An Interview with Bridge Guitars, Vintage Japanese Guitar Specialist

Whether you love them or hate them, vintage Japanese guitars have found their way into the hands of artists like Hound Dog Taylor, Ry Cooder, The Black Keys, and many others. In recent years, musicians around the world have started to seek out these vintage icons as their unique designs, interesting quirks, and sometimes surprising quality with an affordable price has caused them to be reevaluated. But who collects, repairs, and sells these guitars? We visited Bridge Guitars in the backstreets of Tokyo's hip Koenji neighborhood and talked to proprietor Akira Takasawa about the charms of these sometimes overlooked gems.

First off, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in guitar repair?

I once bought a guitar on an auction, which turned out to be broken, and so I thought, Well, maybe I can fix this up myself. I was working at a recycle shop and taking instruments home with me to repair them, and from that it sort of flowed into opening my own shop.

As a small business owner, how do you connect with customers? What's the balance between customers who come and visit you in the store, and customers you connect with online?

Well, we're not so caught up in the overwhelming drive for sales that a large retailer would be, and that separates us. We spend time shooting the breeze with customers about music, or sometimes not about music, but just things that are fun. I'm also in some bands myself, and we’re a music shop that has performers sometimes, and as much as I can I want to go see live shows and connect outside of just the space of the store. Regarding the balance between in store and online, it's about 20/80 or 30/70.

Since you specialise in "bizarre" guitars, what attracts you to these instruments? Do you think there is a good market for them?

While these older guitars had influences from things like Fender, Gibson, Mosrite, etc., these guitars ended up with some pretty original shapes, and that's one of the things I find really fascinating about them. It's easy to connect with customers in Europe or America who are interested in these Japan-made guitars, a little bit more so than here in Japan.

Conversely though, I think there's potential for some of the Eastern European or South American bizarre guitars to come to Japan.

What's most difficult about getting these guitars back into playing shape?

Just about every time, it's a question of getting the frets in shape and dealing with high action. Through some work there, it's possible to get the string height back down and make them easy to play.

Out of the vintage Japanese guitars, are there any that really stick out for you? Favourite brands or models? Or things you haven't seen yet?

I really like the '60s Hollow Body Guitars. Especially the ones with single pickups. I haven't come across a Kawai EP-75 yet, but I really want one.

Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to buy their first vintage guitar? Among the Japanese-made ones, any recommendations or special points to consider?

I think the most important thing is to pick one that really gets you excited, both through its sound but also its appearance. When talking about brands, the ELK Deluxe is good, and just about all Yamaha guitars are solid choices, because they had good overall quality and sound, even compared to guitars today, and they match up well for contemporary sounds also.

I personally like the thin-body full acoustics that came out in the 1960s. These guitars had an appealing light acoustic sound that guitars like Fender and Gibson just didn't have.

Do you think there's an advantage to owning a vintage guitars rather than a new one?

Well, I think there's the fact that the value is always increasing, little by little, over a new one.

How has Reverb helped you connect with customers overseas?

It's been very helpful to my store. Customers who have found me through my Reverb or Instagram accounts have actually come to my store. I think in the near future, the hurdle of buying goods from overseas will probably disappear.

Shortly after we conducted this interview, Bridge Guitars relocated to a new space up the road. They're still in the cool Koenji neighbourhood, and now share a space with Jazzmaster specialty shop Untake Guitars. If you're in the Tokyo area, be sure to pay them a visit—weekends are usually the best bet. Their address is Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Koenjikita 3-10-3.

You can follow them on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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