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The True Story Behind Japanese ‘Lawsuit’ Guitars

6string minutesWelcome to 6String Minutes. In this segment, we’ll uncover the truth about Japanese “lawsuit” guitars imported to the United States from the mid-1970s on. Gear hunters and enthusiasts around the world all claim to have seen them, but the true story may shock you.*

(* If you happen to be plugged into an ungrounded amplifier and touch metal.)

Let’s take a journey back to the ’70s. Guitars and guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll music had reached a level of popularity that would last well into the early 2000s.

While heavy riffs and searing solos dominated the airwaves, the quality manufacturing of the classic instruments synonymous with the culture — guitars like Gibson’s Les Paul and SG, Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster — was beginning to decline significantly from a production standpoint. The careful attention to detail, superior parts, and meticulous craftsmanship diminished, while price tags remained high.

Harry Rosenbloom, owner of Medley Music in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, made his living selling handmade instruments. Sensing the domestic guitar market’s downturn, however, Rosenbloom’s company, Elger Guitars, became the sole North American distributor for Japanese guitar manufacturers, Hoshino Gakki Gen.

+ Read more on Flypaper: Did you know that guitar designer and electronics innovator Les Paul actually pioneered home-based pirate radio? Learn more in “Les Paul: Pirate of the Airwaves.”

Hoshino began importing classical guitars from a small, Spanish guitar maker named Salvador Ibáñez in the ’20s to sell in Japan, and went onto launch their own brand under the name Ibanez, inspired by the imported guitars in 1935. Rosenbloom, sensitive to the domestic hostility towards Japanese products still prevalent in the late ’60s, used this as the brand name for his imported guitars. In 1971, Hoshino became profitable enough to purchase Elger Guitars from Rosenbloom and officially changed their name to Ibanez, USA.

Ibanez achieved US success when it began manufacturing copies of classic Fender, Gibson, and Rickenbacker guitars in the late ’60s. While Gibson and Fender guitars declined in quality, Japanese copies were, at least visually, markedly on par with the American originals.

Here you can see catalog images of the Ibanez model 2350. The left image features non-branded headstock, the center image boldly displays the Ibanez brand on the head, and on the right (post-lawsuit), it is an entirely new design with a new head-japanese-lawsuit-guitars
Catalog images of the Ibanez model 2350. The left image features a non-branded headstock. The center image boldly displays the Ibanez brand on the head. And the guitar on the right features an entirely new design with a new head shape. 

Although not built to the same specifications as their American counterparts — many of which sported bolt-on necks, inferior electronics, and multi-piece plywood tops — the Japanese instruments were utilitarian, had personality, and were faithful to the original designs.

They were quickly embraced by novice players and those who didn’t want to shell out their hard-earned cash for a guitar of questionable quality. American guitar brands felt the hit.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: This is the year you score that national tour you’ve always talked about! Get some pointers on booking, managing, and promoting a DIY tour with our free course, Touring on a Shoestring.

In addition to Ibanez, other manufacturers started importing their own copies of the classics. Seventies Les Paul lookalikes featured names like Burny, Tokai, and Greco on their headstocks. (Notice that Greco’s font is nearly identical to Gibson’s.)

Fernandes created faithful recreations of Fender instruments; and Takamine and Suzuki both made acoustic guitars nearly identical to certain Martin models.

Interestingly, most Japanese copies of the time didn’t have serial numbers — a great way to tell if an instrument is truly a “lawsuit” guitar, even today.

takamine-japanese-lawsuit-guitars

One year before me started this line of Martin copy guitars, mine I have had since 1978.-japanese-lawsuit-guitars
The early logo of Takamine looked exactly like the Martin logo.

Speaking of which, in 1977, Gibson’s parent company filed a lawsuit against Ibanez (essentially the Hoshino corporation) for copying their “open-book-style” headstock.

An image of pre-lawsuit Ibanez (left) and post-lawsuit Ibanez. Notice the 'open book' Gibson ripoff, vs the second design.-japanese-lawsuit-guitars
An image of pre-lawsuit Ibanez (left) and post-lawsuit Ibanez. Notice the “open book” Gibson ripoff vs. the second design.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Ibanez replaced the headstock with a revised design.

