Back in the days before eBay I used to love pawnshopping for guitars. In the old brick buildings down by the tracks, the better known brands like Fender and Gibson were rare and usually overpriced. I hunted the lesser known names like Danelectro, Supro, National, Harmony and Kay. And of course the lap steels.
Now and then you could find a pawnshop with a back room packed with things the owner had long ago given up on ever selling. It was a delicate matter to get him to unlock that door, because that room represented his failures, his professional shame. You had to speak respectfully and show a sense of humor and a handful of cash. Once he let you in, you might find nothing but junk, or it could feel like walking into Ali Baba’s cave.
In a small town in the North Carolina mountains, a guy had the remains of a music store. In those days he was mostly doing organ installations in churches, but he still had some shape-note songbooks and a few instruments lying around the shop. There were three lap steels (two classics and one rusted out junker) arranged in a triangle on the wall, suspended by coathanger wire. He and I haggled by phone for months before we agreed on a price for the trio. Once we had set the deal it was like the dam broke. “I’ve got an old brown amp in the back,” he said. “Are you interested in that for another $100?” A tweed Fender Princeton. Of course I was interested.
Then, as I was loading the car, he came rushing out with a moldy yellow guitar case. “Here,” he said. “You like old stuff. Take this too.”
I opened the case and saw a copper-colored solidbody electric from the 1950s. The headstock said Harmony StratoTone, with a picture of a music note surrounded by orbiting electrons. To me, it looked cheap and ugly. “No,” I said, “I don’t want it.”
“Take it,” he said.
I refused. He threw it in the trunk of my car.
The Harmony StratoTone kicked around my house for years, getting no respect. Once it served as part of a front-yard Halloween display, held by a plastic skeleton wearing an Anubis jackal mask, the hips attached by fishing line to an old turntable so the monster’s pelvis rotated at 33, 45 or (look out!) 78 rpm.
Then at Skipper’s in Tampa I saw Damon Fowler play slide on a StratoTone exactly like mine, and the thing sounded phenomenal. The next thing I knew Tom Waits had his picture on the cover of a magazine holding one. Overnight those things became worth a lot of money. Still mine sat in the case.
One day not long ago I put a nut extender on the StratoTone and strung it up like a lap steel. When I sat down to play, I entered a new world, one I’d never suspected. The guitar had a completely different feel from any instrument I’d ever played before. Music flowed out of it effortlessly, like a river. I didn’t have to think about playing, but just swam with the current.
The StratoTone has a big sound with soft, fuzzy edges. To get the full effect, it needs plenty of space around it. When I tried it at an outdoor show with Delta Moon, it sounded blurry. But then I took it to an open rehearsal on a weeknight at Shorty’s Pizza in Tucker, Georgia. Franher was playing upright bass, and Darren had a stripped-down drum kit with no cymbals. In the proper setting, the guitar sounded magical.
When we took a break, Mark stayed on stage, fooling with his iPhone. I asked what he was doing.
“I’m on eBay,” he said, “bidding on a Harmony StratoTone.”