Japanese Guitar Brands

Japanese Guitar Brands

Just about every guitarist will tell you that the best guitars are made in either Japan or the United States. These manufacturers make their guitars with greater attention to detail, resulting in a higher-quality product. Here are our picks for the best Japanese guitar brands.

Our Selections: Best Japanese Guitar Brands

1. Yamaha

Long considered to be staples in school bands and music education programs, Yamaha guitars are known for their incredible value. The Japanese guitar brand is also culturally significant to Japan — the founder, Torakusu Yamaha, led the effort to make Western musical instruments like guitars in Japan.

Yamaha was initially called Nippon Gakki, which translates to “Japanese Musical Instrument.” The Nippon Gakki name was changed to Yamaha in 1987 to commemorate 100 years of business.

As a guitar brand, Yamaha is somewhat underrated. The Japanese guitar company offers high-quality guitars for surprisingly low prices. One of the best examples is the Yamaha A5M- ARE from its A-Series. This is an acoustic-electric guitar made with solid Sitka spruce and solid rosewood. The top is treated with Yamaha’s Acoustic Resonance Enhancement system (ARE).

This is essentially a process that torrefies the top to give it the sound of an old, well-played acoustic. With ARE Yamaha guitars, you get the sound of a vintage guitar right out of the box. Even though it has features you’d typically find on guitars priced in the thousands, the A5R is under $1000.

Yamaha sets itself apart from other Japanese guitar manufacturing companies with its inventiveness.

The ARE system is a testament to the brand’s spirit of innovation, as is the SRT2 guitar electronics system. This system combines a piezo pickup with microphone modeling technology. You can blend signals to customize your sound depending on your performance needs. To check out this pickup, take a look at this video demo.

2. Takamine

Although Takamine is now a world-renowned guitar manufacturer, it started out in 1959 as a family-run guitar shop. It takes its name from Mount Takamine, which stands just above the shop. In its early years of guitar building, Takamine primarily made classical guitars, as did many guitar brands based in Japan.

Like Yamaha, Takamine is a company that became known for innovation, and it was a pioneer of acoustic-electric amplification. In 1978, the company developed the Palathetic undersaddle pickup. Today, the Palathetic pickup is one of the most advanced undersaddle pickups available. It has six distinct piezo elements, and each penetrates through the soundboard. That means that pickup captures both soundboard resonance and string vibration for a fuller, more faithful amplified sound.

That spirit of innovation also led the Takamine team to develop the CTP-1 Cool Tube, which is the first onboard tube preamp for acoustic guitars. The tube preamp gives you a balance of both warmth and grit in your sound, and an onboard EQ lets you sculpt your sound, too. This video lets you take a look at this remarkable Takamine preamp. In recent years, Takamine has also started using the torrefaction process on the tops of its high-end instruments.

And even though Takamine acoustic guitars are known for both state-of-the-art electronics and impeccable construction, they continue to be offered at price points that are friendly to most working musicians.

3. Fernandes Guitars

While Takamine is known for acoustic guitars, Fernandes Guitars (also called Burnys Guitars) is known for its often eye-catching and eclectic electric guitar designs. The company was founded in 1969 in Osaka, Japan. Fernandes Guitars is also one of the biggest Japanese guitar manufacturers along with the Matsumoku and Fujigen Gakk guitar brands.

Many of the guitars initially produced by Fernandes were copies of popular Fender models, often of the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Fernandes guitars with the “Burny” logo on the headstock were usually Gibson copies. The name “Burny” is actually a misspelling of “Bunny,” but Fernandes didn’t change it once the guitar manufacturer learned of the error.

Although the company started out essentially copying electric guitars from famous guitar brands at its beginning in 1969 in Osaka, Japan. Fernandes added a key element to electric guitar history: the sustainer. This system creates an electromagnetic field that vibrates an electric guitar’s strings for infinite sustain. To this day, you can purchase the Fernandes sustainer.

You can see how it works in this video demo.

Fernandes also offers its own unique guitar designs. For example, the ZO-3 travel-sized guitar has a roughly semicircle-shaped body, and it comes in many bright and unusual finishes.

