The Offbeat Appeal of Yamaha's Vintage Flying Samurai and Banana Basses

Delving into the odd and complicated universe of vintage Japanese instruments can be equal parts daunting and exhilarating. While there's certainly a market for the various misshapen-body builds and odd layout configurations these instruments are famous (or infamous) for, information regarding these vintage oddities is not always as abundant or easy to access. This is certainly the case with a particular batch of 1960s Yamaha Nippon Gakki, made-in-Japan bass guitars, referred to lovingly as the Flying Samurais.

In 1966, Yamaha released its first electric bass guitar, the SB-2. This bass featured an off-waist style solid body with two single-coil pickups in the J-bass configuration. It’s often found in three-tone sunburst and candy red with white pickguards. Far more conventional than unique, this homogenous bass had no trouble sliding into the market next to Fender’s industry standards — the 1957 Precision Bass and the slightly younger 1960 Jazz Bass.


A New Direction

Page from the 1968 Yamaha Catalog (Photo from yamaha.com)

Yamaha’s next few releases went in an almost entirely different stylistic direction. Instead of sticking with the more traditional Fender-esque, off-waist body shape, Yamaha debuted an original and unique reverse cutaway shape with a Samurai headstock. This was the first of the models that came to be known as the Flying Samurais. These surprisingly ergonomic basses resemble a thinner, reversed version of the now iconic 1961 Rickenbacker 4001 series. With a 31 ½-inch scale length, these thin-necked instruments are quick, punchy, and play at a near-perfect balance with no neck dive.

The first Flying Samurai model, the SB-2a, was released between late 1967 and early 1968 and featured just one single-coil neck pickup that was bolted on at a tilt. It’s common knowledge that neck pickups are generally deeper in tone with more of a smooth growl than the crispy bridge pickups; the closer your pickup gets to the bridge of your bass, the punchier your output. Since this model only featured one pickup, bolting it onto the neck at a tilt toward the bridge helped to add the trebly dynamic to the bass’s tone that would have been missing without a dedicated bridge pickup. Despite having only one pickup, the bass can produce a surprisingly diverse range of sound and is the rarest and most coveted of all of the Samurai models.


1967 Yamaha SB-1C

The Flying Banana Bass

Released in 1968 as the SB-2a’s fraternal twin was the SB-1c, also known as the Flying Banana. The Flying Banana included many of the same features as its sister bass, from the one tilted single-coil neck pickup to the iconic Samurai headstock. Unfortunately, while the Flying Samurai body shape was used for two more models in the ‘60s and was again afforded the reissue treatment in the early 2000s, the SB-1c remains the only Yamaha of its kind.


Picking Up The Pace

Yamaha SB-5A

Yamaha added another pickup into the mix with their next two Flying Samurai models: the virtually indistinguishable SB-5a and SB-7a. Maintaining the single-coil tilted neck pickup, Yamaha added another straight set single-coil along the bridge. The addition of the bridge pickup added even more dynamism to the original’s tone, earning it comparisons to a J-bass on steroids.

These basses are still extremely rare to come by in today’s market but are slightly less so than the SB-2as. Because of the tilted neck pickup and the addition of the bridge pickup, these models can achieve an extra punchy tone, making them particularly coveted by pick players. Plenty of speculation floats around regarding why many of these ‘60s basses featured a bridge cover, with some of the most popular theories concluding that it was simply a stylistic decision to hide the unspectacular bridges. More likely, however (and especially relevant to this model and its predecessor), the bridge cover helps to reduce the RFI that was common with these early single-coil pickups. And, as legend has it, they made pretty decent ashtrays, too.


A Bass Reborn

The Flying Samurais were discontinued shortly after their original debuts. Yamaha didn’t revisit the body shape until 2000 when they moved production from Japan to Taiwan and released two reissues. The body shape of the reissues is an exact replica of the original Flying Samurais, but the pickup configuration and model numbers vary from the originals and from each other.

1990's Yamaha SBV-500

The first reissue was the SBV-500, which featured one middle single-coil pickup and one single-coil bridge pickup in the J-bass configuration. These pickups run parallel to one another, differing from the SB-5a/7a models that maintained the SB-2a’s tilted neck pickup. The SBV-550 maintained a single-coil pickup on the bridge but replaced the single-coil middle pickup with split-coil pickups. This adds the humbucking effect that the P-bass is famous for but pushes it further with the addition of the bridge pickup.

The Flying Samurais are more widespread collectibles in Japan, with many Japanese bass blogs dedicated to their peculiarity. Some Japanese punk bands utilize the Flying Samurai guitar models (the SGV-300s), and Miki Furukawa — formerly of the Japanese rock band Supercar and currently the bassist for Lama — famously uses refinished teal versions of the SB-5a/7a and SBV-550 reissue. Since the reissues have themselves been discontinued for a few years now, it’s also quite difficult to find them —particularly in the U.S. — though not as difficult as finding an original SB model.

One of the varying models (usually a reissue) will generally crop up in the abysses of the internet every few months and will quietly be snagged, disappearing as quickly as it arrived. Sometimes the parts and finishes are all vintage original and sometimes the instruments have been refinished in an equally brilliant, unique shade deviating from buyers’ expectations. Prices for these instruments generally range between $300 and $900 depending on the condition, the model, and how much the owner actually knows about the instrument.

Many manufacturers have tried to sneakily copy the Flying Samurai’s bizarrely functional body shape. Ibanez’s 1975 Artist 2663 guitar, later known as the Iceman, that was popularized by Paul Stanley of KISS is just one example. Nevertheless, despite the copies and the unfortunate lack of information regarding these basses, the Flying Samurai itself remains one of the most iconic and sought-after bass models in the Japanese vintage realm.

Check out an SBV-550 reissue in action here.

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