Other Guitars

Japanese guitars: how I remember it

1

1960s: crude but sometimes charming, vague Fender-ish looking things. Teisco, Tempo, and the like Hollowbodies seen less, some decent violin bass copies, names like Ideal, etc.

1970s: Real copies start, mostly Gibson focused, since they were the scene for sure over Fender. Ok looking/playing say Les Paul Custom copies but w/ a bolt on neck. Also Japanese Epiphones, of their own designs... good bargains now. Back then the sales guy told us they had US made Gibson buckers Maybe mid 70s Ibanez beats Gibson to the punch in reissuing the Explorer. .

Late 70s -- some original designs start to show up, less oriented to copies, like some Yamaha Santana thing... original shape, etc. Decent enough Sigma acoustics, etc.

Early 80s-- Fender Japan gets going, with Squier and with some not quite on-the-money Fender vintage reissues ..good players, but missing tweaky details that vintage Fender geeks and dorks like I was at the time couldn't believe. Then routine stuff after that. Plenty of good Fenders for the road especially w/ some upgrades.

Mid to late 80s Ibanez gets their own designs out with plenty of goodies the hair metal crowd. Endorsement models get going like the Vai model etc. Plenty of other Japanese stuff starts to get consistently good enough.

1990s -- things go seriously upscale in Japan, lower priced stuff goes to Korea and is generally ok enough. China is still s**t. Gretsch Japan starts at the beginning of 90s... but others here know the progression of models and relative quality better than I do

2K -- Japan ups the ante and by 2005 turning out great Gibson stuff w/ Epi Elitist like that amazing Byrdland I had... Korea steps up to the plate and China takes over where Korea was. Korea assumes lower end Japan status.

Some even say that the highest of hi-end Japan now is better than anything made here.

After this I don't know and probably never will. This was a memory dump...

What say U?

2

About right from my perspective, except I would say the overall average quality of Japan Inc products rose to match most US output by the late 70s - partially because Japanese quality was so consistent, and US quality (at the time) wasn't.

That consideration stands apart from marketability and design trends: ie, whether the appearance and features of Japanese-made guitars hit the American market square and center. One phenomenon of the late-70s-through-80s era is that American importers began having much closer relationships with the Japanese producers, and much earlier in the product development cycle. Many relationships were true collaborations; from that point onward, the product became increasingly competitive in absolute terms, rather than just in price-value comparisons.

As you note, the move to Korea got serious in the 90s - but it had started in the mid-late 80s, for a variety of reasons not all related solely to the increasing cost of Japanese production. I lost track of the market between 1989 and 2003, but in general I'd considered the Korean stuff I knew by 1989 to be pretty good but not quite ready for prime time; by 2003, when I started paying (obsessive) attention again, Korea had gotten as good as Japan had been (so far as I could tell), and China was coming on.

Now it's truly hard to tell the difference from build, fit, or finish, for product coming from anywhere, including Indonesia. Vietnam, I don't know. I think comparable world-class guitars can come from anywhere now: it's a matter of specs, material, and hardware. The craftsmanship and quality control are there.

I don't think Japan needed to up their ante in the 2000s; they were already there. It's just that more American brands started building their flagship products there, gradually solidifying Japan's reputation among diehard holdout buyers for whom Asian build still carried a stigma. (And we still see that pop up its head occasionally.)

Another thing that isn't, I think, widely appreciated is that the Japanese industry has had more continuity from the 60s than a list of brand names - and the apparent evolution in quality - suggests. The same companies - or offshoots/business descendants of them - who made the first relatively primitive early Japanese electrics continued through the 70s, 80s, 90s and unto the present. Their business relationships with American and Euro brands evolved along with the brand names on headstocks, but there are numerous through-lines that give the Japanese guitar industry the same sort of continuity as with many American brands.

And maybe more: Japan has now been building premium American-brand guitars (at least electrics) for longer than they were built here.

