Purchased from: Friends/Second Hard Store
Features — 6
And yes, I'm back again, to talk about the previous generation 218x series - the H-804, the "mother guitar" to the 2183/2184/2185 models.
These guitars were best known as the "Harmony Beginner's Electric Guitar" found in the J.C. Penney catalog back in the late '80s up through the late 1990's, some were repainted and sold rebranded through Musician's Friend circa 1999/2000 to kill off remaining stock. I'm not reviewing one of these lovely instruments, but THREE! So specifications will be a tad bit of a "history" lesson... okay class... let's begin:
This particular series of instruments was made between 1988 and 2001, they came after the far more Teisco-like H-802, but before the far more "New Age Toy store" 218x guitars. They were made at the Saehan, Samick, and/or Guyatone plants in Korea and China. Because of this, features vary by year and production run quite a bit.
Typically the neck is a 25.5" Scale Maple neck with a maple fingerboard, including the "Rosewood fingerboard" models - which are actually sort of like a police fingerprint pad built into a guitar neck, the player will always find plenty of evidence of their playing after they are done. The profile is pretty skinny, the radius is flat, generally around 9-12" but not exactly on those, and the frets are cheap pot metal, and there is a zero fret, causing these to misleadingly be sold as "22 fret" instruments when they generally had 21. Some have the zero fret, some done, all three I had had it. One nice feature is the hobo version of a "spoke adjust truss rod", which with this guitar is incredibly handy, though the difference it makes is negotiable at best in some cases as I think they let too much glue seep into the truss rod causing it to not work on some of these.
The body suggests one of those creepy generic Russian guitars at most, it takes some lines from the Mustang, Melody Maker, and a Mosrite. The body is made of luan plywood, which smells like those fishy refrigerator magnets I had to make for Cub Scouts when I was eight (probably same plywood), and the smell gets stronger once you start routing it. But more on that later.
The electronics are basically a Stratocaster with 500K pots crippled to a neck+middle pickup configuration only. Gone are the individual switches and interesting chrome pickups of the H-802, replaced with 2 generic Strat copy, or Stratocaster-like pickups. The Strat copy pickups came on later '90s guitars, have a proper bobbin (albeit plastic), a ceramic magnet, and are around 6.3-6.4K Ohms. The Stratocaster-like pickups can vary widely, they are typically a Strat-style pickup cover, filled with a bar magnet wound with as much wire as they could fit in there, with some passive pole pieces to stick through the top, and a heavy, heavy mixture of paraffin wax making these guitar non-microphonic (mostly) from the factory. They also vary from 6.4K all the way up to 11.5K Ohms resistance, some are hotter than others.
The bridge is the ubiquitous Harmony "Anti-Matic" setup consisting of a pot-metal cast tailpiece with little "fingers" that the ball ends of the strings fit in between, and a steel bar on two thumbscrews with 3 slots per string for a bridge....apparently they might have considered a 12-stringer, or were trying to copy the customizable string spacing of the Fender Jaguar/Jazzmaster with this design. Restringing is a challenge, but it does look kind of cool.
And of course, there are the tuners, the classic, ever so "lovely" six on a plate tuners, with cartoony white plastic surrounds to the capstans and white plastic knobs that conjure images of Donald Duck, singing trees, and creepy 1940's cartoon music (honk honk... toot toot). The tuners offer three options for tuning...
- You can leave them loose so the tuning drifts
- You can tighten them so you need pliers to tune the darned thing
- You may win the anti-tuning lotto and get a set that are so screwed up they just click and don't do anything. Enjoy the key of Z my friend! May the luck of Captain Beefheart be on your side!
Typically they came with a strap, cable, picks, gig bag, and a little 1 watt battery powered amp, all promptly lost and replaced by far more capable items up to the tasks they were made for.
And finally, an interesting note on the headstocks on these guitars. The early runs of these had regular Harmony-style headstocks, but sometime around 1988-1990-ish, they decided to try and get more kids to buy them by putting pointy Jackson style headstocks on them. Now there's a awesome site! Cartoony tuners mixed with a metal headstock and a old-grandpaw' cursive Harmony since 1869 logo.
I had/have 3:
- A Black 1997 with the police-fingerprinter fingerboard on it. I eventually took all that crap off, refretted it, put in humbuckers, and a Les Paul copy neck later on, and made a quasi-miniature SG out of it.
- A white 1991 which I think may still be kicking around mom's house sans fretboard. This one was where I discovered the "glued-in-truss-rod" problem, c'mon Harmony, drinking straws are only $.10 to save your truss rod from glue problems! It had the strat-like pickups, neither were the uber-rare 11.5K ohm ones.
- A Red 1999 "Rogue" model from a local failing business who sold it to me for $25.00 sans bridge. It has had a ton of different necks and pickups in it including a bridge humbucker. I'm currently in process of making my own "H-806" out of it (an H-802 with the second pickup at the bridge instead of the middle, and a 2X4 headstock).
Sound — 6
My style is generally a mixture of '80s new wave, heavy metal, alternative rock, experimental, and some progressive rock leanings. I've used these with TONS of amps since 1997, I could not even list them all, not even to mention the effects, so I will stick with general tonal considerations.
Stock, these guitars basically sound like a brighter Stratocaster stuck on the neck+middle setting. Your only hopes for tonal variety are 1 volume, 1 tone, and using your pick attack location and tact like you would on an acoustic, even then, it's still obvious you are stuck on those same two pickups. Typically I rip them out to pep these badboys up.
Clean begets sort of a punk version of Jimi Hendrix. Very tubby, with not a lot of mids, and spanky, thrashy, sparkly highs.
