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…


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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. Teisco EB-120 Spectrum Bass.  Small, stylish, lightweight and easy to play and sounds
    much bigger and better than one would expect.
  5. Teisco EB-220 KB-2 "Sharkfin" Bass. 3 on a side tuners, retro-futuristic body design, two
    single coil pickups.
  6. 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.
  7. Greco Thunderbird Bass.  Much like a ‘60’s T-Bird for a lot less money.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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…
  11. 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.