3

I have an old friend, very much a Gibson guy, who has been sniffing around at 6120s and Falcons. When we first got into guitars, Japan was Squiers and Epi’s. He tells me he can’t get his brain around a $3K Japanese guitar. I pointed out that anything that the Japanese put their mind to for more than about 20 years, they are doing better than the original. In blind taste tests, Suntory makes better single malt than Scotland. I asked him which TV would you be more likely to buy, Sony or GE? Which car, Cadillac or Lexus? He is still on the fence. I suspect there’s a 6120 in his future. That said, I love me a Teisco with three pickups and five switches. As Jack White said, I like a guitar you have to fight with a little bit.

4

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5

Suntory does not make better single malt Scotch whisky in Japan than in Scotland. The climate is too different. Many years ago Suntory bought a distillery in Scotland and moved all of the equipment to Japan as well as buying the same raw barley and other ingredients. It tasted good but it wasn't the same.

Japan does make some excellent whiskies but in no way are they "better" than those from a myriad of specialist small Scottish distillers.

TVs? The high end LED panels are all from Korea these days, not Japan.

Cars? One of the best selling Lexus models is made in Canada, no doubt, like Cadillac, from a huge amount of Chinese parts.

And, "fighting" a guitar? I just want to play it the easiest way possible to enable me to make the music that I like!

6

Suntory does not make better single malt Scotch whisky in Japan than in Scotland. The climate is too different. Many years ago Suntory bought a distillery in Scotland and moved all of the equipment to Japan as well as buying the same raw barley and other ingredients. It tasted good but it wasn't the same.

Japan does make some excellent whiskies but in no way are they "better" than those from a myriad of specialist small Scottish distillers.

TVs? The high end LED panels are all from Korea these days, not Japan.

Cars? One of the best selling Lexus models is made in Canada, no doubt, like Cadillac, from a huge amount of Chinese parts.

And, "fighting" a guitar? I just want to play it the easiest way possible to enable me to make the music that I like!

– Yavapai

Yup. Those Japanese whiskies are good on their own right, but can't compare to Lagavulin, or Laphroaig, not even close.

7

I think y’all are missing the forest for the trees. Your own preferences aside, Japanese whiskey has been besting Scottish in critics’ rankings and taste tests since as far back as ‘03. And while their guitar production in the ‘60s and early ‘70s may have been dodgy, most of us are willing to concede that modern product is as good or better than what you will find anywhere else on the globe. And sometimes crappy old stuff is a lot of fun, despite not being easy.

8

I'm a huge fan of Japanese guitars from the late 70s through to about 1990, having been introduced to them by Mark Fletcher - the proprietor of japanguitars.co.uk - who was based near me at the time.

His website provides a lot of history on the 'golden era' of Japanese guitars, as well as top brands including Tokai, Greco, Burny, Navigator and more.

I have owned a couple of 80s Greco Les Pauls and feel they more than hold their own with current US made equivalents.

10

My '70s Yamaha SG1000 was one of the best made, best playing guitars I've ever owned, with an ebony board and pop-up pop-down coil taps. Shame it was so heavy -- my back and shoulders said: "Sorry pal but it's gotta go."

I traded it for a Fender Japan Flame Ultra, a sort of double cut LP. It was a slightly smaller version of the Esprit model -- Robben Ford used one or the other of them. Like the Yamaha it was very nicely built and great to play, but I wasn't over fond of the Schaller humbuckers so eventually that one also had to hit the road.

That one was replaced by a Gibson RD Artist -- er, nice headstock! What on earth was I thinking? The guy in the store said: "Don't remove that big plastic panel on the back." So what do you do? As soon as I got home out came the screwdriver. Took me forever to get this enormous pcb and a rat's nest of wires back in there and that signalled the end of the RD Artist. A guy can only stand so much excitement so I settled on a secondhand Martin D35 -- ah, peace at last.

