Weird Guitars: Vintage Freak Show
The seed for my guitar obsession was planted way back in the mid ’80s, when my mom got me an old, used Japanese guitar. Man, I really loved that guitar, even though it was tough to play. The intonation was off, and every electrical connection was scratchy and quirky. But it was my first guitar, and just like your first love, there’s a lifelong connection there.
That first guitar was a Marvel EJ2, and it was pretty unique. It didn’t look like the pointy “super strats” that were so popular at the time. In fact, my Marvel didn’t look like any guitar I’d ever seen. I was proud of that slab of wood with the gold-foil pickups!
I was the type of kid who was always interested in things that were different, so my taste in guitars from that point on leaned toward the strange. Whenever I’d visit the local music stores, I’d quickly scan the walls for weird-looking guitars like my Marvel. While my friends bought guitars with neon paint schemes, I was peeking into the back rooms for old guitars with sparkle finishes and four pickups. I loved buying interesting guitars that no one else wanted. And coming from a humble background, I loved that the prices were right.
I remember walking into a music shop once and becoming infatuated with an old Gretsch White Falcon, but the price was way out of my range. That darn Gretsch was just stunning, with that bold, white paint scheme and plenty of knobs and switches. After a couple of weeks, the shop owner noticed my passion and said, “Hey, if you can’t afford that Gretsch, then check out this old Domino.”
It was a 1967 Domino Silver Hawk, to be exact—and it was only $100. In my world, the Silver Hawk was just as cool as the White Falcon. And so began my adventure down the proverbial rabbit hole of vintage guitars.
A lot of the garage and punk bands I liked then were using cheap guitars, too. In 1989, when I saw a then-unknown Nirvana in Hoboken, New Jersey, I was amazed to see Kurt Cobain playing an old Univox Hi-Flier. He and Nirvana tore up Maxwell’s that night, and it only reinforced my teenage resolve to shun high-priced guitars. I came to view these guitars as a form of outsider art. I lurked in the local pawnshops, eye peeled for 6-stringed oddities. I got good at repairing these forgotten gems, too, which made me appreciate the interesting designs even more.
Twenty-five years later, I’d accumulated a large collection of these strange, beautiful guitars. Something gnawed at me, though: the total lack of available information about the companies that made these old imports. I had guitars from all over the world—England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Brazil—so I started spending my summers researching these old instrument manufacturers. By 2011, I’d accumulated enough information to start DrowningInGuitars.com so I could share my love of these guitars and their history. I thought a handful of fellow weird-guitar fanatics might share my passion, but within a few months I was getting hundreds of emails every day.
Since starting DrowningInGuitars.com, I’ve traveled to Japan to uncover the mysteries shrouding so many cool guitars that originated there. I spent two weeks interviewing more than 30 people involved in the guitar industry during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I even took my old Marvel EJ2 guitar back to the factory where it was made, met the people who designed it, and talked with the very employee who painted it 50 years ago! I uncovered so much information during my visit that I wrote a book on the subject, and it’ll be out next year.
These days, I spend less time buying guitars and more time researching and writing about them. People often ask me, “What’s the weirdest guitar you’ve ever seen?” But when you’ve seen as many guitars as I have, it’s tough to say which are the weirdest or most intriguing. I still have my favorites, of course—guitars that I’ll keep for a very long time—but it’s still tough to answer that question.
However, the 10 instruments presented here offer a good cross-section of interesting guitars from around the world. All were produced in the ’60s and early ’70s. Perhaps no other era in guitar history saw as many interesting and creative designs—before the “lawsuit” part of the ’70s, when many overseas manufacturers focused on mimicking famous U.S. designs. Before the copycat era, more manufacturers seemed to take pride in original designs. Some of them sound great, and some of them merely look great. But all of them deserve some recognition for their contribution to the relatively short history of the electric guitar.
This guitar became legendary for its extreme design and cool looks—and for its infamous association with the Shaggs. One could write a lengthy, fascinating history of the Shaggs and the value of their music, but let’s focus here on the guitar they made famous.
