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Fender and Gibson, the two companies who more than any others fueled the rise of the electric guitar in American popular culture, had by the dawn of the 70's lost their way. The ascension in the 60's of the guitar as the tentpole instrument of popular music had attracted the notice of corporate beancounters who stepped in to claim a piece of the action but knew nothing about the soul of either the product or its buyers.
What followed was a steady slide into mediocrity in which the hallowed Fender and Gibson brand names were milked by their respective new corporate owners, CBS and Norlin, for all they were worth. Both the quality of the companies' products and their reputations suffered as a result. By the early 1980's, buyers had learned that there were other and better sources for their new instrument needs.
New, smarter and better-attuned management teams took control of Fender and Gibson by the mid-80's enabling both companies in the ensuing years to reverse the downward spiral. In each case, the turnaround was fueled by a return to the guitars that made the brands powerful in the first place, the classic electrics of the 50's and 60's.
But both Fender and Gibson, in their plodding mega-corporate days, had been slow on the uptake. When the first age of the 'Guitar God' in the mid-60's fueled buyers' interest in the guitars that Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page played, Fender and Gibson watched from the sidelines as their 'downscale' and 'unsuccessful' products of an earlier era, now changing hands only in the used marketplace, became the guitars that everyone wanted to own -- vintage Strats and Teles and Les Pauls.
This market phenomenon, while it sailed over the heads of the befuddled corporate overlords running Gibson and Fender, did not go unnoticed in Japan.
Whereas many of the first Japanese electric guitars to reach Western markets in the early-to-mid 60's were cheap, entry-level caricatures designed to capture a sliver of the burgeoning electric guitar market, in the process the production mechanisms of Japanese guitar makers were being refined and their market savvy was steadily growing. In Japan, where appreciation of American popular culture was then and is now widespread, the original Gibsons and Fenders were hard to find and prohibitively expensive. So by the end of the 60's, companies like Fuji Gen Gakki and Tokai Gakki began creating fairly faithful replicas of the vintage-style Les Pauls and Strats and Teles that the marketplace had come to crave.
While in the US Fender and Gibson thrashed around with 'updated' and 'contemporized' versions of their signature guitars that left most buyers cold, the Japanese guitar makers knew what they were going for and with steadily increasing frequency nailed it. Marketed under names like Ibanez and Greco and Burny and Fernandes, these 'copy' guitars by the late-'70s had attained an astonishing degree of fidelity to the original instruments they were copying. They looked right and played right and sounded right. So right that they were cutting deeply into the sale of Fender and Gibson's new products in Japan and throughout Asia.
When these 'copy' guitars began appearing in the United States, Gibson's parent Norlin moved to blunt the attack by suing the US distributor for Hoshino, the Japanese company marketing the Ibanez guitars made by Fuji Gen Gakki, for trademark infringement, the trademarked component in this case being the 'open book' headstock shape of Gibson's guitars. Thus was christened the 'lawsuit' designation applied broadly to an entire class of Japanese guitars which, in truth, were so close to the originals that they easily crossed the line into in-your-face infringement.
FENDER MAKES A MOVE
When in the early 80's it finally dawned on the corporate overlords at CBS that they were well on the way to running Fender's reputation and sales into the ground, they moved to stanch the hemorrhage by bringing in a new Fender management team recruited from the Japanese multinational corporation Yamaha's USA operation.
The new team set about studying ways of bringing Fender back from the precipice. Taking a cue from the success of the Japanese 'copy' guitars, they included in their plan of attack a return to the guitars that had made the company's reputation in the first place -- the classic Stratocasters and Telecasters of the 1950's and early 1960's. And so began the American vintage reissue series -- the 1952 and 1962 Telecaster reissues and the Stratocaster reissues based on the original 1954, 1957 and 1962 models.
To do battle in the Asian market with the Strat and Tele clones that had heavily damaged Fender's sales, another initiative was begun to fight the copycats on their own turf. Fender launched a Japan-based manufacturing operation licensed to create and market guitars using not only the classic Fender designs but bearing the Fender name. And so Fender Japan was born.
When the American Fender team visited Japan to see how their counterparts were faring in the effort to capture the magic that had made vintage Fender guitars so special, they made a startling discovery. As Dan Smith, head of Fender USA marketing, was quoted in Tony Bacon and Paul Day's excellent THE FENDER BOOK, "Everybody came up to inspect them and the guys almost cried, because the Japanese product was so good - it was what we had been having a hell of a time trying to do."
By 1985, CBS decided it had had enough of the musical instrument business and gave the Fender management team the opportunity to buy the company, which they were able to raise the capital to do. But the manufacturing facilities in Fullerton were not part of the deal -- the Fender factory itself was sold to another buyer.