11

I remember going to my favourite music store in the 80s and seeing loads of Fender Squiers and they were very, very good. But it was the (Matsumoku) Epiphones which did it for me - I had a pair of Sheratons and they were fantastic guitars. Not particularly authentic feature-wise with their laminated maple necks and full-size HB pickups, but they sounded great and played magnificently. I also had a '79 Gibson 335 at that time which actually played very well, was well made but didn't sound as good as the Epiphones. It too had a laminated maple neck so wasn't so far away from the Epis spec-wise. But a Gibson 335 should have a mahogany neck IMO.

Then there was the (Matsumoku) Aria PE range, as played by some bloke in Rod Stewart's band and the guy in the Boomtown Rats. A beautiful twist on the Les Paul they were wonderful players too.

The first electric guitar I saw up close was my brother's early 70s Ibanez semi - a sort of 335 copy. Pretty sure it had a bolt-on neck. Not really in the same league as their later guitars.

12

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13

1960s: crude but sometimes charming, vague Fender-ish looking things. Teisco, Tempo, and the like Hollowbodies seen less, some decent violin bass copies, names like Ideal, etc.

1970s: Real copies start, mostly Gibson focused, since they were the scene for sure over Fender. Ok looking/playing say Les Paul Custom copies but w/ a bolt on neck. Also Japanese Epiphones, of their own designs... good bargains now. Back then the sales guy told us they had US made Gibson buckers Maybe mid 70s Ibanez beats Gibson to the punch in reissuing the Explorer. .

Late 70s -- some original designs start to show up, less oriented to copies, like some Yamaha Santana thing... original shape, etc. Decent enough Sigma acoustics, etc.

Early 80s-- Fender Japan gets going, with Squier and with some not quite on-the-money Fender vintage reissues ..good players, but missing tweaky details that vintage Fender geeks and dorks like I was at the time couldn't believe. Then routine stuff after that. Plenty of good Fenders for the road especially w/ some upgrades.

Mid to late 80s Ibanez gets their own designs out with plenty of goodies the hair metal crowd. Endorsement models get going like the Vai model etc. Plenty of other Japanese stuff starts to get consistently good enough.

1990s -- things go seriously upscale in Japan, lower priced stuff goes to Korea and is generally ok enough. China is still s**t. Gretsch Japan starts at the beginning of 90s... but others here know the progression of models and relative quality better than I do

2K -- Japan ups the ante and by 2005 turning out great Gibson stuff w/ Epi Elitist like that amazing Byrdland I had... Korea steps up to the plate and China takes over where Korea was. Korea assumes lower end Japan status.

Some even say that the highest of hi-end Japan now is better than anything made here.

After this I don't know and probably never will. This was a memory dump...

What say U?

– DCBirdMan

I’d argue that there were more original designs in 60s Japanese guitars than late 70s. There were some genuinely out there shapes and styles along with more traditional Fendery type body shapes.

14

I bought this MIJ Suzuki guitar in 1982 while I was stationed overseas in Belgium. I was 21 years old and not experienced enough to know just how good it was. I somehow felt that it couldn't possibly be as good, or even better than an American made guitar since there was a kind of stigma against Japanese guitars at the time.

Over the following years, one Gibson player after another was wowed by it, and offered to buy it from me. When we compared it to the Gibson builds, the Suzuki was a much tighter build, the attention to detail was better and the tone was superior.

This Suzuki guitar was my number one for nearly forty years, until I resently bought another MIJ guitar, my 2020 G6131T PE Firebird Duo Jet. I've had the Firebird Duo Jet for almost five months now, and I'm still in a honeymoon with it that just won't seem to end.

15

i recall that Japanese acoustics improved a good while before the electric models. by 1972-74 you could get imports that were quite decent for bargain-bin prices. they weren't Martins or Guilds, but sometimes they were damned fine copies of Martins and Guilds. a friend of mine had an Ibanez J-200 c.1977-78 that was just outstanding.

16

The only acoustic guitar I've ever had is an 80s Yamaha passed down from my aunt Donna. I've never played any other acoustic that convinced me I needed an upgrade.

17

I've owned several MIJ guitars from various years, tried many. Best solidbody was a Fujigen made Orville LP special, maybe 2005 or so. Best archtop was a Greco N60 from the late 70s.


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