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.
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.
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.