Japanese Guitar History - Coming soon
Written by Andrew Mechling former owner and partner of GuitarsJapan.com
First, I want to say "thank you" to all of our friends who have repeatedly recommended that I start my own website to show off (and offer for sale) my personal collection of vintage and new Japanese guitars and basses. I am very pleased to show off my collection, and to share my love for these beautiful instruments with you.
Recently, I teamed up with two fantastic, enthusiastic collectors, John and Kim Hornbacher, who are helping me offer more guitars for sale and for show, and who are assisting me in updating the information about each Japanese guitar brand. I honestly have not changed much about my site since it went up years ago, and while most of the information is still accurate (albeit unlawfully copied and pasted into other newer sellers' websites), much more has come to light that I'd like to share with all of you. It is a labor of love that I hope will enjoy as much as I do.
A question I get all the time: So, how did you get into Japanese guitars in the first place? I lived in Yokosuka, Japan, from the years 2000-2005; I accepted a teaching position there and never even knew about Japanese guitars until one evening I received a phone call from a friend who went up to Tokyo looking for skis or something random like that. I answered the phone and had to pull the phone away from my ear... my friend was yelling, out of breath, "Andrew, you HAVE to see this place... it's just... I can't even tell you how many guitars there are here. There's a guy selling guitar necks from a cart on the street like hot dogs in NYC! You have to come up here, you have to..." When I asked where this place was, they said Ochanomizu. That first trip would change my life forever.
Until that time, I had owned a few guitars since picking up my first electric guitar at age 16, but of course never could really afford any of the cool vintage models I pined over. So I had an American vintage reissue Stratocaster and a bunch of random Peaveys and Gibsons and even a very nice photo-flame Fender Japan export-model Stratocaster, but when I saw walls and walls of real vintage guitars in the exact form of the originals that were out of my price range, I knew I was seeing something very special. Guys lined up from the inside of the guitar shops extending out the doors sometimes, buying/selling as many guitars as most hamburger places sell in a day... what!? Brands like Tokai, Greco, Burny/Fernandes, ESP (Navigator & Edwards), Combat, History, Orville by Gibson, Yamaha, Bacchus, Kawai and Fender Japan lined the walls and decorated the floors like candy on Halloween. I ended up buying a Fender JV strat and a Greco bass that first time. From that day on, it became a regular pilgrimage there to buy as many guitars as I could afford. Yes, you could say I was addicted. And still am. They're just so amazing and fun to collect. And when you play one of these guitars, you are always astounded at their uniqueness and quality. Judging from the quickly-growing Western fascination with Japanese guitars, I am not the only addict out there!
Many of the guitars I bought and collected were the notorious "lawsuit" replica guitars that were made by some of the aforementioned companies in the late 1970s and early 1980s to look, feel, play and sound exactly like the original 1950s and 1960s classic guitars in which they succeeded in copying. Most of the guitars made in the 1960s through the 1970s in Japan were great guitars, but lacked the precision and vintage accuracy that they finally nailed around 1978. By 1980, the vintage replicas being turned out by Greco, Tokai and Burny/Fernandes were so perfect and varied that I would not be the least bit surprised to see, in the future, prices of some of these early replicas to fetch thousands. They are certainly better than most new reissues being made that cost thousands already.
The "lawsuit" story goes that, around 1981, Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and a few other US guitar manufacturers got their hands on some "lawsuit" guitars made in Japan and were shocked, impressed, and then upset... and threatened litigation when they saw how exact the Japanese replicas really were. They pressured the Japanese replica-making guitar manufacturers to make modifications to their logos and headstocks by late 1983, although they continued on making exact replicas to this day by sidestepping the rules and regulations.
One interesting story told to me by one of my customers was that he worked in a New York City guitar shop in the early 1980's, and in 1982, the manager of his shop found a way to order/import a few dozen Burny Les Pauls, so they went through with the order. The guitars were apparently delivered without incident, but the following day, as they were pricing/displaying these new additions to their inventory, US Customs Agents entered their store with a warrant to seize/destroy these "copy" guitars. He told me that it was "the saddest thing" to watch the officers take the guitars and break off the headstocks of each guitar (noooo!!!) on site. They didn't seize the guitars, but destroyed them. So, when he saw one of my Burny Les Paul models on eBay, he was very excited, since it was the first time in 20 years he'd seen one. And now he proudly owns one.
Today, these guitars are extremely rare and there are actually a few new companies that are making seriously high-end "lawsuit" style guitars right now (like ESP Navigator, Edwards, Seymour Duncan, Moon and Bacchus. I don't know how they're getting away with it, but they are, most likely because they absolutely will not export these models out of Japan.
I was (and still am) amazed at the superior craftsmanship, attention to detail and how much of a vintage vibe and tone these Japanese guitars exude. The brands in my collection are truly better instruments than what you'd find with even Custom Shop Fender or Gibson guitars. If you believe I am biased, just ask Scott Lentz. He'll tell you the same thing. And he's one of America's most respected luthiers. I think this is mainly because Fender and Gibson USA have gotten lazy and thrifty in making guitars, because they have no competition in the US. They have the markets cornered on their products, and can thus make poorly-made guitars and sell them for a high price. They don't HAVE to make good guitars anymore it seems. I feel that today's Custom Shop guitars have the quality that their REGULAR line should have, at the regular line price. But instead, they skimp out on quality and sell for high prices, and if you want a well-made Fender or Gibson, then you have to buy into their Master-built and Historic series guitar and spend about $3,000+ to get it.They make guitars with as much enthusiasm and attention to detail as if they were making lawn furniture. They may as well be. I digress...
This work ethic is not so in Japan. Competition drives the market. Higher-quality guitars at lower prices are what makes the companies successful. New brands pop up all the time making extraordinary guitars, many of higher quality and made with better pickups/parts than Fender USA Custom Shop models at 1/2 the price! Many even have bookmatched select wood bodies, solid flaming, real nitro finishing, USA stock pickups (like Van Zandt, Seymour Duncan, Fender USA, Lindy Fralin, etc.), wild designs, etc. The selection is mind-blowing compared to what you can get in the US.
My first summer back in the US, I was so excited to visit my first Guitar Center, which I had heard so much about. I was in there for 10 minutes and yawned at every single thing they had. It was apparent that the American guitar mfg. juggernauts' laziness, lack of interest in what the customers want and deserve, and generally stifled creativity and greediness, have led to a market flooded with second-rate instruments with no vintage vibe.
In Japan, you have more than 10 different brands to choose from if you want a good Strat or Les Paul, ranging from $500-$7,000 USD equivalent. The place bustles with people buying, buying, buying and trading, selling, haggling on prices, like a sort of guitar stock market. Which it really is. It is like this every day there, even now. Unfortunately most of you will never be able to experience it, but you can live this dream vicariously through my personal collection of guitars that I showcase on my site and can experience all this for yourself if you buy a guitar from GuitarsJapan.com.
The Japanese have a reputation for perfection in anything they do and are held to strict quality-control guidelines. Their guitars are nothing short of amazing. MOJO, tone, QUALITY, pride, FEEL, affordable, COVETED, playability, VIBE, a best friend which whom to spend your lonely nights or working days.
I hope you enjoy my website and feel free to email me if you have any questions at all.
Thank you and best wishes
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