4. Fujigen

Fujigen Guitars (often abbreviated as FGN Guitars, and initially called Fujigen Gakki) is one of the highest-quality Japanese guitar manufacturers. It also manufactures a range of different instruments, including bass guitars, solidbody electric guitars, and hollow-body guitars. And while Fujigen sells guitars under its own FGN guitar brand, it is also a subcontractor that makes some Ibanez instruments, as well as some non-musical products.

As is the case with most Japanese manufacturers, most vintage Fujigen Gakki guitars are copies of Gibson and Fender instruments. These tend to be fairly high-quality manufactured guitars, and you can sometimes find them on vintage guitar specialty sites. Today, Fujigen offers quality guitars at multiple price points. They take orders for completely custom electric guitars, and they offer a selection of fairly high-end guitars as well.

Many of these look a lot like Fender and Gibson guitar brands. For example, the Neo Classic Series is essentially a Les Paul copy. It comes with Seymour Duncan humbuckers, Gotoh hardware, and a stunning flame maple top over a mahogany body. It sounds remarkably like a Les Paul, too — check out this helpful video demo.

For those wanting more affordable Japanese-made guitars, the Iliad BIL2M is a Telecaster-style model that’s priced solidly in the midrange. Fujigen guitars will offer you some savings over their Fender and Gibson counterparts, but they are still high-quality, playable instruments that aren’t necessarily cheap.

5. Ibanez

Like Takamine, Ibanez also started out working mostly with classical guitars — this Japanese guitar brand began as an importer When it began manufacturing, it took the last name of the luthier — Salvador Ibanez — who had made many of the quality acoustic guitar imports.

While Ibanez started out as a small company, it grew quickly once it began manufacturing Fender and Gibson copies around the 1970s.

And in 1977, Gibson filed a lawsuit claiming that Ibanez was copying the Gibson headstock design. This led to most high-quality Japanese guitar copies from the 1970s being referred to as “lawsuit guitars” or “lawsuit era guitars.” Check out this interesting video for an interesting comparison between a 1977 Ibanez guitar and a 1977 Gibson.

Around the 1980s, the Ibanez began to look more like the guitar manufacturer we know today. Shredder-style music was on the rise, and Ibanez began making models that were effectively early Superstrats — they had high-output pickups, tremolo systems, and fast necks that lent themselves to highly technical playing.

Today, Ibanez continues to be known as a guitar brand geared toward rock and metal players. However, the Japanese guitar company has also expanded to make quality guitars for other genres. Notably, it makes a handful of great-sounding semi-hollow guitars, and it also offers an impressively affordable acoustic guitar catalog for newer players.

Ibanez was originally founded in 1908 as Hoshino Gakki, a company that primarily distributed sheet music. Today, Hoshino Gakki company is the parent company of both Ibanez and Tama (a drum manufacturer).

6. Greco

Greco Guitars is one of the older Japanese manufacturers on the list. The company was founded in 1960 and is still in business today.

Greco started making its own guitar designs, but the Beatles and Led Zeppelin inspired the guitar company to start producing copies. After the Beatles toured in Japan, Greco began their copy manufacturing with a version of Paul McCartney’s Hofner violin bass and a Telecaster-style copy. You can see a 1970 violin bass copy in action in this video demo.

When Led Zeppelin and other rock bands started touring Japan as well, young people wanted to be able to play similar instruments to the bands’ guitarists. However, the price of a high-end Gibson or Fender was roughly five times greater than the average young person’s monthly salary. As a result, Greco produced affordable yet great-sounding copies.

The Greco-Japanese guitar designs made today look a lot like a hybrid between a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. The dual-cutaway Strat-style body has a little bit of an offset, and the unique pickguard looks like what you would get if you averaged a Strat pickguard with a Tele one.

Most come with a humbucker bridge pickup and a single-coil neck pickup. Greco bass guitars usually come with two J-style pickups, and all-electric guitar models have colors that look like the ones you’d see in a Fender catalog. However, given their decent build quality, they’re fairly affordable.

7. Electric Sound Products (ESP)

You might be surprised to hear that Electric Sound Products, better known as ESP, is a Japanese guitar brand. The company was founded in 1975 by Hisatake Shibuya. However, unlike most guitar brands on the list, it started out as a manufacturer of guitar components and replacement parts. It did have a custom shop, but it didn’t initially mass-produce guitars in Japan.

