Saturday, May 3, 2008
Harmony Lap Steel Guitar
Last year I decided, once again, that I needed a lap steel guitar. This happens to me every few years like a disease that recurs and goes into remission once I feed the need. It's usually about the time that I start recording a few songs and I think how cool a lap steel will sound. Then I get one and realize I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I've had a little success recording a lap steel...not that it sounds like I can actually play it well...just that it adds a nice atmospheric sound with tons of reverb.
So, last year I started keeping an eye out for a lap steel and eventually one showed up on Craig's List. A guy was selling an old Harmony Lap Steel along with a bunch of accordions and other interesting instruments to make rent. I always feel bad in that situation and probably try a little less to bargain if I feel like the guy is truly having a hard time. I emailed the guy and said I was interested and almost immediately got a response saying that I had first dibs and to come on down to get it. It was a long drive...I live in far North San Diego County and he lived on the other side of downtown...that's almost an hour away with no traffic. I made it there and followed his very sketchy sounding directions. "Turn left into the alley, go one block, there will be a large fenced in lot with locks on the gate. My brother will come out and unlock the fence and you can come in to the back of the warehouse where we live."
I was either going to get a smokin' deal on a lap steel or get my head bashed in and my money taken and left in an alley.
I got there and, sure enough, there was brother in the alley waiting for me. I pulled in and walked into the strangest place you've ever seen. This guy, his brother, two other super sketchy lookin' dudes and a normal looking guy all lived in the back of this old warehouse. It looked like it probably leaked and probably wasn't the warmest spot in the winter, but I guess it was better than the alternative. The place was PACKED (I used capital letters for a reason!) full of wierd stuff from thrift stores and junk shops and who knows where else. Collections of all kinds of things stuffed and crammed into every corner of the place. If he truly needed rent he could have made thousands of dollars on all the strange collections of things he had. There were old fezzes and kites and statues and books and old cameras and pottery and I don't even know what else. It looked like the trashiest antique store in town.
He pulled out the lap steel and one of the sketchy dudes...the one with only three teeth and the greasy Gibson shirt on...plugged it into an old Marantz stereo so I could see that it worked. It was one of the old models from the '40s I believe...it looks just like an old Roy Smeck model I found online, but without the Roy Smeck markings. It had three legs that screwed into the bottom so you could play it sitting down and it came with a big ol', heavy duty case that weighed a ton.
It had the "S' Dearmond pickup in it and at least one of the two knobs was original. As odd as I've made these guys out to be, they were absolutely nice guys and musicians and easy to deal with. I've got some weird old collections of things myself, so although most of you would probably be a little more than uncomfortable in this setting, I was pretty comfortable once I started talking to them. I pictured them playing some kind of weird gypsy music on street corners for change or something. Either that or old Iron Butterfly covers.
Everything worked and I paid the $150 the guy wanted and I was out the door. Once I got home I decided to put the whole thing together with the legs and discovered that one of the leg sockets had been stripped out. The next day I got together with my next door neighbor who is a master wood craftsman and he helped me (I should say he completely did it all himself) reconstruct the socket and even did a little paint and touch up and relic job to make it look completely original.
I used the Harmony on a couple of recordings and then, once again, realized that I had no business attempting to play it. I think this time I was pretty unsuccessful at even getting something useful on the recording, so away it went on eBay. It sold for a little over $250, which was a nice profit...not that I wanted to take the extra money down to the sketchy guys or anything...but I did feel a little bad. Okay, now I'm over it. Anyway, what's the lesson for today kids? Lap steels aren't as easy to play as you think they are and are often a waste of money. I'm sure I'll be looking for a new one in, oh, about 4 months.