Are all Japanese guitars good?

I would say yes and no. Most of the early Japanese guitars I have tried have a rather “toy guitar” feel to them. My Playsound from the late 1960’s is fun to play but it’s a pretty horrible copy of a Telecaster. A lot of Japanese acoustic guitar manufactures jumped on the bandwagon and started to make electric guitars in the mid Sixties since that seemed to be what the kids wanted, here you can read more about Japanese guitar brands. Some of them managed to make pretty decent copies of American Fender’s and Gibson’s and others came up with pretty elaborate and creative designs of their own but in general they weren’t that good guitars. Most of the guitars made in the 1960’s didn’t have that great wood and the hardware was normally pretty weak but sometimes the pickups could be all right. Ry Cooder still prefers the Japanese gold foil pickups for his slide guitars and they have been quite popular in American surf music too, this could simply be because that was what people could afford back in the days. It’s important to remember that a lot of the Japanese guitars in the Sixties were mainly made as cheap entry level instruments for the West, not as elaborate copies of the real deal for professionals as they later became in the Seventies and eighties. Some early Fender and Gibson copies are horrible just because they didn’t have any real American instruments to copy, they had to rely on photos and come up with their own solutions to solve the problems that Leo Fender and the boys had already figured out back in the fifties.

Japanese guitars, MIJ, Made in Japan
The Japanese collection at the moment: Fender Telecaster TL52-75 1987, Greco Spacey Sounds TE-500N 1977, Greco Spacey Sounds TL-500 1979, Greco Les Paul Custom EG-600C 1980, Tokai Love Rock LS-55 1991, VOX Les Paul 1970′s, Hohner Telecaster 1970’s, Hohner Stratocaster 1970′s, Tokai Silver Star SS-36 1979, Jazz Bass 1978, Fender Squier 1993, Maya F335G 1970’s, K.Yairi TG-40 1977, Morris WL-40 1973, Morris WL-35 1970’s

The big change came around 1972-74, this is also when most Japanese guitar manufacturers started to put serial numbers on their instruments. Lack of serial numbers could be a good indicator of the quality, or rather the lack of quality, of an instrument but not always. There are amazing Matsumoku made Greco’s that were made in the early Seventies that lack serial numbers. I would say that most Japanese guitar makers, or at least the successful ones, started to get it right around 1972-74. Especially the Fender copies but also the Les Pauls started to really feel and sound like the real deal around this time. Most copies in the sixties were either Stratocasters / Telecasters or SG’s / 335’s, and unfortunately most of them were pretty cheaply made. In the early Seventies Stratocasters kept being popular but most makers started to try to make Les Paul’s now as well, most with bolt on neck, and some with pretty good result. Some makers kept on making low cost instruments for export and others started to make amazing quality instruments that wasn’t particularly cheap at the time. The model number is often a giveaway of the original price so my Greco Spacey Sounds TE-500N would have cost ¥50 000 back in 1977 when it was made, that’s around $500. This is not true for all brands but a lot of them started in the mid-70’s to price the instruments after the model number, or rather the other way around, and this is probably the easiest way of determining the quality of a Japanese instrument. I’m not sure what an American made Gibson Les Paul Custom cost back in the mid-70’s but if one of Greco’s top of the line like the EG-1500 cost ¥150 000 that would have been a huge investment back then, around $1500. The second hand value today, at least for the famous brands like Greco, Tokai, Ibanez and Fernandes, is roughly what they cost new. A Greco EG-500 Les Paul copy tend go for 500-700€ on eBay, the same for Tokai and Fernandes, slightly less for unknown brands. A Les Paul tend to be worth a bit more than a Stratocaster, I guess because they made more Stratocasters so they are more common or maybe it’s just because Les Paul’s are more popular today. Rare models, don’t trust people who say that the guitar they are selling is rare on eBay, I mean really rare and high end models tend to cost like a real Fender or Gibson from that time.

So what is so good with Japanese guitars? I would say the wood and the craftsmanship. Americans got really sloppy and so did the European manufactures when the productions became too big in the Seventies. Cheap Japanese made guitars, at least after the mid-Seventies, are still really well made. They tend to have good solid wood, great weight and sustain and an amazing quality feel to them. This is of course not true for all of them but at least the Japanese guitars I have played have had a great feel to them. When they made budget instruments in Japan during the Seventies and the Eighties they didn’t cut cost on wood and workmanship, only on hardware and electronics and that’s fairly cheap and easy to upgrade yourself. The best guitars I have are all made in Japan around 1980, that seems to be the height of Japanese guitar manufacturing.

Japanese guitars Playsound (Teisco) 1960’s, CSL (Charles Summerfield Ltd) 1980’s, Greco Spacey Sounds TE-500N 1977

The Playsound guitar was labeled as Audition on the amp and Playsound on the guitar, a beginners set made by Teisco in the Sixties and sold by Woolworth in the UK. I found the whole kit very cheap in a charity shop in South Woodford, UK, the first guitar I bought to collect rather than play. CSL was made by Ibanez in the Fujigen factory and relabeled CSL (Charles Summerfield Ltd) for their UK import. I found it in a second hand shop in Spain in a terrible state so I bought it and cleaned it up and gave it as a present to cheer my girlfriend up after a hospital stay, so techincally not part of my guitar collection. Pretty classic Ibanez head from the 1980’s so clearly made after the 1977 lawsuit. Amazing neck, good feel in general but pretty weak pickups and cheap hardware. The Greco was imported straight from Japan last year, the first guitar I actually bought from outside EU. Amazing Fujigen built Thinline copy, strong original Maxon pickups but not too dark for being humbuckers and with a really fat neck, just as I like it.

