Vintage Japanese Basses: The 1960's and Early 70's
It is interesting to recall the general disdain that Japanese instruments were treated with until the higher quality offerings from Yamaha, Ibanez and Aria began to outshine some of the U.S. makers, and for a lower price, not unlike the hostility and sneers that greeted early imported autos and motorcycles from Japan. The effect of that loss of market dominance is still being felt in the guitar manufacturing world, and some of the major American builders were much to blame for their own downfall of quality, innovation and sales in the 1970’s (again, much like the auto industry) but that is a topic for another time. Eventually Japanese-made instruments would be considered by many players to be the equal or superior to the American manufacturers they originally copied, but the early imports are a very mixed bag of quality materials and workmanship and also a lot of shoddily thrown together instruments that were probably a disappointment to every player that tried to coax a sound out of them.
The first generations of Japanese imports and even later, high quality instruments were largely ignored or disparaged by vintage collectors and dealers until fairly recently. I ascribe this to several factors, including a degree of insecurity on the part of collectors and dealers who had so much time, money or study invested in classic American guitars that they had no interest in diversifying or promoting anything else, as similar attitudes prevailed against most foreign-made instruments. When a person has a lot of time, effort and money wrapped up in a collection or business they sometimes convince themselves they are 100% correct in their choices and prejudices; to admit otherwise would be too painful to the psyche and wallet.
An incredible variety of shapes, pickups, hardware, binding, inlays and other features make the research and collecting of Japanese instruments a challenging but potentially never-ending pastime, as various models are similar but have subtle differences in headstock or body shapes, pickups and finishes. The lack of standardization and mix-and-match construction means there are endless variations on a theme; there are thousands of instruments based on Fender and Gibson designs, violin basses and Mosrite, Vox and Burns-inspired mutants, and the vast variation of badging, parts, finishes and styling came directly from the factories, not owner modifications. Often these are slight variations on the same theme; a slightly pointier body on one bass may be more rounded on another that is essentially the same instrument, or the pickguards may vary in shape or materials on the same model. Not surprisingly, Japanese buyers were among the first to start collecting the rarer and better pieces of their own electric guitar history but American and other players and collectors have steadily increased the value and interest in vintage electric instruments from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Comparatively few of these instruments currently have a lot of collector interest or command high prices, with the possible exception of Ibanez “lawsuit models” of the copy era, Teisco Spectrum or May Queen models and a handful of others. Personally, I have found many Univox basses of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s to be very well made instruments that sell for about the same price or less than instruments made in China and sold at gross markup by music chain stores. Some of these can be found in excellent condition, or easily restored if the owner cares to. They afford players an opportunity to play something fairly close to a Mosrite Ventures Bass, a Gibson EB-1 or other vintage instruments that are beyond the economic reach of most players for a fraction of the cost of the real deal. They also allow for much less worry for performing musicians who might own and record with vintage American made instruments but would prefer to take something a little less rare and valuable on the road or down to the open mike night at the local pub. There is also a small nostalgia market for musicians who may have started out on a Kent, Kingston, Norma or other Japanese budget model and want to acquire another for more sentimental than sonic or investment reasons.
In consideration of the materials used on early Japanese imports, the simplest factor is the wood. Mahogany necks and bodies were standard construction materials of Japanese instruments of the ‘60’s, and if the instrument neck and body is still stable now it is likely to stay that way. Many of these also feature rosewood fingerboards and ambered neck finishes that are now recreated on modern instruments for a vintage look. There is a great deal of mysticism about aged hardwoods having different tonal characteristics than wood that was grown, cut, milled and finished more recently. If you believe that, there is no reason not to look at older guitars featuring these materials at a fraction of the price of the newer imports. Fretwork on older Japanese guitars varies considerably, from the very well set, crowned and polished to hastily cut, sharp edged frets pounded into oversize slots. One thing that can be said about all old guitar necks: if they haven’t show signs of warp or twist in 30 years or more, particularly if they were not well cared for, that is a sure indicator of stability.
