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It wasn’t long ago that Harmony guitars of the ’50s and ’60s were considered ill-suited to serious music making. But such guitarists as the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Marc Ribot have made amazing, signature sounds on these (once) affordable axes. And in their wake, players, collectors, and even guitar makers have reexamined the merits of these guitars while driving prices on the vintage market ever higher.
Nic Delisle, the luthier behind Island Instrument Manufacture, uses Harmony, Silvertone, and other department-store guitars as points of departure for his own idiosyncratic designs that sound and look like few other guitars on the market—an impressive feat for a builder only in his mid 20s. But while Harmony guitars were mass-produced in a large factory, Delisle makes each Island instrument by hand in a shop in Montreal’s Mile-End—a neighborhood known worldwide for its robust independent music scene.
One of Island’s latest offerings, the Forty-Four, is a handsome reinterpretation of the small-bodied, single-pickup Harmony H44 that Marc Ribot used to great effect. And as our review guitar, which is fresh off Delisle’s workbench, makes clear, that once lowly design, relegated for decades to the dustiest junk shop corners, is an excellent platform for design improvements.
Smart Design Extrapolation
With its single cutaway and narrow waist, the Forty-Four shares the same silhouette as its inspiration. But there are key distinctions between the Island and the Harmony original. The Forty-Four has a bolt-on neck instead of the H44’s neck-through construction and employs a string-through-body configuration inspired by the Fender Telecaster. And by scrapping dot position markers and a pickguard, Delisle has given the Island a more minimalist look.
A conscientious builder, Delisle prefers to source domestic or reclaimed timbers. And when he uses an exotic hardwood, he donates a percentage of the proceeds to a reforestation initiative in Nicaragua. In this case, the one-piece body is cut from sinker cedro espino recovered from the Panama Canal. The neck is carved from quarter-sawn poplar, while the fretboard, headstock overlay, and bridge base are all fashioned from black locust that’s given an ebonized and distressed treatment befitting a vintage-inspired guitar.
Though the design has an almost elemental and basic feel, the Forty-Four is a looker. Gold hardware often looks chintzy, but the guitar is so minimal elsewhere that the gold open-back Gotoh 510 tuners, EVO fretwire, and strap buttons all bring out warmth in the woods rather than beam like garish afterthoughts. The brass compensated saddle, which was custom made by luthier Mark Kett, is elegantly sculptural, and the gold-foil pickup, custom crafted by Vintage Vibe Guitars’ Pete Biltoft, calls to mind a tiny mid-century radio.
The Forty-Four’s ivoroid tuner buttons, truss rod cover, and control knobs offer a nice complement to the brown and gold of the woods and hardware. And in a nod to the time-honored bar band tradition of using the red rubber washers from Grolsch beer bottles as strap locks, Delise includes them as standard equipment here. Another nice touch is the hangtag, handwritten on a rectangle originating from a cardboard box of St-Ambroise Pale Ale—another detail affirming Delisle’s commitment to using domestic and recycled materials (and his taste for good brew, apparently).
The Forty-Four feels solidly built, thanks in part to the five bolts connecting its neck and body. Craftsmanship on the guitar is very good. The oil finish on the neck and body feels smooth and fast. The frets are all well seated and cleanly polished, although just a tad sharp at the edge of the fretboard. Upon super-close inspection, I found small imperfections in spots—a dimple in the body’s wood near the pickup, for instance. But then again, this is a handmade instrument and not the product of CNC machinery, so inconsequential little anomalies suit the personal, bespoke, arts-and-crafts feel of the instrument.
With its 45-millimeter (about 1.77") nut and 56-millimeter (2.2") saddle spacing, the Forty-Four has a wide neck for an electric guitar. But it’s more than manageable for a guitarist accustomed to tighter quarters, thanks to its comfortable neck profile, which is shallow, but not skimpy. The guitar left Island’s shop with sleek, low action, and it is equally comfortable to play in all its registers. Although it shipped with strings that are heavier than normal for an electric—a .012–.052 La Bella set with a wound third string—it isn’t difficult to bend the strings, thanks to the fretboard’s rather flat 16" radius.
Soaring and Dirty
Plugged into a Fender Deluxe, the Forty-Four shines. The lone pickup, which is designed exclusively for Island, is patterned to some extent on the “Hershey Bar” pickup found on the original Harmony. I didn’t have a vintage H44 at hand for sound comparison, but the new pickup does have a decidedly old-school flavor. It is gorgeously clean, with abundant clarity and detail, and is very sensitive to nuances in playing. The tone knob has a wide and useful sweep. Rolled back completely, the pickup sounds much like a jazz box, and at the other end of the spectrum it has a sweetly cutting timbre.
Given the wide string spacing, it was only natural to try some fingerpicking on the Forty-Four, and when subjected to some basic Travis picking in the lower quarters, it returns the favor with a rich snap and notes that ring brilliantly. Like old Harmonies, the guitar has a rude side, too. And when you dig in with a plectrum for a traditional blues solo, it responds with an aggressive but not strident bark.
It seemed natural to channel Marc Ribot on the Forty-Four, so I played a transcription of the unaccompanied “St. James Infirmary,” on which Ribot tunes down his Harmony by two whole-steps. A lot of guitars would sound muddy tuned this low, but the Forty-Four retained its vibrant character.
In the Forty-Four, Delisle pays a respectful tribute to a classic bargain guitar by taking the best parts of that template in smart new directions. It’s the perfect instrument for electric fingerpicking, and its lone pickup delivers a wide range of tones that will work for everything from bebop to swamp rock. With a base price of $1,900, this handmade boutique guitar is also less expensive than many factory-made instruments, and while not cheap, it’s not bad for a guitar that’s more than a little unique in terms of sound and style.