Getting a quality student guitar is quite easy now. Fifty years ago this was not the case. There were expensive acoustic guitars and relatively inexpensive starter guitars and a vast empty desert between the two. Making things worse, there was a large demand for guitars caused by the folk resurgence and British invasion. Kay and Harmony had this low-end market sewed up. In fact during the early 1960s Kay and Harmony were the two largest manufacturer of guitars in the world. They primarily made poor quality, terrible sounding, hard to play starter guitars (starting at around $54.00 adjusted for inflation (AFI) in 2018 dollars is $374.00) and they made a lot of them. Having said that, the top of the line Harmony Sovereign’s were outstanding guitars featuring solid spruce tops and solid mahogany backs. The Sovereign cost $95.00 in 1969 and adjusted for inflation (AFI) is $659).
Fender was still a new company. Fender had successfully introduced commercially successful solid body bolt on guitars in the 1950’s and in the 1960’s they introduced their take on acoustic guitars, Fender acoustic guitars started around $129.00 (AFI is $829.00) and went up to $389.00 (AFI $2,699.00). These started in the middle price wise, but their innovative designs were not well accepted. The Fender necks were solidly built, super fast, and great feeling. These necks seemed to have been taken off their electric production line (something that Taylor Guitars would master successfully) and simply bolted to an acoustic body similar to their electrics. The body however was strangely constructed and required a metal “broom stick” brace to keep the body from collapsing upon itself. The guitars played great, but the sound was different and the ‘broom stick” brace appeared to just be poor construction techniques that kept the guitars from ever being a good seller.
In 1966 Kaman Aircraft introduced the Ovation acoustic guitar as a means of diversifying their product line. The Ovation guitar featured a synthetic parabolic back attached to a solid spruce top. This bowl back guitar was an extreme innovation that caught on quickly with upper echelon players such as Glen Campbell. In 1969 Ovation Guitars were priced between $299 (AFI $2,075.00) for the Balladeer and $699 ($4,851.00) for the Glen Campbell 12 String. Gibson and Martin made no real low-end guitars so there was a huge void for intermediate guitars and inexpensive quality acoustics. Could the Japanese manufacturers fill this void?
Now, recall that in the 1960’s we were just two generations off from WWII. Feelings of distrust towards Japan (let’s face it some down right hate) was strong. My father who was in the Navy during WWII and was at the D-Day landing, despised any product coming from a former Axis country. “Jap Crap” was to be avoided and thought of as junk. Enter the Honda motorcycle. This was the first Japanese import to get wide acceptance. Before I ever played guitar I rode a motorcycle. The only real kids bike available in the mid to late 60’s was a Honda. I had a CT 70. My dad grudgingly accepted that his kids “Jap Crap” motorcycle was indestructible. By the time I wanted to play a guitar he let my mom purchase a Yamaha.
In the late 60s and early 70’s if you wanted a quality acoustic you were looking to buy a Guild, Gibson, or Martin. For a student guitar you purchased a Kay or a Harmony. Thankfully my guitar teacher talked my mother into buying a Yamaha. In the 60’s Yamaha was just cracking open into the American market. They made very good quality beginner guitars using a propritary laminate top. My first guitar was a Yamaha FG 160 (1972 list price $160.00 AFI $960.00) I played this guitar every day from the time I was 11 until I stupidly sold the guitar in 1981.
How good were the Yamaha imports in the 60’s and 70’s? Watch the movie Woodstock, Richie Havens plays the hell out of a Yamaha FG 150. Richie was not scheduled to play, he borrowed the guitar from one of the Woodstock Crew for this impromptu performance. Also at Woodstock, Country Joe McDonald (Country Joe and the Fish) played a FG 150 for his entire set. By the late 60’s early 70’s Yamaha began production of intermediate to professional quality guitars. The FG 500 was Yamaha’s first solid spruce top steel string guitar. Yamaha introduced the FG 1500 and FG 2000 both featured a solid spruce top and solid Jacaranda back and sides. Bob Seeger toured with a Yamaha FG 1500 during his prime touring years and James Taylor toured and recorded with his FG 2000. So yes, there were some very good quality guitars coming from Asia even in the late 60’s and through the 70’s and beyond. By the late 70’s Takamine, Alvarez, and Aria were making very high quality intermediate and professional level guitars. Kay on the other hand closed American production in 1969, and Harmony closed its American manufacturing plant in 1975.
Takamine Instruments introduced their Martin and Guild inspired flat top, steel string guitar in the early 1970’s. Takamine manufactured a great product and offered it at a great price. Takamine blatant copy of the Martin headstock shape which led Martin to send Takamine a cease and desist order. This actually seemed to strengthen Takamine’s credibility and increased their guitar sales. In the late 70’s Takamine introduced the Palathetic Pickup system. “Palathetic (pickup) is composed of six separate, fully shielded piezo transducers, one for each string. The piezos are outfitted under the bridge plate and make contact with the saddle via metal cylinders. The sonic result: improved clarity between the strings, and resistance to feedback. Takamine’s engineers hit such a high note with the original Palathetic that, almost 40 years later, its design is essentially intact” (Reverb). With the help of professional artists that adopted the instruments as essential tools, Takamine developed a strong, more individual identity
Two notable guitars that were bi-produced in Japan and the United states were the Gibson Noveau and the Martin Shenandoah. Gibson in 1986 introduced the Gibson Noveau. The Nouveau was produced under the Gibson brand between 1986 and ’87. In 1988 it was labeled under the Epiphone line. The Nouveau’s bodies and necks were shaped in Japan and then assembled at Gibson’s Nashville factory. The guitar featured a laminated Spruce top and laminated Mahogany back and sides. Martin introduced the Shenandoah line 1983 and ended production in 1996. Similar to the Gibson Nouvea they were assembled in Martin’s Pennsylvania factory using parts fabricated in Japan. At the end of the Shenandoah’s run, (1993-1996) the guitars were fully made in Japan. Unlike the Gibson product the Shenandoah featured a solid spruce top.
By the end of the 1970’s US guitar production was not dead but it was on life support. The decline in the popularity of folk music, the increased quality of Asian imports combined to make life difficult on US manufacturers. Gibson and Guild survived the Asian import onslaught by making quality high-end guitars.
During the 80s and 90’s the cost of producing guitars in Japan soared, production of all but the finest imported guitars moved to South Korea by the end of the 80’s. Quality of guitars during this era shifted often greatly as manufacturing shifted from country to country. By the close of the 1990’s manufacturing in South Korea was matching that of the height of Japanese manufacturing. The cost of manufacturing in South Korea also increased greatly. By 2010 South Korean production had shifted to China, and Indonesia for all but the highest quality guitars.
Today, there has never been a better time to purchase a new guitar. The quality of Japanese, South Korean are on par if not exceeding that of USA and Canadian Manufacture. Chinese, and Indonesian manufacturing is extraordinarily high and great guitars are being produced at ever price and quality level.
Don’t belive me? In 1968 a Martin D-35 and case listed for $465.00 without a case. Add another $80 for a case. Adjust for inflation that is $3782.00 The list price for a Martin D-35 with a case in 2018 $3499.00 While Yamaha no longer makes the FG-160 you can buy a similar Yamaha the FX 325 for list price of $302.00 compaire that to the FG-150 adjusted for inflation price of $960. Today buying a Quality Student guitar under $200 is a no Brainer. If you try hard you can buy a new solid top for under $350.00 It is a great time to buy a new guitar. Playing guitar has never been more affordable.