Ibanez ramped up the quality of its own designs, including set-in-neck copies of solid body and archtop guitars. Soon after, it rolled out its own line of signature instruments like the Iceman and Destroyer, which set the tone for the company-defining instruments of the ’80s and ’90s. A tone befitting the international rise of heavy metal!

On the left, a late-’70s Ibanez Destroyer. In the center, a 1978 Ibanez Iceman Artist IC300. On the right, a ’76 Ibanez Firebrand.-japanese-lawsuit-guitars
On the left, a late-’70s Ibanez Destroyer. In the center, a 1978 Ibanez Iceman Artist IC300. On the right, a ’76 Ibanez Firebrand.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Dreamy, Shoegaze Chord Patterns for Alternate Guitar Tunings”

So, what’s the salacious “true story” we promised earlier? Most instruments that claim to be “lawsuit-era” guitars simply aren’t.

That isn’t to say they aren’t cool, functional instruments with unique character — quite the contrary. The only technical “lawsuit” guitars are Ibanez models, or other branded guitars manufactured by Hoshino, that look nearly identical to Gibson or Fender guitars, save for the name on the headstock and some technical specifications. They mostly originated out of the FujiGen Gakki plant in Japan and were imported to the US.

At the same time that Japanese guitar factories were making copies of American designs, they were also tinkering with unique designs of their own. It’s not uncommon to see guitars from this period sporting wild body designs, as many as four pickups, and some curiously organized pickup selectors and knobs.

Are these “lawsuit” guitars? Absolutely not. Are they still cool? Most definitely. The Greco 950 is one of the coolest non-copied designs to come from Japanese factories.

The Greco 950 (aka "The Shrike") was made at the Teisco factory between 1967-69. -japanese-lawsuit-guitars
The Greco 950 (a.k.a. “The Shrike”) was made at the Teisco factory between 1967 and 1969.

What about all those copies you see online? Sellers on third-party sites like eBay win on a technicality by billing these instruments as “lawsuit-era guitars,” both expanding the range of guitars included to anywhere between the late ’60s to early ’80s, and implying the guitars are made in Japan without saying it outright.

But, buyer beware. There are a lot of guitars falsely credited to Japanese manufacturers that were actually made in China and Korea.

Responding to the market’s desire for lower priced instruments, Fender opened its own Japanese plant in 1982. The Japanese Fender guitars are not “lawsuit guitars.” But, they tend to be great, high-quality instruments.

In 1984, Fender’s parent company sold it to new owners, and in the following years, production in the US slowed as management transitioned. Most of the instruments sold during this period were old-stock American guitars and imported Japanese guitars, which gave the market time to adjust to the presence of these new, low-cost instruments bearing the Fender name.

+ Read more on Flypaper: Learn more about how body style, pickups, and wood type affect your instrument’s sound in our “Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy” series!

The results of “lawsuit-era” guitar making are still felt today. Most high-end guitar manufacturers have overseas plants that produce lower cost versions of their instruments for hobbyists, students, and professionals alike. Gibson bought Epiphone, and Fender created the Squier line, further proof of these lower cost instruments’ success.

For anyone in the market for a vintage instrument, the Japanese guitars from the ’70s and ’80s are great choices that don’t command the outrageous price tags of their American counterparts.

Just be wary of sellers using the word “lawsuit” to drive up the asking price of their vintage Japanese instruments, and try to ask a lot of questions.

If you’d like to learn more about the story of Ibanez, this book covers it, well, cover to cover!

For 6String Minutes, I’m reporter Elyadeen Anbar, signing off.

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Elyadeen Anbar
Elyadeen Anbar

Elyadeen Anbar is a guitarist, writer and educator residing in Los Angeles, CA. He has had the pleasure of contributing music and production to some of his favorite artists, and graced stages the world over. His work can be found at elyadeenanbar.com, soundcloud.com/mrs-walrus, and selfesteemmusic.tumblr.com.

  • N. Flagrante

    “Hoshino had recently acquired a small, Spanish guitar company called Ibanez.”

