Thanks to Timothy L. Olsen for this wonderful remembrance of guitar-making legend Harvey Thomas.
Remember what the term “Japanese guitar” used to mean, back when Beatniks roamed the earth and Elvis was still kinda nasty?
The Beatles hadn’t landed and I was in the third grade when my big brother Jim brought home a brand new Japanese guitar. Loosely modeled after a classic, it was already caving in from the load of its steel strings. You don’t see them like this anymore, man. Painted-on binding, decal rosette, door skin luan plywood, basswood (or worse) neck, nice sharp ends on those rough brass frets. I was totally fascinated.
But the word fascination found new meaning a year later when my even bigger brother Dick came home from college with what might as well have been the Messiah Stradivarius. It was a very plain, small-bodied New York-era Epiphone archtop with a badly repaired crack running the full length of the soundboard, and he had bought it cheap in a pawn shop. The hand of mortal man never created such perfection. This was a gift from the angels! Oh, the lovely dissonances that it spoke as I whanged it with a juice glass slide! When Dick was begged, he would strum “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”
The tenor of my lutherie career was set then and there, as I rushed headlong into the construction of a series of rash and ignorant experiments. The first one to produce a musical note involved bolting the neck of a smashed Gene Autry guitar to a hunk of plywood. By now I was in the 5th grade and the Baby Boom generation was wild about electric guitars thanks to the Mop Tops and other invading Anglos. I made a major life decision to build an electric bass from scratch.
I designed an instrument based on my limited available technology and even more limited engineering savvy, featuring a body made of a sandwich of miscellaneous plywood slabs and a neck which instead of fitting into a slot, surrounded the body like a clothespin. I got the neck fretted, having marked the fret locations on a piece of paper at a music store, then transferring the marks to the oak fretboard, resplendent with 3/4” dowel fret markers.
There I am, a fat fifth grader with my plywood guitar and very big dreams. Harvey to the left, and Harvey’s guitars, including the famous Maltese Cross model, hung along the ceiling. That’s my big sister Ruth on the right in the racing stripe jacket, looking at the Hanged Man dummy.
I got hung up trying to find a pickup. Remember, this was before the Summer of Love. The man at the music store didn’t have access to anything other than those chrome DeArmonds that were used for electrifying archtops. I was persistent and doubtless pitiable. Finally the music store man, against his better judgement it seemed, relented:
“Listen, kid. There’s a guy out in Midway that makes guitars. He’ll have what you need. But I’m warning you, he’s a real character, and I won’t promise that he’ll sell you a pickup. He might like you or he might not.”
Now I had to convince my mom to drive me 25 miles to Midway to see a guy who might or might not like me, and might or might not help me. The thought of not going never occurred to me. A man who makes guitars. This was about the most wonderful thought that had yet crossed my young mind. It is still a pretty thrilling idea, come to think of it. A man who makes guitars!
It took a while to talk her into it, but eventually mom and I were heading north on Highway 99 in the ‘49 Chevy. Midway isn’t really a place, it’s just mid way between Seattle and Tacoma. And this wasn’t really even in Midway. We found the cross street, and turned onto a small road. About a block later a wooden sign with the stenciled word “Thomas” pointed down a pair of ruts bumping off through deep puddles, apparently to nowhere. We followed obediently.
On the right, a heap of rusted and crumpled metal that may once have been a pickup truck of ‘30s vintage held a large sign saying “Bargain. Needs Paint.” We arrived at a modern, low slung, one story house, what you call a “rambler.” It seemed strangely out of place in the swampy, scrub-tree setting. The iron gate held signs warning of dire consequences to trespassers, and to those who dared to block the driveway. A woman looking something like Loretta Lynn told us that Mr. Thomas was out on an errand, but that we could wait in the living room.
Howard Carter felt no greater wonderment on entering Tut’s tomb than I did in that living room. In the center of the room was a pool table, but it soon became clear that its main purpose was as a display table for guitars. All around the room ran two levels of continuous guitar racks which held the instruments face outward against a padded rail attached to the wall. And such guitars! There were some Fenders, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, and Mosrites, but mainly there were Thomases. Pointy, thin necked, flashy Thomases. White, sunburst, metallic, and tiger striped Thomases. They were shaped like iron crosses, like swastikas, like Vox Phantoms, like paisleys. There were double necks. There were even triple necks, by Jove!