Now owning a guitar company but without the physical means to make guitars, Fender's new owners turned to their colleagues in Japan whose Fender guitars had met with great success on their home turf and who had also successfully provided the lower-cost line of Squier guitars to the American and European markets. Until Fender's new owners were able to set up a new factory in California, Japanese-made instruments were for a time in 1985-86 the only new Fenders arriving at dealers' showrooms in the U.S.
GIBSON PLAYS CATCH-UP
Gibson, despite its celebrated lawsuit against the US distributor of Ibanez guitars, had watched powerless as, first the Les Paul copies, then a procession of Japanese copies of every Gibson guitar that ever found favor with the guitar-buying public cut deeper and deeper into its market share in Japan and its own efforts to capitalize on reissued Gibson classics of the 50's and 60's. At a price well below the cost of the Gibson reissues, and frequently with far more fidelity to the specs of Gibson's vintage originals, there appeared a steady stream of Japanese copy Les Paul Customs and Standards and Juniors and Specials and 335's and Firebirds and Flying V's and Explorers and on and on until finally Gibson threw in the towel, deciding in effect that the only way to beat the copyists was to join them.
So convincing was the quality of the Japanese replicas that Gibson finally agreed to put its name on some of them. In tribute to 19th-Century company founder Orville Gibson, a line of Japan-made reissues intended solely for the vibrant Japanese market was sanctioned by Gibson USA to bear the names 'Orville' and 'Orville by Gibson.'
Why did two famous American companies decide to put their names on products made in Japan?
Beyond an expedient reaction to market pressures, the reasons were shrewdly tied into the make-up of 'the Japanese character' as a people and a nation.
Before the licensing deals were struck, Japanese replicas of classic Fender and Gibson guitars had proven themselves to be very well-made instruments. The dedication of Japanese workers and the excellence of Japanese products had by that time become apparent to the world, as Japan's dominance in automobile and electronics manufacture, for example, had made abundantly clear. It came as no surprise, then, that manufacturing standards in guitar-making would be similarly advanced.
Japan's culture is one in which duty, team contribution and the idea of work done correctly is a given. There is no 'Friday Phenomenon' in Japan's factories, where goods produced at the end of the work week are susceptible to careless assembly because the workers' minds are elsewhere. One does what one does to the absolute best of one's ability, always. It's a matter of personal honor.
Which brings us to the second reason why Fender and Gibson decided to put their names on Japanese-made guitars. While there are certainly aspects of American life that some Japanese find baffling or unsettling, by and large many are fascinated by the icons of American popular culture. Certain brand names, especially, are viewed with a type of reverence. Fender and Gibson guitars, so closely entwined with visions of America and American popular culture, are very much among those revered icons in Japan.
When Japanese luthiers set out to replicate the guitars that made Fender and Gibson great, only the most naive could think that their efforts would be anything less than impressive. Here we have an individual mindset and production mechanism geared toward work of unerring quality combined with an item to be made which excites reverence in the maker. If that isn't a recipe for successful manufacturing venture, a better one would be hard to imagine.
guitargai knows that not everybody wants to spend a fortune to buy a great guitar.
While many US-made electrics from the '50s and '60s are in fact great guitars, their highly-inflated market value hinges not on their individual greatness but on their collective rarity.
guitargai offers players and collectors alike an array of great guitars which look, sound and play like the vintage originals, made with fanatical attention to detail and unerring quality by the finest guitarmakers of Japan. Quality so uncompromising that Fender and Gibson have put their names and reputations on them.
Fender Japan guitars, the reissues especially, have over the years provided knowing musicians with great quality and value at a relatively modest price, until just a few years ago co-existing in the US marketplace with their more-expensive American Fender cousins.
But when Fender moved its 'offshore' manufacturing operation for Fenders sold in the U.S. to Mexico in 1998, the supply of new Fender Japan guitars to the U.S. market suddenly dried up. And the value of used Fender Japan guitars has steadily risen, fueled by a universal awareness of what truly great guitars they are.
Standard-production Fender Japan guitars capture the Fender mystique beautifully and do it with unmatched consistency. The higher-end Fender Japan models, in which the dictates of price-point have been discarded in favor of creating the highest-quality guitar possible, rival and can even surpass the best examples of Fender USA Custom Shop work.
Orville by Gibson guitars, intended solely for the Japanese domestic market, have for years given Japanese guitar buyers a combination of absolute quality and affordability with the assurance that their purchase is a bona fide Gibson conforming to the parent company's highest standards.
Every guitar offered by guitargai was made for the Japanese domestic market. Until now, the availability of these guitars outside of Japan has been nearly non-existent.
Now guitargai is honored to offer them for your consideration when thinking about your next guitar purchase.
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