Ultimately, the cool old guitar/bass vibe of Japanese instruments can be had for a lot less than most U.S., British or European-made instruments of the same time period. Kays, Harmonys, Danelectros and their Silvertone cousins have all gone up in value in the past few years, as have Voxes, Ekos, Hofner and other European makes. Burns instruments have become quite collectable and other, lesser known U.K. makers are gaining interest and asking prices, and I can see the same thing happening with certain Japanese-made instruments as well, mostly dependent on either quality of construction and materials or what are now considered quirky or retro design features.
I won’t pretend there aren’t any negatives with Japanese imports of this era. There certainly are, and I will start with an obvious (if ancillary) consideration: cases. These are almost always made of flimsy materials and are a poor fit for the instrument, exposing it to constant shifting and damage to the neck or headstock. Almost any cheap modern gig bag is better protection than the vintage Japanese “hard case;” it is truly a wonder any instruments ever survived so long being carried around in them and I have to wonder how many were damaged or destroyed by these pitiful excuses. To be fair, the cases for budget American-made instruments of the same era are no better. Keep them for their vintage value if they are in good shape and temporarily supplement the fit with towels or other cloth padding if needed but buy a modern case or gig bag at first opportunity and leave the vintage case in storage.
Pickups can be quite lacking in quality; you will note this was also mentioned as a positive, but it is entirely a crapshoot with early Japanese pickups; some of the copy-types (Hofner staple-top, vaguely DeArmond styled) and original designs (Univox, Teisco, Kawai) are hum-free, punchy or warm, have great output can be had for dirt cheap if they are being sold separately, and sometimes it is worthwhile to buy a really destroyed, ugly or poor quality Japanese instrument just to steal the pickup out of it. Others are badly microphonic, prone to hum and thin-sounding or just-barely-OK tonally. With some experience you can identify certain pickups that turn up regularly as being great, good, or medium-to-worthless.
Original tone pots on Japanese instruments rarely provide much as far as shaping your sound, unless it is in a negative way. Tapering of treble to bass tends to be minimal or unnoticeable and some of them will cut the signal output significantly when turned to the “bass” end of the taper. The wiring, shielding (if any) switches and other electronic parts of many Japanese instruments tend to be as cheap and poorly installed, so some instruments can be greatly improved by replacing the electronic guts and adding shielding in the cavities or on the back of the pickguard. Bridges also are a common weak point of early Japanese imports. Many of these have tiny slots for the string end that are difficult to fit or not totally secure when using modern string types, and many use a two-piece saddle system based on early Fender bass bridge designs; forget about intonation or specific string height adjustments. Some others actually used plastic for saddles (huh!?) Better quality instruments copied Fender or Gibson designs or used the typical hollowbody setup of a tailpiece and floating bridge.
A lot of solidbodies made by Teisco and Kawai came with a bridge cover that was installed using posts that threaded into the body semi-permanently; the bridge cover fitted over these posts and was held in place with knurled threaded knobs that could be removed or replaced without tools. This is a simple but smart design that probably should have been picked up by other manufacturers; all too often with other types of covers the little Phillips-head screws for the bridge or pickup covers are lost or the holes become stripped, then the covers are not replaced and are often lost or discarded. Aside from looking cool (more chrome is better!) the bridge covers also camouflage the sometimes chintzy and ugly bridge underneath.
My opinion of the preservation or restoration of vintage Japanese instruments vs. modification is quite a bit more flexible than towards other vintage instruments. If I have an early Japanese bass that is easy to restore to original (if worn) condition by obtaining a few cheap parts or spending some time puttering with it, I will usually do it even if the finished instrument has little current market value. If the instrument is really beat up or such an oddball that I cannot find another example to use as a reference for what it was originally, then I have little hesitation in customizing and refinishing it any way I like. Medium to low quality Fender-ish basses are a dime a dozen and I would not flinch at modifying one to make it more interesting or a better player. If the body or neck on an instrument is really trashed, then it can still be a parts guitar to be scavenged from to restore other guitars. Most parts for old Japanese guitars are plentiful and cheap, although it may take some patience to find exactly the “right” parts for your project. Local independent stores, yard sales, the internet, Ebay and Craigslist have made it much easier to find these instruments and parts in every sort of condition from mint to garbage, but even the garbage is valuable if you just need that one tuner or knob…
ELEVEN EARLY JAPANESE BASSES OF INTEREST
I believe 9 of these basses will gradually increase in collector/player interest and value. The last two are recommendations for very affordable players. They are listed in no particular order. I apologize for the lack of individual photo examples of these instruments, but there are plenty available on the Internet.
