Looking Back on 50 Years of Yamaha Guitars

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

As Yamaha celebrates its 50th anniversary, Guitar World looks back through the Japanese company’s storied history to find out what lead to them becoming one of the preeminent guitar manufacturers of all time.

Yamaha occupies a surprisingly unusual niche in the guitar industry.

The company, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its presence on the American market and export to other countries beyond Japan, has consistently produced guitars that have sold in impressive numbers and attracted a notable following of celebrity players and esteemed pros.

Yet the success of Yamaha guitars is influenced more by their reputation for high quality and the outstanding value their instruments offer for the money than by the usual forms of guitar hero worship that drive many guitar sales. As a result, Yamaha has quietly satisfied the needs of all walks of players from beginner to pro while an ever-changing parade of trendier instruments have hogged the spotlight.

Although Yamaha was originally founded in 1887 to produce pianos and organs, the company did not start building guitars until the early Forties, eventually opening a factory dedicated exclusively to guitar construction in Hamamatsu in the late Forties. Yamaha’s first guitars were nylon-string classical models, and these guitars were sold only by retailers within Japan through the Fifties and early Sixties.

By the mid Sixties, the entire world had a fever called Beatlemania, and the only prescription was more guitars. The United States was particularly stricken, and domestic guitar companies struggled to keep up with the increasing demand for anything with six strings. To satisfy customers, particularly those on tight middle class budgets, retailers turned to Asian manufacturers to fill their shelves with affordable, low-cost instruments.

The phenomenal increase in demand for guitars was very beneficial to Yamaha. The company already had more than two decades of experience building guitars, and the decision was made to pursue these new opportunities in a grand fashion. In 1966, Yamaha sold their first export models, which consisted of the G50, G60, G80, G100, G120 and G150 classical guitars, all produced at their Hamamatsu factory.

The models sold for retail prices ranging from $49 to $109. That same year, Yamaha established a custom shop dedicated to the production of the finest instruments they could make, and they started to collaborate with outside experts. Their first collaboration was with Spanish guitar builder Eduardo Ferrer, who helped Yamaha refine the designs of its classical guitar models. This led to the development of the GC5, GC7 and GC10 models, which made their debut in 1967.

At the same time during the mid Sixties, Yamaha expanded its production by offering its first steel-string and electric models, including bass guitars. Yamaha’s classical guitars and new steel-string line, which consisted of the dreadnought FG150 and FG180 models (also introduced in 1966 and priced at $99.50 and $119.50, respectively), sold in impressive amounts in the United States, but the company’s earliest electric guitars and basses were only distributed in Japan. Electric models included the SG2, SG3, SG5 and SG7 solidbody guitars and the SB-2 solidbody bass.

Like many other electric guitars produced in Japan during the Sixties, Yamaha’s first solidbody guitars had distinctive, radical body shapes, particularly the SG5 and SG7 with its dramatic curves, small upper bass bout horn and svelte treble cutaway horn. Even more impressive was the fact that the bridge, vibrato and pickups (which included a pair of single-coil bridge pickups in a single housing for the SG3 and SG7) were of Yamaha’s own design.

Japan’s instrumental surf music scene was still going strong at this time and many Japanese surf bands favored Yamaha’s new electric models. These guitars still have a strong cult following in Japan today. The materials, craftsmanship and playability of Yamaha’s steel-string and nylon-string guitars were notably better than most other budget-priced instruments sold during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

As a result, Yamaha guitars were a very popular choice for beginners as well as experienced players who wanted an inexpensive backup acoustic instrument. Possibly the first major exposure for a Yamaha guitar in the United States was when Country Joe McDonald performed a nine-song solo set on the second day of the 1969 Woodstock Festival accompanied only by a Yamaha FG-150. The guitar belonged to a stage hand, who loaned it to the performer when McDonald was asked to play an impromptu set before Santana took the stage.

Although the guitar is barely visible in the footage of McDonald performing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” featured in the Woodstock documentary, the Yamaha name was prominent in many photos shot of McDonald, including an iconic shot by Jim Marshall that was distributed to the press.

