National

For guitar-loving Japanese, it's gotta be American and it better be Gibson

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

The hand-aged Gibson Les Paul Special is a replica of the 1960 original, but an American master craftsman made it exactly the way the guitar would look today, complete with aging, cracked paint and dents from scuffs and scratches.

What’s more unusual, the instrument isn’t sold anywhere else but in guitar-loving Japan, where the entire limited edition series of the electric guitars are sold out, underlining this nation’s never-ending affair with American guitars.

Never mind that Japan has its own respected guitar brands, including Yamaha and Ibanez. No Japan-made guitar has the ring of an American icon, and Gibson Guitar Corp.’s biggest competitor here may be another U.S. company famous for electric guitars, Fender Musical Instruments Corp.

Nobuaki Suzuki, an editor for Japanese publication Guitar Magazine, said more Gibson and Fender electric guitars sell here in numbers — not just revenue — than Japanese guitars. “The Americans dominate in numbers,” he said. “Then come the domestic-made guitars.”

Although Gibson is making marketing pushes in other places where demand is expected to grow, including China, Japan is still Gibson’s biggest market outside the United States and twice as large as its biggest European market, Great Britain, although the Nashville, Tenn.-based producer of electric and acoustic guitars won’t disclose the figures.

Gibson makes a range of guitars solely for the Japanese market, including rocker Tak Matsumoto’s signature Les Paul in special shades, with names like canary yellow and sunburst.

“It is so cool,” says Yuki Yamaguchi, a 19-year-old university student who bought a 620,000 yen Tak Matsumoto Gibson on three-month credit. “I open the case and look at it and go, ‘It’s so cool.’ “

Amateur musicians like Yamaguchi, who acknowledged he hardly has time to play his guitar and spends more time admiring it, may be just buying a dream.

But they make for serious business.

Gibson is one of the huge successes among American exports, which over the years have met mixed results in the finicky Japanese market. U.S.-made cars and rice have failed miserably while Levi’s jeans, Disneyland and iPods are hits.

In fact, Gibson does better in Japan against Japanese brands than it fares against those same competitors in the U.S., Gibson Chief Executive Henry Juszkiewicz said.

“The guitar itself is an art form very strongly associated with the U.S. The music that’s played on the guitar is very strongly associated with the U.S.,” he said in a phone interview from Beijing, where he was on a business trip.

“Foreign markets tend to revere our brand much more so than the domestic market, where we might be considered just another guitar. We’re very successful in the U.S., but there’s less reverence,” Juszkiewicz said.

Some of the biggest fans of Gibson guitars are baby boomers who grew up on 1970s music and now have the money to splurge on guitars, says Thom Fowle, a Gibson sales executive.

“Some of these consumers own five, 10, 20 guitars because they’re collecting. They’re collecting for the love of collecting,” he said during a recent visit in Tokyo.

Fowle says Gibson’s biggest rivals are its own older models on secondhand and collectors’ markets, where they command eye-popping prices.

The Japan-only Les Paul with the beat-up look costs about 350,000 yen, but all 40 that Gibson made were shipped to retail stores earlier this year. Fowle says the price is still relatively affordable at a fraction of what a vintage Gibson would command, as high as $300,000.

Gibson has built its fame on custom-made guitars, replicas of such instruments as Jimi Hendrix’s V-shaped guitar decorated with psychedelic paint, and signature guitars tailor-made for musicians, which get snatched up by their fans.

The working musicians who have yet to hit the big time have more problems coming up with the money to buy the expensive guitars.

Yosuke Onuma, a jazz musician who plays Gibson guitars, won his first Gibson in a guitar contest.

Onuma, 31, believes Gibson’s image among Japanese has reached legendary status. After all, guitarists he respects, including Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, all played Gibson guitars at some point.

“Gibson guitars deliver a sweet, deep sound. You’re playing steel strings, but there’s that sound of wood — something that only Gibson has,” Onuma said. “It’s an earthy sound, very organic.”

Will Jones, who promotes Epiphone, Gibson’s more affordable lineup, says owning a Gibson is an opportunity to be part of the roots of rock because groups like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin used Gibsons. Some even believe rock wouldn’t exist without Gibson, given the innovations guitarist Les Paul made for the electric guitar, he said.

Paul designed one of the first solid-body electric guitars and worked with Gibson to bring out the first Les Paul model in 1952. When he was injured in a car accident, he had the surgeon set his shattered arm at an angle so he’d still be able to cradle the guitar to play.

“Other brands don’t have that kind of history,” Jones said. “We are living, breathing rock ‘n’ roll history.”

Yoshihisa Saito, 40, who works for a chemical manufacturer, is so sold on the Gibson he just bought a 328,000 yen Gibson ES-175.

“Pat Metheny used to play this guitar,” he said, referring to the American jazz musician. “I’ve always wanted it.”

The rediscovery of traditional guitars like Gibsons has turned into a major trend, says Shigeru Ishida of Ishibashi Music Corp., a major instrument retail chain.

“Japanese guitar brands will never live up to the guitars people grew up idolizing,” Ishida said. “They’ll always be No. 2 in their hearts and can never hope to become No. 1.”

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