The simple design of the Kent Copa was a perfect fit for Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed’s pragmatic, noisy needs.
Are any of you like me when it comes to TV watching? Like, I have cable and I have about five different streaming services, and I barely watch any of them. Seriously, all I ever watch is sports! But I spend so much money on the TV because my wife likes to watch certain things and my daughter likes to watch certain things and my son likes his stuff and for whatever reason they all tell me we need each of these different channels. My wife is always trying to get me to invest in some long series or drama, and I just get bored after a while and drop out. Recently though, she found Todd Haynes’ excellent Velvet Underground documentary, which I totally enjoyed. (Yeah, it wasn’t sports, but there were guitars, history, and great music!)
The Velvet Underground was a bit before my time, but I discovered them at a great period in my life—when I had simple needs, a miniscule budget, and a rabid need to make noise with a guitar. To the uninitiated, try to search out songs like “I’m Waiting For the Man,” “I Heard Her Call My Name,” and my personal VU favorite, “Sister Ray.”
I’ve always been fascinated with real characters—people who are just weirdly interesting. Usually I don’t find them; they find me. And man, the Velvets had some characters. Check out the movie if you can. It is well worth your time to see how all these interesting artistic movements coalesced with a music scene in New York. But I have to say, one thing I kept digging was the interesting gear the band was using in the early days: most notably fuzz boxes, Sears amps, and a wonderful little Japanese guitar called the Kent Copa.
The Kent brand was manufactured in Japan by Guyatone.
I guess you’ve heard this from me many times, but around 1963, electric guitar popularity began to explode and the world was flooded with Japanese imports. The Kent brand name was used by the Buegeleisen & Jacobson Trading Company (B&G for short), based in New York City—just one of the many importers dealing with Japanese guitar builders at the time. From 1964 to 1966, almost all the Kent electric guitars were produced by the Tokyo Sound Company (more commonly known as Guyatone), which had an extensive catalog of guitars, amps, pickups, effects, and microphones—everything a budding musician would need.
And so it went that a humble Guyatone-built Kent guitar made it into the hands of Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed. If you check out the documentary or search out photos, it’s easy to see Sterling and Lou take turns tearing it up with a Kent Copa. (Of course, the guys played other guitars, too, and Lou is more associated with his black Gretsch 6112, especially in the early period. The VU was also endorsed by Vox and I seem to hear all sorts of early Vox effects in the songs.)
Here's a close-up look at those gnarly sounding pickups, tone and volume controls, rotary pickup selector. cheap-o plastic bridge, and surprisingly good vibrato.
As for the Kent Copa, it made its first appearance in the 1963 Kent catalog as a mid-level electric with a list price of $149. This model had a mahogany body and maple neck (supplied by the Japanese Mahura factory) paired with three Guyatone-made pickups, three volume controls, one tone control, and a rotary selector switch. The model came in red or sunburst, but I rarely see the red color. As the years passed, the Copa evolved a bit to feature better sounding pickups and a cheaper price. By mid-1966, the Copa only cost $112 and had two more finish options (honey blonde and cocoa tan), but the axe remained basically unchanged in its short three-year run.
The Kent Copa that Sterling and Lou were playing was from the 1964–’66 range, since theirs had the more angular, rectangle-shaped pickups. These were low-output pickups with a strong DC resistance rating, but they were rather gnarly with a hint of overdrive, even at calm control settings. The real magic happens when the Copa is paired with a raunchy amp (à la the Danelectro-made Silvertone 1484) and a primitive fuzz like the early Vox Tone Bender.
Two other quirks to note: The bridge was a non-adjustable plastic job that did not help with intonation. So, if your guitar was off from day one, it would be off forever. Second, the tremolo on the Kent Copa is actually very good! The spring is recessed into the body and the darn unit just works amazingly and has a great feel. There was a story that the founder of Guyatone, Mitsuo Matsuki, visited the Harmony Guitar factory here in the U.S. He observed all sorts of building techniques and tried his hand at making his own tremolo. Not really knowing anything about a guitar’s playability, he made an early tremolo that only moved one way and increased the pitch. Sort of weird, but by the time the Copa came out, Mitsuo had it all figured out. See—we all can learn and evolve! So, excuse me for now. I have to get upstairs to see the 76ers game!
