It sure looks like a banjo, but this vintage Kawai-made instrument is definitely a guitar!
I’ve been hunkered down in the basement with my dogs while my family is upstairs blowing their noses. I’m the only uninfected person in the house. Last night, while I was trying to stay germ-free, I was digging on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2021 film, Licorice Pizza. Set in 1973 in California, the soundtrack features a great assortment of songs I’d never heard before and some classics. One song that was playing in my head for the rest of the night after I watched the movie was “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings. That song reminded me of the guitar education I got from my buddy Mike Dugan, who has been playing guitar since before the Beatles played in the U.S.
When Mike and I used to demo guitars in my basement, I learned something new every time. He insisted that every guitar had at least one song in it. I would hand him guitars, and he would play a little and tell me the song that was buried inside. I got to learn about a lot of music that I was otherwise simply never exposed to. Anyway, “Let Me Roll It” was the song that came out of one of my Kawai-made “banjo” guitars, sometimes called a banjitar. The other one I owned had Ten Years After’s “Going Home” in it. Go figure!
I’m actually surprised I never wrote about this guitar before, because it is just so odd.
All Kawai banjitars share the model name CB-2V (the CB stands for concert banjo), even though they were sold under different brands—Splendor and Winston, in the case of my two. These were only made in 1968 (along with a bunch of other crazy Kawai-built guitars) and were primarily sold in Japan. I’m convinced that LSD was introduced in Hamamatsu, Japan, around that time because the Kawai designers were just straight trippin’! (I’m actually surprised I never wrote about this guitar before, because it is just so odd.)
A good friend used to travel for his work, and wherever he went to Japan, he would check out the local secondhand shops (which are hugely popular there) and send me pics of interesting guitars. I bought the Splendor guitar this way and had it shipped. I found the other one here in the U.S., where they were usually sold with the Winston badge.
Resplendent with body and neck binding, a German carve, a flip-up bridge mute, and a gently curved back, the CB-2V is also bizarre. The guitars have two pickup switches, a volume and tone knob, and, unfortunately, one of the worst of the Kawai tremolo units. But hey, you can’t win ’em all.
The only reason this was dubbed the concert banjo is simply the round body, which was solid underneath the pickguard. Otherwise, it’s just a regular old six-string with some plinky sounds thanks to the shallow break angle. I suppose you could even coax some sitar-like sounds with the proper set-up. Mike was always able to crank out some raw blues thanks to the Kawai pickups, which at this point were a little less hot than the Hound Dog Taylor guitars from previous years. But Kawai was still using my favorite series wiring, and with both pickups turned on, you can get 10.95k worth of output.
The CB-2V has a 24" scale and a thin laminated neck. Overall, the guitar feels super small on your body and does not balance well at all. The fatal flaw of these guitars is the neck and string alignment. The bridge puts both E strings at the very edges of the neck binding, which leads to a lot of misplaced notes and fretting errors as the strings just pull off the side of the neck. But hey, you probably weren’t buying this guitar for the playability. In fact, I don’t know why you would buy one of these other than the strange factor, which is worth something to certain types of players.