The AV-2T dates from 1968 and was made by Fuji Gen Gakki Manufacturing Corp. (later renamed Fujigen) in Matsumoto, Japan. Yuichiro Yokouchi founded the company in 1960, and the Fujigen factories make high-end guitars to this day. Fuji Gen Gakki was one of the largest manufacturers of electric guitars during the ’60s, and this Avalon model was an original design. At that time, guitar design was primarily left to the engineers, or to the American importers who were looking for a specific style. But this Avalon was actually designed by Mr. Yokouchi. This truly unique guitar was one of only two of his creations to make it to market.
In the late ’60s, Fuji Gen had a new factory, and this model exhibited some of the latest techniques made possible by the facility, such as a thin, highly figured maple veneer over a sandwiched body core. The factory employed some of the finest woodworkers in Japan, and this was a guitar made to look sleek and sweeping at a price point American importers would like. With a wholesale price of $47.50, the guitar was described like this: “Professional quality and workmanship go into this ultra slim necked beauty. Newly designed!”
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
The AV2Ts extreme, sweeping curves were among the last of the adventurous Fujigen designs of the ’60s. The neck has a slim, fast feel, and it’s a lightweight guitar overall. The low-output pickups have a bit of Strat-like tone, or maybe closer to an old Gibson Melody Maker, but with extra twang. There’s an ever-present echo-like quality that lends itself well to surf music. The all-in-one bridge/tremolo, designed at the famous Matsumoku guitar factory in Japan, was quite a popular unit in the late ’60s, even finding its way onto the era’s Valcos.
Because the ’60s guitar boom was in serious decline by 1968, the AV-2T had a very short run. Around 1970, Fuji Gen Gakki pulled out of the export business and focused solely on domestic sales and a partnership with Hoshino Gakki (parent company to Ibanez guitars, Tama drums, and others). This Avalon guitar represents one of the last great Japanese guitar designs.
Back in the ’90s I ‘d occasionally come across old Italian electrics like this well-worn Eko, shining like crazy neon signs among the “super strats” and SGs on shop walls. Many players considered these throwaway instruments, so you could buy them really cheap as novelties. Otherwise, they’d just sit there, collecting dust for eternity.
Italian imports were flooding the American market in the 1960s. Perhaps the most famous brand was Eko, which was located in Recanati, Italy. American guitarists were offered a huge assortment of Eko models, almost all imported by the Lo Duca Brothers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Eko founder and president Oliviero Pigini ushered in electric guitar production around 1960. Eko electric guitars featured many novel design features, with the bodies and necks often covered in colorful celluloid and sparkle finishes. This Eko is listed in a 1964 catalog as an Eko Model 500/4V. The faux-wood-grained celluloid covering is called “Hazel,” and the back has a dark, burl-like look.
The 500’s pushbutton switching—inspired by accordion designs—offers some interesting pickup combinations. The catalog describes them this way: “M-Full Guitar (all pickups), 1-Jazz (neck), 4-Twang, 1+4-Take Off, 2+3 Full Rhythm, O-Off.” The four patented, alnico 5 single-coils have plenty of clarity and snap. Some Eko enthusiasts note subtle differences between similar-looking pickups on different Eko models, and they often resort to counting the number of tiny metal “blades” in an effort to account for the differences. Which versions are best remains debatable, but my favorite examples tend to sound punchy, with lots of output, almost like a hot Stratocaster pickup. While not designed for dive-bombing, the tremolo is also quite good, with a smooth, rolling action.
Some of Eko’s extreme designs inspired the era’s Japanese makers. American importers, always trying to outsell the competition, often requested close copies of Eko guitars, and soon Eko had a hard time competing. Eko was nearly squeezed out of the American market, though the company managed to survive the lean late ’60s and continued to make quality guitars in Italy until 1985. Since then, R&D for Eko guitars has been carried out at the Italian headquarters, while the guitars are built in China and Czech Republic.
Galanti Grand Prix
The electric guitar craze of the ’60s led many companies to jump into guitar production. In Japan, for instance, factories that had formerly made caskets, shoes, and barrels were suddenly pumping out guitars. In Italy, several accordion manufacturers jumped into the guitar boom with memorable models, but this Galanti Grand Prix is arguably the best of the bunch.
