In our series of articles on vintage Japanese collectible guitars youâ€™ll have come across the â€œJapanese copy boomâ€ of the 1970s. Â The story of the Japanese guitar industry in the 1970s, and why it is so important, is worth telling in more detail.
Where did it all start?
The Japanese guitar industry before 1970 had been cheap, low-quality guitars, usually made of plywood, many short-scale, with 19 or 20 frets instead of the accepted 21 or over, and mostly exported to other countries to be sold by different companies. Notable makers of these guitars are the now long defunct Guyatone, whose guitars were notably sold by Rose Morris, and Teisco, as sold by Dallas-Arbiter.
Rose Morris was a London guitar shop which imported Guyatone guitars into Britain to be sold, while Dallas-Arbiter was a distributor of musical equipment, responsible for the iconic Fuzz Face fuzz pedal used by Jimi Hendrix.
However, in the 1970s things began to get more serious, not only when bootleg Mosrites were made, with companies even attempting to pass themselves off as the American brand, but also when Aria and Ibanez, companies making electric guitars since the mid-1960s, began to make copies of Gibson designs. These were high-quality and looked too close for comfort to the real thing.
Ibanez and Aria
The American companies whose designs were copied didnâ€™t become serious about dealing with the Japanese companies until the late 1970s, as Ibanez in particular made copies of many Gibson models, including the SG Junior , Flying V and Firebird as well as the obvious Les Paul copy. Other, less obvious copy choices were made, like the Plexiglas Ampeg Dan Armstrong. In 1977 Gibsonâ€™s parent company Norlin launched a lawsuit against Elger/Ibanez citing the blatant copies of Gibson headstock designs, even though by now Ibanez had started moving into more original styles. The lawsuit was settled out of court but this hastened Ibanezâ€™s move towards their own style,ultimately Â leading to them becoming one of the worldâ€™s largest guitar makers.
Other â€œcopyâ€ models included the Ibanez Destroyer, which started out in life as a Gibson Explorer copy and the less well-known Rocket Roll model, which was a direct copy of the Gibson Flying V. Not even Gibsonâ€™s mythical Moderne was overlooked, and was turned into the slightly less copy-ish Futura model. This last guitar is almost as rare as Gibsonâ€™s â€œreissuesâ€ of the guitar that never existed in the first place.
Aria still remains in the market as well. They now cater mostly for the budget end of the market, but make some more expensive Les Paul shaped models to a very high standard with well-known companies such as Seymour Duncan and Kahler providing materials. They made the first Japanese Les Paul copy, with a bolt-on neck. Their now-iconic PE model is one of the all-time most famous Japanese guitars.
You would expect that the lawsuits would have scared off other companies from following Aria and Ibanezâ€™s lead, but the reality was quite the opposite. After Ibanez and Aria reverted to the safety of original designs a whole torrent of other Japanese makes unleashed a flood of copies onto the market. The two main companies were Tokai and Fernandes/Burny.
Tokai Gakki was started in 1982, making very high-quality copies of Gibsons and Fenders. The guitars were known for being as good, and sometimes better, than the originals they were copying. The flagship model was the Love Rock, a sneaky replica of the Gibson Les Paul, Â with even Tokaiâ€™s headstock logo and the â€œLove Rockâ€ script being written in authentic Gibson style lettering, along with the â€œBreezysoundâ€ which did the same thing to the Fender Stratocaster.
The company continues to this day, with prices from just under Â£200 to almost Â£4000. They have branched out, and now make copies of Gibson models not even covered by Gibsonâ€™s own Epiphone range, such as the 1967 Flying V and the Les Paul Double Cutaway.
Fernandes and Burny
Fernandes is another Japanese company, started in 1969. As they started out making flamenco guitars, they chose a Portugese name for added authenticity. A glance at the USA Fernandes website shows that the company have moved on from the realistic Fender Strat copies of their earlier period (Brad Gillis of Nightranger had an endorsement deal in the mid 80â€™s to mimic his famous red 62 Fender Strat) and they now make their own models as well as the widely-used Sustainer pick up system.
Burny was established in the 70s by Fernandes to make Gibson copies. These in particular are very realistic and look almost exactly like the real thing. Â To prevent lawsuits from Gibson (although Iâ€™m unsure as to why theyâ€™re bothering given the level of accuracy of their copies) the guitars are not sold outside Japan.
A notable modern copy brand is the Japanese ESP Edwards series. These guitars are very high quality and almost exact copies of Les Pauls, again only available in Japan to avoid Gibson suing them.
Officially licensed â€œcopiesâ€
In 1985 Fender had become so sick of Tokai and Fernandes beating them at their own game, even sometimes improving the original Strat template, that they set up operations in Japan. This was the start of Fenderâ€™s international program. Now the company has factories in America, Mexico, and Japan. They also started a subsidiary, Squier, and started them off making official licensed copies of Fender designs. Squier have made guitars in Japan, China, Korea, India and Indonesia, although most are now Chinese.
Meanwhile Gibson, who had purchased the Epiphone brand in the late 1950s, set up an Epiphone factory in Korea in the 1980s. Most of these guitars were made by contracted companies such as Samick for many years. Epiphones are now made in China by Gibson.
So what of the copy boom now? Well, it may have been the best thing to ever happen to the electric guitar world. Now almost every company makes guitars overseas to stop cheaper copies from emerging. There are barely any true bootlegs around, but many newer brands make very cheap copies of Strats and Teles in China. However, to avoid copyright, the body or headstock design is usually changed slightly. But, as previously mentioned, it was probably the best thing to ever happen to the world of the electric guitar. If not for these copies, no-one would make guitars overseas, and weâ€™d all have to pay way more to get an American-made guitar.
Not everyone can afford to do this, so the customer base of many companies would be hugely reduced. Â Apart from Gibson, who staunchly refuse to make guitars anywhere but America and leave the cheap stuff to Epiphone, every major company based in the USA has factories outside their homeland.
Fender have the Mexican and Japanese factories and the Squier division. Dean makes several ranges in China and Korea, PRS has the SE range from Korea, BC Rich and Jackson both have operations in China, Korea and Japan, and even Ibanez, who ironically helped start this whole thing, have factories outside of Japan now. My Ibanez RG was made in Indonesia, and many other models are made in China and Korea.
It is slightly unusual that, while in the 70s and early 80s these guitars were considered to be of low quality now Japanese made guitars, whether new or vintage, are quite valuable and sought-after by collectors with a taste for the less obvious. Â Original 50s export models fetch high prices, 1970s copies are worth lots for their historical significance, and new Japanese-made guitars by Ibanez, BC Rich, Jackson etc. are out of the budget price range.
It is also worth noting that Fender have recently lost a court battle against ESP Guitars, US Music Corporation, Sadowsky Guitars, Stuart Spector Designs, Michael Tobias, Schecter Guitar Research, Warmoth Guitar Products, Lakland Musical Instruments and Peavey Electronics over the copyright of the Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision body shapes.
Fenderâ€™s loss of the case is apparently based on the fact that they waited too long to try to enforce their trademarks on shapes that have now become recognised Â as â€œgeneric â€œ.
Apparently failure to enforce oneâ€™s trademark on something can lead to the removal from the Trademark register after a certain period of time on the grounds of â€œnon-useâ€. Fender have appealed the decision, so this matter has yet to reach its conclusion.