Harvey Vern Thomas (1920-1987) led an active and multi-faceted life as a musician, a machinist, a businessman -- and a notoriously fun-loving prankster. But it was his role as the luthier responsible for building an array of eye-popping and unforgettable electric guitars in the 1960s and 1970s that remains his claim to fame. The Thomas Custom Guitars line of instruments, which he created in his workshop in the Kent/Midway area of King County, included such mind-boggling units as a pink-fur-covered guitar; a cuckoo-clock guitar; a shotgun guitar; a hand-carved, sculptural, naked-lady guitar; a battle-axe guitar; a truly wicked-looking guillotine-blade guitar; toilet-seat guitars; swastika guitars; and iconic iron-cross-shaped guitars. Although Thomas's core circle of musical friends were mainstays of the Northwest's country/western scene, it was the up-and-coming teenage musicians of the 1960s rock 'n' roll scene who really helped establish Thomas Custom Guitars as a successful business enterprise.
Thomas the Tinkerer
Harvey Vern Thomas was born in Seattle on December 5, 1920, to Herbert (1880-1934) and Lottie (1889-1978) Thomas, and was the eldest of four brothers. The Thomas family lived in Renton, Washington, where Harvey took up guitar at age 5. In the 1930s, family members began performing publicly as the Thomas Band, with Herbert on fiddle, Harvey on guitar, Robert (b. 1924) on banjo, Cecil (1922-1958) on sax, and "Pretty Boy" (as his mother called him) Floyd Thomas (1927-2005) on drums.
Later on, Harvey Thomas became a Boeing machinist for a spell, and in 1949 he opened a second-hand store, the Super-Swap Shop (11846 Renton Avenue), where he bought, sold, and traded "anything but kids and livestock" -- or, more specifically, "furniture, appliances, novelties, things, and stuff" (The Seattle Daily Times, May 7, 1950 and April 16, 1950). In May 1950, Thomas married Mary Lou Cleveland (1927-1999). They had three children: Wesley (b. 1955), Denise (b. 1957), and Melody (b. 1963).
By the late 1950s Harvey's brother Floyd had switched to guitar and was playing a Fender Stratocaster with Seattle's Jack Roberts and the Evergreen Drifters. The Thomas brothers also launched a house-building business together, and Harvey Thomas eventually became the owner/operator of Northwest Builders Supply, located on the southeast corner of 260th and State Highway 99 S, just south of Seattle at Midway -- an area, rather than an actual town, informally named for its location midway between Seattle and Tacoma.
Along the way, Thomas began experimenting with electronics, eventually winding his own electro-magnetic pickups and installing them on acoustic archtop guitars. Then he acquired a 1959 Fender Jazzmaster in which an uncle, Harvey Lee Thomas (1885-1961), had inlaid on the body the initials "HVT" (for Harvey Vern Thomas).
It was around 1962 or 1963 that Thomas moved his young family into an old house adjacent to the Northwest Builders Supply building. The five-acre parcel of property was a brambly swamp, where he eventually built a larger home (2225 S 262nd Street, Kent) and a large workshop building out back. Before long, Thomas had crowded his acreage with countless carcasses of rusted old ambulances, buses, cars, hearses, speedboats, trucks, trailers, and even a Lockheed T-33 jet trainer.
Meanwhile, Thomas had become a rather fine guitarist whose circle of friends included numerous figures from the Northwest's country/western music scene. As a can-do, jack-of-all-trades, handyman sort of fellow, Thomas decided he could make guitars as good as any in the marketplace, and he made his first prototypes around 1962. This development piqued the interest of a lot of local players, and it was not uncommon for local stars -- including Bonnie Guitar (b. 1923), Jack Rivers, Sheriff Tex Lewis (1909-1990), the Elder Brothers, and others -- to stop by and jam a few tunes on Thomas's guitars. And by all accounts Thomas held his own playing with such professionals. He also was fairly aggressive in promoting his instruments to stars that he and Mary wrote letters to, and that he went out and solicited in person at their local tour stops. Among those who dropped by for a look were Chet Atkins (1924-2001) and Hank Williams Jr. (b. 1949).