Galanti had been making high-quality accordions since the turn of the century. The company had an excellent reputation and American import partners. R. Galanti and Bro. set up an office in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and during the summer of 1965 ads featuring three totally new Galanti designs—two guitars and a bass—appeared in Music Trades magazine.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
This three-pickup version was listed as the Grand Prix No. 3003. It’s built very well, though the push-button switches take some getting used to (unless you also happen to be an accordion virtuoso). Grand Prix selling points included its solid wood body, adjustable truss rod, preset tone switches, and patented vibrato unit. The Grand Prix was designed from the ground up, with most parts engineered and produced in house. The pickups are actually mini-humbuckers, and are extremely hot, with an aggressive high end. There are six switching options: O (off), M (all pickups on), each pickup individually, and bridge and neck together. However, only one button can be pushed down at a time.
The year 1965 was the high-water mark for electric guitar demand, and Galanti’s fortunes mirrored the trend. As demand waned in the late ’60s, these guitars all but disappeared from the marketplace. Nonetheless, Italian designers created some of the coolest, most playable guitars outside of the U.S.
Greco 950 (aka “the Shrike”)
If you grew up playing guitar in the ’60s, there’s a good chance you started off with a Japanese electric. They were affordable, flashy, and available just about anywhere, including drug stores, department stores, and mail order catalogs. But after a few lessons, many would-be players consigned these guitars to some closet, forgotten to time. I often come across guitars from this era in mint condition. American servicemen stationed in Japan were another source of new-old-stock guitars—they’d send guitars back to the States, only to forget them in the turmoil of returning to civilian life. That’s how I found this old Greco in an Arizona storage space.
The neck plate on this beauty is stamped with a “Patent Applied For” number, but the instrument was only available for a year or two, which accounts for its patent application being abandoned. The guitar was known as model number 950, but most people call it as “the Shrike,” though that name actually refers to the split-coil pickups. Because of this, two different guitars are referred to as Shrikes, both featuring these bizarre, V-shaped pickups.
Two complete, three-slug coils reside in each V, and you can turn each coil on or off. The pickups have a balanced tone—and some cool options. You can get thin, ’70s-funk sounds, mellow jazz tones, or aggressive blues sounds. The tremolo is a passable Bigsby substitute.
This guitar was made at the old Teisco factory in Nagano, Japan. From 1967 to 1969, the factory continued to make guitars, even though the association with Teisco was severed in 1966. The old factory was named Teisco Gen Gakki, and it became very popular with American importers in the late ’60s for its competitive prices and high quality. In fact, the first Japanese-licensed Mosrite guitars were produced at the old Teisco factory in the late ’60s.
Guyatone LG-160T Telstar
The Telstar perhaps best epitomizes extreme Japanese designs of the ’60s. Its name and look are clearly inspired by the sci-fi themes prevalent at the time, as well as the general fascination with space travel, satellites, and such. The guitar was embraced by many Japanese “Group Sounds” rock bands (a style comparable to U.S. garage-rock of the ’60s).
Guyatone guitars were designed and made by the Tokyo Sound Company, which was started by Mitsuo Matsuki, who had been making electric instruments since the 1930s. In the 1950s, Tokyo Sound made Guyatone electric guitars just a 10-minute walk from the original Teisco factory in Tokyo. A somewhat friendly rivalry developed between Teisco and Tokyo Sound, and guitar players in Japan often found themselves in one of two camps, much like U.S. players tended to prefer either Fender or Gibson. Tokyo Sound guitars were often sold in the States under the Kent brand, but more extreme designs like the Telstar were typically reserved for the Japanese market.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
Telstars, first introduced in early 1966, were made in small numbers until around 1967. They were considered good instruments for the time. Yamaha (Nippon Gakki) made the wood parts, and Tokyo Sound installed their own pickup and hardware designs at the factory. Electronics include an on/off switch for each pickup and a preset tone switch that accentuates lows or highs. Guyatone pickups usually sound quite good, but Telstar single-coils are some of the best. Despite their appearance, they sound similar to vintage P-90s—much fatter than a Stratocaster.
The necks have a deep shoulder but feel thin in the palm of your hand, much like classic Rickenbacker necks. They’re steel-reinforced, but not adjustable. (There were Telstar guitars with adjustable truss rods, but they were typically export-only models.) The “monkey-grip” was intended as a carrying handle, and its position offers optimal balance.
