(48) Operation Rocket: A look back at our youth, and the things we cherish.

Posted by on June 2, 2013

It all started when my father mentioned that the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis had a feature called “Guitars! Roundups to Rockers”. “More than 100 guitars—owned by greats including Roy Rogers, Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly, Les Paul and others—will be displayed together for the first time ever.” It will be on display until August 4th, 2013 if you’d like to go check out some historic and unique guitars. I could probably do a whole post on just the guitars of the museum, and perhaps I will, but the museum is just the primer for this story.

Inspired by all the great guitars at the museum, and the great personalities that once owned them, I realize that every guitar has its own story just like the players that have strummed them. My father and I were conversing on this topic, and I was telling the story of how I bought my first ‘Gremlin’ guitar with the money I had received on my 7th birthday, which was $52 and some change. That was my first acoustic guitar. It was a pretty plain, no-frills, no-name guitar, but great for a 7-year old aspiring rocker. I took maybe a dozen lessons at Edington’s Music Store in Shelbyville Indiana, where I had bought the guitar. My father, having played guitar since his childhood, is responsible for most of my guitar skills. Probably 3-4 years later, I was ready to take a stab at an electric guitar, which in my eyes were way cooler since you could get a variety of sounds from them. I headed back to Edington’s and got a Vester ‘Tradition Series’ clone of the more-famed Fender Stratocaster. My dad got me a Peavey Rage 158 amplifier, and my mom got me a nice hardcase for my new guitar, both gifts although I do not remember if it was a birthday or Christmas.

It was great reminiscing about the early days of my guitar hobby, but then it hit me……. I am 31 years old, have played guitar with my Dad for 24 of those years, and have never asked about his childhood story on guitars. I had no idea what my dad’s first guitar was. I was baffled that I had went this long, and never thought to ask! Well, the story went a little something like this…

The first guitar my father had played was more of a toy-grade guitar that his younger brother had gotten for Christmas. His first ‘real’ guitar, that actually belonged to him, was an early 1960’s Harmony Rocket.

Harmony Rocket

Pretty cool guitar right? So what happened to it I wondered? Turns out it was reluctantly sold in a garage sale for ~$40 in the early eighties, a tough but needed call for a young couple who had recently had a son (me!). Perhaps it went to formula? Diapers? Rent? Sometimes being a dad has its sacrifices…(Sorry Dad!) As he was talking about it, I could tell that guitar was special to him, more-so now probably than back then. Not that he was heartbroken over it, but that it would have been really awesome to still have his first guitar around as memento to his youth.

Well I found it fitting that since I was likely the cause of him parting with his first guitar, that I should find a replacement so he can relive the glory days! Not out of guilt, but out of appreciation and enthusiasm to be able to facilitate the joy and emotion of being ‘reunited’ so to speak, to be able to hopefully reproduce some of the solace that I have been fortunate to assume by still having my first guitars around. I’d never be able to find his exact guitar, but I could find one just like it out there I was sure.

Being that these Harmony guitars were sold in Sears at very modest prices when new, I figured they would be fairly common and affordable even today. Boy was I wrong! By researching sales history of eBay and other online classifieds, these guitars are now fetching $500-$900 for anything in presentable, playable condition. This created a real dilemma for me. I am determined to get his childhood guitar back, but that is a serious chunk of change! The thought of me paying that kind of money for my first guitar was easily, in my mind, absolute nonsense. No amount of sentiment would make me shell out that kind of money for what is essentially a cheap beginner-level guitar, and I’m pretty certain my dad would feel the same. It was starting to look like my plan was going to fizzle out unfortunately.

I spent weeks hoping to see a deal slide through on a replacement Rocket, while also researching the history of Harmony Guitars. I eventually found that Sears also had their own branded guitars, called ‘Silvertone’. These Silvertone Guitars were actually made by other guitar manufacturers for Sears, for instance Kay Guitars, Gretsch Guitars, and Harmony! I then discovered that Silvertone had a couple models that were essentially Harmony Rockets carrying the Silvertone label, but the going price for them was on par with the Harmony counterparts. I still was far from convinced on paying big bucks for a entry-level guitar. But low-and-behold, my research uncovered a hidden gem.