One early local customer, a budding young rock guitarist from West Seattle named Gordy Kjellberg (b. 1944), was quite impressed by Thomas's musicianship. "Harvey was extremely gifted and could play like all of the greats, including Les Paul, Johnny Smith and Chet Atkins" (Kjellberg interview). When Kjellberg began hanging out at the workshop he even picked up pointers from Thomas. "Harvey was a great player and he taught me what he called 'special Harvey licks'" (Kjellberg interview).
Thomas the Trickster
Thomas enjoyed tinkering on madcap projects, and legends are legion about his appetite for cigars and alcohol, knack for pulling pranks, and penchant for erecting outlandish things all around his property. These included an electric toy train whose circuitous route ran between his workshop and the home's kitchen, where Mary would dutifully make beverages and send them back via locomotive.
Thomas earned a reputation as a unique eccentric, an opinionated and often cantankerous fellow who loved to play tricks on his family, friends, and clientele. He was in all likelihood the only guitar-maker to ever appear in promotional materials wearing a gorilla costume. Visitors to his abode were typically blindsided by the odd objects and installations that Thomas had devised. Among them was a multitude of guitars nailed to fences and hanging as outdoor decor in several towering Douglas fir trees around his yard. Then there were those Gretsch guitars -- a brand that Thomas reportedly hated -- floating in his backyard pond (which also boasted mannequin legs jutting up from its center). Nearby, one might spot the tombstone engraved (in honor of his fully alive wife) with this legend: "Here Lies Mary Thomas, Guitared to Death." And if that stuff didn't catch one's attention, the electrified full-size human dummy sitting in his shop's corner would likely do the job when Thomas triggered his secret button, sending it with a sudden jerk into spasmodic motion.
One local country guitarist, Joe Brignone, used to hang out with Thomas and thus heard many a wild tale from the guy:
"One which he told me -- I don't know if it was true but knowing Harvey it might have been -- was when the Sasquatch sightings were happening on the Washington coast. He said he used to wear large heavy shoes and a fur outfit and step out of the woods onto the beach just far enough away from people that they couldn't get a good look at him. When they began to come closer he would run back into the woods then watch the paper the next day to see if they reported it" ("Stories and Contacts").
One time, simply in order to needle a customer who liked Gretsch guitars, Thomas reportedly placed two classic Gretsch White Falcon guitars outside on the muddy driveway in anticipation of his visitor's impending arrival. Then there was the tale of the hapless musician who brought over a quite-valuable vintage Gibson Super-400 to ask Thomas if he could make a very minor repair to it. Thomas could tell how much the customer treasured his Gibson and told him, "Sure, that'll be no problem to fix. I can do it in a jiffy." He gently took the guitar into a backroom and, with his irrepressible sense of mischievousness, grabbed a heavy hammer and proceeded to bang loudly and violently on his sturdy old workbench. One can imagine the horror that poor customer experienced before Thomas stuck his head out, laughed, and let him in on the joke.
Thomas Custom Musical Instruments
By the 1950s, Thomas had begun repairing and/or modifying the instruments of other local players. Back in the inner sanctum of his workshop -- which included zones for machining, wood-working, and spray-painting -- Thomas began making guitars from scratch. By 1960 he had constructed his very own iconic triple-neck guitar (with "Thomas Custom Guitars" inlaid across the fingerboards), on which he performed around the area. But it was in the wake of the mid-sixties British Invasion-led surge in demand for electric guitars that his Thomas Custom Guitars company began to get some traction in the marketplace. Thomas eventually assembled a team to help produce his guitars, and he brought on board two prominent local country guitarists: Chet Hastings and "Big Bill" Garner (along with Bill's father, Carl Garner). Kjellberg recalls:
"Bill and Chet were basically the body and neck guys. They cut the guitars and routed them out, carved the necks -- and probably did fret-work and inlay work" (Kjellberg interview).
Thomas's new business plan called for making only the wooden guitar bodies and necks. And although he did make at least a couple of hollow-body jazz boxes; at least one electric, hollow-body 4-string mandolin; and a few of what he called "box-type Western guitars," his focus would be on producing various solid-body guitars: "Harvey had fun with everything and didn't believe in copying anyone or any guitar already made" (Kjellberg interview).
