Other Guitars

80s Electra-Westone deals on Reverb. It does my heart no good at al…

1

Frequent flyers will know of my one-time obsession and ongoing interest in the Matsumoku-made Electra/Westone guitars of the mid-80s. These guitars were a joint venture of St Louis Music and Matsumoku, and the most functionally impressive are the Phoenix/Spectrum X185, X189, X198, and X199 - all on the same body, with an evolution from bolt-neck 5-point Strat trem models early in the run to set-neck versions with locking/fine-tuning trems later on.

But the salient feature of all (besides rock-solid build and excellent playability) is the 2-1-2 pickup arrangement, with tappable unbalanced coil 'buckers at neck and bridge flanking a matching single-coil in the middle - along with a simple, sleek switching matrix that gives the best of humbucker, Strat - and close to Tele - worlds in one guitar.

I have more of these than I'll ever need, but I keep watching the market (hoping some of those more might fund part of my retirement eventually).

The market is depressing, going exactly the wrong way. Curiously, pre-SLM Westone guitars from the late 70s and the very early 80s are going for double the money - and to my taste, they're lesser creatures. (They're just more apt to feature multi-wood striping and stained figured wood, maybe more attractive to vintage-heads than the more utilitarian, sports-car solids and metallics of the Spectrums.)

Tonally, these are both fat and bright, humbuckers thick but articulate, and tapped single-coil sounds that, thanks to unbalanced coils, are much girthier and richer than you think.

ANYway. It's just one of the one hobby horses I ride from time to time.

This time I find four really really great deals on what look to be pretty nice examples on Reverb. When you can pick one of these up for under 400.00, you're getting a lot of guitar for the money. Solid maple construction, real rosewood boards with fat frets, innovative pickups and switching - and Matsumoku was building guitars in the 80s easily on a par with Terada today.

Just a PSA; no financial interest. (I'm not about to sell mine at these depressed and depressing prices.)

https://reverb.com/item/203...
1983; 300.00 + 60.00 ship; a first-year X185 in the rare and purty rose metallic finish, with an expert - and apparently reversible - hard-tail conversion

https://reverb.com/item/304...
1984; 249.00 + 40.00 ship; finish is a little beat up on this X198, but it's the first iteration of the set neck build. (The final version had a tapered heelless joint.)

https://reverb.com/item/309...
1984; 300.00 + 60.00 ship; another X185, whose gold finish is about as rare as the rose metallic; the Strat-type bridge has been neatly replaced with a Mexican Fender unit

https://reverb.com/item/309...
1985; 275.00 + 70.00 ship; another set-neck X198, this has an added "kill switch" to let you get the middle single coil by itself (otherwise not available with the switching matrix); tremolo has also been modded in ways that can probably be routed around, but sounds functional as is.

These are stupid low prices for the set-neck models...

And here's an honorable mention, from Ireland - so it's pricier, with spensive shipping.
https://reverb.com/item/304...
1985; 468.xx + shipping; the only X198 to be seen here, this guitar appears to have completely unmolested hardware - and the right (very cool) knobs. First year for the 2-point floating (but NOT locking) tremolo. The color wasn't called "tungsten;" I think it was "graphite." My main player for several years was an X189 in pearl white, and it's still a sweet ride.

2

Keep the Electra, drop the Westone, and I'm with you. Unfortunately, the Westone line never really tripped my trigger. But then again, I was never into the 80's guitar explosion in general... most of them leave me aesthetically numb.

Of course, my personal opinion bears no malice toward the actual quality of build. Matsumoku had totally perfected their QC game by that time.

3

I remember these guitars as being extremely well made and great value... But ugly to my eyes.

Big fan of the Matsumoku Epiphones though. Had a couple of Sheratons way back then and they were fantastic guitars.

4

These were new in stores when I was a kid and started playing. Great quality guitars, but so ugly it still hurts my eyes.

5

I know guy who knows all about the 80s Japanese scene of lesser known headstock names that were really quite good even if many were oriented towards the 80s hair metal scene.

But the reality is is gutiar doesn't have the cultural impact/prominence it did last century, the vintage market isn't what it was -- heck there's more activity here about the Modern World Gretsches than the 50s/ 60s/ 70s ones and that Modern World scene has now been around the same 30 years.

So there are just more guitars than buyers -- in general. But I am still Happy As Hell going into the new decade playing ONLY 24" and 22.5" scale.

