Yamaha Guitars: Pacific Crossing
But while Yamaha guitars and basses zeroed in on the metal market during the Eighties, this was by no means the company’s sole focus. Yamaha developed a comprehensive line of acoustics and electrics in the Eighties—everything from jazz archtops to traditional Gibson/PRS-ish solidbodies like 1988’s Image Series. One characteristic shared by many Yamaha electrics is a very thorough and well thought-out system of electronics. This trait can be attributed to the meticulous rigor of Japanese design coupled with a desire to move beyond the three-position toggles and five-position switches of traditional electric guitar design. A good example of this design impetus is the H.I.P.S. (Hybrid Integrated Pickup System) featured on many Yamaha guitars starting in the late Eighties. It allowed any pickup on an H.I.P.S.-equipped Yamaha guitar to be switched on or off and from humbucking to single-coil operation. Some models allowed the pickups to be switched from passive to active.
Yamaha’s all-encompassing guitar line, in turn, has long been part of a much bigger picture that includes significant market shares in electronic keyboards, pianos, drums, recording studio equipment and P.A. gear. It all adds up to a manufacturing/marketing juggernaut, massive economies of scale and a remarkable level of R&D symbiosis.
FROM JAPAN TO NORTH HOLLYWOOD, WITH LOVE
In 1989 the Yamaha Guitar Development facility opened in North Hollywood, California. The idea was to harness those massive Yamaha manufacturing and marketing engines to what was basically a small, focused, boutique-style, super-hip custom shop. With more rock stars per square mile than any place else on earth, L.A. was definitely the place to tap into the most recent, advanced and ambitious thinking about what the ultimate electric guitar or bass might look, sound and feel like. This cutting-edge thinking could be implemented in guitars that could then be mass-produced by Yamaha’s factory facilities in Japan and Taiwan, with their long-standing reputation for precision craftsmanship.
Luthier Rich Lasner, formerly of Ibanez, headed up YGD in its earlier years, working with Ken Dapron and Leo Knapp. Lasner and his American colleagues worked closely with Minakuchi in Japan. Two of the initial instruments created by this international team were the Pacifica and the Weddington, which are also among the very few Yamaha guitars to have received actual model names rather than just numbers. The Pacifica was very much Yamaha’s response to the Superstrat trend of the late Eighties and early Nineties. The Weddington, which takes its name from the street where YGD is located, was a Les Paul–style guitar done up in the most high-class manner possible, with highly figured flame maple tops and all the trimmings.
YGD collaborated with Japan on several other outstanding instruments in the Nineties, including the AES1500, a thinline hollowbody archtop with a Bigsby tailpiece that was in the vintage Gretsch spirit but outfitted with Yamaha’s Q-100 soapbar style pickups. YGD also worked with Billy Sheehan to create the Attitude bass, some models of which incorporated Sheehan’s well-regarded stereo pickup configuration, featuring his DiMarzio “woofer” pickup in the neck position.
But not all great Yamahas came out of North Hollywood in the Nineties. Working from the Japanese HQ, Minakuchi developed the AEX1500 jazz archtop with guitarist Martin Taylor. He was also instrumental in creating the TRB bass series. Among his other of his design hallmarks is the use of piezo bridge pickups in instruments that don’t usually have piezos, such as archtop electrics and bass guitars, as well as advancing the concept of the six-string bass. “In 1990, there were not many six string basses,” Minakuchi says, “especially from the big companies. So Yamaha was the first to do that, working with artists like John Patitucci and Nathan East.”
A NEW CENTURY
So far the 2000s have brought several key strategic changes for Yamaha guitars. For one, John Gaudesi came aboard as the Custom Shop manager and chief designer at the North Hollywood facility, bringing with him experience he’d amassed at ESP, Valley Arts and Charvel/Jackson. Prominent among Gaudesi’s recent projects for Yamaha is a signature guitar he designed in conjunction with Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit fame. The instrument’s jaggedly asymmetrical body shape reflects Borland’s flair for the visual arts.
“Wes is an artist as well as a musician,” Gaudesi notes. “So when he came in for his first design session, it was actually pretty refreshing. Instead of working from existing body styles and shapes, Wes sat right down, sketched something and said, ‘This is what I want.’ ” The sketch was pretty crude, but it ended up being exactly the way the guitar is shaped. It’s almost like a surrealist version of an archtop guitar. For the f-holes, I took a photograph of the tattoos on Wes’ forearms, digitized that, and that’s exactly what’s on the guitar.” The guitar’s back, sides and center block are all carved from a single piece of alder. Yamaha calls this the Takumi-Kezuri method of construction, but it also happens to be exactly the way the classic Rickenbacker semi-hollowbody guitars of the Sixties were constructed.
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