Thomas Custom Guitars produced its first catalog around 1967. Among the standard models offered -- for between $139 and $1,165 (and with a "Life-Time Guarantee") -- were the Century (in six-string, two-neck, three-neck, and 12-string models), the Deleitar, the Mandarin, the Mod; the Lyer (pronounced "Lear"), the Riot King, and what would become the most popular and famous design -- two "Iron Cross" guitars: the Maltese Surfer and the Maltese Falcon.
As his company's very name referenced, Thomas prided himself on providing customers with lots of customized options for the guitars they were ordering. Those could include a laminated wood or white plastic fretboard, glitterized components, crazy inlays, metallic paint, or tooled leather detail work. And what Thomas really seemed to get a kick out of was doing anything and everything he could think of to make his instruments ever more fancy -- after all, he considered his creations no less than "the finest guitars ever made." Indeed, he deemed them "The Cadillac of Guitars," which made sense because he proudly drove a black Cadillac that had "Thomas Custom Guitars" emblazoned on the doors. Furthermore, his advertising copy claimed that his Century models were:
"Created for and by the guitarist. The one who lives with his guitar. The Perfectionist. The artists. Incorporating all the features that were demanded for custom instruments. Taken from the many experiences of the professionals combined into one great guitar. Unparalleled balance of sound, the most sensitive and responsive, unique instrument ever offered to the public" (1967 Catalog).
All that bluster aside, Thomas guitars -- for all their flamboyant visual bling and their particularly thin "ultra-slim" necks -- are generally quite good playing guitars, and their tone can be excellent. Kjellberg notes:
"His pickups are really hot. And if you adjust them right, they will sound just amazing. Thomas guitars sound really good" (Kjellberg interview).
Other players' critiques over the years have noted the rather-iffy neck-joint designs on some models, and the questionable choices of accouterments that Thomas could make. Even a fan like Kjellberg admits:
"Some people say he was a 'hack' -- you know, his screws were sometimes not the most pretty looking screws -- big, kinda almost machine-looking screws. They weren't small little pretty nickel-plated ones like Fender and Gibson used. ... [Yet in the big picture] [i]t's mostly just all about the necks, which some people love, some don't" (Kjellberg interview).
Thomas's Rising Profile
Among Thomas's first customers were various successful local musicians, including the formerly Hollywood-based recording star Jack Rivers, who had lived in the Northwest since the early 1950s. Then members of several local rock 'n' roll bands began ordering custom Thomas instruments. Perhaps the first were Buck Ormsby of Tacoma's pioneering band The Wailers, who played a Riot King bass, and band-mate Neil Andersson, who also wielded a Thomas guitar. Kjellberg (who gained regional notoriety in the mid-1960s as a member of Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts) played, while in a band called The Feelies, both a white Maltese Falcon and a unique "Thomas-caster" that Thomas made specifically for him after his Fender Telecaster was destroyed in a car-wreck. His brother, Vernal Kjellberg (b. 1947) [aka "Joey Newman"] played a Swastika bass with Portland's Don and the Goodtimes. Colin Ehli, of Tacoma's Mergers, owned a black Maltese Falcon, while band-mate Sid Ostrander reportedly owned a prototype Maltese Falcon bass.
Many local teens thus got their initial exposure to Thomas's weird instruments at area dances. One longtime local guitarist, Rod Hart, recalled the first time he ever spotted a Thomas guitar back in the 1960s. Out shopping with his father at Midway's National Auto Parts store, he noticed:
"these incredibly weird guitars on the wall for sale. One was an Iron Cross, one was completely clear, and the one that really caught my eye was the one made out of a toilet seat. My dad said that the guy that made them must be a real kook, and the owner of the store under his breath said 'or a genius.' I agreed with the store owner" ("Stories and Contacts").