    No they didn’t. They created the brand in 1935.

    • ZYT

      Hey @stillanonymous:disqus — thanks for catching that, we’ve updated the article. I can’t find specific reference to Hoshino buying the rights to the name, but please share any resources you have on the topic. Our source for the article had said that Salvador Ibanez (whose guitars Hoshino had been importing in the ’20s) sold their workshop, and that then Hoshino began building guitars under the name Ibanez in ’35, which is where our confusion came from. But you’re right that it doesn’t say outright that Ibanez sold his workshop to Hoshino… just that he stopped producing the guitars Hoshino had been importing.

  • Muito bom E. Anbar ! Congratulations!

  • MarkaDemonyo

    Technically, Ibañez and Ibanez are not the same. The Spanish letter “Ñ” is pronounced as if a letter “i” follows the “n” hence Ibañez is pronounced ē-ban’-iez (with a long e) not like how people pronoune Ibanez now which is Ī’-ba-nez (with long i). Notice also that the stress shifts from the second to the first syllable. Fujigen Gakki need not acquire rights to Señor Salvador Ibañez’ brand because they are not the same.

  • Thomas Tarnow

    Gibson bought Epiphone (an american company) in 1957 pre-dating any lawsuit-era and the manufacuring of Epiphones move to Japan in 1970 many years before the Ibanez lawsuit in 1977.

    • Mike Halloran

      I’m remembering that as being 1972. They were identical to instruments bearing the Lyle and Aria names up to that point. The Blue label had Epiphone and U.S.A on it (but neb=ver said they were made here). This confuses a lot of eBay buyers — but not the sellers committing the fraud claiming that these are Gibson USA made Epiphones.

  • eb0man

    Actually “open book” style headstocks were in place long before Gibson used it…

  • almark

    I had a Fender Squire II back in the 90s, Korean made, it sounded amazing.

  • Ernie Saker

    Very clearly explained, thank you. I am a guitar shop owner and tech who regularly has to tell customers that the “Lawsuit Les Paul” or whatever that they just got on Ebay is no such thing. A small scam, but a scam all the same.

  • Kyle Harrison

    This article is inaccurate; Hoshino isn’t the only one to manufacture, true ” lawsuit” instruments. The instruments were made by Fujigen and in the Matsumoku factory and marketed under many names. Matsumoku released Aria, Electra, ect.. that were lawsuit instruments and weren’t part of Hoshino

    • Bill Menting

      The article has its moments with a few things wrong, but the only “true” lawsuit{and we usually use “copy era”} guitars, are Ibanez guitars with Gibson open book headstocks from 70-about 76. Hoshino/Elger was the only company involved in litigation with Norlin{Gibsons parent company}. FGN continued making open book styles for the far eastern market under the Greco name for Kanda Shokai. Bill Menting, 1960s Moderator, Ibanez collectors world.

      • freakbiker .

        From what I understand, this never even went to court as Ibanez had already designed their new headstock when Gibson was preparing a lawsuit

        • Bill Menting

          It did in fact go to court in September of 1977. It was settled out of court in February of 1978, the details of which were never revealed by Hoshino Gakki or Norlin. The new headstock design[which was sort of stolen from Guild] started appearing on some models in late 75, I have some open book designs that are dated as late as November of 76. Norlin planned to spring the summons on Ibanez at the NAMM show in 77, leaving them with an empty booth, but they got wind of it before hand and changed all the headstocks by this time.

      • Rick Hankins

        Bill. Can you link to an accurate history of Japanese lawsuit guitars? There are glaring inaccuracies in almost everything I’ve read. There has to be one somewhere.

        • Bill Menting

          Hey Rick. If you can find a copy of “Ibanez the untold story”, it pretty much covers Ibanez history from the early days as a stationary store that sold flutes and sheet music, to the world class company it is today. Bill

  • Bobby Chavez

    They should be called “cease and desist guitars” because there was no lawsuit filed, it was a cease and desist letter but only for guitars they were importing. If you see MIJ guitars with gibson or fender headstock from after 77′ they were made for the Japanese market.