But those were just the stock models; then there were the unusual instruments. One was designed to look like a shotgun, with a slightly flared muzzle where the peghead should be. The strings anchored within this ornament, and passed over a bridge to a set of pedal steel tuners let into the body (or should I say gunstock?) There were several guitars made from toilet seats and bedpans. One instrument was clad in a genuine raccoon skin, complete with tail. Yet another was a double neck which simulated a glowering Polynesian lady; each neck represented a leg, the peg heads being feet complete with toes. The entire thing was rather anatomically correct in a ribald way. I didn’t mind the wait.
Soon the door burst open and there he stood, Harvey Thomas himself. He seemed to have the right build and attitude to walk through walls. Harvey looks like James Whitmore from a distance, having the same low, powerful profile and grey hair swept back from a low hairline. That is, I thought Harvey looked like James Whitmore until I met his brother Floyd Thomas years later. Floyd really looks like James Whitmore! But Harvey doesn’t have the rustic, kindly countenance of James Whitmore. The tough look of Evel Knievel glowered from the small eyes on a round face outlined with huge grey muttonchops. Tight lips sprouted a thick cigar. He wore a green turtleneck shirt adorned by a then-fashionable love medallion on a heavy chain. The medallion must have been some kind of joke; Harvey’s style was definitely Nashville Western. He gave a look which sized up the fat, dumbfounded fifth grader without offering much encouragement.
We followed him out of the house and back to a half-finished building about 25’ wide and perhaps 200’ long with occasional doors, windows and garage doors which served, at various distances back, as music store, repair shop, guitar factory, and garage. We passed a lovely pond in the middle of a nicely kept lawn and flowers, nestled up against the house. The serenity of the pond was only somewhat disturbed by the mannequin legs sticking straight up from the center. Near the lake was a small white tombstone with the legend: “Here Lies Mary Thomas, Guitared to Death.” Something seemed odd about the giant Douglas Firs gently swaying in the distance. Perhaps it was the fact that they were hung with guitars, giving the impression of Christmas tree ornaments.
Across a patch of mud and into the door of the shop. We were met by an aroma mainly consisting of cigar smoke, walnut dust, and fresh lacquer. Here were row upon row of guitars hanging from rods, as well as amplifiers, tools, car parts, furniture, and hand-drawn pastel posters singing the praises of “Thomas, the Cadillac of Guitars.” Bumper stickers advertised country radio stations and artists, notably Buck Owens who was still a regional act. On a Honda 50 next to the counter sat a life-sized dummy with the grotesque, pop-eyed face of a hanged man. Over the years this guy really got around, seated in the living room, now hanging in the yard, then driving the company car.
Harvey stood behind the counter in front of the mysterious and forbidden door to the rest of the shop. It was years and dozens of visits later that I was first invited back through that door. I eventually worked as a repairman for Harvey.
I took the plywood body sections and fretted neck out of a paper bag, and haltingly explained that I just needed a pickup to complete the project. Harvey gravely picked up the fruits of my labor and examined them silently for a few minutes as the cigar moved by some curious process from one end of his mouth to the other. Then he spoke.
“Do you have a fireplace?”
“Ah… no, but we have a trash burner.”
“That will do fine. Put this junk in it and burn it. Then if you want me to show you how to make a guitar, I will.”
Mom was furious, but thankfully didn’t hit him or anything. I was abashed but determined. Over the next two and a half years (and dozens of drives to Midway thanks to my ever-supportive mom and dad) I did finish an electric bass under his tutelage. Actually, he did half the work himself, back in the inner sanctum. He never really explained anything. Rather, he Socratically allowed me to chip loose little gems of info as I needed them. But only when I needed them.