In the 1970s, ESP was manufacturing what were probably the highest-quality guitars on the list. The Navigator line was made of accurate, spec-for-spec copies of popular Gibson and Fender models. But these guitars were so similar to Gibson and Fender guitars that they could only be sold in Japan.

The ESP brand eventually moved to the United States in the 1980s, and after “ghost building” for Kramer, it began creating its own line of manufactured guitars. ESP’s metal-friendly designs soon caught on.

ESP has become known for producing fairly affordable artist signature guitars, including a guitar produced with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. This guitar is part of ESP’s LTD Series, which is essentially its budget brand produced for newer players or those on a budget. This video demo gives you an idea of what this guitar sounds like.

ESP has come a long way since it was founded in 1975 by Hisatake Shibuya — instead of simply making quality copies, it’s become one of the world’s foremost guitar manufacturers with plenty of great original designs.

8. Fender Japan

Fender Japan stands out on the list, as it’s the only one of the guitar brands on the list that did not originate in Japan. You’ve already heard that other Japanese brands produced quality copies of Fender instruments in the 1970s.

Those copies began to gain a reputation of being higher quality than actual Fender guitars. Fender began manufacturing in Japan to force these brands to stop producing copies (and to protect Fender’s reputation). However, Fender contracted with the Japanese brand Fujigen Gakki to make Fender Japan guitars.

During this same time, Fender also started its budget line, Squier. This way, it was essentially manufacturing knockoff guitars for itself in hopes of outcompeting brands that made Japanese guitars. It largely worked, and the Squier line of electric guitars meant that students and guitarists on a budget could still afford and play Fender-style musical instruments.

The Japanese-made Fenders were as good as (if not better than) those produced in the U.S., and to this day, made-in-Japan (MIJ) Fenders are well-respected. Starting in 1994, guitars made in Japan were stamped with CIJ (crafted in Japan) instead of MIJ. If you’d like to hear a Japanese-made Stratocaster from 1992, you can see it in this video demo.

Fender continues to make quality instruments today, and from time to time the company comes up with interesting Japan-exclusive designs such as the Custom Koicaster Strat by Todd Krause, inspired by the historical significance of the Koi Fish in Japan. You can take a look at some of them here.

9. Teisco

Teisco is one of the shorter-lived guitar brands on the list — it was founded in 1948 and was bought out by 1967. It also was a more diverse manufacturer than many brands on the list. In addition to electric guitars, Teisco made acoustic guitars, microphones, drum kits, and amplifiers.

Earlier Teisco guitars tended to look a bit like Gibson models, but many models produced later had offset, dual-cutaway bodies reminiscent of a Jazzmaster. Often, they had somewhat unusual features. For instance, the SD-4L guitar shown in this video demo has tone switches instead of the tone knobs most of us are used to.

The Teisco TRG-1 is another unusual model — it came with a one-watt amp built into the guitar itself. This was an obvious great feature for new players, as they didn’t have to purchase a separate amplifier.

For guitarists on the lookout for vintage gems, Teisco guitars are a great choice. On used musical instrument platforms, Teisco models can sell for as low as couple hundred dollars, and pristine or rare models can sell for $1,000 or more. Interestingly enough, the brand has somewhat recently reappeared, but it isn’t making guitars — instead, it’s making effects pedals.

10. Tokai

Tokai, which was founded in 1947, is still in business today. It was (and is)one of the better Japanese brands. Even Martin trusted its craftsmanship — Tokai was responsible for manufacturing the Sigma by Martin line, which was essentially Martin’s budget brand. The Sigma line was discontinued in 2007.

Tokai was also responsible for some of the best guitars to come out of the Japanese “lawsuit era.” Tokai meticulously studied Gibson guitars, but instead of trying to replicate them exactly, it aimed to create a superior product.

The Tokai brand wasn’t subtle about what it was trying to do, either — its Les Paul copies were part of a series called “Les Paul Reborn.” This site shows you up-close photos of one. Because these guitars were only made for a few years, they can command prices up to $10,000 today. Check out this video demo to hear one being played,

Today, Tokai makes acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and basses. The brand still sells some guitars that are clearly inspired by Fender, but it also offers its own striking collection of Hummingbird electric guitars. It also makes a unique instrument called Chromaharp — it’s a small lap harp where a user can strum strings by touching a button.