    • Mike54321

      Wrong. We got Tokai Goldstars with the Fender headstock shape in the UK throughout the 1980s. Fender couldn’t control the UK market the way they controlled the US market. The trouble is that most Americans don’t understand this.

  • Jake Smith

    Sorry guys, those imports of the 70’s sucked. They just weren’t as good as the bad american guitars. Even now, many chinese guitars have a maple syrup cheapo lacquer on them. Nasty! The Korean stuff today is sometimes very good. I have one such instrument, a Gretsch hollow body and one PRS custom 24. Both very good. There were a few good imports made during that time but in MY OPINION, most were junk. also, ask yourself, what would you rather have? a 1976 Gibson Les Paul deluxe or a 1976 Electra les paul copy guitar? Hey…..I understand…..some guys prefer SPAM as opposed to Fillet Mignon. just saying….

    • Rick Hankins

      Good Lord! There is so much folklore surrounding this “lawsuit” bs. When is someone going to write the accurate history?

    • Terence
    • Darren Washen

      Hahaha. Maybe I need some clarification here. “Sorry guys, those imports of the 70’s sucked.”

      You are saying some sucked or all ? How about I help you out here. While some may not be up to par, many of the 70’s imports were excellent. Lets use Takamine for example, as I have owned 1 or 2 in my life. They were so blatant that they copied even the script on the head stock. Now while it may be true that many of the Taka-Martins were at least equal to the originals, most were much better. Now we can get the Martin guys going. “Martins are the BEST. I love overpaying on my guitars as long as they were made in America”. Yee haw.

      These guitars were so good, they fooled many a boasting Martin aficionado. Same or better wood. Same or better attention to detail. 1 third or better the cost. Conflicting stories from shop owners at the time show either 7/10 or 8/10 chose the Takamine every time. This all came to a head when a Martin exec was given the opportunity to try both out side by side. He chose the Takamine and almost immediately after the threat of legal action ensued. There was never a lawsuit filed so I refer to these as “so-called lawsuits”.

      Takamine chose the very best to copy. Martin. Guild. Gibson. Mossmans tree of life and Gallagher to name a few. This pandered very well to the working musicians that wanted the most for their money. David Bowie. Bob Dylan. Jerry Garcia. Ry Cooder. Most of the Eagles. You know, the ones that couldnt afford high end guitars. With these relatively unknown artists I can see where the opinion of Jake Smith would carry serious weight as to how much they truly “sucked”.

  • Jim Demestihas

    cant discuss lawsuit guitars without mentioning Univox and the Matsumoku factories……

    • Darren Washen

      Love Matsumoku guitars.

  • Andy

    I have a 1981 Ibanez Artist AR-100 (bought new in 1981!) that is easily a better instrument than the Gibsons of the era (or my ’96 Les Paul Special, for that matter). I also had an ’83 Artist semi-hollow (same size as the AR, not as big as a 335) that I sold to a jazz guitarist who needed it more than I did.

    The only problem with my Ibanez is that the bridge inserts, and the bridge itself, corroded over the years from sweat. And you can’t get an off-the-shelf Gibson-style bridge for these guys, as the mounting studs on the guitar don’t match the bridge’s mounting holes. I always assumed that this inability to swap parts was due to the cease-and-desist (“lawsuit”), but I could never find any confirmation of this.

    Oh, also, the current Ibanez cases won’t fit my guitar, and it doesn’t fit into my Les Paul case. Time to get one of those Pelican rifle cases and cut out the foam to accommodate the instrument.

  • Tom

    I have a 78′ Musician Series ( Alembic knockoff) that still sounds and plays like a dream!

  • Deen

    Hello SoundFly readers,

    Thanks to you guys for caring enough about true information to post your thoughts. If it weren’t for such a rich community of dedicated readers and researchers, we wouldn’t be able to create a comprehensive overview of this story- much of which was collected from online research. Sadly, the internet cannot always be trusted, but I am happy to share sources for some of the facts claimed here, and will gladly adjust if those facts are proven wrong. This was not meant to be an exhaustive historical account, but more to help clarify for newer guitar buyers, to arm an individual with information for their own resources, and to prevent anyone from getting scammed. But that said, we’d never want to purvey false information, so your input helps us determine what is right and what is wrong. Here is another retelling of the Rosenbloom/Ibanez story: http://bit.ly/2sPQaDT
    Best,
    E.A.

