Yamaha Guitars: Pacific Crossing
The SG7 had a 12-string sister, the SG12a, and bass guitar brother, the SB7. There was another wildly elliptical bass design, the SB1C, and a few hollowbody arch-top “surrealistic Rickenbacker” knockoffs, the SA15 and SA15D. It’s a shame that these instruments never made it to America in the mid Sixties. If ever there was a guitar meant to join forces with Vox Phantoms and Danelectro Longhorns, it’s the SG7 and its shapely siblings. The guitar has developed something of a cult following. It was reissued in the mid-Nineties as the SGV (the V stands for Vintage) and has found favor with modern players like Meegs Rascon of Coal Chamber.
As it happened, Yamaha’s acoustics, rather than its electrics, were the first of the company’s guitars to make an impact in the U.S., when the company began exporting them to the country in 1969. The FG Series acoustics were among the earliest to arrive. One of these, an FG150, wound up making its debut on the first evening of the Woodstock Festival on August 15, 1969, wielded by singer Country Joe McDonald. In the years that followed, Yamaha acoustics would acquire a solid reputation as roadworthy instruments that offered plenty of value for a modest price.
A SEVENTIES SENSATION
To meet growing worldwide demand for Yamaha guitars, the company opened a new factory in the town of Kaohsiung in Taiwan to supplement Japanese production. The opening years of the Seventies saw Yamaha moving toward more conventional designs with its electric guitars, like the dual-humbucker, single-cutaway, Les Paul–ish SG45. The timing was right. The British Invasion of the mid Sixties and psychedelic explosion of the late Sixties had made rock and roll a big business. As a result, many of the major U.S. guitar companies had been bought up by corporations that, in their corporate wisdom, compromised quality in order to increase profit margins.
What these new corporate masters of the American guitar business hadn’t counted on was serious competition from Japanese manufacturers, who could offer high-quality and affordable pricing (largely because workers in Asia were paid less than their American counterparts). As the Seventies wore on, Japanese guitars began to shed the “cheap and cheesy” image they’d acquired in the Sixties and command serious respect.
One development that seemed to clinch the arrival of Yamaha, and Japanese-made instruments in general, was the high-visibility adoption of Yamaha guitars by Carlos Santana. A stalwart Gibson player earlier in his career, Santana was captivated by the SG175, a dual-humbucker solidbody with a distinctive, pointy dual-cutaway body shape that resembled something like a double-cut Les Paul. It would become one of Yamaha’s most instantly identifiable body shapes. “When Carlos Santana visited Japan in 1974,” Jackie Minakuchi says, “Yamaha supported his tour and had a chance to show him the SG175. He played it in concert and ordered a 24-fret version of the SG175 with a Buddha inlay. He said that he was influenced by the Buddha spiritually.”
Like many guitarists in the Seventies, Carlos’ musical quest at the time was to achieve greater sustain. As part of this general obsession with sustain, the neck-through-body design gained great popularity. Fashioning a guitar’s neck and central body from the same piece of wood allows for a more uniform vibration pattern, which results in greater sustain. In addition, this design prevents energy loss that occurs when vibrations travel from the guitar’s body and into a separate neck. As the SG175 was a set-neck instrument, Santana had Yamaha make him two 175 prototypes with a neckthrough-body design.
These prototypes, in turn, set the stage for the neckthrough Yamaha SG2000. To increase sustain even further, Santana had Yamaha affix a bulky brass sustain plate to the body, right by the tailpiece. Brass was the magic metal of Seventies guitar design. All manner of guitar hardware was fashioned from the dense metal in the endless quest for greater sustain. And so, by 1976, one of Yamaha’s most iconic guitars had come into being.
One might even say that the SG2000 was to the Seventies what the Strat and Les Paul were to the Fifties. The Stratocaster and Les Paul are instruments that strongly reflect the design aesthetics and tonal preoccupations of the Fifties but which have transcended the era in which they were created, to become timeless classics. In the same way, the Yamaha SG2000 and its spin-off SG Series guitars are products of the Seventies that are still very much in use today. With its neck-through design and distinctive silhouette, the SG2000 offered a unique option to the Gibson and Fender archetypes.
The fact that a highly respected musician like Santana was willing to lay aside his Gibsons and pick up a Yamaha spoke volumes. He played his Yamaha guitars on the late-Seventies and early Eighties albums Inner Secrets, Marathon, Zebop! and Shango, and soon other high-profile guitarists followed suit. Bob Marley, John McLaughlin, Robben Ford and Bill Nelson were all Yamaha SG2000 players at one point or another.