The Prodigal Guitar – Harmony H80S Olympic Strat Comes Home to the Fortunate Son

Jason Becerra of Cathedral Records is our guest blogger today. He shares an incredible story about how this immaculate Harmony H80 Olympic Strat was won, was lost, and won again. Enjoy the trip!

“I was writing songs long before I could play an instrument. I had notebooks full of lyrics and I had melodies for each song.

“My parents, like many in that era, put me in piano/organ lessons at the mall where they bought a Lowery synth organ for me. I learned how to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ with one hand and I have fond memories of the old woman whose pleasant teaching style was metered only by the not-so-faint aroma of liniment and hard candy. After my year-long course ended, I received my certificate of completion, and that was that.

“A couple years later though, my dad brought it home. “It” was a white on black Olympic Strat copy with a matching head stock. It was the coolest thing in our house and I, of course, was discouraged from messing with it because I had a track record for destroying guitars. When I was about 4, (and I have no recollection of this, I swear) I did my best Pete Townsend impersonation on my dad’s beloved acoustic guitar.

“By the mid-to-late 80s, he’d decided to get himself a new guitar, this time an awesome electric which was purchased, used, at a local pawn shop under the guidance of one of his many musician friends.  I was on a heavy diet of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee, Tommy James, Mamas and Papas, the Turtles, Dylan, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Gerry and the Pacemakers and of course…the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

“Now, I don’t know if this was by design or by accident, but I experienced the music of the 50s and 60s in the same way my dad did, in terms of age and sequence.  When I was very young I was bathed in doo-wop and rockabilly that laid the foundation for rock and roll.  A bit later, I got to the early 60s: Motown, surf and folk rock, girl groups like the Shangri-Las. Then…the British Invasion hit me with the rabid, frantic pounding beat of the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ and Dave Clark Five’s ‘Glad All Over.’  As the music of the era matured and gave way to albums like the Beach Boys Today! and Pet Sounds and the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper, I too was maturing and growing into myself.

“All the while, my friends (who thought I was more than a bit strange due to my obsession with our parents’ music) were feeding a steady stream of modern music; everything from Bon Jovi and Van Halen to the Cure, REM, Information Society, the Ramones, the Descendents and of course, being in high school at the time, the early 90s music scene hit me just as hard as anything.

“All the while, that black Olympic sat in my dad’s office…just begging me to come take it.

“By 8th grade I had grown frustrated with poetry, essays and stories.  I wanted to say more.  I had more to say, feelings I couldn’t convey without something… without MUSIC.

“One evening, I grabbed his guitar and a “Learn to Play Guitar with Mel Bay Level 1” book.  I studied the chord chart for “G” and struggled to get my fingers just right and after a little while I got all six notes to ring out.  It was magical.  I was sold.  From that point it has been a truly lifelong obsession and it all started with my dad’s Olympic that was generously handed down to me as he realized what he had created in me. Haha!

“I lugged that thing EVERYWHERE.  I knew every corner of it.  I learned how to clean it, how to change strings, how to tune it and I still vividly remember learning the changes to Yellow Submarine and thinking, “Holy Shit!!  I’m getting the hang of this!”

“In 1995, I graduated high school and got a little job while attending university. I saw a shiny new Fender Stratocaster hanging in a guitar shop in Pasadena, TX. I decided to get my first “proper” instrument. I loved it. It had a fancy-schmancy humbucker in the bridge and a Floyd Rose locking tremolo and even though it became my “main” guitar, I still went to the Olympic, all the time. There was something special about it, with its maple neck, the little nick at the 9th fret near the high E string.

“Over the years I had developed a desire to have the Olympic worked on.  The pickups were sounding awful, lots of buzz, the knobs and switch were rusted, machine heads were cheap import stuff and it didn’t hold its tune quite as well as it used to.  It was old when I got my hands on it and I had certainly put it through its paces so it was showing its age.  My friend soldered a random piece of wire onto the back of the guitar inside the cavity where the springs attach…onto the middle hook.  He said it would help with the hum…not so much but he had been playing longer than I, had a jam room in his garage, and owned a van.  Who was I to question?

“By the early 2000s, I was anxious to get someone to work on my Olympic.  I met a guy and I gave him the Olympic with a set of machine heads, a set of Fender hot vintage noiseless pickups, new knobs, and a new switch and asked him to do the work for me.  He said it would take a few weeks and he’d call me.

