Frank Meyers of "Drowning in Guitars" Talks the '50s and '60s Japanese Guitar Industry

In this edition of Reverb Experts, we're talking with Frank Meyers from Drowning in Guitars about the Japanese guitar industry in the '50s and '60s. We covered everything from he thinks makes these guitars special to what advice he would give buyers looking to pick up one of these unique beauties.

Vintage Japanese-made guitars are easily some of the most unique out there. How do you account for the particular style that developed?

1960s Teisco ET-312

At the beginning of Japanese electric guitar production, the designers combined the Japanese artistic sense with whatever electric guitar examples they had. Sometimes they only had photos to use. In the 1950s, the small-bodied electrics were inspired by Valco, Harmony, and Kay designs. There were very few Gibsons and Fenders in Japan at this time, and those that were there were very expensive.

In the 1960s, designs became more extreme and bizarre because of three factors.

First, American buyers (in the form of wholesalers and importers) often requested designs that were copies of popular designs but meant to "out-do" the originals through sheer sensationalism. Remember, the main market were American teenagers.

Second, Japanese designers were often left to create many prototypes to show buyers. Variation, combined with the aforementioned Japanese artistic flair, led to some truly original designs.

And last, I attribute a lot to the time period. The 1960s were just way out there in a lot of ways, and many guitar companies from all around the world exhibited guitars with original designs. As the 1970s rolled around, true copy guitars were selling well, and all the creative flair of the 1960s unfortunately was long gone.

I know a lot of these brands were made in the same factories. Can you give me a overview of which brands were made by the same people?

The four main sources of Japanese electric guitars were Fujigen, Guyatone, Teisco, and Kawai. These were by far the biggest producers. There were many other smaller factories during the 1960s, but almost all of them were gone by 1969. Teisco guitars were primarily produced with the Teisco, Teisco Del Rey, and Silvertone brand names. Guyatone guitars mainly appeared in the US under the Kent brand. Fujigen guitars used about 30 different brand names, and Kawai used even more!

From left to right, a Norma, 3 Teiscos and a Conrad.

Are there any particular brands or models that are the most sought-after by collectors?

Usually, the craziest designs are the most popular. Lots of switches, pickups, knobs, etc. Popular Japanese electric guitars are hard to identify because many players simply want to buy that same guitar they started playing on. But any type of artist association, as with other guitars, creates a demand. Hound Dog Taylor, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and even the infamous Shaggs all used Japanese guitars.

How has general interest in vintage Japanese guitars changed over the years?

It's still a fringe market, compared to vintage Fenders and Gibsons. Demand comes and goes, and devoted collectors with deep pockets come and go. In America, the demand seems to be the greatest. In comparison, there is very little demand in Japan.

What should buyers look for when shopping for these instruments?

When buying vintage Japanese guitars, you have to realize that they all need work. Usually a lot of it to get them playable. Neck issues are the most problematic. Neck angles, truss rods, and frets are always aspects that will need attention. Electronics are another area of concern, but not as much as people think. Most of these areas can be corrected by a good "old-school" tech who understands all the quirks. It's like mechanics who understand how to repair carburetors. These techs are getting hard to find.

What got you interested in offbeat Japanese guitars?

Being a poor teenager didn't leave me with a lot of options when I played in bands. So I became a pawn shop regular, and there always seemed to be a lot of vintage Japanese guitars available. They would practically give them away! I could buy two or three guitars at a time!

Over the years, I started to put considerable effort into getting these old guitars playable, and I started to appreciate the variation in styles and sounds. I've been a fan of offbeat guitars for over 20 years, and I still see things I've never seen before. New designs, new brand names, unknown Japanese manufacturers.

Another smattering of vintage Japanese axes (click on the image to see what's currently listed on Reverb).

What's your personal favorite vintage Japanese brand? Favorite model?

Like most other people, I like the Teisco guitars, like the "shark-fin" K models. I also like the early Kawai guitars that Hound Dog Taylor liked to play. They have huge necks and really low output pickups, but they sound great.

What are some other resources to find out more about Japanese makers and models?

There's not much. There's more misinformation out there than factual truths. There was a great book published in the '90s called Bizarre Guitars of the 1960s. It's been out of print for many years, and it's written entirely in Japanese. But that book is a great resource. I just returned from a trip to Japan this past spring, where I met and interviewed its author. I also travelled around Japan for two weeks, interviewing many of the companies, employees, and engineers that were involved with Japanese guitar production from the '50s through the '70s. I'm completing a book now and it will hit the shelves in 2014.

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