A Brief History of Takamine Guitars

Now that you can plug your acoustic guitar into a smartphone and record directly into an eight-track app that you bought for $5, it’s easy to take technology for granted. But when Takamine introduced its revolutionary under-saddle Palathetic pickup in the late 1970s, it was a game changer. Acoustic guitarists finally had access to the natural amplified sounds they’d long been wanting. Musicians no less than Bruce Springsteen took Takamine acoustic-electric guitars to the stage.

Though the name Takamine is now synonymous with guitar technology, the company is rooted in traditional luthierie. In the 1950s and ’60s, the folk revival was in full swing in New York’s Greenwich Village, where singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins showcased their work to rapt audiences. Meanwhile, 6,700 miles away, in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, a quintet of luthiers in a small shop were building nylon-string acoustic guitars for the burgeoning folk scene in that country.

The shop, Ohzone Musical Instruments, was founded in the town of Sakashita and overseen by a man named Ohzone. He had previously worked in a Nagoya-region instrument factory, but when it was decimated by a typhoon, he ran to the hills to do his own thing. The Takamine Mountains loomed in the background of the shop, and so in 1962, Ohzone renamed the business Takamine Gakki; Gakki translates to “musical instruments.”

Takamine grew rapidly in the 1960s, as the influence of Western popular music created more demand for guitars in Japan. Then, in 1968, things really took off when the company recruited Mass Hirade as its head of production and design.

The Lawsuit Era

“Mass Hirade was an exceptional luthier, who was also a very charismatic and visionary businessman,” says Tom Watters, director of sales and product manager, Takamine Guitars at ESP Guitar Co. “He helped Takamine build better guitars, and then expanded its business way beyond the small shop that it was during the early 1960s. It was rare and beneficial to have such a good combination of art and commerce in a leader.”

'70s Takamine, Martin-style "Lawsuit" Guitar

One of Hirade’s first projects was to design concert-level classical guitars, as opposed to the company’s previous folk-instrument offerings. But in a more daring move, Hirade set his sights on the international market, which was dominated by steel-string guitars, and by the early 1970s Takamine was offering flattops in the mold of American classics by Martin and Guild.

“Takamine hit the international market at a great time. Competition was great, but perhaps stagnant in the U.S., and Takamine provided a great product at a great price that truly did the job. With the help of artists that adopted the instruments as essential tools, Takamine set about developing a stronger, more individual identity that it continues with today,” Watters says.

As an interesting footnote, Takamine’s use of Martin’s trademark headstock design led Martin to send a cease-and-desist letter. Takamine steel-strings with squared-off headstocks are known as “lawsuit guitars,” even though there was never any litigation. To distance its guitars from Martin and other American makers, Takamine modified certain details on its steel-strings. It borrowed a pointy headstock shape from the luthier Lloyd Baggs, who would become better known for his LR Baggs electronics; adopted an asymmetric neck shape out of ergonomic concerns; and split the bridge saddle, with the bottom four strings on one segment and the top two on the other, for improved intonation. These specs remain standard on Takamine’s steel-strings.

Going Electric

But Takamine’s most important contribution to the acoustic guitar was the Palathetic pickup, which debuted in Japan in 1978 and went global in ’79. The Palathetic is comprised of six separate, fully shielded piezo transducers, one for each string. The piezos are outfitted under the bridge plate and make contact with the saddle via metal cylinders. The sonic result: improved clarity between the strings, and resistance to feedback. Takamine’s engineers hit such a high note with the original Palathetic that, almost 40 years later, its design is essentially intact. Needless to say, many makers have borrowed from this hugely influential design.

Takamine Guitars and the Palathetic Pickup

Preamps with sliding controls are now standard equipment on acoustic guitars of all brands and price points, and this basic design is also indebted to Takamine. In the late 1980s, the company arrived at a standard preamp size, with a built-in battery compartment, so that Takamine users could easily swap out their preamps as new ones become available.

“Takamine is always evolving its preamps for different sets of users,” Watters says. “They allow for either pristine tube sound with the CTP-3 CoolTube preamps; multi-pickup setups with the CTB4-DX preamps, which allow you to blend in magnetic soundhole pickups or soundboard transducers; or the straightforward and stealthy new TLD-2 Line Driver preamps. Most of the preamps incorporate great chromatic tuners as well.”

Takamine EF360

Takamine’s latest offerings, now distributed in the U.S. by the ESP Guitar Co., incorporate not just state-of-the-art electronics but the most recent constructional aspects as well. The recent EF340S TT and EF360S TT are made at Takamine’s state-of-the-art factory in Sakashita. Each boasts Takamine’s Thermal Top, in which the soundboard has been torrefied: baked to simulate decades of aging, both sonic and visual.

“This technology is yielding great-sounding results, especially for the musician who prefers the tone of a played-in, vintage instrument,” Watters says. “The fact that Takamine is able to create these instruments at a price point that is in keeping with their philosophy of value to the working musician is fantastic."

“Takamine has always pushed itself to make a better instrument,” he continues. “It welcomes technological advances, but respects the great tradition of guitar building and what makes the classic instruments great. As Takamine continues into its sixth decade of production, it anticipates crafting better guitars for new generations of musicians and always having an eye on its place in the legacy of the acoustic guitar.”

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