Silvertone 1446L

I now introduce you to the Silvertone 1446L, which has the body of a Harmony Rocket, but the rest of the guitar is of professional-level components. An ebony, slim-line neck with mother-of-pearl block inlays instead of the bulky, plain neck of the Rocket. An authentic Bigsby tremelo instead of the basic trapeze tailpiece. Perhaps the biggest upgrade here is a pair of very early one-off Gibson mini-humbucking pickups, as opposed to the basic De’Armond gold ‘moustache’ pickups. Now this is a guitar that would truly be worthy of a price tag like the old Rocket. Only problem is, they are selling for a few hundred dollars more than the Rocket, and rightfully so, but again makes me ask myself if I’m taking this good intention a bit too far. What initially was an idea to spend a couple hundred dollars to get him an exact replacement of the model he once slung over his shoulder has turned into considering a similar guitar at a price higher than any guitar I own today! A classic battle of the brain vs the heart. This was between the horror my sensible, frugal, and practical mind is facing, against the good-willed, conscientious, desire to jump at the opportunity to be able to make a positive gesture in a unique way that will be sure to bring a smile. At this point, I’m sitting on the fence, and probably leaning toward abandoning the mission and hoping that by just explaining my intent would suffice.

Then I find that this Silvertone 1446L model is commonly referred to as the ‘Chris Isaak’ model (in case you didn’t notice him holding the guitar pictured above). This plays a major part of the story. Every guitarist has a few favorite guitarists, or idols I suppose. Over the course of the years, I’ve learned that my dad’s were Stevie Ray Vaughan, Brian Setzer, and Chris Isaak. Now I’m not so sure Chris Isaak would stack up to SRV or Setzer on guitar skill, but I think my dad just really enjoys his songs overall, as I’ve frequently seen him working on learning a Chris Isaak song. In the past, dad owned a signature SRV Fender Stratocaster, and he currently owns a Gretsch Brian Setzer Hot Rod, but he has never owned any guitar linked to Chris Isaak that I was aware of. At this point, I decided to pull the trigger. Having the same body and design as a Rocket, this would feel just like his Rocket in his hands. It also was going to be higher quality than his Rocket, so he would still enjoy playing it today as a seasoned player. And to top it off, it will score the guitar idol hat-trick!

So I came across a 1964 Silvertone 1446L in pretty good condition, and soon had it on my doorstep. I invited dad over on a Friday night, and we did a thorough cleaning and tune-up of the guitar. Here is a shot of dad taking it for a spin before we disassembled it:

First Test Drive

We removed every piece of hardware; tuners, bridge, pickups, Bigsby, pickguard, and secured all the switches and knobs inside the body of the guitar. What was left was a the body and neck (did not separate), and some unobstructed surfaces ready for cleaning and polishing. We were able to buff out a lot of minor surface scratches on the body. Each individual component was disassembled as much as reasonable possible, got closely inspected, cleaned, lubricated if needed, reassembled, and affixed back to the guitar using all the original parts down to the screws and washers. The fretboard got a nice treatment of Gibson’s fretboard conditioner. Luckily everything went very smoothly, but we took great care to be gentle, yet thorough. I’d say the whole process took about 5 hours.

The turnout was impressive (considering this is nearly 50 years old!), the old man seems ecstatic, and I’ve started to grow an interest in vintage guitars. Mission accomplished!

The products we used:

Gibson Gear Vintage Reissue Guitar Restoration Kit (for initial cleaning of all surfaces; paint, fretboard, metal)
3M Scratch Removal System (3 stages of scratch removal and buffing)
3M 39003 Finesse-it II Finishing Material Machine Polish (for the final polishing coats)

Here is a collection of photographs taken before and after the restoration:

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