I think I’m Turning Japanese

When I was 14 years old I had the economic power of a Beagle and would basically write to guitar companies requesting brochures to drool over. Mark Knopfler once said he actually knows what a Fender Catalog smells like. Well so do I. I also know what the envelope smelt like when you opened them, back in the days when you got your post within 48 hours of it being sent.

My biggest brochure haul was probably in 1984, I had big colour catalogs from Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, Aria, Yamaha, Tokai, Marshall, Peavey, Trace Elliot etc etc.

Funnily enough unlike the previous generations of guitarists who coveted Fenders and Gibsons, by 1984 the American ‘Big Two’ were pretty much on their knees. Fender in particular struggled to make guitars people liked and in the throes of 80′s pre Slash Rock, few people were wanting to buy a Gibson Les Paul. American Rockers were using Charvel/Jacksons and they were not widely available outside of thew US until 1986.

Instead the most sexy guitars in the brochures to me were Japanese made, the likes of the Ibanez Roadstar and Yamaha SG series. I lusted after the Yamaha SG in particular, I thought it looked prettier than a Gibson and somehow more modern. I watched some footage of Live Aid the other day and its amazing that the majority of Fenders/Gibsons you see on stage are old ones. All the new guitars are Schecters built in Japan or Japanese brands like Ibanez and Yamaha.

Recently I read a section in Tom Wheelers fine book, “The Stratocaster Chronicles”, where its revealed that during Fenders management buyout of 1985 several top people at Fender were convinced that like with the motorcycle industry and Camera Industry, the Japanese would eventually take over, and American made guitars would cease to be.

But this never happened perhaps due to the likes of Paul Reed Smith and the resurgence of Fender, coupled with a change of ownership at Gibson. It was not to be. In the late 1980′s Ibanez nailed their colours to the poodle permed widdle rock mast and became hugely popular. However post 1989, sales of Ibanez RG’s and Jems nosedived as guitarists wanted more traditional instruments. Grunge and Guns & Roses putting the final nails in that coffin.

In addition, the almost racist snobbery concering Japanese guitars in America, coupled with rising production costs in Japan has meant that Japanese instruments new did not have the cost factor anymore. So the likes of Ibanez and Yamaha moved production of much of their guitars to other countries such as Korea and Taiwan.

Of late I’ve been doing some thinking. My Japanese built Fender Richie Kotzen Telecaster has spoiled me to other guitars, particulaly my Les Paul which seems less consistant in use as a day to day road guitar the more I use it. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the Japanese instruments I have owned and somethings dawned on me.

The truth is that the most reliable, most well made guitars I have owned have not been from Fullerton, or Nashville, but from Nagoya.

This has been a revelation to me. So much so I’m selling my much loved, but rarely played Les Paul and using the cash to buy a couple of different instruments.

Top of my list has to be a Yamaha SG1000. Essentially this is a double cutaway modernist take on a Gibson Les Paul. I’ve played a few of these and they a re built like tanks. Sure they are heavy, but they are impeccably made can take the punishment and deliver the goods. But they are also incredibly cheap secondhand. Its not Classic Rock, but for a guitarist in an alternative rock band, the SG’s modernist credentials take some beating.

Bang per buck these are incredible buys used, an SG1000 in good nick goes for around £500, A neck thru SG2000 around £600 these are guitars with the same build quality and similar spec to a Gibson Les Paul or a PRS Singlecut. Yet is used price is half of an LP and about a third of a Singlecut. Thats like buying a Lexus for the price of a used Mondeo?

I wonder if it wasn’t for the fact that most guitarbooks are published by Americans, would these instruments have more Kudo’s about them? Its surely just cultural supremacy at work?

A quick search on Ebay reveals that a mid 1980′s Ibanez Roadstar sells for about £150.00!

Thats a fifth of the price of a US Strat!

People are getting wise though, many like myself have been through the Classic American guitar ownership experience and after disconnecting from the brand name have cottened onto something.

In addition there are some Japanese guitar companies like Sugi, who have worked out that the secret is to charge a lot for your well made instrument and have attracted the likes of Robben Ford to their one off creations. Yamaha themselves have recently discontinued the SG series and they now only make it as a special order in the factory where they handmake acoustic guitars.

I’ve not given up on the £500 strat challenge, but call this a pleasant diversion.

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