Yamaha Guitars: Pacific Crossing
Originally published in Guitar World, November 2009
In 1969, a little-known Japanese instrument company took a chance and
shipped a batch of guitars to the U.S. The rest is history. Guitar World celebrates 40 years of Yamaha Guitars.
“Woodstock, the first man on the moon and the first Yamaha guitars to arrive in the U.S.—it all happened in 1969,” Yamaha Guitar marketing manager Dennis Webster notes. That year marked the start of Yamaha’s rise from a maker of guitars for the Japanese market to the top-selling guitarmaker in the world and the top-selling acoustic and acoustic-electric guitar company in the U.S.—not to mention the producer of some of the most ubiquitous bass guitars on the planet.
Yamaha played a pivotal role in the emergence of Japanese guitars in the Seventies as world-class contenders, equal—and in some instances, superior—to their American and European counterparts. Down through the years, Yamaha guitars and basses have found favor with rock icons like Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Navarro, Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit and Troy van Leeuwen of Queens of the Stone Age. And Yamaha stringed instruments have been equally popular with singer-songwriter legends like Paul Simon and James Taylor and jazz and rock virtuosi like Nathan East, Frank Gambale, Martin Taylor, Billy Sheehan and John Patitucci.
“The Japanese are a people who are very proud of their workmanship and it shows,” Webster says. “They’re very meticulous in their research and study of great instrument design, and they have a long tradition of high-quality woodworking. At Yamaha, we’ve been working with wood for over 100 years now. And it’s not just guitars. Every day, we’re selecting and procuring premium woods for pianos, drums, marimbas…you name it. There’s a lot of expertise there.”
WAY BACK WHEN
Venerable American guitar brands like Martin, Gibson and Washburn proudly trace their histories back to the 19th century. Yamaha’s pedigree dates back to that age as well. The company, originally called Nippon Gakki Co. Ltd., was founded in 1897 by organ-maker Torakusu Yamaha. Then as now, the company was headquartered in the Japanese city of Hamamatsu. By 1941 Yamaha had begun to branch out into guitar making, focusing initially on steel- and nylon-string acoustics that were sold only in Japan at first.
But the guitar operation really kicked into high gear during the mid Sixties, when Beatlemania became a global phenomenon and garage bands began forming everywhere. In Japan, right-wing cultural conservatives marched in protest of a 1966 appearance by the Beatles at Nippon Buddokan in Tokyo, claiming that the Liverpudlian quintet were polluting the “purity” of Japanese youth. But the guitar R&D team at Yamaha took a more pragmatic approach to the rock and roll invasion from the West, wisely reasoning that, if you couldn’t beat them, you could most certainly join them.
That same year, Yamaha debuted its first electric guitar, the SG7, one of the most wonderfully wild-and-weird designs in the company’s history. The asymmetrical body features a spiky horn at the treble-side upper bout, which is balanced by a softly rounded, swelling curve at the bass-side lower body bout. Meanwhile, the slender, elongated six-on-a-side headstock is arguably an early precursor of the Jackson/Charvel, “hockeystick” headstock of the hair metal Eighties.
Yamaha’s Hirotaka Takanashi designed the body and headstock, with Masatoshi Suzuki, Takeshi Uchida, Shunichi Matsushima and Ryozo Maki handling technical design under the leadership of Kiyohiko Ito. Long lists of names like these are common in Yamaha guitar history. While American guitar history, and indeed much of American culture, is based around the myth of the rugged individual—Leo Fender, Les Paul, Fred Gretsch—Japanese culture places more emphasis on the collective energy of many people working in harmonious creative collaboration. This outlook has proven to be a great source of strength in Yamaha’s history.
One more key figure in the SG7 design was guitarist Takeshi Terauchi, leader of the pop group the Blue Jeans, who acted as an artist consultant for the instrument. “The Blue Jeans played with Yuzo Kayama, who was kind of the Japanese Elvis Presley,” says Yamaha assistant general manager Kiyoshi “Jackie” Minakuchi. “Yuzo Kayama was a movie star and wrote lots of songs. And because the Blue Jeans played with him, they were pretty big at the time. Takeshi Terauchi was inspired by some American-made electric guitars when it came to designing the SG7, but he was also concerned with making it very comfortable to play.”