Norm Scott and his Bar 20 Harmony Custom

A piece of Australia’s Country Music history found and saved.

A few years ago, I was starting to play more and more acoustic and decided I needed to buy one. Of course I couldn’t do the usual thing and just buy a cheap Tanglewood and be happy. I needed something with some character and hopefully a bit of a story behind it. I started scouring Facebook Marketplace and spotted a very tired old guitar for sale about 45 minutes away, with a strange looking headstock.

The ad read “Norm Scott Bar 20 Cowboy Guitar. $1200”. The photos showed a cool looking old cowboy guitar, which someone had gone to the trouble of hand painting their name onto, along with carefully pasting on an illustration of a horse.

Looking at the state of the guitar, I knew it would need a LOT of work to be playable, and acoustics are notoriously expensive to repair. But I had a feeling about this guitar… this had obviously been someones pride and joy once. So I messaged the seller and asked if they’d take $800, as it needed so much work. They agreed and I picked it up, complete in the original (and very trashed) case.

Once I had it, I quickly handed it over to Ryan at Conway Guitars as he’d done a very sympathetic restoration on my Maton longhorn DC1500 and that was exactly what this guitar needed. I wanted it playing beautifully, but looking exactly like it is today, not restored.

When Ryan had a look, he informed me that it’d definitely need a neck reset, new bridge, a refret and to help with playability he’d add an adjustable truss rod. He also kept the original Chicago made Kluson tuners but replaced the hillbilly-style clothes peg looking tuner buttons with new ebony buttons. As the repair was going to take a few months, I used this time to do some research on the guitar.

The first thing I found was a listing in Discogs for a record called “Norm & Arthur Scott – The Singing Stockmen”.

I had a look at the guitar on the cover and while it was a different model to mine, the handprinted name on the body was exactly the same. Then I saw an image of the back cover of the album, and there was my guitar!

I was getting a little excited. As it happens, the album was for sale on Discogs so I quickly purchased it. I then did more research into the “Hawaiian Club” that featured on the headstock and that’s when things started clicking into place.

In the late 1920’s, Hawaiian music started booming in Australia, and musicians started bands to showcase this popular style of music. In Sydney, Norm Scott and some fellow musicians started the “Hawaiian Club” which put on events and also started teaching guitar lessons. This soon exploded, boasting over 20,000 members Australia wide.

The Hawaiian Club even had it’s own radio show and monthly newsletter, which featured club news, funny stories, and also sheet music.

Inside the magazine, they also advertised guitars to sell to their students, which the club imported from the USA and sold under the Hawaiian Club name. The most common was their Waialae guitar, which was made by Harmony, USA.

I have seen these guitars for sale in Australia quite frequently, so judging from the availability today and the amount of students they had, they must have sold boatloads! (I’m actually looking to get one at the moment to partner my Bar20)

With electric guitars now slowly entering the music scene, another guitar the Hawaiian Club advertised in Hula Times was the new electric “Cressy”.

Eventually in the early 40’s, Hawaiian music’s popularity started to fade, and noticing Tex Morton’s success with country music, Norm recorded some tracks with his brother Arthur as ‘The Singing Stockmen’, utilising some Hawaiian Club band members for the recordings. Realising they weren’t suitable for country music, Norm replaced his Hawaiian Club band mates with seasoned country players and formed his ‘The Singing Stockmen’ hillbilly band (which country music was called back then), and started having success with radio plays and radio shows.

Photo courtesy of Norm’s niece, Adele.

Norm took this opportunity to start advertising guitar lessons in the hillbilly guitar style. He utilised Tex Morton’s huge popularity to sell the lessons via mail order in various magazines. (I’m currently trying to find one of these lesson booklets, so if you have one, let me know!)

I did more research and managed to track down Norm’s niece, Adele. I explained to her that I’d managed to buy her Uncle Norm’s guitar and she was nice enough to send me some photos and newspaper clippings.

Norm Scott playing ukulele with the Hawaiian Club band.
Photo courtesy of Norm’s niece, Adele.
Norm Scott playing his Maton Mayfair on the Ray Martin Show.
Photo courtesy of Norm’s niece, Adele.

Best of all was this beautiful photo with Norm and his Singing Stockman band, complete with Norm playing my guitar!

After doing the research on Norm and the Hawaiian Club, a few more things clicked. The “Bar20” on the guitar’s headstock is a reference to the book “The Man from Bar 20” featuring Hop A Long Cassidy.

The actual guitar model was harder to pin down. I tried a few vintage acoustic guitar groups, and it pointed to Harmony. I couldn’t find an exact Harmony model the same, but then I found a guitar called the Harmony Roy Smeck Professional with a very familiar looking headstock.

While the body shape (an obviously the bridge) was different, the specs were the same. The Roy Smeck Professional featured flamed Cuban Mahogany back and sides, which my guitar did as well.

The body shape resembled guitars from Harmony’s archtop range, though it was obviously a flat top.

So what I figure is that with Norm’s Hawaiian Club imported hundreds (thousands?) of Harmonys into Australia, he was able to get a guitar custom made with Roy Smeck features in another body shape. He then added his own headstock overlay, based on the Roy Smeck design.

So, by now a few months had passed and Ryan messaged me to let me know that the guitar was finished. When I picked it up I was blown away.

It felt and played amazing. The guitar is ridiculously light, and has a big boomy voice. The neck is a huge V shape which has been worn in beautifully through decades of playing cowboy chords. The action is low and comfortable… unlike some acoustics you don’t have to fight to play this.

So my little idea of just finding an acoustic to play turned into a huge journey involving a long lost piece of Australian Country Music history. I’ve been playing “Norm” quite a lot and with us having some acoustic shows coming up, I bought a sound hole pickup so I can play it live at selected shows. I’m sure Norm would be happy knowing his guitar is still playing music 80 years after he did with it.