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Wizard of Odd: “Tiki Mask” Prestige Electrics

What was up with instrument design in 1968? Far-out, dude.

Sometimes I like to watch old cartoons, like Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, or The Jetsons, because I enjoy seeing how the cartoonists would envision things like cars, appliances, and fashion. For me, these old cartoons are a slightly skewed representation of the times, and, of course, the older cartoons from the ’60s would inevitably have some sort of music-themed episode where the characters would be rocking out on crazy cartoon guitars and drum sets. Sometimes I think of certain vintage Japanese electrics as “cartoon” guitars. It was as if the early designers used vintage cartoons for inspiration, and you only have to view the two 6-strings here for evidence (Photos 1 and 2).

Think of this pair as sort of a Rorschach test for guitarists … “what comes to mind when you see these?” Whether considered butt-ugly or totally far-out, these striped examples always elicit an interesting response, and if there are ever guitar “art” shows, then these models would be prominently featured. The original Planet of the Apes came out in 1968, the same year as these guitars, which explains why I think of Linda Harrison in a cave-girl bikini when I see these crazy electrics. Those were different times, for sure.

The original Planet of the Apes came out in 1968, the same year as these guitars, which explains why I think of Linda Harrison in a cave-girl bikini when I see these crazy electrics.

I’ve not found these guitars in any catalog from the period, but their wacky finish has become known in oddball-guitar circles as “tiki mask,” and it was exclusive to a brief period of truly crazed guitar production at the Kawai Company in Hamamatsu, Japan. Kawai got its start in the 1920s, and its primary business was making pianos. The company began dabbling in acoustic guitar production in the 1950s, and then expanded into electric guitars around 1963. During the electric-guitar boom years of the mid-1960s, Kawai was making an insane number of electrics in a dizzying array of models and designs.

For whatever reason, Kawai electric-guitar design hit the apex of gonzo around 1967 to 1968. During that era, the old piano-making company went on some sort of strange trip, and some of the most original and profound guitar designs were coming to U.S. shores via the Kawai factory. Banjo-shaped guitars, sparkle finishes, and odd contours were so common that the guitar-playing youth of the time must have been really freaking out.

There were a multitude of distributors and importers unleashing kooky guitars on American youngsters, but these Prestige-branded guitars were imported by the Astra Trading Corporation. Located on Fifth Avenue in New York City, Astra imported all manner of Japanese products, not just electric guitars. When I see some of these crazy Prestige-labeled electrics, I can’t help but wonder who bought them. Who would choose this tiger-striped green finish? It’s insane! There was even an acoustic guitar with the green-striped theme going on.

Today, these are rare electrics, and their pickups give both of them an edgy sound that’s always on the verge of feedback, which I just love. For me, it’s more fun when a guitar fights back a little. After all, what would you expect from a 6-string with tiger stripes?

Watch the video demo:

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