Let me take you back, good people, to a time when The Ed Sullivan Show was featuring rock ’n’ roll bands beamed into homes via brand-new color televisions. This was when the U.S.A. was experiencing a prosperous, post-WWII era filled with ideas of space exploration, jukeboxes packed with vinyl records, and muscle cars cruising the highways. For most in the States, the early 1960s was a great time to grow up and an even better time to want to play electric guitar. It was the era that birthed garage bands. Demand for electric guitars boomed, and guitars were being designed as original models rather than copies of copies. I could write several volumes about guitar design variations, but for this article let’s examine a curious chapter of electric guitar production: the age of fully transistorized Japanese electrics, from 1964 to 1966.
For historical perspective, let’s look at the dawn of solid-state technology. Back in 1947, Bell Laboratories developed an alternative to the costly and problematic vacuum tubes that powered most electronic devices. This transistor technology slowly found its way into consumer products, but was truly embraced in portable radio formats. Before this time many radios were huge and bulky, often positioned as the centerpieces of living rooms. Transistors made it possible to seriously downsize radios so you could carry a pocket-sized one, cranking out the latest Beatles tunes. It may not seem like much of an innovation compared to our palm-sized smart phones, but this new form of technology appealed to the young baby-boom generation. It allowed for more expedient ways to get news and music, all wrapped up in the novelty of transistor radio design. These little radios appeared concurrently with electric guitars in all sorts of pop-culture references on TV, in movies, and in print publications.
Transistor technology was available to many Americans in the 1950s, although the cost of such devices was often expensive. But a few visionary Japanese engineers were visiting the U.S., including Masaru Ibuka, with their eyes on the market. He was the co-founder of Sony, and his fledgling company began making transistorized electronic equipment under license from AT&T. By the early 1960s, Japan had become a major player in transistor radio production, with Sony competing with other Japanese companies such as Toshiba and Sharp. This manufacturing boom was concurrent with the electric-guitar boom and the explosion of popular guitar music. The planets aligned, and soon the technology of both guitars and radios morphed into an interesting combination: the “amp-in-guitar” concept.
Image 1: Attaching a simple, radio-like circuit board platform to a pickup begat the concept of onboard amplification.
One of the earliest examples of these transistor amplifiers appeared on the German-made Hofner “Bat” guitar of 1960—the year it debuted at a European trade show. The Hofner Bat, known as the Fledermaus in the company’s catalog, was produced in very low numbers and is now arguably the rarest of all Hofner electric guitars. It featured a pretty radical angular-but-symmetrical design that incorporated a transistorized amplifier and speaker inside the guitar’s body. Also appearing in the early ’60s were the Italian-made Wandre Bikini Avanti 1, which featured a detachable amp that connected to the lower bout of the guitar, and the Meazzi-branded Transonic, which had a fully integrated amp and speaker in its body.
Image 2: Wandre’s Bikini models sported a detachable amp that connected to the guitar’s lower bout. Photo by Robert Patrick
Image 3: Italian guitars like the Meazzi Transonic arrived on these shores as pricey imports.
Even though these models pre-dated the Japanese models with onboard amps, the Italian guitars were also hard to find in the U.S. and were very expensive. The Wandre Avanti 1 was imported by the Maurice Lipsky Music Company in the early ’60s and priced at an astounding $395. But the advertisement for the Avanti 1 read, “No Wires, No Outlet Worries, Plays Anywhere.” Those taglines really reflect the sense of freedom and mobility that transistor technology offered the guitar-playing community. Hey, take your Wandre Bikini to the beach party!
Okay, it ain’t a Marshall combo, but this Teisco TRG-1’s onboard amp does have its own character, and after the guitar’s plugged into a stand-alone amp at the 2:00 mark, it’s obvious that the 3" speaker accurately reflects the natural tone of the instrument.
Image 4: Teisco TRG-1
Image 5: Teisco TRH1
Japanese guitar maker Teisco introduced two transistorized models in 1964: the round-necked TRG-1 and the TRH-1 lap steel.