These guitars rarely surface on the used market, so it seems few were made. But the Telstar design found its way onto record covers, which may explain why you could find plastic toy models of it for sale, too. This particular Telstar came from an old warehouse in Japan, where it had been sitting in its case since the late ’60s.
Imperial “No Name”
Imagine my astonishment upon seeing this oddball in an Atlantic City pawnshop! This poor old guitar was in sad shape and needed some love. I call it a “no name” because I haven’t discovered which Japanese factory produced it. In July of 1965, the Japanese Music Trades magazine stated there were 24 known electric-guitar makers in Japan. But there were five more “unknown” makers that no one seems to remember.
The origin of this guitar remains a mystery. There’s no record of this model in any catalog I’ve seen in Japan or the U.S. Several sources state that this guitar was sold under the “Burns” name in Japan, and the “Imperial” name in the States. I was lucky enough to buy another one of these in brownburst, but it had slightly different build characteristics.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
When I visited Japan in 2013, I showed pictures of this guitar to everyone I met, including older designers, engineers, company presidents, and factory workers. No one remembered this model, but one electronics engineer seemed to remember the split-coil pickups as the work of a husband-and-wife team who fashioned pickups as a side business in Nagano. Peering under the pickguard, you can see that the pickups were handmade—even the metal covers were cut and tooled by hand. When I study these old parts, I marvel at the resourcefulness of workers who just made things as they went along, despite the lack of industry standardization.
Like the Greco “Shrike,” the Imperial’s pickups have two three-slug coils under each cover, with on/off switches for each coil. The pickups offer some truly unique sounds. Overall, they sound a bit thin, but they have a nice surf tone and work well with an overdriven tube amp.
I’ve figured out about 85 percent of the Japanese mystery guitars of the 1960s, but the artist who made this remains unknown—for now.
Klira Haiti De Luxe 544
In 2005 I visited an estate sale in upstate New York with a good friend. I was there mainly to help with heavy lifting, but I found this old guitar, complete with the original case. It had been sitting in a closet for 40 years.
When I got this oldie home, it took me a few months to figure out exactly what I had. Eventually, I stumbled on a little-known guitar maker with a brief history of American imports. Klira, a German company, had had been making musical instruments since the late 1800s. By the 1950s, the factory was located in the Bavarian town of Bubenreuth and was counted as part of a group of good German guitar makers such as Hofner and Framus. During the ’60s, some fine German guitars made their way to North American shores, but Klira guitars were scarce.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
This Klira dates from 1965 and was called the Haiti De Luxe model 544. There was also a similar, longer-scale model called the Bahama De Luxe. Many Klira electrics from this time have American-sounding model names such as Sioux, Ohio, and Nevada.
Klira models came and went quickly during the mid ’60s, and this Haiti was only made for a year or two before disappearing from the catalog. It features a high-gloss “signal red” finish, but the same model was available in a crinkled plastic coating. Many German guitar companies of the period used laminate necks, and the Haiti’s is a beautifully thick laminate with a flip-flop striped pattern.
Klira promoted De Luxe models as professional guitars with exclusive features, such as bridge mutes, preset tone controls, and “gilted” (gold-covered) electronics. I’m a bit stumped by the latter claim, but it’s clear much thought went into the Haiti’s circuit. The pickups are the same Schallers found on many German electrics from the era, and they have a strong midrange presence in many settings. The array of switches and knobs could scare away timid players, but I look at it as hours of fun. There are on/off switches for each pickup, individual volume controls, and separate sliders for a treble circuit that sounds like a Fender Jaguar’s electronics on steroids.
Guitar-playing Glen Campbell fans often wonder what kind of 6-string he played in the early ’60s. Take a look at any old photo or video of Campbell, and you’ll probably spot this unique guitar churning out all sorts of great rockabilly and country licks. The guitar was the short-lived Teisco T-60. The well-loved example shown here was found in a Dallas pawnshop. Naturally, it had been hanging there for years.