Distorted sounds sort of like Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth during a gear shortage. A good fuzz makes it an excellent guitar for Alternative, fuzztone rock, or blues, but not much else.
The only complaints are the "strat-look-alike-pickups" in some are noisy because they are sourced from the same place Samick does for the H-80 Strat, Memphis strats, and First Act did for the Discovery series Kid's guitars. They also pull off a pretty convincing B-52's imitation for songs like "Lava" and "6060-842" due to the odd resonance these guitars have due to the massive routing in such a tiny body, with a light overdrive and some reverb, you'll be 53 Miles West of venus with that rusty-sounding distortion in no time!
Overall, pretty much the same as the Harmony 2183 that came after it, basically a crippled Stratocaster with stuck electronics trapped in a little bambino sized body. The Stratocaster copy pickups are microphonic though, so I give it a 6 for sound again.
Action, Fit & Finish — 3
The 1997 I knew since it was new. It was surprisingly okay out of the box, but more adept to playing slide than being used for any substantial lead-work due to the action, caused by the mixup of the bridge and fretboard radius. Also, the Zero Fret Buzzed, so I took it out and put a massive bone nut in that space with a plywood spacer block to hold it in it's spot, after that, the tone and sustain went through the roof!
The pickups are practically non-adjustable because of the height of the neck and bridge, all the way up is pretty much the norm for the H-804 pickup setup. The only way to change that is to put in Humbuckers or something else very tall or with long legs for adjustment. The routing work is the same as the H-802 that came before, with two giant routs for the rather tiny Stratocaster pickups.
Flaws... eh... uh... here's my laundry list:
- Those darned tuners, I replaced them with a $10.00 set of Pings, the Pings are far better tuners, all my new builds will have KLuson Tone Pros bolt-mount style though
- The finish is crappy, the black one was later silver hammered metal textured paint. When I get back in touch with that one someday, I'll probably refinish it some really weird color, like bright neon orange. The Rogue guitars are the worst because they are basically a black H-804 dipped in red paint that has the sticking quality of Fake blood from a dollar store. That stuff flaked off the whole time I had it that way.
- The fretwork is horrible, I did a better job on my first fret job at age 17 on this guitar than it originally had, the action was even lower!
- The pickguard lacks shielding, instead they chose to hire a baker to make the pickguard and Harmony's idea of "Sheilding" is a piece of wax paper!
- Harmony did not use a filler piece for the truss rod between the fretboard and the floor of the neck truss rod cavity, nor did they use anything to isolate it from the glue for the fingerboard, this causes some of them to have a stuck truss rod that appears to do nothing because it can't because it's been glued to the floor of the neck truss rod rout.
My typical fix-up for these is this...
- Either add or move a pickup to the bridge, a hot one
- add switching for pickups, usually a 3-way switch
- treble bypass on the main pot
- Install a Tune-O-Matic bridge
- upgrade the tuning machines
- re-radius the fingerboard, and remove that black crap that constitutes as a "rosewood" fingerboard, refinish in maple, and do a quick and dirty refret that's better than the original
- Replace the Zero Fret with a REAL nut made of bone
- Strap locks
Reliability & Durability — 3
The guitar will NOT stand live playing in it's normal state. See my previous part for all of the modifications I make to these. The bridge won't be in tune, the tuners either stay in tune like a alcoholic at last call on Karaoke night, stay in tune but need He-Man to tune them, or are perpetually stuck in the same key, forcing you to repeatedly play in the key of H. The strap button placement is another issue. The neck-side button is on the BACK OF THE NECK! Because of this, it makes upper fret access a pain. I usually take this one out and put it on the upper wing of the body and the balance, feel, and look of the guitar on me on stage is far better.
Typically, when I gig with one of these, it's either a gag, or it's so modified it's hardly a Harmony H-804 anymore. Typically it comes as one of the seconds/thirds in my team for special tunings, or tones I can't get with anything else, or I'm just in the mood to play it that night. I NEVER play without a backup, even if I had a $6000 custom shop guitar, I would still have a backup. The finish, as I said, wears off of it. I just repaint them with rattle cans, polish with finish restorer, and I get a nice, unique piece with a whole new set of tonal characteristics.
Stock, I give it a 3, also, some necks do have glue and structure issues such as fretboards coming off the neck, non-adjustable truss rods due to glue seepage, and on the fist one I got the frets started falling out after a year.
Overall Impression — 6
I play a lot of different rock styles. I don't know what it is about these old Harmony Student guitars but for all of their flaws, I kind of like them. It's a bit like how Kurt Cobain loved the Mustang because they are "cheap, small, and inefficient," I guess he never met the boat paddle glory of the Harmony H-804. Like what I said on a previous review of the newer version, it amazes me how messed in the head Harmony was continuing to churn the basis of this model out for over 40 years, starting with Japanese Teisco built example in 1968, and continuing through the 2000's with the 218x series.
I have been playing 20 years and have way too many guitars, quite a few effects, and most of my music is played through a DigiTech RP-250 at home and a Bugera 333XL with Peavey 412M cabinet with Celestions live. These guitars don't see the latter setup too much.
I generally pick these up BECAUSE they are crappy. Nobody would want to steal them, and they are very cheap to fix and modify. Usually by the end, I have a guitar that Harmony SHOULD have been making, rather than what they continued to make whilst being out-of-touch with student guitarist's needs in the 1980's onward. Well, that and I love the smell of flying Luan when I go route for that 3-way Gibson toggle for the pickup selection!
The primary reason I only ever got into them was because they vaguely reminded me of guitars I liked, such as the Mosrite Mark II, the Epiphone Coronet, the Danelectro "bowtie" guitar, or even, in a slight way, the Hondo Paul Dean II (the bass side of the pickguard is very similar).