Guitar of the day

Billy F Gibbons ‘Pearly Gates’ 1959 Les Paul

Billy F Gibbons ‘Pearly Gates’ 1959 Les Paul

Billy F Gibbons ‘Pearly Gates’ 1959 Les Paul

Levin LT-16

Levin LT-16 Made in Sweden 1966Levin LT-16 Made in Sweden 1966

When I grew up back in Sweden we always had this old acoustic guitar standing in a corner. It was from my father and I never knew what make it was or how old it could be, my mum just told me that my dad bought it second hand in the early Seventies. Someone had sanded off the name on the headstock and taken off the sticker inside before my dad had bought it. I learned to play on this guitar and it’s still one of my favourites because of the thin neck and slightly smaller body. I recently had an epiphany and found out what guitar it is. About a month ago my girlfriend and I was watching a film and suddenly I got this weird feeling that I actually knew what make my dad’s acoustic guitar is, I recognised the head shape.  I was convinced, it’s an old Levin. I have always thought that it was a Japanese guitar since the pickup looks like one of those Japanese gold foil pickups from the Sixties. I stopped the film and started to search for Sixties Levin guitars and managed to find a very similar one in a vintage guitar shop in Stockholm. I found some more info on the model and now even the serial number on top of the head made sense. It is a Levin LT-16 made in Göteborg, Sweden in 1966. The nickel plated individual Van Gent tuners with metal buttons can be found on Hagström guitars from this time as well. I wish that we would have taken better care of it over the years and that I wouldn’t have been so hard with the pic when I first learned to play but at least now after more than four decades of family confusion we know what it is. It’s a Swedish Levin.

Levin LT-16 Made in Sweden 1966

Levin LT-16 / Goya T-16
Grand Concert size: Body width: 380 mm, body length: 480 mm, body depth: 98 mm
Fingerboard width: 43 mm, scale length: 630 mm
Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, 4-ply bound top, single-bound back
Mahogany bolt-on neck with adjustable truss rod
Single-bound rosewood fingerboard with bass side pearloid dot inlay.
Rosewood bridge, nickel plated individual Van Gent tuners with metal buttons
Matte natural finish and ten year warranty

The Claescaster

Avid guitar collector and average guitar player Claes is writing about his thoughts on buying and collecting guitars, fixing them up yourself and just general guitar stuff. Claes has never even met a real luthier and doesn’t pretend to be an expert in any way. He just believes that the best way of learning is by trying and he likes to share his experiences and mistakes as he goes along and learn more and more about guitars.

His first attempts to change anything on a guitar was when he decided that his Morgan Telecaster needed a wee bit of bling and it eventually became, the Claescaster.


I bought Morgan back in 1998 in Uppsala, Sweden. She was just amazing, I’ve gotten used to refer to guitars as “she” since I live in Spain. For the money, she cost around 200€, she was pretty solid and well built and felt better than both the Squire’s and Mexican Fenders. Morgan was my third guitar. I had an old Hondo ll Les Paul copy from the Seventies that I had inherited from my father and learned to play on but I never liked the feel of so in 1993 I bought my first own guitar. It was a brand new white Fender Squier Stratocaster Made in Japan by FujiGen. That guitar served me well for many years but there was something missing, nothing really with the guitar itself, more about the model. I changed the pickguard from white to tortoise straight away when I got it to try to copy Hendrix Olympic white Strat, it didn’t work that well but at least it looked a bit more original than before. I wasn’t really a Strat guy, I had already figured out that I wasn’t a Les Paul guy, but when I played the Morgan for the first time I realised that I wasn’t a Strat guy either. I became a Telecaster guy and suddenly it was fun to play guitar again. Morgan followed me to London where I played in a couple of bands and then moved with with me to Spain. I actually never touched anything on her until maybe 1.5 years ago when I realised that the reason I favoured other guitars was because she looked boring. I did try to relic her when I first bought her by dragging her in the gravel outside my house to make her look less new, it didn’t work since I ended up wiping her clean after playing so she was always newly buffed and looked shiny and new. I remember that my step dad who is a bassist told me when I had dragged Morgan around outside that I would regret that one day and I ought to stop. I haven’t really regretted my feeble attempts to relic the guitar but I guess I wouldn’t do it again. I felt that Morgan needed a face lift and since I love gold I decided to exchange all the hardware for gold parts. I ordered some cheap bits from China and others I put a bit more money on so I ordered Wilkinson machine heads and bridge plate, which is amazing quality for the price, a real Fender ashtray cover and topped it off with a fake Fender neck from China. I found this guy in England on eBay, I bought all the parts on eBay, that had Chinese made fat necks with nice vintage nitro looking finish to them really cheap. He said he put a Fender logo on it for a fiver and the total with shipping and all was under 70€. The reason why I got a new neck for Morgan was mainly because I have never liked that light wood colour and on top of that the frets started to get worn. It didn’t sound too tempting to hand over Morgan to some luthier I didn’t trust and pay 250€ to change the frets when I could get a new neck for 70€. It was pretty straight forward to change the parts. I felt quite nervous when I had to drill new holes and fit the neck and I didn’t really know what I was doing when I had to rip of the chrome cover for the neck pickup and solder down a new gold cover but everything worked in the end. Well I did have some slight issues with the electronics. A cable came loose when I changed the jack so I asked a friend of mine to figure out where it was supposed to go and to solder it down for me. It didn’t really work out that well and Morgan spent a year and a half with faulty electronics and served me as my unplugged office guitar instead. Now she is back on her feet with a bit of help from Dani and Nurbert.

Morgan Telecaster, Claescaster