Now-classic designs such as Gibson's Flying V and Explorer originally bombed with the public—and chances are you would've turned up your nose at their debut, too.
Over the years, I've vacillated between my love of classic instruments and looking to the future. The same goes for automobiles. I was an F1 fan who always looked to the future. I drooled over carbon fiber wings and thought manual shifters were as antiquated as the crank starter and roll-up windows. Then I was stopped dead in my tracks in the paddock at a vintage sports car race by the sight of a beautifully crafted 1950s Maserati Grand Prix car. As Seinfeld might have said, worlds collided. As I stood before this piece of rolling artwork, it cast a spell on me that I haven't been able to shake.
Conversely, I still thought almost every guitar and gadget worth paying attention to was made before 1972. Why am I and so many others resistant to change when it comes to guitars?
In the late 1940s, Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby were on the cutting edge of mid-century design applied to age-old guitar building artistry. Their slab-bodied instruments were looking to a future that stodgy, old-time builders like Gibson couldn't imagine. Fender released the swoopy and futuristic Stratocaster in 1954, and by 1957 Gibson and other traditional builders found themselves on the back foot. As the appeal of Fender's rock 'n' roll-approved designs started eating into their profits, Gibson knew they had to keep up. As legend has it, that's when Gibson employee Seth Lover handed a sketch of an arrow-shaped instrument to company president Ted McCarty, and everything changed.
At the 1957 NAMM convention in Chicago, Gibson launched their return salvo at Fender—a trio of insane looking jet-age korina guitars with fins like space rockets. They were called Explorer, Moderne, and, of course, Lover's Flying V. Beaming smiles on Gibson's salespeople exuded the confidence of Babe Ruth stepping up to the plate, but by the time the show closed, the smugness might have evaporated. Somehow, these fabulous mid-century showpieces crossed a line that many buyers couldn't warm up to. Gibson's dealers bought a few as novelties for their store windows, but reorders were dismal.
Why am I and so many others resistant to change when it comes to guitars?
Marv Lamb, one of the founders of Heritage guitars, began his career in 1958 working in Gibson's Kalamazoo factory. In an interview with author/historian Tony Bacon, Lamb recalled his early days: "I remember working on the Flying V and Explorer. They were the ugliest things, way ahead of their time. I think Gibson practically gave them away to get rid of them." Within the span of two years, less than 100 Flying Vs, and even fewer Explorers, were sold. Gibson tried to revive the Flying V in the late 1960s, to little success.
When I visited McCarty in 1974, he bluntly told me, "those guitars were failures." But by then, the worm had already begun to turn. Young guitarists started to gravitate to the older single-cutaway Les Pauls, and slowly but surely came to embrace the Flying V. It took a little while longer for the lightning-bolt shape of the Explorer to catch on. Ironically, despite being decades old, musicians thought they looked new and cool. Sound familiar?
Today, the Explorer, Flying V, and the once forgotten Les Paul are seen as the archetypes of classic dad-rock. Their form is so ubiquitous that, like Kleenex, guitarists refer to any maker's version by the original Gibson designations. But it was the V and the Explorer's concept that really solidified the idea that as long as you retained the basic parts layout of an electric guitar, the outline of the body could be anything. Seth Lover, who wasn't a guitarist, had taken the leap that Fender had only hinted at. In a way, without the Explorer and V there might not have been a B.C. Rich, Jackson, and certainly no Hamer or Dean. But just as the rockers of the 1970s looked to the past to create their alternative sound and image, so, too, did the bands that followed. Those pointy guitars born in the shadow of Sputnik and the Cold War became de rigueur for metal and thrash music, while alternative icons like Elvis Costello, Johnny Marr, and Kevin Shields revived the comatose "offset" designs of the 1950s. Shiny polyester-clad "CEO" guitars, once buoyed by nu metal's push into the mainstream, have now been usurped by faux 1960s pawnshop guitars with purposely flawed finishes. We keep looking backwards to move ahead.
