1960s Harmony H1203 Sovereign Resonator Guitar Conversion

My buddy Michael had been asking about cheap resonator guitars to add to his collection as he has the bug again. He plays a lot in alternate tunings and every year he seems to want to get back into a resonator but isn't quite into actual Nationals or Dobros. Too heavy, too loud for his ears in his music den, too unbalanced in the lap. I get it. They're a thing! He's had lots of nice old ones through the shop, too -- he'll wind-up buying one, getting it fixed-up, and then selling it a few months later for the reasons above.

I told him the plain truth -- used modern Regal and Gretsch resonators are cheap-ish but the ones that sound good without major upgrades are the metal-bodied ones which he wasn't into because of the weight. Used Gold Tone "Beard" models sound great but have that modern, "dipped" finish style and they do feel a little clunky as they're built along Dobro body-shape lines. Everything else costs a lot more.

I said -- why not convert a guitar you already own? I already had a traded-to-me Dobro cone and spider bridge set and he had this early-'60s (non-adjustable-truss) Harmony Sovereign H1203 up here for repair already and it's not a beautiful example. It's scratched-up and the neck has a hair of relief in it when the strings are at pitch.

So, I set-about modding this for him. After cutting a hole in the top (and through the bracing) -- freehand and with a tiny router bit -- I fit a new piece of spruce into the soundhole to make a "crescent moon" soundhole shape. I added a couple of small soundposts connecting that area near the soundhole to a back brace below it. The cone simply rests on the top of the guitar and the coverplate (a '20s flatback banjo resonator) simply rests on the raised "lip" of the cone -- a part of the cone that has no sonic impact if it's damped by, say, a resonator coverplate...

The spider bridge was interesting, though: to get it to sit low-enough that I could use a flat coverplate in this fashion, I cut its legs shorter and fit them to a lower portion (the sidewalls) of the cone. This is frowned-upon by resonator fanboys, but I've done it before in the past with no issue and it sounds just as good as "normal" -- if slightly different. I did A/B both mounting methods on this and the tone was almost the same. It's a little drier/cleaner with this mounting method and a little fatter with the normal method, though the "fatter" was a whole lot less distinct.

Two new bone saddles brighten-up the tone (having no soundwell makes this a warm-sounding box to begin-with) and an "open" bridge area (it cut quickly with a soapbar P90 routing template) means you can palm-mute and adjust action with shims really easily. I added a carbon-fiber downpressure bar behind the saddle and that removed unwanted overtones and gave the guitar a snappier sound which aids its fingerpicking tone.

After all that it got the usual neck reset, fretwork, etc. to make it a good player. Results, though, results?

Yes, it's a gem. A few friends have played it so far after conversion and they're all psyched by it. It's lightweight (4 lbs on the dot), comfortable, and sounds the business. If my buddy isn't into this one it just might be possible that resonators are not for him! ...or he's been picky about the neck (he pretends to like wide nuts but really likes narrow ones)?...so if it's up for sale at some point, don't be too surprised.

Repairs included: neck reset, fret level/dress, resonator conversion, setup, etc.

Made by: Harmony

Model: H1203 (modded)

Made in: Chicago, IL, USA

Top wood: solid spruce

Back & sides wood: solid mahogany

Bracing type: ladder

Bridge: Spider-bridge w/bone saddles

Fretboard: rosewood

Neck wood: mahogany

Tone: clean, bright, snappy, good mids, good projection

Action height at 12th fret: 3/32" low 1/16" high, spot on
String gauges: 54w, 40w, 30w, 22w, 16, 12 custom set

Neck shape: medium C/D

Board radius: ~10" radius

Truss rod: non-adjustable

Neck relief: hair of relief overall

Fret style: small-medium, low

Scale length: 25 1/8"

Nut width: 1 11/16"

Body length: 19 1/4"

Body width: 15"

Body depth: 3 3/4"

Weight: 4 lb 0 oz

Condition notes: obviously, it's been modified heavily. See above for all of that info. Finish is original throughout, however. Also the fretboard extension dips down away from the plane of the board past the neck joint. I shimmed it up a little but not enough. I figured it would be used fairly often for slide so I thought a little extra clearance up there might help.

More notes: it's currently setup for standard fingerpicking play, but the saddles can be shimmed-up for slide height. Note that the strings rest fairly close to the resonator coverplate so if you're a heavy-handed fingerpicker using fingerpicks you might get some tapping on the plate just like with an old National or Dobro. I didn't notice anything with bare fingers but noticed some clicking when I dug-in with metal fingerpicks.

When I reset the neck, I aligned the string path on-center with the soundhole. It's always funny to see how off certain aspects of factory guitars are, though -- like at this endstrip which is definitely not on-center with that path.


TN said…
Wow, that actually sounds incredibly good!