Teisco began in the late 1940s in Tokyo. The company initially focused on guitar pickups and lap steels. In the ’50s, they began producing large hollowbody guitars and small solidbody electrics, but in 1959 the designers pushed hard for the freedom to introduce an original, high-quality design that could hold its own against any other guitar. In 1960, Teisco experienced much growth as demand for electric guitars rose. Just as Teisco moved into a larger factory in Tokyo, they decided that the top-of-the-line T-60 was ready for release.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
The T-60 was entirely handmade and very ambitious for its time. It features a fine set-neck design with a deep-V neck profile and solid-wood construction. The pickups, designed and produced in house, feature adjustable pole pieces. They measure in the mellow 4kHz range, but sound quite lively The rotary switch permits individual pickup selection, and each pickup offers nice, round tones with a touch of twang—somewhere between a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. Probably the most striking feature of the T-60 is the “monkey-grip” body cutout and the headstock that echoes it. This was the first instance of this signature Teisco feature, and on the T-60 it was carved completely by hand.
T-60s were produced until 1961, but then disappeared. By ’62, Teisco was cranking out electric guitars destined for North American shores. Early Teisco electrics like the T-60 rarely made it to the U.S., and the guitars that did arrive here usually came home with American servicemen stationed in Japan. It makes you wonder how Campbell found his T-60, huh? But after he moved to Los Angeles in 1960, he was soon showing off his skills on one of the finest early Japanese electrics.
For most guitarists, the Wurlitzer name stirs up memories of cool electric pianos or the old organ in your grandparents’ sitting room. But for about a year in the mid 1960s, the company produced an interesting line of electric guitars. Back in the ’80s, I found the guitar shown in the same small-town piano store where it originally sold in the ’60s. The whole shop was a time capsule from that bygone era—so much so that I initially thought the guitar was brand new.
It dates to 1966 and is called the Cougar model 2512 (the 2512 denotes the sunburst color). Cougars were also available in “Taffy White” and “Lollipop Red.” There were two other Wurlitzer models (the Wildcat and the Gemini) and the entire lineup was referred to as “The Wild Ones!”
These wild things were made in Neodesha, Kansas, at the Holman-Woodell factory, which made guitars from 1965 until around 1968. This factory produced some cool guitars, including the bizarre LaBaye 2x4 models made (somewhat) famous by Devo’s Bob Mothersbaugh.
The well-made pickups and tremolo were Holman-Woodell exclusives, produced in house. The Sensi-Tones single-coils sound good, but suffer a bit from a complex wiring scheme with many capacitors buried under the pickguard. The tones are definitely 1960s, albeit a little thin-sounding. Cougars were wired for stereo—they are among the first stereo guitars—so there is a fader knob as well as a 3-way pickup selector. The little rocker switches are preset tone controls that seem to aim for rock or jazz settings. These were ambitious guitars, both in design and function, with some nice components and unique designs. Unfortunately, they never sold well and were out of production after about a year.
A few times a year, I go on guitar adventures, visiting guitar shops, antique stores, and flea markets in search of forgotten treasures. In 2007, I found this old Yamaha in a tiny Maryland music shop. There was exactly one other used guitar there. I thought I knew all there was to know about Yamaha electrics, but I’d never seen this model before. When I left, their used-guitar inventory was down to one.
The Nippon Gakki Company—aka Yamaha—jumped into electric-guitar production around 1966. Its earliest 6-string designs were slightly edgy and bizarre—swooping, asymmetrical shapes, lots of knobs and switches, and a generally futuristic aesthetic. In the next decade, Yamaha guitars became a little tamer, but they remained ambitious.
Watch a demo of the Avalon AV2T
The SG-80T was the flagship of the 1972 lineup. It features a German body carve, a slim neck with chevron inlays, a newly designed tremolo, and rather complex electronics, including a bypassable, five-position rotary “tone selector” knob. The SG-80T actually has three pickups—the bridge unit is two single-coils that can be used individually or in parallel. Combining them with the model’s then-new “tone boost” knob yields some strong sounds. The bridge pickup gets most of its tonal options from the tone selector knob, which sometimes seems to restrain tones, though there are some very usable options. If you’re into weird old guitars, this might be one of your desert-island instruments because of the sheer range of its tones.
These forward-thinking design features come at a price, though: The SG-80T weighs in at a robust nine pounds! Typically for the ’70s, it came in either a natural finish or a dark mahogany. The all-mahogany construction of this particular guitar provides plenty of sustain. From what I can gather, this model and ones like it were only made for about a year. In 1974 Yamaha redesigned the SG line to the more symmetrical styling made popular by then-endorser Carlos Santana, and used today by artists such as John Frusciante.