Norm Harris with David Swartz – Norman’s Rare Guitars

Norm Harris with David Swartz

What is it about a “coffee table” book? Is it that they are wonderful objects as well as colorful books? They cover virtually all subjects from cars to architecture, furniture to boats. There’s something engaging about looking at wonderful photos; freed from the constraints of narrative, the reader can gaze at photos without distraction and ferret out minute details.

The acoustic and electric guitars gathered here from the collection of Norm Harris will require quite a bit of gazing and ferreting. Over 700 instruments are pictured and each is a fine an example of its type. We’re talking mint condition, collector-grade. And boy do they look good!

Harris started collecting in the mid-’60s, according to the sparse-but-revealing narrative. He was fortunate to start early while prices were low, but he was also blessed with an orientation toward acquiring only the finest-condition instruments. Hanging out his shingle as a guitar dealer provided an outlet and created a flow of instruments. As a result, Harris has become a nationally known vintage dealer.

Several things are striking about the presentation of instruments in the book, besides their obvious beauty and condition. The photography is uniformly excellent and truly shows the importance of proper lighting in capturing the complex curves and angles of a guitar.

There are no shadows hiding details here, no flashy reflections from nickel or chrome, no fuzzy woodgrain or bleeding colors. This is almost like having the guitars right in front of you! In many of the Gibson acoustic photos, one can clearly see the label inside the soundhole.

Sunbursts are vibrant and custom colors striking. Details are clear enough to make out small differences in control knobs, bridges, and inlay, which makes this a fine reference volume to compare instruments you might be thinking of purchasing.

Sections are divided by make with Fender leading off, and within each section the guitars are shown chronologically by model. For example, early Broadcasters begin the Fender section which moves through black-guard Teles, white-guard Teles, and through to ’60s models. Strats then begin with early ’54s and so on. It’s an excellent system that allows for comparison of individual instruments and also shows how the models evolved. In the Gibson section, for instance, the evolution of the classic sunburst finish is evident. Another feature that makes this browser-friendly is that backgrounds are rotated so each new guitar model receives a lighter or darker shading. It’s a subtle signal that there is a shift in make or model.

For the instruments, all that can be said is there is a clean example of nearly all collectible guitars. Not every one, of course, but the authors make it clear this isn’t meant to be a complete catalog. There’s an emphasis on electric guitars, which make up roughly two-thirds of the book.

Major manufacturers are well-represented, but there are also numerous instruments from lesser-known makers as well as custom guitars. Basses are also pictured. The guitars are photographed only from the front, although many have smaller detail shots. The lack of back photos is not an oversight, according to the editor. Rather than cut the total number of guitars in the book to show backs, they decided to show fronts only. Think of it as getting more for your money.

If you enjoy looking at photos of fine guitars, this is for you. There’s simply no other place you can view over 700 high-quality collectible instruments. It’s like walking around with a guitar show tucked under your arm! Two thumbs up. Now in softcover and a limited hardbound. To order direct call 800-962-1058. Or you can get a preview on the Internet at

Norman’s Rare Guitars
By Norm Harris with David Swartz; foreword by Tom Petty
Swartz Inc. 1999, Softbound 279 pages, ISBN 0-9669219-1-7, $60.

This review originally appeared in VG‘s June ’99 issue.

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