By Adam Levy
The Recording King label has its origins in the 1930s, when the department store and mail-order retailer Montgomery Ward sold archtop and flattop guitars under that name. Over the years, some notable players have taken a shine to the old Kings, including fingerstyle iconoclast John Fahey. (You can read more about Fahey’s guitar in AG, October 2001) The name has been revived in recent years and is one of several lines distributed by the Music Link, which also handles Johnson, the Loar, and other familiar acoustic-instrument brands.
Recording King now makes guitars in many sizes and shapes—including dreadnoughts and 12-fret 000 models—built from a variety of traditional and nontraditional tonewoods. One of Recording Kings’ most intriguing series is the recent Dirty Thirties line, but, despite the name, not all Dirty Thirties instruments are built to replicate guitars from the Great Depression era.
In fact, this RPH-07 Harmonella Single 0 actually has more in common with Stella and Harmony guitars built in the 1950s and ’60s.
Bark & Bite
The Harmonella Single 0’s lower bout is 13.5-inches wide, as is typical of acoustic guitars with the single-0 designation. As such, it sets fairly easily in the lap and will leave the picking and strumming hand in a comfortable playing position for most average-sized folks. The Harmonella’s 12-fret neck gives it a condensed overall look and feel. You’ll never strain to reach first-position chord shapes, despite its OM-style 25.4-inch scale length. Playability aside, long-scale instruments such as this tend to have a little extra sparkle in the upper overtones. (If you absolutely can’t live without easy access to frets 13 and 14, Recording King does offer a Harmonella 14-fret Triple 0 model, with the same scale length.)
The neck profile is a contemporary C shape—neither slender nor chunky. The bone nut’s width is 1 11/16 inches, with string spacing at the rosewood bridge spanning 2 1/8 inches, so the Harmonella will comfortably accommodate a variety of flatpicking or fingerpicking techniques.
The vintage Harmony and Stella flattops on which the Harmonella is modeled typically featured ladder-braced tops, a bracing pattern that gave those instruments a focused, midrange-forward tone. The Harmonella, however, has scalloped X-bracing beneath its solid spruce top, which helps to broaden the guitar’s harmonic and dynamic range. Big bottom? No. Loads of mids with clear and biting treble? Oh, yes. Think for a moment of Robert Johnson’s recording of “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Cross Road Blues,” and you’ll have a good idea of what this guitar sounds like.
The Harmonella has stencil-painted fretboard position markers, no fretboard binding, plain-Jane body binding, no pickguard, no rosette, and is satin-finished top to bottom. There is, literally, nothing fancy about it—and therein lies its charm. It’s not designed for bling; its looks echo the student-grade models sold via department-store catalogs long ago, many of which found their way into the hands of famed postwar bluesmen and folksingers. That’s the vibe that Recording King is going for, and they’ve pretty much nailed it.
If you’re in search of an ultra-versatile instrument that covers the full frequency spectrum, the Recording King Harmonella Single 0 is probably not your dream guitar. If, however, you’re into smallish flattops with ear-grabbing tones and pawnshop-chic looks, this budget beauty is right up your alley (street price less than $200). Mount a magnetic pickup in the soundhole, and you’ll have yourself an unstoppable blues machine.
At a Glance: Recording King Harmonella Single 0 (RPH-07)
BODY Single-0 size; Solid spruce top with scalloped X-bracing; whitewood back and sides; matte sunburst finish; floating rosewood bridge; metal tailpiece
NECK Nato, with 12 frets clear of the body; rosewood fretboard with stenciled position markers; 25.4-inch scale length; 1 11/16-inch nut width; vintage-style tuners with plastic oval buttons
EXTRAS D’Addario EJ16 phosphor-bronze light (.012-.053); Guardian vintage-style hard-shell case; Limited lifetime warranty
PRICE: $266.99 list; $199 street
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Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist based in Los Angeles, where he is the Chair of the Guitar Department at Los Angeles College of Music. His guitar work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, Amos Lee, and Ani DiFranco, among others. Read more of Levy’s writing and hear his music at adamlevy.com.