“Months went by…he stopped working at the store where I met him.  His phone stopped accepting calls.  Nine months go by and I get a random call from him saying he was sorry for being out of pocket but that he was almost finished.  I begged him to let me come get my guitar, no hard feelings; I just didn’t want to lose my guitar.  He assured me he would not fall off the grid and that he’d get in touch with me in a week or two.

“I never heard from him again.  That was 2003.

“For over 10 years, I scoured craigslist, EBay, Guitar Center, pawn shops, everywhere I could think of looking for this Olympic guitar.  No one had ever heard of them.  Truth be told, I had the only one I had ever seen!  No luck.  There is ONE post on a random website where a guy shows a picture of his red Olympic.

“I actually signed up for the discussion board and sent him a private message asking if he’d considering selling it.  No response.  My black Olympic Strat copy had become my unicorn.  Until a couple months ago…

“I was home sick, lying in bed with a nasty stomach bug.  I was looking at Craigslist for my guitar when all of the sudden, I saw one!  I immediately called the guy and said “I’m on my way.”

“I took another look at the guitar and my heart sunk…it wasn’t the same one.  This guy had a blue one…mine was black. Well crap.

“I told him to forget it.  For a couple weeks I was on the fence.  What if I never see another one?  Isn’t blue close enough?!  Am I ever really going to find MY guitar again?  Shouldn’t I just settle for the same model?  I decided to settle. What the hell.  I’d given up.

“I drove over to where the guy had the guitar and picked it up.  He was a nice older man who does garage sales to augment his retirement income.  I asked where he got and he didn’t really remember…his son got it from some guy.

“I took it home and was immediately plugged it in.  Nothing. It didn’t work.  Damn it.  All this and now I can’t even play it! But I stared at it…and I held it and I examined it.

“Curious…there’s a nick right at the high e-string,  9th fret. Hmm…

“The sticker with the “serial number” is scrunched up in the same way I scrunched mine up.  Wait…this guitar isn’t blue! This guitar is BLACK.  Someone put a blue coat of paint on this thing!

“Could it be? Naaaaaaaaaah.  What are the odds right?

“So I called my good friend David Latchaw to give this thing some love.

“While David is working on it, I go back on the trail.  I start posting on Facebook and I get a name of the guy I gave my guitar to in 2003.  I found him on Facebook…..and wouldn’t you know it, he’s “friends” with some friends of mine!  All these years, he’s been right freaking there!

“I reach out to him and he explains what happened all those years ago.  He stopped doing repair work and gave everything he had to an associate of his who was supposed to call customers and return the gear or finish the repairs. Now I had a NEW name.  I started hunting that guy down.  I found a trail of hacked or shut-down websites, bad reviews on forums about “what happened to that guy?  He used to do great work!  Now he’s fallen off the face of the earth!” Apparently this guy fell into some troubles, and that was that.

“But I know he had it and pretty much just sold everything he had to whoever wanted to pay for it.

“Could he be the guy that the old man’s son bought this guitar from?

“David comes back with my new (old?) Olympic and of course it plays like a million bucks.

“As we were talking I asked if he opened the back panel.  He says yeah. I ask what he found.

“He said, “darndest thing, someone had taken a piece of random wire and soldered it to the middle claw… I’ve seen this for grounding, but never on the center claw like that.  That’s a new one.”

“Well folks…long story short…sometimes, what goes around….really does come back around.

“I bought my original guitar 12 years after losing it…and didn’t even realize it until it was back home in my hands and David had worked his magic.  While it was away from me, the machines head actually got installed but the original pickups were left in.  I guess whoever down the line decided to use the pickups I bought on something else.  It also got a paintjob!

“David gets a huge thank you for all his incredible work on this guitar and all the previous work he’s done and the future work he’s going to do.  (I’m going to keep you busy my friend.)

“My wife gets a huge thank you for indulging my music obsession for all these years and never once putting her foot down when I say “I need to get this guitar” even though I always say that’s the last one I’m going to buy.

“My Dad gets the biggest thanks of all…for filling my childhood with music, for never hesitating to lend me his records, for always playing “name that tune” when we were in the car (he quit playing when he said I became better than him) and for the black pawnshop strat-copy Olympic guitar that started me on this little journey as a wannabe songwriter.

“I AM a fortunate son.

“My advice to all of you players out there…it might be tempting, but never let go of your gear. Don’t trade it, don’t sell it and don’t give it to anyone you don’t have 150% confidence in because you could come to regret it for years and years to come.”

Jason Becerra

You have heard the news. Now, here’s the rest of the story.