6

In the actual 80s, while hair metal and less cartoonish varieties of metal, nu-wave, etc were happening on the radioTV, that music did not dominate what was played in clubs and bars. In my area, what was played by most musicians who came into the music store where I worked was still a mix of chart hits of the 70s - including some disco chestnuts - classic rock, southern rock, 50s rock & roll (nobody called it billy, more like “oldies”), country rock, outlaw country, stone cold country, and 60s-70s RnB/funk.

Given that brief, and the use to which guitars were practically put, we didn’t automatically associate the newer guitar designs of the decade with “shredding” - though that style and the players who inspired it (from Eddie onward) did motivate most of the new and young players who came into the store.

At the same time, consider that the “vintage” market - and the overwhelming preference for guitar designs now 60 to 70 years old - did not dominate guitarists’ tastes as it does now. Teles, Strats, Paul’s, 335s, SGs, and old-man hollerbodies/“jazz boxes” were just old guitars at the time, and even the new examples Gibson and Fender were stamping out seemed old.

Besides which, making matters worse, they were overpriced in the market and at their nadir of quality. Gretsch was GAWN.

So, at the time, it wasn’t obvious to anyone that the electric guitar shouldn’t continue to evolve, either functionally or aesthetically. Players who just wanted a new guitar to replace their thrashed or trashed old standby - and who couldn’t afford GibsonFender’s asking price (or were disappointed by the poor QC) - had already learned, or were learning, to accept the excellent “copy guitars” coming under various brands from Japan, as well as Peavey’s T-60.

It was that environment into which Electra’s Phoenix series came in 1983. I originally thought the in-turning horns of the cutaways were a bit ungainly, and the black hardware and back of the neck seemed off as well. When SLM’s rep showed them to me, I literally laughed. I pointed to the shelves and said “I got Gibson, I got Fender - what do I need these for?”

He asked when I’d actually SOLD a Gibson or Fender, and how far I’d had to discount it, and pointed out that his Electra Phoenixes came in at half the retail price. I was unmoved.

But then I actually played the durn things, and they felt great - with rock-solid build, great necks with slick action. They sounded even better - beefy, rich humbuckers that still sparkled, bright single-coils with warm body. They sounded like idealized and fully realized versions of the muddy Gibsons and plinky Fenders I had in the store to compare them to. (We didn't yet know we were supposed to disdain ceramic magnets.)

I still wasn’t convinced. So he made me a deal: put a dozen in the store, and if they didn’t sell in six months, he’d take them off the floor plan and we wouldn’t owe him a thing. He didn’t ask me to promote or feature them, just that I clean and tune them in rotation with other product and show them to guys who asked. So OK.

When the batch came in, I found they needed almost no setup, and they were remarkably consistent from one to the next. THEN I discovered the pan-everything versatility of the H-S-H pickup config in combination with designer Tom Presley's smart control scheme. (And this was before Ibanez deployed a similar system, but with less convincing single-coil tone and fewer tonal options.) The rep, not himself a guitarist, hadn’t demonstrated that aspect of the guitar well.

You mean here’s one guitar, that’s better made than “name brands” at twice the money, that covers essential double-humbucker and Strat/Tele tones more than convincingly, for under 400.00? And it comes in cool contemporary automotive colors so perfectly applied you really can’t tell there’s wood underneath...

OK. Maybe I can live with vaguely devil-horn cutaways and blackout hardware. Who says guitars have to look like these ancient models that aren’t selling anyway?

If you imagine I got giddily enthusiastic about the unprecedented “value proposition” of a guitar that covered that much sonic ground - and cost that little - you’d be right. I became an evangelist - and a lot of players I introduced to the model got religion. Not instantly. But it was pretty easy to put a Tele, Strat, and Les Paul into their hands - between test drives of the Phoenix - and let them see (and hear) the light for themselves. Needless to say, SLM did not have to take the guitars back.

Over the next several years, SLM’s business relationship with Matsumoko changed; to make Matsu their exclusive North American supplier, SLM agreed to transition to Matsu’s Westone brand name (though they remained the same guitars, coming from the same factory, with gradual hardware evolution). Then the factory burned in 1987, and that was that.

At the same time, the market lumped the guitars into the 80s-ubiquitous SuperStrat domain (a term which sells the Phoenix/Spectrum short), and the body design didn’t compete well against Ibanez and the shredder-inspired guitars then eating the market. The Phoenix/Spectrum hadn't been intended for that market to begin with - it was to be a working guitarist's tool - but the timing (and maybe finishes) were off the mark. Electra/Westone did develop shape and more obviously SuperStratty guitars mid-decade, but stodgy SLM nonetheless lost the marketing and endorsement battle with Hoshino. They just weren’t cool enough.

