8/05/2012

c.1928 Harmony Roy Smeck "Vita" Tenor Guitar


I'm pretty sure this is from the first year of production for these "Vita" instruments since it has a "Pat. Pending" label pressed into the bridge near the pin holes. For those not in the know, the "Vita" line of Roy Smeck-endorsed instruments was made by Harmony in Chicago and stretched from uke, to mandolin, to tenor guitar, to 6-string guitar. They all share the same pear body shape, seal soundholes, and on the guitars at least, the cool Lindbergh-inspired airplane bridges.

The Vita line was also deluxe and built incredibly well with fine trim, design, and fittings. They're all extremely lightweight with thin spruce tops and light bracing, which means that most of them have ended up beaten to heck and damaged over time from over-stringing. The flipside of that is that they sound wonderful with a good, full, warm tone -- so long as one uses properly extra-light gauge strings on them per desired tuning.

For example, for CGDA I'd use maximum 32w, 22w, 13, 9.


This instrument has lived a hard, roughly-played life, though for all that it's remarkably intact. At some point the previous owner actually wore through the spruce top on the upper bout and filled the resulting hole with wood putty and a layer of finish on the whole treble upper bout side. There are also a few longer hairline cracks on the top which are cleated up (some by me, some by others) and all stable. The biggest point of "wear" to this tenor is in the fact that the whole top around the bridge is bellied "up" which is soooo familiar to me, having worked on a number of higher-end Harmony flat-top products from 1925-1935 or so, all of which have the lightweight build that tends to form this belly.

The good news is, though, that the "belly" is stabile. After stringing and tuning up there was zero top deflection at pitch.

As far as the playability and tone department goes, this is no slouch. It plays nicely with 3/32" action at the 12th fret, a nearly dead-flat neck, and the sound is super -- warm, full, balanced, and very pretty. This is ideal for chordal work up and down the neck but like most flat-tops, is outgunned for soloing work compared to archtops or the like. Still, it holds its own nicely, and as a "plus," I've found that these lightweight tenors do quite well with nylon or gut strings as well, if the player intends to string it like a baritone uke or similar.


Cool, period Harmony tenor headstock. This shape is seen on a number of their fancier tenor banjos and many of the tenor guitars of the mid-upper scale made at this time. Bone nut (original). Note that the rectangular Harmony decal has vanished over time and also note the extra hole in the middle of the headstock -- doubtless for a strap. The bit in the middle is inlaid pearl.


The bound dyed-hardwood fretboard has significant board wear, though after a level and a dressing the frets are in decent order. Pearl dots are inlaid and the binding is "ivoroid." Check out the "aftermarket" side dots... hah... inelegant but efficient. 

This whole board was coming up when I received this tenor and I've since reglued it.


Here you can see the nice, almost "style 18," trim on the instrument -- black celluloid binding with b/w/b/w purfling.


Super-cool rosewood airplane bridge with bone saddle. One of the bridge pins (with pearl dots) is replacement and it's a little smaller than the other 3 originals, but it's at least period.


Check out the hecka-hecka wear to the "strumming" side. It looks nicer in person, since there's so much glare on it in the photos, but to me this is lovely since it means the tenor has been put through its paces and "warmed up."


This seal soundhole has a bit of a bite taken out of it from the picking!


...and in this one you can see a cleat I installed on the rear.



...but here's the jaw-dropping part -- do you see how the entire back is incredibly flamed Cuban mahogany? It's just crazy. You never see stuff like this these days. The grain is so nice and straight and the flame is so regular it's amazing. Harmony bought this stock from Regal, who'd been using it through the 1920s on most of their nicer uke and tenor products.


Original geared Page tuners make tuning this a zillion times easier than using the usual banjo-style friction pegs. The neck is also one-piece mahogany, by the way.


You can see how nice and glossy that original (thin) finish is, too, after cleaning.



This smaller puncture crack on the back is where that cleat is located in the soundhole picture. All good to go, now.



That same "ultra mahogany" is on the sides, too.

Both sides have a few tiny hairlines here and there, but all seem stable and either repaired or are not through, since they don't move when pushed on.





Original endpin, and here you can see just how nice that wood is, in detail!

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