A Brief History
Copies of Fender Precisions and Gibson Les Pauls perused, praised, panned and punctiliously plucked by our hand-picked panel of perspicacious pickers.
The replica guitar, or copy guitar as it's more normally known, can be traced back to the early Sixties. Early Japanese solid guitars such as the Broadway and Guyatone were of typical American design, with single-sided heads and tremolo arms, although these guitars were hardly copies of any specific makes.
Perhaps the first generally accepted copy design was the Futurama solid with the three pickups, tremolo arm and contoured body of the Strat. Hofner were also in the market with a similar V3 (and latterly Galaxy) model.
However it was during the mid Sixties, with the Shadows/Strat sound on the wane, that the shrewd observers of the blues resurgence noted a particular interest in the old Gibson Les Pauls. Guitarists were buying up these instruments, second-hand, having established that a searing sustained sound could be obtained from these guitars at volume, a purpose not originally intended. As players snapped up this discontinued instrument, abetted by the popularity of players like Clapton, Green and Beck, prices and interest grew.
"By the mid-Seventies the criterion of success was almost whether the Japanese had copied your guitar."
By 1967 Gibson had to reintroduce a Les Paul model by popular demand, but not until the Japanese makers had already successfully recognised the demand and brought on to the market many replicas of the original instrument. The reissue of Gibson's own guitar only served to fuel the fire for the Oriental makers, who could manufacture a 'people's' Les Paul at a fraction of the new price (let alone the value of an original). In the late Sixties and early Seventies, thousands of cheap Les Paul copies flooded the market. Gradually they became more authentic and more excellent in manufacture, offering quite outstanding value.
The interest generated in the late Sixties for old Les Pauls developed into a general passion for old, and preferably discontinued, American guitars. The laws of supply and demand prevailed, and as pre-CBS Fenders, Firebirds, Explorers, Dan Armstrong see-throughs and the like increased in popularity and price, the Japanese trotted out their copies. By the mid-Seventies the criterion of success was almost whether the Japanese had copied your guitar! Rickenbacker basses, Flying Vs, Precision and Jazz basses; all became subjects for most realistic replicas — many new guitars appeared at Trade Shows after the introduction of a copy!
In recent years the American makers and distributors (notably Norlin) have been seeking legal advice on their position as their designs became more closely reproduced, and now Japanese makers are producing more of their own designs (very fine in many cases). This is a logical 'growing up' for these manufacturers who have doubtless responded to the changes in the market. Players are now more interested in the instrument itself rather than the name on the headstock or what other guitar it looks like. This is a healthy trend for the player who now has a much wider and sophisticated selection of instruments from which to choose.
The copy guitar served a great purpose in that a Les Paul became a realisable dream for all players, just as cheap imitation Levis fuelled the fire of another fashion. The copies responded to changing fashion; now that the fashion is towards individuality, the market is drifting away from out and out copies and into a new and exciting era for the guitar. Ken Achard
The origin of the 'copy' guitar is slightly muddled. Where does one draw the line on what is designated a 'copy'? My opinion is that a copy is a guitar which copies in appearance a design originated by Gibson or Fender.
In 1952 Gibson introduced the Les Paul model, and two years later Fender created the Stratocaster. Both of these guitars have been copied many times.
The first commercial copy of the Les Paul was manufactured by the Gretsch company around 1957 as part of their semi-solid range. It looked very much like the original and was available in various finishes, including Jet Firebird, Duo Jet, Silver Jet and White Penguin(!). The guitars were basically small Les Paul-shaped instruments with two pickups.
In late 1958 Hofner, in Germany, produced a guitar called the Club which was also a copy of the Les Paul. This was made in three versions, 40, 50 and 60, with either one or two pickups and varying degrees of decoration. Early in the Sixties Hofner also produced copies of the Stratocaster, Precision bass, Jazz bass, Gibson violin bass (EB1) and Gibson SG.
The Fender Stratocaster had a fantastic rise of popularity in 1959-60, and many other companies produced copies. Futurama, a company tradename used by the Selmer group (now completely extinct in the UK), issued a Stratocaster copy at the same time as Selmer were UK distributors for both Fender and Gibson — this guitar was the Futurama 3 which cost 45 guineas. In the early Sixties Futurama brought out an almost exact copy of the Strat, made for them by Hagstrom in Sweden. This guitar differed from the original in that it had a chamfer all around its edge.
During this period three British companies brought out copies of the Stratocaster — Burns, Watkins and Vox. The Burns model was first called the Vibra Artiste, and was gradually refined until, in the late Sixties, the Hank Marvin model was introduced. This guitar was like no other copy of a Strat previously seen, even attempting to copy, in degrees, the tonal variations. These Marvins are now great collectors' items, and at one time people would even exchange the real thing for one!
The Watkins Strat copy was called the Rapier and originally sold for £34. It was very popular for its price, and in its time sales probably surpassed the Fender.
"Marvins are now great collectors' items, and at one time people would even exchange the real thing for one."
In around 1963 the Vox company made a line of guitars which were exact copies of Strats, Precisions and other Fender models; very similar to, but not so well made as, the Burns guitars. Just previous to this period Jennings, the owners of Vox, were the distributors of Fender in the UK.
Harmony, an American company, had out a copy of the Les Paul, also in the early Sixties, called the Stratotone, along with a 335 copy called the H75. These were cheap and very popular guitars.
While it seems that many people have tried to cash in on famous American guitar styles, I personally think copies offer guitarists who maybe could not afford the real thing a 'near miss'. John Bates
Ken Achard is a well-known author of guitar books (his History Of The American Guitar is out soon), and is managing director of Peavey (UK).
John Bates is manager (and a director) of the Orange music shop in London's New Compton Street, which specialises in vintage guitars.
Copy Guitar Test Pt 1: Guitars A-G, Basses A-F
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