The collector: Mark Cowell - Course Director for the Graduate Diploma and Postgraduate Diploma/MA in Landscape Architecture at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, UK. I am qualified in Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and Art History and, prior to teaching I worked in Landscape/Urban Design practice in the UK and overseas for around 15 years.
The collection: Japanese-made guitars from the period when they produced the so-called ‘lawsuit’ copies of classic American guitars (there was never any actual ‘lawsuit’ to prevent these copies).
The story behind the collection…
This period ranges from the later 1970s to the later 1980s. Although Japanese copies of these classic American guitars were made prior to this they were really only visual approximations of the originals and quite poor quality. The makes I collect are, most famously; Tokai, Greco, Burny, Fernandes, Aria, Morris, Navigator and the American makers they copied are Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Martin.
The story is quite complex in that, from the later 1960s onwards, the original smallish firms that initiated the designs and made the great American guitars – Gibson, Fender, Gretsch were taken over by large corporations who both added ‘improvements’ and also cheapened the quality and craftsmanship of these guitars. This, by the later 1970s, led to the market for ‘vintage’ guitars (a 1959 Gibson ‘Les Paul Standard that could have been bought for around £400 in, say, 1969 would now cost in the region of £500,000+).
Paradoxically, as the quality of the originals went down, the Japanese manufacturers and distributors (in Japan, brands were often ‘owned’ by distributors who had guitars made in various factories) began to realise there was a significant home market for very accurate, high quality (but much cheaper) replicas of these American models. They began buying originals, obsessively spec-ing them and ‘cloning’ them. They had at this time not signed the CITES agreement and so were using very good quality hardwoods and had the burgeoning Japanese electronics industry to make the electrics for them.
At first these even used the American model names on some guitars but, after some legal pressure, they were persuaded to only replicate the look, typefaces, etc of the originals’ names and lettering on the ‘clone’ guitars. e.g. ‘Les Paul’ was written in the same script but became ‘Lord Player’, Leo Nine’, ‘Super Real’, ‘Love Rock’, ‘Leopard’ on various makes and the lettering on Tokai Stratocaster copies swapped Fender decals like ‘Original Contour Body’ to ‘Oldies but Goldies’.
Unlike the American originals, the Japanese made the same guitar at several different price points e.g. a Tokai Stratocaster might range in model numbers from TST38 to TST 120 covering 5-6 models with better specs. as you went up the range, although they looked superficially identical (a problem now for collectors, leading to endless discussions on Forums as to identification, etc). The model numbers invariably indicated the price in Yen (which changed from year to year with price increases, further confusing the issue).
By the early-mid 1980s, virtually every ‘classic’ American electric and acoustic guitar was being cloned by Japanese brands, most models being available from several different manufacturers.
I’ve been collecting these for quite a few years as some were originally sold in the UK and that’s how I first got to know about them/play them. This was in the early 1980s but by the early 1990s they were just ‘used’ guitars and it was possible for me to buy them in the UK for around £150-£180. The models imported into the UK were generally mid-range models.
With the advent of the Internet and global markets like Ebay, the situation began to change and dedicated websites like Tokai Forum began to enthuse about their qualities. This started to send values of the original UK examples quite high (a Tokai ‘Springysound’ 1958 Fender Strat copy I bought for £160 in 1998 would now go for around £550). At the same time, the Internet enabled people to find out about the situation in Japan itself (see above) and understand the top of the range models that had only ever been available there and also the much wider range of ‘clone’ models that had been available for the home market (e.g. the Gretsch and Rickenbacker clones that had never even been heard of in the UK)
Because of the sheer numbers sold in Japan, lots of people started to import from Japanese dealers, or bid on Yahoo Japan (the Ebay equivalent). Even with shipping and import duty, the prices were so low that it was cheaper than buying in the UK and there was a much greater range available. I also used a Japanese guy (Hideki Tosabayashi) who would bid for you on Yahoo for a very small fee. This was how I acquired the rest of my collection from about 2000 onwards. I currently have around 35 guitars. Unfortunately, the exchange rate is now very poor so any further additions are put ‘on hold’
Apart from the fact that you can actually do something with the collection (i.e. play them), I think the real reason for collecting is that they are (were) a way of getting high quality instruments that looked like (and often played better) than the originals for a good price. The initial obscurity and folklore surrounding this whole era of guitars (before they had been extensively researched and become available in the West) gave them a kind of ‘legendary’ and ‘mythic’ quality that was very interesting. And this kind of ‘mojo’ is central to the discourse of rock and roll, of course. I also think the amusing language, nomenclature and text that the ‘clone’ makers used to create a visual similarity with the originals is rather good, also.
In a more intellectual sense, in terms of the history of product design and manufacture, they exemplify an interesting theme; that of the originators and innovators of the electric guitar (people like Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares, Ted McCarty and Seth Lover at Gibson, etc.) who developed it largely from scratch in the early 1950s, being ‘corporatised’ by CBS, Norlin, etc. and virtually being wound-up by the early 1980s. They were rescued in part by, ironically, new management (from Yamaha USA in the case of Fender) who started offshore production in Japan and Korea to reduce prices and compete with the ‘clones’. The first Japanese Fenders from 1983 were made by Fuji Gen-Gakki who had been responsible for the ‘Greco’ clones. So the Americans ended up copying their own instruments! Now virtually all the great American brands offer cheaper offshore-produced copies of their own originals (mostly now made in China rather than Japan).
I suppose my two ‘favourite’ finds (because they’re pretty rare) are a Greco ‘round body’ style copy of a 1965 Rickenbacker 360/6 (this had been ‘modified’ in Japan and the electrics messed up so it needs quite a bit of fixing - not easy as Rickenbacker is the one US maker that never went ‘offshore’ and is zealous in preventing any copying of its guitars or spare parts).
The second is a Greco FA-K ORN – a copy of a 1960 Gretsch ‘Chet Atkins Nashville’.
The only thing I’d quite like is its ‘sister’ model – a Greco WF-140; a copy of the mid-1960s Gretsch ‘White Falcon’. I’ve also quite recently discovered that they also copied (cosmetically only; the Japanese ones are transistors, not valves) Fender amplifiers from the 1960s after I found one in a local music shop. So I might start to look at those, too.
I don’t know if the collection reveals anything about me. I was always interested in Japanese history (probably a legacy of seeing ‘The Seven Samurai’ when I was young) and I’ve always found that music has a visceral and emotional impact on me greater than anything else (including the subjects I teach!). They aren’t displayed at all - they’re all in guitar cases in my house. I don’t have any other collections and this one’s well under control (with the current prices!).
Images © Mark Cowell and used with his kind permission.