With state-of-the-art manufacturing and excellent build quality, Japanese guitars are fast becoming some of the most in-demand instruments on the market.
We’ve already thrown our hat in the ring as to the top guitar brands around the world, so in this article we head to Asia to dive into the specifics of some of the best Japanese guitar brands available today.
In the world of guitar manufacturing, the country in which a guitar is made is often considered a strong indicator of quality.
Today, that has changed and many people look for the words ‘Made in Japan’ when they shop for a guitar.
[Visiting Japan? Check out which Tokyo shop made it onto our list of the best guitar stores worldwide!]
Made In Japan Means Quality Guitars
While the reputation of American-built guitars has waned a bit in recent years, the reputation of Japanese-built instruments has risen sharply since the 1970’s.
Quality Japanese manufacturers like Ibanez, Fernandes Guitars, ESP, Takamine, and Yamaha have attracted many of today’s premiere performers by putting build quality and state-of-the-art, high-performance appointments to the forefront of their craft.
But what caused it?
Japanese Guitar Brands and the ‘Lawsuit Guitar’ Era
In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, leading American brands experienced changes that led to a reduction in build quality and a drop in sales. This was the era in which Leo Fender sold Fender to CBS, and Gibson discontinued some of their more iconic models.
At this time, Japanese guitar brands presented themselves as viable alternatives to American models that had dominated the market unchallenged since the 1950’s.
Japanese companies like Tokai and Ibanez built guitars based on popular Gibson and Fender models that later became known as ‘lawsuit guitars.’
This was because the build quality of these guitars sometimes challenged or even exceeded the Fender and Gibson guitars they were based on, but at a much lower price point, resulting in Gibson levelling lawsuits at them for copyright infringement, and Fender Music Corporation producing a line of guitars manufactured in Japan.
Following the ‘lawsuit era’, these great guitar brands became a leading creative force in the industry. Brands like Ibanez, ESP, Takamine, and Yamaha have become industry leaders, creating models and styles that have become classics in their own right.
So, without further ado, here are six of the best Japanese guitar brands on the market today…
The Six Best Japanese Guitar Brands
Yamaha is arguably the star of Japanese guitar manufacturing, producing both acoustic and electric guitar models, as well as a line of portable desktop amplifiers that are top notch.
Today, Yamaha is known for offering quality products with high performance features at extremely reasonable price points.
The Yamaha company was founded all the way back in 1887 by Torakusu Yamaha, a big proponent of introducing western musical instruments to Japan.
The Yamaha company began by selling pianos and reed organs, and soon sold stringed instruments like violins and cellos. Originally, they were named Nippon Gakki, which means Japanese Musical Instruments. The company changed their name to Yamaha to commemorate a century in business.
Yamaha is well known for producing high-quality, affordable guitars suited for players of all levels.
For example, a Yamaha A-series acoustic guitar offers high end options like solid Sitka spruce tops and other choice tonewoods, while Yamaha electrics like the Revstar and Pacifica series offer high performance features like locking tuners and Seymour Duncan pickups for well under $1000 at the time of writing.
High quality appointments and superior build quality have made Yamaha guitars the choice of many music industry legends, such as James Taylor and Paul Simon, as well as up-and-coming modern jazz guitar greats.
While Takamine Guitars is known as one of the most popular Japanese guitar brands, and one of the best manufacturers of acoustic guitars, it was their under-saddle pickups that made their name in the industry.
Manufacturing high quality guitars since 1962, Takamine has established itself as one of Japan’s go-to brands.
Takamine guitars started out as a family-run instrument shop which opened in the shadow of Mt. Takamine in 1959.
The first instrument that Takamine produced was a classical guitar, but they soon branched out to steel-string acoustics, pioneering the Palathetic under-saddle pickup in 1978 and the acoustic-electric in 1979.
Takamine was also innovative with its choice of tone woods, often choosing the quality of tone over sheer volume. Featuring a range of tone woods including cedar, spruce and sapele tops, with mahogany, rosewood and maple sides, Takamine acoustics deliver exactly what working professionals, like Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, and Blake Shelton, are looking for.
Offering an array of high-quality solid body, hollow body, acoustic and bass guitars, Fujigen Gakki, or FGN guitars, is known as one of the most famous Japanese guitar manufacturers.
Established in 1960, Fujigen was one of the original “lawsuit” guitar brands that made flawless copies of Gibsons and Fenders during what was known as the “lawsuit era.”
While many of Fujigen’s guitars still look like Fender and Gibson copies, they offer high performance features at considerably lower price points.
For instance, Fujigen’s Neo Classic series offer LP style appointments featuring solid mahogany bodies and flamed maple tops with Seymour Duncan pickups and high-quality Gotoh hardware.
Though Fujigen guitars will save you a lot of money compared to the Gibsons and Fenders they are based on, this does not mean they are cheap guitars.
On the contrary, Fujigen offers quality instruments with deluxe appointments, delivering great value.
It is difficult to find much information about Yamaki guitars, but their reputation among Japanese guitar enthusiasts is still stellar, even though the brand’s parent company went out of business back in 1980.
Yamaki was known for making high quality acoustic guitars that looked very similar to Yamaha acoustics.
The company started production in 1967 but by 1980 Daion (Yamaki’s parent company) went out of business and Yamaki became a parts supplier for other guitar brands.
If you ever see a Yamaki acoustic on the used market, snatch it up fast. You can usually get them pretty cheap and their similarity to Yamaha acoustic guitars makes them well worth the amount you will likely pay for them.
Tokai is another one of the best Japanese brands that is associated with the “lawsuit era” of guitars. However, Tokai’s build quality was so good that Martin Guitars contracted with them to produce their Sigma line of acoustic guitars.
Tokai was always transparent about their intentions to produce higher quality instruments than the Gibson and Fender guitars that they based their designs upon. For instance, when Tokai came out with their line of LP style single cutaways, they named the line “Les Paul Reborn.” These high-quality ‘lawsuit era’ Les Paul style guitars are now rare and command thousands of dollars on the used market!
Established in 1956, Tokai is still producing high quality guitars, their T-series and E-series being their most popular models.
Named for Spanish guitar maker Salvador Ibanez, Ibanez guitars started out producing classical guitars, but soon became one of the leading manufacturers in the world.
Another Japanese brand associated with the ‘lawsuit era’, Ibanez made Strat and LP style solid bodies that were so much like their Gibson and Fender prototypes in appearance and build quality that they were specifically one of the brands sued by Gibson.
Since that time, Ibanez has been an industry leader in electric guitars, creating some of the best-selling models in the industry. Ibanez is best known for their RG line of Superstrat guitars and more or less inventing the 7-string and other extended range guitars. Whether you play jazz, rock, metal, progressive metal or djent, there are Ibanez models that will suit the demands of your playing style.
Guitarists who play Ibanez include many of the best known names in music including shredders like Nina Strauss, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, jazz legends like George Benson and John Scofield, and progressive instrumental icons like Tim Henson and Yvette Young.
To sum it all up, Japanese guitar brands are among the most popular in the world today.
Industry-leading manufacturers like Yamaha, Takamine, ESP guitars, and Ibanez produce high quality instruments that fit all budgets and experience levels.
No matter what style of music you play, Japanese guitar makers may well have just the thing to suit your playing style..!
And, once you’ve chosen, don’t forget to check out our list of essential guitar accessories to pair it with.