Univox Eagle Bass. This heavily carved Precision-type bass appeared around 1976. Not much unusual about it except the carving, but whoa, just look at it!
Ibanez Black Eagle Bass. Produced in low numbers sometime around 1975-77. This bass could be described as being the offspring of a Fender Jazz Bass and a Burns Bison. They are extremely rare and garnered some attention when played by Krist Novoselic of Nirvana. The headstocks have a cutout that weakens them considerably and this feature is often broken or has been repaired. There is also an even-rarer White Eagle, sometimes branded as an “Antoria” that is identical excepting a white painted body and headstock.
Electra MPC Outlaw Bass. These also date from the ‘70’s and featured a neck-through body design, a Rickenbacker inspired bridge, one P-type pickup, one humbucker at the neck position and most interestingly, 11 interchangeable electronics modules that could be inserted into the instrument two at a time for phase shifting, fuzz, octave divider and other effects. Very high end construction and innovative engineering. Chris Squire of Yes played one for awhile. These were drawing $700 and up in 2013.
Teisco EB-120 Spectrum Bass. Small, stylish, lightweight and easy to play and sounds much bigger and better than one would expect.
Teisco EB-220 KB-2 "Sharkfin" Bass. 3 on a side tuners, retro-futuristic body design, two single coil pickups.
Hondo Longhorn Bass. OK, this is a little later manufacture than where we started, but odd enough to fit the topic. This is a solidbody, with a DiMarzio P-style pickup and intonatable bridge, so it essentially is a P-Bass styled like a Danelectro, and offered in a kind of creamy-latte burst finish and a couple other options. These used to be laughed at and and hardly fetched $100 in the hair band 1980’s, when I should have bought one. Now they are well regarded but still affordable for players who like the Dano style but a P-sound.
Greco Thunderbird Bass. Much like a ‘60’s T-Bird for a lot less money.
Yamaha SB Series Basses, 1967-68. Nicknamed the “Flying Samurai,” these are mostly seen as Mosrite-influenced reverse bodies with one lower horn. A rarer variant has one upper horn and looks more like an artist’s palette. The SB-5 (sunburst) or SB-7 (blue) two- pickup models get good reviews for tone and the styling is totally unique.
Univox Hi-Flier Bass. These are commonly available for reasonable prices, most often seen with humbucking pickups. I have no experience with those, but the earlier versions with the black plastic four-pole pickup sounds great, and are very comfortable and lightweight. Mine happens to have one of the best necks/fretboards I have experienced on any bass, the only flaw being the lack of side position markers. These are great basses for the price (typically around $400-$500.) I don’t think the level of quality on a Mosrite copy can be beat.
Budget Recommendation #1: Various Teisco/Kawai single pickup models with a “Jaguar/Jazzmaster” shaped offset waist body, four-on-a-side tuner layout, one pickup and a metal pickguard, either steel or aluminum. The Kent “Basin Street” and “Newport” models are similar in design and components. These basses come with minor variations in body and headstock shape (angular vs. rounded,) hardware and pickups. They are sturdy, usually with quite fat, round necks and if you find the right ones the pickups can be excellent. If not, replace it! Best of all, long scale. A cool vintage bass for less than $200 and if it doesn’t suit your needs you won’t feel bad about customizing it. These must have been made by the thousands and are commonly available on EBay, dealers, pawnshops, garage sales…
Budget Recommendation #2: Various Japanese violin basses. Again, these came in a nearly infinite variety of finishes, headstock designs, subtle differences in body shape and construction and were made by the thousands, all through the ‘70’s and to the present day. For the best quality ones I think we are back to Univox but there are many to choose from and if the body and neck are good the cheapo pickups and wiring can always be upgraded. No, it’s not a Hofner or even an Eko, but a violin bass always looks great and is easy on the back and shoulder.