And since they weren't then, I guess they aren't now. Players who would get the most out of these instruments continue to see them as failed 80s SuperShredders. Cain't win for losin' sometimes.

As for 80s guitar aesthetics, I’m pretty agnostic. Shape/pointy guitars were visually entertaining but not to my personal taste, and the various iterations on elongated/tapered Strat designs seemed - and still seem - valid enough to me. They weren’t cliches or caricatures when they emerged, and likem-or-not they were at least evidence of imagination and evolution in electric guitar design (though none of them remotely as shockingly radical as the Strat was in 1954). And Ibanez’s, PRS’s, and Jackson’s signature designs of the era are now as time-testedly iconic as the classics of the 50s (if somewhat more slavishly associated with particular genres).

Anyway, I’m OK with the looks of the Phoenix/Spectrum. I got more so when I realized that Matsumoku was geographically near Fujigen, and surely the two companies shared workers and design talent over the years. My first electric, a Fujigen F4V from the 60s - labeled Crestwood - also has slightly pointed in-turning cutaways. It must have been in the water of the region, and now it comprises at least a few base pairs of my guitar DNA.

And the Reverb guitars are still durn good deals - examples of a great functional design which, for a variety of reasons, didn’t reach critical mass in the market, and doesn’t have a culture of image to perpetuate its presence in guitarists’ hierarchy of lust. It remains an instrument you have to try for yourself, and make up your own mind about. I’m good with that.

7

I had a white Westone Spectrum ST bass,Christmas present from my dad in 1985,it was so easy to play,way better than any Fender i tried back then,even though that's what i was dreaming of.

I also wanted a 1984/85 black through neck Washburn Force 40 bass,never did get that though.

That Dublin guitar was originally from one of my locals going by that sticker on the back of the head!

8

I have that same bass, and it's prevented my ever wanting a P-Bass.

9

Just a couple of pages from my collection to tug at your nostalgic ol' SLM heart strings, Tim.

What with all the arrows and over-explanatory descriptive text, it almost looks like Rube Goldberg designed the advert, if not the guitar.

10

Yep, that's a first-year (1983) Phoenix in the most common red. Several things changed for '84: the middle pickup ring got squared edges to match the buckers, and the speed knobs gave way to jewel-like reverse-tapered and fluted knobs with concentric rings on their tops - machined from aluminum billet and black-anodized. Ridiculously handsome. (Japan Steel owned Matsumoku, and the family relationship allowed Electra/Westone to have all sorts of sophisticated in-house metal parts that would otherwise have been out of reach.) The conventional 5-point Strat trem gave way to a 2-point mount with cast adjustable saddleblocks on a floating platform. The nut also went to graphite.

Funny the pickup names - here "Phoenix SuperMag". Later they became "Magnaflux UBC", for UnBalanced Coil - meaning one coil was wound hotter and the other weaker; when they were coil-tapped, the weaker coil was disengaged, leaving a much more muscular single-coil than we usually get when tapping humbuckers. This was the essential enabling technology in the guitar's uncanny chameleonic performance. Later came a version with a solid bar in one of the coils (a la SuperTron, and for the same reason). But regardless what they're called, they'll be stamped "MK45" on the bottom. I'm assuming "MK" is for "Matsumoku," and assume "45" was a development version number. Tom Presley and Toshi Ohwa of Matsu did lots of prototype iterations.

I have a salesman's demo kit for this guitar - unfinished body, cutaway neck, and all the unassembled hardware in a gray-sided aluminum case, all nestled in form-fitting compartments. The route rep used the parts to show wholesale buyers in stores just how the guitar was built, and prove the pedigree of the components.

There just wasn't a single bite of cheese in the development, manufacture, or market intention of these guitars. They were meant to exceed all specs and expectations.

11

I had a white Westone Spectrum ST bass,Christmas present from my dad in 1985,it was so easy to play,way better than any Fender i tried back then,even though that's what i was dreaming of.

I also wanted a 1984/85 black through neck Washburn Force 40 bass,never did get that though.

That Dublin guitar was originally from one of my locals going by that sticker on the back of the head!

– JCHiggy

I played a Westone bass like this one and it was damn good. And St. Louis Music chopped out some interesting stuff for sure.


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