The Seattle Daily Times features Harvey Thomas's eccentric and obscure guitar-making company on September 21, 1969.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/22/2013
  • Essay 10305
On September 21, 1969, The Seattle Daily Times offers a rare bit of publicity to Kent, Washington, electric guitar-maker Harvey Thomas and his unique company, Thomas Custom Guitars. The feature essay notes Thomas's background as a musician and house-building general contractor and touts the fact that sales of his handmade instruments are seeing increasing success nationwide.

Thomas Custom Guitars

Thomas Custom Guitars was a musical-instrument-manufacturing firm headed by its namesake founder, Harvey Vern Thomas (1920-1987). It was not the first locally based guitar company -- some earlier ones were Knutsen, Audiovox, Hanburt, Coppock, and Bud-Electro guitars -- but like his predecessors Thomas received little-to-no press coverage during his years of greatest productivity.

Thomas was born in Seattle on December 5, 1920, and he led a multi-faceted life as a guitarist, machinist, businessman, and luthier. His family initially lived in Renton, where in the 1930s he and his brothers and father began performing around the area as the Thomas Band. Later on, Thomas became a machinist for Boeing, and in 1949 he opened up a second-hand store, the Super-Swap Shop (11846 Renton Avenue). By the late 1950s the Thomas brothers launched a house-building business together, and Harvey Thomas eventually became the owner/operator of Northwest Builders Supply, then located on the southeast corner of 260th and State Highway 99 S, just south of Seattle near Kent at Midway. Thomas soon moved his own young family into an old house adjacent to the store.

Around 1963 Thomas and his family moved into a new house that he built nearby (2225 S 262nd Street, Kent). Over the years, Thomas had won a circle of friends that included numerous luminaries of the Northwest's country/western music scene, and he eventually began repairing guitars. He then began making new guitars from scratch in a large new workshop building out back.

Getting publicity for his company was always a challenge. Initially, guitar customers came by word-of-mouth, but to increase sales Thomas invested a lot of time and effort writing introductory letters to many music stars and their managers, touting his unusual instruments, which could be ordered with a wide range of customized details, including paint color, strings, pickups, and even the number of necks. But the most interesting thing about Thomas's handmade instruments was their weird physical forms -- a battle-axe guitar, a cuckoo-clock guitar, toilet-seat guitars, and iron-cross-shaped guitars.

Changing Times

It was the surge of public interest in electric guitars that occurred in the wake of the rise of the Beatles and rock 'n' roll in general in the mid-1960s that caused Thomas Custom Guitars to achieve new levels of success. What caused The Seattle Daily Times to take notice remains a mystery, but on September 21, 1969, a feature essay -- "Ex-House Builder Turns Guitar-Maker" -- written by staff reporter Jim Mallery appeared in the newspaper.

Mallery described Thomas as a "former house-builder" who had become a "master craftsman" whose "workshop holds a multi-colored, multidesigned array of custom-made instruments." Thomas was quoted as saying that he became interested in building guitars because "I was tired of playing bad guitars. I figured that if I couldn't build a better one, I'd turn in my hammer." Mallery went on to describe the "painstaking process" Thomas employed to construct his various instruments -- and to mention the problematic allergies (to sawdust and lacquer) that he would suffer from until his death in 1987.

Sources: Jim Mallery, "Ex-House Builder Turns Guitar-Maker," The Seattle Daily Times, September 21, 1969, p. 49; Peter Blecha interview with Denise Thomas Pressnall, May 24, 2012, Kent, Washington; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Harvey Thomas and His Electrifying Thomas Custom Guitars" (by Peter Blecha), (accessed January 30, 2012).

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