By the late Sixties, Yamaha had expanded its line of guitars considerably. The most notable development was the introduction of several high-quality acoustic models made from solid materials. The FG-500 was Yamaha’s first steel-string acoustic model to feature a solid spruce top, eventually followed by the FG-1500 and FG-2000 models with solid spruce tops and solid jacaranda back and sides. Bob Seger’s main acoustic onstage during the Seventies was an FG-1500, and James Taylor often played an FG-2000 live and in the studio during this period as well.

Encouraged by the success of their acoustic guitars, Yamaha started to export electric models outside of Japan as well. The SG-40 and SG-45, which featured a single-cutaway, dual-humbucker, set-neck design similar to a Les Paul, were the first Yamaha electric models to officially arrive on American shores in 1972. The less-expensive double cutaway SG-30 and SG-35 models arrived a year later in 1973, followed by the much fancier SG-90 and SG-175 in 1974. None of the SG models made much of an impact on the American market initially.

In an effort to increase interest in their electric guitars, Yamaha reached out to Carlos Santana in 1975 and offered to build him a custom instrument. Yamaha’s custom shop made an SG-175 model featuring a large inlay of a Buddha figure on the body’s lower bout for Santana, and the guitar became Santana’s main instrument throughout the late Seventies. Santana’s performance on Saturday Night Live in 1977, particularly when he held an impressively long sustaining note during “Europa,” gave a huge boost to Yamaha’s reputation amongst guitarists as a builder of high-quality instruments.

While Santana clearly loved his custom Yamaha SG-175, he also noticed numerous areas where the guitar could be improved and collaborated with Yamaha to develop his ideas. The result of his input was the SG-2000 model, which was one of Yamaha’s most innovative and successful solidbody designs ever. The SG-2000 featured a neck-through-body design and was granted two United States patents for its T-Cross System of attaching mahogany wings to the maple and its Sustain Plate, which was a brass block mounted in the body and connected to the bridge to enhance sustain.

Throughout the late Seventies and Eighties, Yamaha SG models appeared in the hands of numerous players, including Bob Marley, Al McKay (Earth, Wind & Fire), Brian Robertson (Thin Lizzy), Kerry Livgren (Kansas), Paul Barrere (Jethro Tull) and Mick Jones (Foreigner). The model was popular with progressive guitarists like Phil Manzanera and Bill Nelson (Be-Bop Deluxe and solo) and jazz players like Larry Carlton, Robben Ford and John McLaughlin. The SG model was particularly popular with British new wave/post-punk artists during the Eighties, including Andy Taylor (Duran Duran), John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees), Stuart Adamson (Big Country) and Paul Reynolds (Flock of Seagulls).

Similarly, Yamaha’s steel-string acoustic models were embraced by an increasing number of influential professionals during this period. During the mid Seventies, Yamaha made the transition from the FG series to the L series. Yamaha incorporated several major design changes with the L series, including increasing the scale length from 25 inches to 25 9/16 inches, narrowing the dimensions of the lower bout and offering fancier inlays and binding. Whereas the FG series guitars were primarily affordable, budget instruments, the L series were designed as high-end acoustics.

John Denver ordered two custom L-53 guitars featuring Hokkaido spruce tops and Brazilian rosewood back and sides in 1977, which he played in concert and television appearances during the late Seventies. The ornate custom abalone inlay on his L-53’s headstock also appears prominently on the cover of the John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together album.

That same year John Lennon ordered a new Country Jumbo CJ-52 guitar from Yamaha’s custom shop while he and Yoko Ono were on vacation in Japan. The guitar featured an intricate dragon graphic on the body, the Chinese character for dragon on the headstock, and a yin-yang symbol below the bridge, all done using Japanese Maki-e lacquer with gold and silver powder. To date, it remains the most expensive guitar built by the Yamaha custom shop. Paul Simon was also a fan of Yamaha’s brand new CJ-52 model, and it became his main guitar for live performances, including the historic Central Park benefit reunion concert by Simon & Garfunkel in 1981.

Bob Dylan discovered Yamaha acoustics while playing shows at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall in 1978, and shortly afterward a Yamaha L-6 and L-52 were frequently seen in his hands during concert performances. Yamaha developed dozens of popular classical, flamenco, steel-string and solidbody electric models during the late Seventies, but they also expanded their lineup with semi-hollow and archtop electric guitars as well as electric bass models. During this era,

Yamaha introduced the SA-2000 semi-hollow guitar, the popular BB-1200 and BB-2000 “broad bass” models, and the AE-2000 hollowbody jazz guitar. The SA-2000 and AE-2000 alike found favor with jazz and session guitarists like Joe Beck, Robben Ford, Carlos Rios and Tommy Tedesco, while Yamaha’s BB model basses were adopted by notable players like Michael Anthony, Nathan East, Paul McCartney and Billy Sheehan.