The original French phrase plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose is most often attributed to critic, journalist, and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. It means the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since then, technology has certainly progressed, yet most of human nature has not. To my way of thinking, if Monsieur Karr was a veteran music dealer today, he might utter something similar about our attitudes and tastes in guitar.
Circa "Boys Don't Cry," Robert Smith's favorite tones came from a Japan-made model that reached these shores under several brand names, but with the same distinctive voice.
So, the other day my wife and I were having this wonderful conversation about music from the '80s and great songs from our youth. She is a huge '80s music fan who sings along anytime she hears "99 Luftballons" or "Take on Me" (her favorite). Heck, if I play Devo, it's game over! While immersing ourselves in the old classics, I came across the first album by the Cure, 1979's Three Imaginary Boys. I was never a big Cure fan, and only knew a few songs, but the first LP was really something. The band had an incredibly interesting sound with some creative guitar stuff going on, and I was really digging on "10:15 Saturday Night," "It's Not You," "Faded Smiles," and, of course, the total classic "Boys Don't Cry."
Our house had this album playing nonstop for about three days, and I was continually struck by Robert Smith's tones. He had a rather large palette that ranged from raw and grinding to a bit thin and echo-like. The latter I kept pondering, because it sounded like a vintage Japanese guitar, with that thin, trebly quality combined with a soft attack. So off I went to search out Smith's guitars and—lo and behold—I found that he then favored playing a vintage Japanese guitar! I was shocked, because for some reason I always associated his playing with a Fender Jazzmaster. But then, as I studied further, I discovered that he actually put a small single-coil pickup in the middle position of his Jazzmaster. And the pickup came from his old Japanese guitar. He even stated in interviews that he favored the pickup and used it all the time while the band recorded that first album.
I was never a big Cure fan, and only knew a few songs, but the first LP was really something.
The guitar he played in the early days was a very common model sold both in the States and in England. Across the pond, the most frequent brand name affixed to this model was "Top Twenty," but over here it came with a few different brand names. Robert's model was basically identical to the one I have, pictured here, except his had two pickups. Mine carries a "Recco" logo.
The maker of these guitars was almost forgotten to time but for the memory of one man: Eddie Wakayama, who I met in Japan. I discovered Eddie through interviews with Ron Sackheim, whose father owned Strum & Drum, which imported guitars to the U.S. with the Norma brand name. Eddie acted as the buyer for Strum & Drum, and almost always partnered with a small woodworking factory named Sakai Mokko, located outside of Nagoya, Japan. Eddie has many old memories of the factory, which was primarily operating in the late '60s and early '70s. Basically, Sakai Mokko produced the wooden parts. Not coincidentally, Eddie also had a small electronics company named Mitsuya that supplied electronics for guitars. The Norma brand's version of the same guitar had the model name EG 413-2T, and I suspect my Recco was made around 1968. It has a simple control set: an on-off button for each of three pickups, and tone and volume dials. There's also an adjustable bridge.
Smith so loved those pickups that he put one between the P-90s of his well-known white Fender Jazzmaster.
My Recco here is rather unremarkable, and I had several during my early days of collecting. The bodies are plywood, and many of the necks don't have adjustable truss rods. The tone is thin and really epitomizes the sound that I usually attribute to average made-in-Japan electric guitars from that era. I found it very surprising that Robert bonded that much with his Top Twenty—to the point of using its old pickup rather than the revered Jazzmaster pickups when he made the switch to Fender.There is a real lesson here for all of us: Great music can be made with any guitar, and I think it's important to think of instruments as colors in your palette. Plus, when you bond with a guitar or a sound, the bond is usually lifelong. I gained a new level of respect for Mr. Smith. And hey, if any of you know him, please have him reach out so we can talk old guitars! I wonder if he still has that Top Twenty?