Yamaha Guitars: Pacific Crossing
The Yamaha SG guitars became such a presence in the market that, during the Eighties, the company was obliged, at the insistence of Gibson, to change the model designation from SG (which had stood for “solid guitar”) to SBG (“solid body guitar” to avoid confusion with Gibson’s own SG models. This minor shift in nomenclature has done nothing to diminish the popularity of these Yamaha electrics. Just this year, the company released a new update of the classic design, the SBG3000, which will be produced in a limited run of only 40 guitars. “It’s a 40th anniversary product,” explains Minakuchi. “This is a heritage guitar for us. That body shape has been very good for Yamaha.”
Santana’s 1974 SG175 with the Buddha inlay has become an iconic instrument, but it is hardly the only gorgeous and mystical custom inlay job that Yamaha has done for rock’s elite. In 1977, the company created a custom CJ52, “country jumbo,” acoustic for John Lennon, which sported a curling red dragon inlaid on the guitar’s black body, along with a circular yin/yang symbol. The inlay work employed a traditional Japanese technique called Maki-e, a style of inlay not usually employed on musical instruments because it requires the use of a high-humidity steam kiln that wreaks havoc on the music-making properties of wood. Yamaha’s custom guitars builders found a way to pull it off, creating the dragon from a drawing by Lennon himself. The instrument is the most expensive Yamaha guitar ever made.
Lennon had become interested in Yamaha acoustics after playing a custom, black CJ52 acoustic that the company had produced for Paul Simon. The celebrated American singer-songwriter is a longtime fan of Yamaha acoustics, which the company custom-makes for him with slightly smaller bodies to fit the artist’s compact frame. But Simon was hardly alone. Yamaha acoustics became high visibility items during the Seventies. James Taylor played an FG2000 and L55 Custom, while David Lindley favored an L51. Jimmy Page played Yamaha acoustics during Led Zeppelin’s 1975 world tour and would later make Yamaha his acoustics of choice for the Page/Plant Unleaded tour in the Nineties. And Bruce Springsteen relied heavily on a CJ52 during the fertile Eighties phase of his career.
Yamaha’s reputation for building great acoustic guitars grew in 1980 with the introduction of the APX line of electro-acoustics. This Yamaha series was a bold step away from traditional acoustic guitar design with its thin-bodied, single-cutaway guitars finished in bright, solid colors and outfitted with bridge-mounted piezo pickups. And in thinking outside the big wooden box of conventional guitar design, Yamaha created an electrified acoustic that was ideally suited to live performance. The thinner body helped reduce feedback and was aided in this job by an onboard EQ optimized for the task of notching out feedback-friendly frequencies.Espoused by country star Wynonna Judd and countless others, the APX became standard equipment for live acoustic playing in all genres during the Eighties.
THE METAL EIGHTIES
At the dawn of the Eighties, Yamaha responded to the burgeoning new trend toward hot-rodded metal axes initiated by the rise of Eddie Van Halen. The company’s initial bid for the market was the SF3000, an electric guitar equipped with a single humbucker and a whammy bar for executing the dive bombs and horse whinnies that so liberally adorned the playing of EVH and others. Yamaha scored a major coup when Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony fell in love with the company’s BB2000 bass, relying on it heavily for the band’s 1984 album and standout tracks like “Panama” and “Good Girl Gone Bad.”
The BB, or “Broad Bass,” Series had been introduced in 1977. The instruments employ a neckthrough-body design similar in concept to the SG/SBG2000 and its offspring. Paul McCartney became an early BB proponent, wielding a BB1200, as seen on the video for his tune, “Coming Up,” during the early Eighties.
Metal bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan also became a BB convert, laying aside his beloved Fender Precision Bass for a Yamaha BB3000 in 1984. He collaborated with the company on a modified BB3000, carefully reproducing the neck dimensions of other specifications of his P-bass. It was the first of many custom and signature models Sheehan and Yamaha would create together.
If the Seventies had been the coming out party for Japanese guitars, the Eighties was Japan’s senior prom. Yamaha and fellow Japanese giant Ibanez had a particularly strong hold on the metal market, and with good reason. The hair metal phenomenon found a particularly responsive audience in Japan, and indeed many stars from that era still enjoy the proverbial distinction of being “big in Japan.” Moreover, the musicians who created the sound and look of Eighties metal were relatively unconcerned with the rock, blues or country music traditions of the Fifties and Sixties, and there was less impetus for them to play the venerable American guitars so closely associated with those decades.
Yamaha’s all-out bid for the Eighties shred/hair metal market came in 1987 in the shape of the pointy RGX Series guitars and RBX basses. These instruments were equipped with all the features that shredders and aspiring shredders were lusting for: 24-fret ebony fingerboards, 24 3/4–inch scale lengths and a doublelocking trem system that enabled players to pull up on the whammy bar.
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