Of course, the true proliferation of the technology was dominated by the Japanese makers of the time, and the Teisco Company led the way when Japan Music Trades magazine featured the newly introduced Teisco TRG-1 in June 1964. Also introduced was a lap steel called the TRH-1. The “TR” standing for “transistor,” these new models were basically takes on existing guitar designs. The TRG-1 featured a slightly larger Teisco ET-300-style body and one pickup, with the small amplifier mounted under the pickguard where a bridge pickup would otherwise reside. This model had a few different names in its early days, such as TRE-100, TRET-100 (with a tremolo), TRG-1, TRG-1L, and probably a few others. But they were all essentially the same model, offering “new sounds in music.” In 1964 and 1965, Teisco really promoted the amp-in-guitar models in Japan and, here in America, Weiss Musical Instruments was placing advertisements in Music Trades magazine as early as February 1965. Also appearing in 1965 was a Silvertone-branded variation, called the 1487 in Sears literature.
Image 6: Teisco’s ads of the era boasted “new sounds in music” and a decidedly “mod” look.
Image 7: Sears’ in-house guitar brand, Silvertone, entered the competition in 1965 with the 1487 model.
All of these Teisco-made guitars could be plugged into an amplifier and played like a “normal” guitar, or you could use the internal amplifier powered with 9V batteries that were installed through an access plate on the back of the guitar. The batteries fired a tiny transistor amplifier that put out about 1 watt of power through a 3" speaker. You definitely weren’t going to play a house party with this setup, but it was perfect for bedroom jamming and learning songs off the record player.
Image 8: A 3" speaker with 1 watt of power was de rigueur for the self-contained 6-strings of the 1960s.
There were several other Japanese amp-in-guitar models that appeared during 1965, including a super-cool instrument made by the short-lived Shinko Gakki company in the city of Tatsuno. The rarely seen Shinko example was sold in the U.S. through the New York-based Inter-Mark Company, which branded all their guitars as “Cipher” models.
Image 9: This one-pickup Cipher model imported by the Inter-Mark Company originated in Tatsuno, Japan.
The Maier example pictured below was made by another Japanese manufacturer, forgotten by time. After examining the components, this guitar seems to have been produced in the Matsumoto area of Japan. Even the import name of “Maier” is a relative mystery. After pouring through stacks of trade magazines from the era, the only possible clue I’ve found is the R.J. Maier Corp. of Sun Valley, California. They were primarily known as a maker of clarinet and saxophone reeds, but during the guitar boom of the mid-’60s, all sorts of musical instrument companies were importing electric guitars. Either way, the Maier variation follows the familiar blueprint of a single-pickup guitar powering a tiny amp through a 3" speaker. Finally, this two pickup variation, also below, was made at yet another Japanese factory that remains a mystery. I have owned this same model without the internal amp, and the designers simply routed out the regular guitar bodies to accept the transistorized components. But this example features a headphone jack!
The makers of these guitars—a one-pickup model with a Maier-marked headstock and a two-pickup model with a headphone jack—are a mystery today.
There aren’t any records of how many of these amp-in guitars were sold, and I often wonder about the popularity of this format. But by 1966 most all of these guitars had vanished from catalogs, advertisements, and literature. As with many of the Japanese imports, these all-transistor guitars were relegated to closets and pawnshops. Rory Gallagher famously adored his Teisco TRG-1 and recorded with it. But other than that famous connection, the brief history of these guitars has been largely ignored.
This cousin of the Meazzi Transonic seems to feature a plywood top and has a distinctive-looking pickup with a serviceable, if feedback-prone, amp onboard.
So how do these internal amps sound? Well, they sound like a tiny transistor radio! And for those of you too young for the comparison, imagine a seriously lo-fi sound that’s tinny and raw. Really, these amps were more about portability than sound. Even when direct miked, they sound weak, but—as with all tones—there is a place for this sound in someone’s creative imagination.
Unfortunately, these old amps are almost always in need of repair due to bad capacitors. The values on these capacitors are often odd, but they can be repaired easily enough by almost any good electronics repair tech. I’ve owned eight of these transistorized electric guitars over the years, and all but one needed repair work on the amp circuitry. But when these guitars are fixed up, I love using them. I still take my Teisco TRG-1 to the shore every year. And when my kids were born, you can bet my playing was limited to the 1-watt amps in these guitars as I plucked lullabies in the wee hours of the night. Even today there’s a place for these oddities of ’60s technology and guitar playing!
Frank Meyers is the author of History of Japanese Electric Guitars, published in 2015.