Luthier Spotlight: Jim Harvey

Luthier Spotlight: Jim Harvey

March 21, 2016 - September 30, 2016

San Diego was not immune to the post-World War II guitar craze that swept America. At a time when many guitars were manufactured in the Midwest or back East, a few independent Southern California luthiers were building custom guitars of exceptional quality.

In his San Diego garage, Walter James ‘Jim’ Harvey, a Chief Metalsmith in the United States Navy and son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, used simple tools to build at least a dozen customized, professional-grade stringed instruments and cases.

Sometime around 1950, Harvey visited the Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon, a popular stop on the West Coast country western music circuit. It was there he met Paul Bigsby and his groundbreaking electric solid body guitar. When Harvey began designing and building his own instruments, his choice of materials and execution clearly show a Bigsby influence. Customization is a strong theme in Harvey’s work thanks to the influence of San Diego’s early country western music community and their tendency to personalize their instruments and accessories.

During a fevered decade of instrument building, Harvey entertained the idea of building a business out of his hobby, but a full-time Navy career and a busy family life took precedence. Many of his instruments, like the Double Neck, were specifically built for others by request. Others, like the Family Guitar and the Gambler’s Guitar, are the result of personal preference, curiosity, and experimentation.


On Display

  • Harvey 'Double Neck' Guitar

    Harvey 'Double Neck' Guitar
    John Goertz, a San Diego amateur musician, asked Harvey to build a double neck guitar with an 8-string mandolin he had designed to resemble a Gretsch Duo-Jet. The guitar features DeArmond pick-ups, Gretsch knobs, a Bigsby vibrato and Harvey’s signature musical eighth note headstock included on his later instruments. The birdseye maple, walnut accents and aluminum accessories speak strongly to Bigsby’s influence.
  • Harvey 'Family Guitar'

    Harvey 'Family Guitar'
    Harvey finished his second ‘Family Guitar’ on a Navy ship returning from Japan after his third child was born. Like his first standard guitar, it features photos of his children, Howard and Barbara, and wife, Hilda, imbedded in the fretboard, this time including his third child, Walter, Jr. Harvey added to the familial personalization by naming the knobs for his children. The pick-ups are Bigsby’s and Harvey hand-made the Bigsby-inspired vibrato.
  • Harvey Harveytone or 'Gambler's Guitar'

    Harvey Harveytone or 'Gambler's Guitar'
    The playing card suits inlaid in the fretboard and other Mother of Pearl accents were carefully selected from abalone the Harvey family caught in San Diego waters. An ongoing project, this one-of-a-kind guitar started as a 10-string. Harvey reduced it to six, filling the extra holes with dice. In the 1970s Harvey cut the back down by half and added an Ovation-style bowl-back. Later, more holes were drilled to increase the string count to nine. Harvey reportedly enjoyed the freedom that came with an acoustic guitar, but at one point he electrified it.

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