collectors, with the site Silvertone World at the center. In this slice of musical paradise, one can easily find values and other instrument info all in one place. It’s quite a legacy, indeed. Not bad for what was essentially many players’ first guitar.

“My first guitar was an acoustic—handmade by my best friend’s father when I was six years old. It had hand-painted playing card hearts and spades for fret markers—and the action was so high, I almost gave up trying to learn! So I purchased a simple acoustic from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, sanded down the finish, then hand-lacquered the top. I put it out in the garden to dry, then my neighbour decided it was a good time to mow his lawn … so it dried with little bits of grass and dust settled into the finish! I still have it—and it plays okay!”

John Oates—a.k.a. the half of Hall and Oates with the prominent mustache—talking to website MusicRadar about one of his first guitars, an inexpensive Sears model.

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Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, shown with his Harmony Stratotone guitar. (digboston/Flickr)

An orchid full of blues: How modern musicians have kept old department-store guitars alive in the public eye

While a great deal of classic, legendary guitarists got their start with Sears guitars, some modern artists are carrying the torch for the department store guitar. Distinguished bluesman Robert Cray was inspired to play by seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, prompting him to convince his mother to buy him a Harmony Sovereign (this was the same model the Silvertone 1220 was based on) upon which he learned to play. Eventually, he’d move onto a Gibson SG and other guitars, as his career expanded. Brian Setzer learned on a Harmony Rocket, but eventually jumped, jived and wailed onto other axes.

These days, musicians like Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) and Jack White (The White Stripes) like to dabble with old department store guitars on occasion and seem to especially favor Harmony axes—whether they were mail-order guitars or not. Per a 2012 Guitar World interview, Auerbach used a Harmony Stratotone on every one of The Black Keys’ albums up to that point.

Jack White famously used a Silvertone amp and cabinet on the song “Seven Nation Army” with his Kay K6533 guitar. A collector and player of weird, vintage and department store guitars, White has also performed with a Harmony Rocket guitar.

In a bit of a twist, White’s most famous instrument—the Airline res-o-glass guitar—was not sold by Sears. That piece of White Stripes history found its origins in competitor Montgomery Ward, which sold its own instruments via their mail order—but that’s a story for another time.

The famed guitarist who modified his Harmony guitar like crazy

Guitarist and DIY extraordinaire J.J. Cale, best known for writing numerous songs that would become major hits for other artists, had a secret weapon when it came to writing and performing his music—a Frankenstein of sorts of various Sears guitar parts.

Here’s what the late Cale had to say about his department-store icon:

My favorite guitar is this old fifty dollar Harmony, now back-less for easier access to the electronics. Originally it was a round-hole acoustic, but I’ve added five pickups for making records and playing concerts. Four of the pickups are Gibson, two of which are low impedance for recording direct. The other bar type pickup came from a Sears Silvertone guitar, it was manufactured by Danelectro. The guitar has three high impedance outs and one low.

In a beautiful blending of Harmony, Silvertone and Danelectro components, he created an instrument with significant ties to Sears. Cale’s guitar is of particular interest to me, as it’s the same model I own and currently play— the old $50 Harmony.

American Standard Time has more about Cale’s DIY masterpiece.

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(photo by the author)

Rediscovering my own Harmony: A personal anecdote

I love the sound of Harmony guitars. Toward the end of my Nov. 2018 piece about Seattle “funge” band The Presidents of the United States of America, I briefly discussed modding my Harmony H162 acoustic guitar to function as a basitar/guitbass.

It failed spectacularly, resulting in what appeared to be permanent damage to the guitar. My instrument was manufactured after Sears and Harmony parted ways, but it still has all the qualities of a department store guitar.

I’m no guitar tech and certainly not a luthier. I’ve been playing at guitar for 20 years. For most of that time, I’ve rocked a pretty low maintenance highly playable Ibanez Artcore. I know how to change strings and adjust the action, but very little else. I still kind of suck at playing, honestly, so the thought of an easier-to-play instrument appealed to my hobbyist sensibility. So, I went about modifying the old H162 … and immediately ran into trouble. The strings I chose were much too thick for the fragile neck of the guitar and significant bowing occurred. There were a myriad of other problems—caused by a combination of wear & tear, lack of maintenance, age and my own DIY failure—so, frustrated with my lack of guitar repair knowledge, I decided to learn and made fixing up the guitar a project.

To get this thing up to a performance standard, my first step was the library. I checked out a few books on guitar maintenance and repair, followed by online research. Fret Not Guitar Repair was invaluable, as were r/guitar on Reddit and too many forums to list here.

Finally, I took the Harmony to a guitar tech friend of mine who assisted me with the remainder of the repairs. Now, the guitar plays great and doubles as a slide guitar. Of course, now I need to get some guitar picks and a brand new slide, to really make this department store special shine.

11/16″

The size of the Sears Craftsman socket Lowell George used exclusively as a slide on his (definitely not-from-Sears) guitars. The late frontman for blues rock band Little Feat was having difficulty with glass slides breaking, so he improvised. Though the socket was “suited for pulling spark plugs,” George’s use of the socket as a slide helped create the distinct sound heard on Little Feat classics like “Rock & Roll Doctor” (which prominently features the slide—check out the video), “Fatman in the Bathtub” and pretty much anything from the amazing Waiting for Columbus. Sure, it’s technically not a Sears guitar … but Feat don’t fail me now!

By the the time the Sears catalog ceased publication in 1993, the world was a completely different place. Sears was struggling to compete with the newer “low cost” structures of places like Home Depot and Walmart and as a result, killed their catalog. The vintage catalogs are almost like time capsules of each year in which they were published. It’s difficult not to feel a certain bit of nostalgia while looking through them online. Despite its demise, the catalog was a very important part of inspiring and helping future amateur and professional musicians create music simply by making it easier for anyone to purchase a guitar through the mail.

Music shops like Sam Ash and Guitar Center had been around for quite some time, but they were much smaller and more local—Sam Ash didn’t really expand much until the 1960s while GC really didn’t hit its stride until the 90s (though they did open a store in Chicago in 1979) — and many towns probably had their own music shops, but the catalog was something else entirely. It was an unassuming, powerful force for musical good.

Sears ultimately made numerous instruments available to people who may not otherwise have been able to easily obtain them and helped create a way for the Delta blues to gain momentum across the country. It was an amazing endeavor, without which we may never have heard the soulful sounds of B.B. King (who learned to play from a music book purchased through the Sears catalog) or Chet Atkins who honed his amazing talents on a beat-up, hastily repaired Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar his brother bought from a mail order catalog.

Though the heydey of cheap, mail order guitars is long past—replaced by the somewhat hollow strum of cheap guitars from some random factory halfway around the world—the legacy of the original Sears guitar manufacturers play on. Harmony is having a resurgence of its own. The company was recently relaunched and have a line of three classic guitars available—the Silhouette, the Rebel and the Jupiter.

Perhaps I’ll have to mail-order one some day.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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