Like most other guitar companies in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Yamaha introduced its own version of a “Van Halen” guitar—the SF-3000—featuring an asymmetrical double-cutaway body, single humbucking pickup and vibrato tailpiece. However, its rather chunky body shape, 3+3 headstock, rosewood fretboard, and vintage-style vibrato weren’t quite what players were looking for at the time and the model failed to gain much attention.

Whereas most of its competitors started to offer hot-rodded “super Strat” designs during the early to mid Eighties, Yamaha focused instead on building guitars with classic-oriented aesthetics, such as the top-of-the-line SG-3000 introduced in 1982. Yamaha still remained an innovator during this period, however. Their most notable introduction during the mid Eighties was the first commercially produced five-string bass, the BB-5000, which made its debut in 1984.

Yamaha also developed the CWE series acoustic-electric models introduced in 1983, which paved the way for the immensely popular APX series introduced four years later. The CWE series guitars featured a slim, medium-size body with an oval soundhole and cutaway that is essentially identical to the design used for the APX guitars. However, the APX models introduced in 1987 had radically redesigned pickup and preamp systems.

The most innovative feature was its hexaphonic piezo pickup that provided a separate pickup for each string. The APX’s switching system allowed players to select mono output or two different stereo settings where either the upper and lower three strings were routed to separate outputs or alternating strings were sent to separate outputs. The APX’s smaller body dimensions also reduced the possibility of feedback when playing at high volume levels onstage.

As a result, APX guitars became a common sight at concerts during the late Eighties and early Nineties, seen onstage with performers like Wynonna Judd, Steve Lukather, Suzanne Vega and many others. In 1987, Yamaha finally introduced their own “super Strat” guitars, the RGX series. This time around they paid very close attention to players’ requests, and the models offered very popular features such as a 24-fret neck-through-body design, deep scalloped cutaways, 24 3/4–inch scale, ebony fretboard, and individual switches for each pickup.

Yamaha also developed their own RM Pro double-locking tremolo system for the RGX models. Some models even offered active pickups of Yamaha’s own design. To further prove their dedication to players’ needs, Yamaha opened the Yamaha Guitar Development facility in North Hollywood, California, in 1989.

This was the birthplace of two highly successful series of guitars: the Weddington and the Pacifica, the latter still in production today. The Weddington models were essentially modernized upgrade of classic Les Paul designs. For example, the Weddington Custom featured a single-cutaway mahogany body with figured maple top, two humbuckers and Tune-o-matic bridge with stop tailpiece, while the Weddington Special had an all-mahogany body with single-coil P-90-style pickups and adjustable single-piece bridge.

The Pacifica represented the Nineties evolution of the “super Strat” design, which combined the slim, fast feel of Eighties guitars with classic pickup combinations and vintage-style Wilkinson tremolos with Sperzel locking tuners.

Two Pacifica models—the USA1 and USA2—are the only guitars that Yamaha has built entirely in the United States. The single-cutaway Pacifica model later became the basis for Mike Stern’s signature PAC1511MS introduced in 1997, which replaced the custom Tele that Stern had played for years. The PAC1511MS remains Stern’s main guitar today. Other notable models inspired by input from artists who collaborated with Yamaha Guitar Development include the Billy Sheehan signature Attitude bass and the AES-1500 archtop hollowbody.

The latter is a favorite of Nashville session guitarist Kenny Greenberg, who has played both his hardtail AES-1500 and Bigsby-equipped AES-1500B on hundreds of recordings. Signature model instruments have played an important role in Yamaha’s success over the last two decades. Since the early Nineties, Yamaha has made signature bass guitars for Michael Anthony, Nathan East, John Myung, John Patitucci and even the BEX-BS semi-hollow bass for Billy Sheehan.

