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Wizard of Odd: Ripe for Slide—Mid-’60s Kawai SD Electrics

Photo 1

What do you get when a piano manufacturer turns to making electric guitars? Perhaps something resembling a serious piece of furniture.

One of my best buddies, Dave D’Amelio, used to have this wonderful repair shop in the garage behind his house. It was a mere 10-minute drive for me, so I used to spend hours over at his place learning about weird old guitars and how to fix them up. He specialized in taking old electrics and turning them into stage players, and his shop walls displayed dozens of guitars that benefitted from his magic touch. One of the guitars I was most interested in was a crazily exaggerated Kimberly guitar that sported an oversized headstock, a large body, and lots of metal (Photo 1).

I later learned it was a Kawai-made guitar called an SD. These guitars came in a few different pickup configurations and the model name simply changed to designate the number of pickups. For instance, the SD3W would have three pickups and the SD4W (Photo 2) would have four pickups. You dig? These early Kawai originals were favored by many Chicago bluesmen, including Hound Dog Taylor. Though the guitars were inexpensive, they were very sturdily built and sounded great, and they had perfect factory action for playing slide. We’ll discover why in a moment.

These early Kawai originals were favored by many Chicago bluesmen, including Hound Dog Taylor.

Kawai entered the electric guitar market around 1963, and the SD guitars began arriving on U.S. shores in late 1964. The SDs had a relatively short production run that lasted until early 1966. Kawai always had a reputation as a maker of fine pianos. When they started making electric guitars, they converted one of their piano factories to this end and applied their manufacturing techniques and expertise to making guitars.

To me, these Kawai guitars always felt like a piece of furniture. When I was a kid, my family had big, heavy, dark Mediterranean-style furniture that kind of hurt when I sat on it. Like, serious furniture! Well, these SD guitars are also pretty darn serious. They feature huge necks and a totally crazy neck joint that is both glued in and bolted on. Some of the earliest SD guitars even had an insanely large tombstone-shaped neck plate that featured five screws.

Photo 2

The wood in these SD guitars is actually quite nice, and I often see some finely grained rosewood fretboards. But aside from the build quality and looks, these guitars can be a pain to set up properly. Typical of the early Japanese electrics, the neck angle is really bad as you move up the fretboard. In the open chord area, it’s all good, but when you get to the 9th fret, the action is often super high. This is very difficult to remedy without removing the neck ... and you remember that neck joint I mentioned earlier? The one that’s bolted and glued, and has finish applied over the whole area? Ah, yes—that one.

The necks are incredibly large—they feel like a smoothed-out piano leg—and feature a very deep V contour. Of course, we have V-shaped necks today, but they’re wimpy in comparison to the early Kawai electrics. The truss-rod cover is stamped “Patent 34-4127,” which is noteworthy because you rarely see a patent number applied to any Japanese guitar from the era. Kawai must have thought they’d really broken new ground with their truss-rod design, but sisters and brothers, let me tell you it was way under-spec’d and barely moves the action on these mammoth necks. I suppose the good thing about the thick neck is that it doesn’t bow easily.

Watch the video demo:

The pickups are the saving grace of these SD guitars. For reasons that are beyond me, they sound awesome. The DC resistance measures very low, in the 2k range, but the pickups sound really crisp and clear—and even aggressive at times, thanks to the series wiring that allows their combined power to shine. It’s like an early form of overdrive, and if you’ve ever heard Hound Dog wail on slide, then you know this sound.

Watch the video demo: