Can this modern take on Dan Auerbach’s famed Harmony match the original’s vintage mojo?
Since 2001, Eastwood Guitars has been reviving quirky, discontinued guitars of yore at prices that are pretty reasonable compared to vintage specimens. Looking for the unusual aesthetics of a Mosrite? Yeah, they’ve got that. They’ve also got pretty faithful renditions of long-gone electric guitars and basses by Kay, Supro, Wandre, Magnatone, Ovation, Musicraft, and more.
Some of Eastwood’s biggest sellers are models based on guitars favored by influential players. When Jack White and his ’59 Airline 2P gained fame with the White Stripes, the company released a reissue that was a big hit. More recently, Eastwood has gotten retro-minded guitarists hot and heavy for its take on the three-pickup Harmony H78 played by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Like many “department store” guitars from the ’50s and ’60s, the original versions of this basic design were produced under a few name brands with differing model numbers. Between approximately 1965 and 1972, the same hollowbody setup was sold as a Silvertone S1485 and as an Airline 7230. Eastwood owns the Airline name, so their guitar uses that badge. But they combine it with the model number from the popular Harmony version.
Won’t Get Foiled Again
Like most Eastwood interpretations of golden oldies, the Chinese-made Airline H78 deftly captures the visual vibe of the original. From the laminated-maple body’s lovely honeyburst finish to the headstock shape, four-bolt neck, block fretboard inlays, binding, f-holes, pickguard, switch surround, and basic hardware, this beauty looks nearly identical to the guitar that inspired it.
Aesthetics aside, the Airline H78 takes liberties with certain details in order to streamline production. For instance, original H78s came with DeArmond “gold-foil” single-coils whose materials and construction were quite different from modern pickups. Though a few boutiques pickup makers (including Jason Lollar and Curtis Novak) make authentic reproductions of these designs, their inclusion would add significantly to the Airline’s price. Vintage-spec gold-foils also have a unique sound that some players may not view as flexible enough for modern repertoires. In place of the four-slot DeArmond pickups screwed to the top of old hollowbody Harmony H78s, the new Airline features three Eastwood Argyle Gold Foil single-coils screwed into routes in its semi-hollow body (more on this construction difference later). The Argyles look like a rare version of DeArmonds found in guitars such as mid-’60s Airline H15 Bobkats, but though the multi-diamond slot pattern is period-correct, these units don’t feature the rubber-magnet construction that gives vintage gold-foils their distinctive tone. “We matched as closely as possible the wiring, materials, and impedance of the original pickups,” says Eastwood’s Mike Robinson, “but with modern construction and potting techniques for a more durable design.”
Eastwood made other significant changes. Regarding the previously mentioned change from a hollow to a center-block-equipped, semi-hollow body, Robinson says, “We did this for two reasons: 1) to better support the Bigsby B70, and 2) to allow for feedback suppression at louder stage volume, as the originals are notorious for feedback.”
One difference less traditionally minded players are likely to applaud is the switch from the old, blade-style wooden bridge to a Tune-o-matic-style unit with individually intonatable roller saddles. Rather than mounting the bridge to a floating wooden “foot,” a la Auerbach’s Harmony, Eastwood mounted it directly to the H78’s body. (Our review model was intonated properly, but three saddles were all the way forward—which could pose a problem for future adjustment.) Sharp-eyed Harmony hounds will also note the wider spacing between the Airline’s three pairs of volume and tone controls.
So how’s the execution? We were impressed with overall build and setup quality. And though we were disappointed by the small routing anomaly in one corner of the neck pickup’s cavity, the excess seam glue visible through the f-holes, and the slightly bent shaft on the neck pickup’s on/off toggle, we were relieved to see satisfactory execution of more practical details—such as smoothly beveled fret ends and even note response across the fretboard.
I tested the Airline H78 through a 6L6-powered Louis Electric Tremoverb, a 6973-powered Goodsell Valpreaux 21, and an EL34-driven Jaguar HC50. Naturally, the first thing on my mind was how the Argyle pickups sounded in comparison to the wide frequency range and low-end swagger of old gold-foils. With the guitar’s volume and tone controls all the way up, I was initially struck by how bright and focused the pickups sounded. Both soloed and in combination, the bridge and middle pickups in particular have a Strat-like quality—though with a woodier, more open feel. The bridge unit sounded incisive, and the middle pickup sounded compressed and spunky. Together, they yielded the sort of cluck that makes you want to play clean-toned chicken-pickin’ lines. Meanwhile, the neck pickup has an open and warm, but present quality.
As I experimented with the Airline’s knobs, I came to see the guitar in a different light. Some old department-store guitars seemed to pack on the switches and knobs with more regard for how “space-age” it made the instrument look than for how useful the controls were. But here every knob and switch is gold: You’ve got seven pickup combinations, all of which yield unique tones if you spend time dialing in interesting volume ratios and getting adventurous with tone settings. With the bridge pickup’s tone about a third open and its volume rolled back a third, combined with the neck pickup full on but tone pulled back two or three notches, I had the cranked Louis Tremoverb barking out old-school boogie that really did sound like a much older guitar. And with a bit of reverb, a semi-dirty sound, and tone knobs reined in a bit, I used neck-and-middle and neck-and-bridge pickup combos to infuse R&B-style lines with a really authentic greasiness.
Given the differences between Eastwood’s Airline H78 and the 50-year-old incarnations—most notably the pickup and body construction changes—it should go without saying that this guitar isn’t a vintage guitar minus the “used” tag. If you want the exact feel, tone, and response of an old Harmony, then buy one. But if you’re looking for a reasonably priced semi-hollow guitar with modern niceties and bona fide vintage looks, the Airline is a mighty cool option. Especially considering how its control complement lets you go from bright, modern sounds to convincingly retro tones.