Recent notable signature guitars include the AES-620 SH Red Rocker designed for Sammy Hagar, the AES-FG Frank Gambale model, the semi-hollow CV-820 WB Wes Borland model and the triple-pickup semi-hollow SA-503 TVL made for Troy Van Leeuwen. One of Yamaha’s most distinctive signature models was the RGX-TTD6, designed by Ty Tabor of King’s X, which featured a 26 1/4–inch scale designed for heavy-gauge strings and drop tuning. In 2001, Yamaha introduced perhaps the most radical guitar design to come from their factory—the “Silent Guitar.”

This instrument features a minimalist body design with a full-size neck, a body surface no wider than the fingerboard, and a guitar-shaped frame.

A sophisticated pickup/preamp system and built-in DSP allows players to plug headphones directly into the guitar for practicing in silence or use the line out to amplify the guitar through a sound system for live performance. The first Yamaha “Silent Guitar” models provided natural nylon-sting classical guitar tones, but more recently Yamaha has also offered steel-string versions of this revolutionary instrument. Lee Ritenour has used the SLG-100N “Silent Guitar” onstage and in the studio since 2003.

More innovation followed in 2005 when Yamaha introduced its Alternative Internal Resonance (A.I.R.) body construction technology, which combined lightweight, resonant tonewoods sandwiched between two external layers of hard tonewoods to minimize weight without compromising structural integrity. This feature made its debut on the RGX-A2 guitar and RBX4-A2 bass, and later was used for the construction of the RBX5-A2 five-string bass and RBX4-A2M short-scale bass in 2008. Yamaha’s dedication to guitar technology goes well beyond innovative new models, however, and extends to their entire approach for building instruments.

This is particularly evident in their acoustic building process, which starts with specially developed methods of drying woods to ensure structural stability and optimal tone and extends to their Acoustic Resonance Enhancement (A.R.E.) process developed in 2008, where the wood’s structure is treated to enhance its sound transmission capabilities and dynamic responsiveness. Yamaha has even refined its own complex neck-to-body joint for acoustic guitars that provides an enhanced level of contact between the neck and body. In recent years, Yamaha has also revived some of its past glories, albeit with modern enhancements, improvements and updates.

For example, Yamaha performed a major revision of its steel-string flattop L series in 2004 and again in 2014, with both instances leading to the development of new bracing patterns. The SG quietly disappeared from production in 1988, although the Yamaha custom shop still built a limited number of SG guitars on request. Yamaha revived the SG for a brief period starting in 1997 and a limited run of SG-1000 and SG-2000 guitars were sold in the U.K. in 2007. While the SG-1000, 2000 and 3000 were officially discontinued in 2010, at the same time Yamaha announced the new SBG-1820 and SBG-1802 models, which continue to carry on the SG legacy today.

While the Pacifica and SBG series guitars remain stalwarts, Yamaha recently expanded its electric solidbody offerings with the new Revstar series. These distinctive guitars are inspired by classic British and Japanese café racer motorcycles as well as Japanese craft to provide players with an instrument that is familiar yet different at the same time. True to Yamaha’s philosophy from the beginning, the Revstar series offers outstanding quality for impressively competitive prices—a feature that Yamaha has never really abandoned. In celebration of Yamaha’s 50th anniversary of guitar manufacturing, the company has produced the limited edition 50th anniversary FG180-50th steel-string flattop acoustic.

The model is based on the appearance of the original FG-180 model that made its debut in 1966 and played a crucial role in Yamaha’s early success as a guitar company, but it boasts numerous refinements that reflect Yamaha’s experience. Improvements include new scalloped bracing, Yamaha’s A.R.E. process and all-solid materials.

This year Yamaha also revived the FG series, which offer incredible value to beginners and experienced players alike just like the original FG models did 50 years ago. It’s difficult for any company to survive 10 years let alone 50, but Yamaha has managed to succeed all this time by providing guitarists with solid tools for sensible prices.

While Yamaha guitars have never been particularly trendy, they’ve satisfied the needs of working musicians and beginners alike. Chances are, if you started off playing a Yamaha guitar, you’re still playing one today, just like Frank Gambale, Dave Navarro, Liz Phair and yours truly. Look closely the next time you go to a concert or club gig and you’ll likely see Yamaha gear onstage, and you’ll likely continue to see Yamaha gear for another 50 years if you’re lucky enough to live that long.

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.