Harvey had a thing for Cadillacs. There were usually one or two bulbous, toothy, mid-fifties hearses in the driveway. These were generally black with white roofs and white stencil lettering saying “Thomas Custom Guitars.” Farther back, by the shop’s garage doors, there would be an ever-changing herd of vehicles consisting mainly of Caddies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but also including the odd pickup truck and speedboat. This flock was shepherded by a ‘40s vintage truck that was somewhere between a tow truck and a crane. The farther back in the driveway one got, the more (and worse) Cadillacs came into view. The swamp was populated with cars, hearses, trucks, buses, and trailers, and every turn around a tree or a clump of blackberries revealed yet another group of treasures. Dry places between the ponds formed a labyrinth which described a sort of hierarchy: Those cars which were not called forward periodically by the crane became surrounded by poplar saplings and slowly went back to nature. These vehicles formed one aspect of Harvey’s vast trading stock. He constantly traded cars, buses, guitars, cash, and tools for each other in any combination and always came out ahead.
I should know.
I was an 18-year-old long-haired freak when I started working at Harvey’s shop, a fact Harvey was fond of pointing out in a redneck way. Actually, I felt a kind of kinship of outlandishness with him and his crowd. Although the hardcore Grand Ole Opry aesthetic that prevailed at the Thomas compound was older and better established than the hippie style, it was just about as far from the polite mainstream. My car had a brilliant sunset scene covering its roof and back end. Harvey drove a two tone hearse. Which is freakier? Of course, to his way of thinking he was a responsible, conservative citizen while I was some kind of radical.
True to my freakish ethic, I did not have reliable transportation for the 50 mile daily round trip. My 1961 Volvo 544 humpback didn’t have a starter, and it was too flat there in the swamp to pop-start it.
“I’ve got a Volvo starter for you,” said Harvey, and pointed to a Ford.
Huh? Is there a Volvo starter in the trunk, or… Oh. I get it. That Ford could start my Volvo by pushing it. Ha, ha.
I looked away from the Ford and back at Harvey to find his beady eyes fixed on me. He was intently ticking away the seconds, sizing me up by seeing how soon I would get the joke. He did this quite often. When he saw me finally catch on, he would roll his eyes in pity for the poor, thick hippie. “Sheesh!”
Another time he suddenly stated: “Got a job for you. Need a wooden box one inch by one inch by fifty feet. (pause.) Guy wants to ship a garden hose.” Tick, tick, tick. “Sheesh!”
Harvey playing his invention the “Guitorgan,” a guitar which is wired to also operate an electric organ through electrical contacts in the frets. This is all hard-wired stuff, way before MIDI technology.
One day Harvey gave me some advice on guitar playing:
“The secret of playing the guitar is to move your hands as little as possible. That’s the mark of a real pro.”
It sounded nonsensical at first. Then he began playing “Winchester Cathedral” just the way Chet Atkins would have done it. The full-blown arrangement flowed out easily from the short, powerful fingers that barely moved. Shifts up and down the neck were accomplished in a slow, flowing motion, and the picking fingers traveled a scant quarter inch. It all gave the remarkable effect of a pantomime. He sat still as a statue, drilling holes in your head with his characteristic glower.
The fact that Harvey’s Country Western milieu was utterly foreign to me did not mask the fact that he was an accomplished guitarist and a consummate performer. His guitar making grew out of his former career as a machinist and his lifelong involvement with country music. Harvey played the regional country lounge circuit as a one-man band. On stage he would sit on a bench behind “The Infernal Music Machine,” a box containing his various amps, reverb springs, tape delays, flashing lights, and one of those old style rhythm boxes with the buttons marked “samba,” “waltz,” or “polka” which would give you one bar of little clicking sounds repeated to infinity. A set of electronic organ pedals lay beneath his feet.
The centerpiece of Harvey’s onstage hardware was his triple neck guitar which featured a standard six-string with vibrato tailpiece on the bottom, a twelve-string in the center, and a short scale six-string bass, also with whammy, as the top neck. Above this considerable firepower, Harvey would sing country standards, for instance:
The old town
Is upside down
As I look up
From the ground
‘Cuz I’m lying
Where the brakeman lately threw me
Down the road I look
And there goes Bessie
Good old cow
But kinda messy
that’s why we’ve got
Such green, green grass back home
Harvey was a true eccentric, and loved to go to great lengths to prove it. I always admired this in him. He had set his own priorities in life, and within his sovereign territory he met life on his own terms. Anyone who visited the Thomas guitar shop has a story from or about Harvey. I’ll tell one doozy to which I was an eyewitness. I’ll pass by the ones about the time he rolled down a hill on a hunting trip with his pants and a pair of six-guns around his ankles; the time he laid several White Falcons out in the muddy driveway just to rattle a Gretsch fan with a bad attitude; his uncanny skill at shooting beer cans off a distant stump and how it was somehow related to the radio controlled solenoid in the stump; and how he set fire to a car in his driveway as a prank on the Midway fire department.
