Guitar Buyers' Guide
As an introduction to this months Guitar Buyers Guide, we spoke to Chris Eccleshall, a highly respected designer and builder of quality acoustic and electric guitars and mandolins, who gave us some of his thoughts on the present state of market increasingly dominated by the recent excellent imports from Japan.
The Japanese have difficulty in producing a successful guitar themselves. Most of them are designed outside Japan, such as Washburn, Ibanez and Aria for instance. Of course they've been producing straight copies for many years, and Tokai is a good example. If you give them an outline they can reproduce a guitar very well, and technically they're hard to beat because of their application.
When the Japanese first began to make copies they'd take a stock model like a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, or a Gibson Les Paul, and they copied them but didn't get the fine details right - and the things that make a guitar desirable are the subtleties more than the overall idea. Partly it's a matter of cost - on the early ones the fittings and machine heads were a bit grim - but the more they produced, the more they came to appreciate the subtleties. Then the Japanese started to go into it a lot more, and Tokai in particular have gone really over the top even down to the same paints and dyes. The other models like Columbus, which are still going strong, are called Fender copies or whatever, but they're built to a budget and if you held them up next to an original they wouldn't look the same at all.
The great disadvantage of any guitar knocked out on a mass production level is that the setting up often isn't accurate. Luckily most shops, and even many of the wholesalers now, have a repairman - Aria, and Summerfields who distribute Ibanez, are good examples - and so all the truss rod adjustments, string tensions and so on are done before they're sold. Even then there's personal taste involved, everybody's got their own ideas, for instance some people want a very low action with very light gauge strings which is the worst combination in the world! Fortunately the use of extra-light strings is fading into the distance now, people are going for much heavier gauges and that gives you a lot of tone back. They're learning, for instance, that if you have an 8 thou. first on a strat you can't hear it!
On the recent less expensive models, the general setup and technical construction of the Japanese guitars has been better than on the American ones, because they've had to become better to gain a share of the market. Now the Americans are trying to equal their technical standard, whereas over the last few years their standards have dropped because they've attempted to compete just in terms of quantity.
Some of the nicest semis I've seen recently - and they seem to be coming back into fashion now - come from the Kasuga factory which I visited when I was consulting on the Japanese-built range of Eccleshall guitars. They're straight 335, 345 copies, and they've done a beautiful job of them, but you never see them in England probably because they work out a bit too expensive. Tokai also do incredibly good semi-acoustic copies, but again you don't tend to see them over here.
Copies aren't that much cheaper than originals any more. A Fender Squier could be around £260 now, which is the price of an American Fender a year ago. The American side put prices up to get more back at their end, and marketed the cheaper models to fill the gap. When you see the way that they make guitars, you realise it's a supermarket syndrome. The more you make, the cheaper an individual unit becomes, but it does take a particular type of national character to be able to mass-produce these things. America and English people get very bored doing the same thing all day ever day, but the Japanese as individuals seem to be able to handle it. That obviously has a great effect on the quality control and general standards of the guitars that are coming out, and that in turn helps to decide the level of costs. Kasuga are just one of the many factories that turn out guitars in vast quantities; people go along and say "Make me so many hundred of this or that" and they make them up to order. When you're there you can see guitars for Aria and some for Washburn, some for Ibanez and even the cheaper Yamahas, which really surprised me because I thought Yamaha kept everything in-house. The really cheap ones are made in Taiwan now, the lower and mid ones by Kasuga, and the upmarket ones by Yamaha itself.
It's absolutely astounding how complicated some of the companies are over there in terms of the different brand names. Various factories will do different jobs for lots of different companies, and this has been fairly evident for quite a few years. That's why you could go to the British Music Trade Fair, see an SG copy with a certain name on it for example, and then go to the next stand and see exactly the same guitar with a different name on it, then another stand with exactly the same guitar on it. Antoria and Ibanez were a good example - the two ranges were absolutely identical, they were both produced by Hoshino, but they were marketed by different wholesalers so they just put different names on them!
In a future issue we'll be sharing more of Chris Eccleshall's thoughts on the guitar market, looking at the new Japanese editions of his designs, and discussing his workshop and constructional methods.
Thanks go to all companies and individuals who provided information for this guide, which, while we hope it is accurate, makes no claim to be comprehensive. Further information will be welcomed.