This head stock just oozes ‘vintage’ and we are not to be disappointed!

We need to replace the controls, including the switch.

Some of the bridge screw holes in the body were stripped, or the screws were missing.  This is an easy fix.

The correct screw for the bridge is an inch long.

We believe that this guitar was painted.  No shortcuts were found in the blue finish.

The original controls were shot.  These are the smaller, 16mm controls often seen on imported guitars.

This is a ‘treble bleed’ capacitor, which keeps the treble from disappearing as the volume control is dialed toward zero.

This is the tone capacitor, that works with the tone control to form an RC network that shapes the frequency response of the guitar.

The tone cap is a polyester film part that checks good.  We’ll use this part again when we reassemble the guitar.

The selector switch is shot.  Jason wants a switching arrangement that selects just the bridge pickup, the bridge and middle pickup, all three pickups, the middle and neck pickup, and finally just the neck pickup.  The factory switch won’t do that, so we’ll use a Super Switch in place of this unit.

The original single coil pickups are in excellent shape.  Each one is labelled with orientation and position.  Then, the pickup wiring is clipped cleanly from the controls.

These pickups will be reinstalled with the new controls.  For now, we will remove them and set them aside.

This is the new Super Switch.  We have a couple of issues.  One, the mounting holes in the Harmony pickguard do not align with the screw holes in the Super Switch.  Also, the lever slot in the pick guard needs to be longer to allow the switch to move fully through all five selector positions.

Here, I get an idea how long the slot in the pick guard needs to be.

This is how long the slot in the pick guard actually is.

Rather than remove a lot of material from a priceless pick guard, we can narrow the selector arm on the switch to not take up quite so much room in the pick guard slot.

Here, I’m reshaping the selector arm on the switch with a mill file.

If you compare this pic to an earlier picture, you can see the material removed from the arm of the switch.

Rather than drill new holes in the pick guard, I’m locating the centers of the existing pick guard holes on the body of the Super Switch.  Again, I do not want to modify the vintage pick guard if I can help it.

The center punched locations of the pick guard holes were drilled for a 4-40 tapped hole.

Here we can see how the new mounting holes are located with respect to the old ones on the outside ends of the switch.

The holes are tapped to match the mounting screws.

I think this is going to work well for us.

The new switch is trial-fitted to the pick guard.  The length of the mounting screws is examined closely to see if they interfere with the action of the Super Switch.

The ends of the slot for the switch were ever-so-slightly widened to allow the switch lever to move fully to each position.  Here, I’m using a guitar nut file for a low E string to shape the slot.

The heads of the new mounting screws were turned down slightly to allow the switch arm to clear.

We have full switch travel from end to end.  This will work well for us!

The potentiometer mounting holes were widened to 3/8ths of an inch to match the bushing diameter on the new controls.

The new controls are full-sized 24mm parts intended for vintage Fender Stratocasters.  This one fits ‘just right.’  I went with 250k pots because the guitar would be very bright-sounding using the original tone cap and 500k pots.

Here are the new controls, set to the proper shaft length for the Fender knobs.

These are all 24mm controls, so I verified that they would fit in the original body routes.  They do!

I stripped off the aluminum shield tape.

I replaced the shield tape with copper.

Using the copper tape, I could now tie the body of the pickups to the same shield as the controls.

The copper solders quickly, without melting the pick guard underneath it.  This ensures that the copper plane is continuous.

Here is the new mechanical layout of the pick guard.

With the new controls mounted in place, the wiring scheme for the five-way switching could be implemented.

The gray cables come from the pickups, and are wired to terminals on the Super Switch.

Wiring for the volume and tone controls is done with solid silver-plated 26AWG copper, covered with aerospace-rated Teflon tubing.  Much of the Space Shuttle Orbiter electronics are wired this way.

This is the finished pick guard assembly.

The output jack wiring, bridge ground wire, and tremolo claw wiring (such as it is) are already attached.  The bridge is set up as a hard tail (no tremolo arm needed.)

The setup and fret polish went pretty well.

Now we have returned, full circle, to where we started. This is an EXCEPTIONAL instrument!

Support Jason’s record label!

Jason’s father Rolando is still making music and making an impact on the music world today. His radio program “Branson Now,” airs on AM700 KSEV in the Houston market. Rolando brings a unique narrative to the rich world of music as only someone of his experience and sensitivity can do.

Click here to see more about Rolando Becerra’s radio program in Houston!

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

Contact – David Latchaw EE
Cell – 281-636-8626