  • Darren Washen

    Excellent article Elydeen, but I’m afraid you created more questions than you answered. The lawsuit era guitars are a can of worms, which I am just as happy to leave closed.

    Lawsuit guitars are not always what they seem. While some may not be up to par, many of the
    70’s imports were excellent. Lets use Takamine for example, as I have owned 1 or 2 in my
    life. They were so blatant that they copied even the script on the head stock. Now while it
    may be true that many of the Taka-Martins were at least equal to the originals, most were
    much better. Now we can get the Martin guys going. “Martins are the BEST. I love overpaying
    on my guitars as long as they were made in America”. Yee haw.

    These guitars were so good, they fooled many a boasting Martin aficionado. Same or better
    wood. Same or better attention to detail. 1 third or better the cost. Conflicting stories
    from shop owners at the time show either 7/10 or 8/10 chose the Takamine every time. This
    all came to a head when a Martin exec was given the opportunity to try both out side by
    side. He chose the Takamine and almost immediately the threat of legal action ensued.

    There was never a lawsuit filed so I refer to these as “so-called lawsuits”.

    Takamine chose the very best to copy. Martin. Guild. Gibson. Mossman tree of life and
    Gallagher to name a few. This pandered very well to the working musicians that wanted the
    most for their money. David Bowie. Bob Dylan. Jerry Garcia. Ry Cooder. Glenn Frey. Don
    Henley. You know, the ones that couldnt afford high end guitars. With these relatively
    unknown artists I can see where the opinions of many know-it-alls would carry serious weight
    as to how much they truly “sucked”.

    Mr Jeff Allen has started a Takamine lawsuit era group on Facebook that has some excellent
    videos and PDF files helping people break down these so-called lawsuits. Not sure what the rules are regarding links, but I will drop one here if anyone is interested in learning more about them.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/662068290634262/

    • Jeremy Royal Edit

      Hey Darren,
      I know what you mean about quality being all over the place. I bought an unlabeled late-1960s Matsumoko factory black sheep last year, its a combination of the body of an ES339, the headstock of a Fender, and unpainted dark wood panelling. I think it used to have a tremolo bar as well, but that’s long gone. It’s basically a kitchen sink of design styles from everywhere, and it sounds lovely. I changed out the old humbucker pickups and had to do some work on the neck, but its got incredible playability and a subtle, unique tone characteristic, I can see it being used in a 70s Tokyo jazz club. As someone who doesn’t really “shred” on guitar, or spend too much time worrying about tone, its honestly perfect for me and I play it more than my other guitars by far. It has a personality, and as you say, with Lawsuit era pieces it’s a mixed bag, some of them have stood the test of time as unique and veritable pieces, others were pieces of shit.

      Thanks all for the stimulating conversation!

  • Koolibog

    I have an HD-35 copy I bought in a pawn shop in Tucson in 1978 for $125. It is an exact replica. (I also own a D-35 Martin plus others). The logo was hand-sanded off. There is no serial number. Many dings. Could barely hear the bass. It became a “beach” guitar. Then, 20 years ago, I put new strings on it after not playing it for awhile. Wow. Punched me like LaMatta. Now it sounds just like a real Martin. Play it all the time. It’s also my primary recording guitar. It’s amazing we both made it.

  • Pingback: The History of the “Lawsuit” Guitars – Yairi Guitars()

  • Paulie Boy

    I’d love to know the name of the Japanese factory that produced Martin’s Shenandoah line. Martin refuses to divulge who it was. Any info would be appreciated!

  • Mike54321

    That pic of the Tokai & Fender headstocks together is my pic! Stolen & used without my permission. I still have both guitars, & the Springy is immediately recognisable by the strange & unusual angle of the decal – I haven’t seen another Springy like that. And I also recognise the off-white cotton rug I usually use as a backdrop for guitar pics.

    So would you please remove my pic from your article?