From Cheap to Sheik: How Budget Brands Shaped Guitar Culture

From Cheap to Sheik: How Budget Brands Shaped Guitar Culture

Posted by Robinson Earle on Aug 2nd 2021

In the early to mid 20th-century, America fell in love with the guitar. It started with the ukuleles and lap-steels that were built to capitalize on the Hawaiian music craze of the 1910s, and developed into a distinct culture of stringed instrument manufacturing. While companies like Gibson and Martin had deep roots and high price tags, other brands, many of them owned by large mail-order department stores, joined the six string gold rush, as well. Montgomery-Ward, Sears-Roebuck, and others made inexpensive guitars available to rural areas throughout the United States, and in doing so, changed our musical landscape forever.

After many years on the road, a traveling salesman named Aaron Montgomery Ward saw an opportunity in the rural market. Country folk craved city goods, but were at the mercy of the closest general store, which stocked and charged what it pleased with little to no competition. In 1872, Ward started a mail-order business that sold dry goods through a catalogue. Customers were guaranteed satisfaction (or a refund), and could pick up their orders at the local train station.

Many were suspicious at first, but before long the novel concept caught on, and Montgomery Ward became a dominant force in American retail. The first guitars that they offered were built by Lyon & Healy (under the Washburn brand) and Bohmann, both of which were previously established Chicago-based instrument builders.

Montgomery Ward’s reign over all things mail-order came to an end in 1892 with the establishment of what would become Sears, Roebuck, and Co. 1892 was also the year that Wilhelm Schultz founded the Harmony instrument company, which became the nation’s leader in ukulele production, and was purchased by Sears in 1916. Although Harmony became synonymous with lower-priced guitars they produced higher models, as well, and prided themselves on quality American builds. In fact, the Harmony brand was recently resurrected, and we carry their fine new instruments right here at Midwood!

One reason why Sears proved such a dominant force in American retail was their mastery of branding. In addition to Harmony, Sears acquired Oscar Schmidt. As volume became more of a priority for guitarists, they contracted with resophonic pioneer Regal and electric innovators Kay and Dancelectro. Unless you know the specific backstory of each model, it can be hard to decipher who built what, because from 1915 on, most of their instruments took the house brand of Silvertone (original Supertone).

The Sears silvertone brand was put out to pasture in 1972, but its legacy lives on. Many artists such as Jack White, Chris Isaac, and the Black Keys have embraced the distinct tonality of “department store” guitars over the years, and it’s rightly become an aesthetic all its own. The guitar, after all, is an egalitarian instrument and Rock & Roll is a national birthright. Every American deserves quality instruments at an affordable price.