Harvey decided I should borrow a reliable car from him so I could commute to work without excuses. He went back into the swamp with the crane and dragged out a white convertible ‘58 Cadillac, which he soon started with the aid of an enormous gas station style battery charger. In we jumped and took off for a test ride, going out the back way around the swamp. I didn’t feel a bump in those huge white leather seats as we flew over the deep puddles. Harvey checked out the radio and power windows as we zoomed. Everything worked. The paint was a little chalky, but there were no major dents and it sure did go! Wait till they see me in this! I was already fantasizing about picking Deb up at high school and the looks I’d get from those muscle-bound clods in their letterman jackets. Yeah.
The puddles led to a narrow curved paved road, and a timid little lady in a timid little car in front of us looked nervously back and forth for an opening to make a left turn. Harvey soon became impatient. Grabbing the wheel and leaning forward, he dramatically read from her bumper sticker: “HONK…IF…YOU…LOVE…JESUS.”
A moment’s mimed reflection led to a sudden idea, and with an exaggerated motion of his arm he brought his fist down heavily on the horn button. BLAAAAAAT!! Her timidity turning to terror, the lady tromped on the pedal and squealed out into the road, rather closer to the onrushing traffic than she might otherwise have preferred. Harvey howled as we blasted down the narrow road. “Well, it wasn’t because I love Jesus!”
Back at the house, Harvey said the car looked good, but it must pass one more test before I drove it home. If it would start again easily, all was well. He switched off the ignition, then stitched it on again. Although it sounded hopeful, the engine did not start and the battery had tired out within a minute or so.
Silently, he went to get the charger and a bottle of beer. He removed the air cleaner and poured a glug of beer down the carburetor. He attached the battery charger and the car started instantly. He laid aside the charger leads, got back into the car, shifted into reverse, and put the hammer down. Gravel sprayed out from the spinning tires and the great beast shot backward into the brush. Despite blackberries and other small flora, he’d picked up considerable speed by the time the car’s rear end was lifted into the air by a clump of bent over saplings. The wheels spun impotently as Harvey climbed down and walked back to the house.
“Let’s see what else we’ve got” he said.
I ended up driving a ‘67 Ford station wagon. All the rest of the time I visited Harvey’s place that white Caddy sat there on its nose, rusting, receding behind a veil of fast growing poplars.
Ian Hunter and the Thomas Maltese Cross.
I lost touch with Harvey over the years. I opened my own lutherie shop and he got more involved in converting city buses into motor homes. Even Benny at the guitar shop, who had once carried a line of house brand guitars manufactured by Harvey, had no news. A dozen years passed.
Driving from Seattle to Tacoma the other day, I was seized by curiosity and took the freeway exit to Midway. A new Thriftway Super Duper Store and shopping center sprawled on a huge parking lot at the highway corner, and I drove in cushy comfort to within twenty feet of the gate that once separated the world into two distinct levels of reality.
Things were as they should be. A reader board in the front yard announced “THIS SIGN FOR SALE” while the garage held a little English sports car and a ‘76 Eldorado. Most of the hearses were ‘53s when I first saw them. In the driveway was a clean, recent model tow truck and in the distance among the ubiquitous poplar saplings were several vintage city buses. I couldn’t see much from where I stood, but I felt the presence of more Cadillacs.
I remembered the feelings of anticipation, fascination and terror I once felt on my pilgrimages to this Mecca. He was in there, my Yoda, still partly cloaked in the sanctity of his swamp. My Merlin, stern and inscrutable, ready to shock, amaze and enlighten with his magic.
I got back in the car and drove off past the dumpsters behind the Thriftway. What an outrage. How could they build a Super Duper Store here?
Don’t they know this is sacred ground?