Clearly, the Teutonic aura of the Maltese models was not for everybody. Another budding local guitarist, Marc Connelly, posted his recollections of seeing them with a pal in some store:
"These Maltese jobs with the tacky glitter did not hold any appeal to us at all. Still ... the shop owner asked us what we thought of them. 'Great if you are in band named Auschwitz' [his buddy] replied. A funny little man with apple cheeks and a cigar who was standing over there somewhere busted out laughing. I mean, this really got him going. The owner said: 'He makes them.' We felt sheepish and beat a hasty retreat" ("Stories and Contacts")
Kjellberg remembers being intrigued by his first spotting of a Thomas guitar at a pawnshop located across the highway from the Spanish Castle Ballroom (located near the northwest corner of old Highway 99 [now Pacific Highway S] and the Kent-Des Moines Road) -- an encounter that soon led him to go visit Thomas. Another visitor to Thomas's place was Timothy L. Olsen, who as a fifth-grader in 1965 had his mother drive him there in a quest to buy a pickup for a guitar he was trying to build. He'd been advised by his local music shop salesman that:
"There's a guy out in Midway that makes guitars. He'll have what you need. But I'm warning you, he's a real character, and I won't promise that he'll sell you a pickup. He might like you or he might not" ("Midway Attraction ...").
When he entered Thomas's home, Olsen was astounded at the scene.
"In the center of the [living] room was a pool table, but it soon became clear that its main purpose was as a display table for guitars. All around the room ran two continuous guitar racks which held the instruments face outward against a padded rail attached to the wall" ("Midway Attraction ...").
Among the instruments on display that day were:
"White, sunburst, metallic, and tiger-striped Thomases. They were shaped like iron crosses, like swastikas, like Vox Phantoms, like paisleys. There were double necks, triple necks ... but those were just the stock models -- then there were the unusual instruments. One was designed to look like a shotgun. ... There were several guitars made from toilet seats and bedpans. One instrument was clad in a genuine raccoon skin, complete with tail. Yet another was a double-neck which simulated a glowering Polynesian lady -- each neck represented a leg, the pegheads being feet complete with toes. The whole thing was rather anatomically correct in a ribald way" ("Midway Attraction ...")
Years later, at age 18, Olsen actually went to work for Thomas, and he currently directs the Tacoma-based Guild of American Luthiers (and runs a Thomas tribute website).
The Thomas Legacy
In time, even non-Northwest 1960s rock bands began popping up with Thomas instruments, including Hard Times, Unbelievable Uglies, and England's Mott the Hoople. Meanwhile, Thomas had been performing around the area as a one-man band that was billed as the Infernal Music Machine. He sang and played his triple-neck guitar along with the "Machine" -- a homemade box containing an assortment of amplifiers, reverb and delay devices, a drum machine, bass pedals, blinking lights, and more. Thomas recorded one 45-rpm disc ("Snowbird"/"Have You Ever Been Lonely") with local singer Kari Scott, which was released by her Karicraft Records label (No. KR-107). One of his later gigs was performing in Spokane at the Expo 74 World's Fair.
It was around 1979 or 1980 when Thomas -- who had been suffering from a severe allergy to sawdust and/or lacquer for more than a decade -- built his final guitars. His daughter Denise recalls that among the last music stars to drop by to meet Thomas and have a look around was rock guitarist Steve Miller (b. 1943). About a half-decade before he succumbed to throat cancer on October 9, 1987, Thomas considered parting with his guitar company. At one point he had a couple of investors ready to explore a buyout deal, and he called Gordy Kjellberg to a meeting where some discussions took place. Thomas informed the investors that he might sell, but wanted Kjellberg to be brought into the deal in an overseer position to monitor quality control. That deal fell through though, and the Thomas Custom Guitars era came to an end.
Although the Thomas company has long been inactive, its legacy lives on among fans. Among the instruments featured in the 1992 publication The Ultimate Guitar Book, by Tony Bacon and Paul Day, was a unique, green hollow-body Thomas guitar. Then in 2000 the Hard Rock Cafe -- which celebrates the grand opening of each of its new locations with the issuance of an enameled metal, guitar-shaped, pin-backed souvenir -- marked the launch of its Singapore shop by producing a blue Thomas guitar unit (based on the design of the one seen in the Bacon and Day book). That same year saw the opening of Seattle's music museum, the Experience Music Project (EMP), which holds a half-dozen different Thomas guitars in its permanent collections.