11. Matsumoku

The history of Matsumoku is an interesting one. The brand was founded in 1951 as a woodworking company and then began building furniture for the Singer Corporation, a sewing machine manufacturer. It later expanded into the production of acoustic guitars and violins.

Matsumoku was one of the first manufacturers (in Japan or elsewhere) to start using automation in guitar manufacturing. The company used computer numerical controlled machines for some of the building work, so it was able to create more guitars faster while saving on labor costs.

Matsumoku’s efficient factory setup meant that the company contracted with several brands to produce guitars and components. The company worked with Washburn, Vox, Greco, Aria, and other brands, and it sold its own guitars under the brand name Westone. You can check out the Westone Concord I, a Matsumoku design, in this video demo. 

The company also made a few superstrat-style guitars, including the Villain, an arched-top HSS guitar with a tremolo. Westone wasn’t limited to producing solidbody guitars, though — the Rainbow I and Rainbow II were nice-looking semi-hollow guitars made of Canadian ash.

Notably, Matsumoku indirectly was responsible for building many Epiphone guitars for a short period. Gibson arranged for Aria to manufacture Epiphone guitars, and Aria then created a subcontract with Matsumoku. Though Matsumoku went out of business in 1987, it’s nonetheless made a significant impact in the world of Japanese guitar manufacturing.

12. Morris

Morris Guitars (founded in 1967) is a Japanese manufacturer that offers instruments for every level of player — you can find affordable acoustic guitars for beginners as well as high-end, handmade instruments for professionals.

According to the brand itself, Morris has an advantage when it comes to producing guitars because it starts from the source with quality tonewoods. Many of the tonewoods used are similar to those in the United States, but Morris also uses Yezo spruce, a Japanese spruce tree with tonal qualities similar to European spruce.

Morris was a small part of the “lawsuit era” in which Japanese brands closely copied popular American guitar brands. The company made a number of Martin copies, including this W-45 guitar, which is Morris’s take on the Martin D-45 (Video below left). Today, these vintage guitars can sell for thousands of dollars.

Morris Guitars only manufactures acoustic instruments today, and its high-end Luthier Made Premium acoustic guitar models are both visual and sonic works of art.

For example, the SJS-171SP is a small semi-jumbo with an all-solid Engelmann spruce and Indian rosewood build. Between its stylized bridge, multicolor rosette, and distinctive swooping headstock design, it’s a standout without being overly gaudy. You can get a closer look at this acoustic guitar in this video demo (below right).

Morris is also a guitar manufacturer that puts considerable time and money into research and development. In 2001, the company unveiled the “S Series,” a line of guitars optimized for fingerstyle players. Company representatives met with luthiers and attended various guitar contests in the United States in order to determine what design features to include.

S Series guitars have special nuts designed to reduce the risk of a string rolling off the fretboard, and they also have rounded backs to slightly increase overtones. The highest-end guitar models have lattice bracing, which allows for maximum soundboard vibration while still maintaining enough stiffness for sustain.

13. Atelier Z

Atelier Z is a newer company (founded in 1989), and it’s a popular manufacturer of high-end guitars in Japan. Because it was founded in the 1980s, Atelier Z isn’t one of the many makers of Japanese guitars that produced Gibson and Fender copies during the “lawsuit era.”

This company works with experienced professional musicians when developing instruments, and it has from the beginning — it started out working with Tomohito Aoki, a Japanese professional bassist.

Atelier Z offers an extensive collection of basses, many of which have non-traditional design features. For example, some models come with an ash top and alder back chamber, which gives them excellent tonal balance and keeps them relatively lightweight. Many come with J-style pickups, and some have two humbuckers or a j-pickup/humbucker combination. For players who want extra tonal control, the company also makes a few bass preamps.

The company’s basses have received excellent reviews.

They have an impressive punchiness and are incredibly playable, with many being reminiscent of the Fender Jazz Bass. And of course, being quality instruments, Atelier Z basses are fairly expensive. To see one in action, check out this video demo of the M265 N. This is a five-string bass with an ash body. It comes equipped with two Atelier Z J-style pickups.

Though Atelier Z is especially popular for its basses, it also offers several well-made guitars. Its line of semi-hollow electric guitars includes guitars equipped with Bigsby tremolos, ebony fingerboards, and Grover tuners. It also offers The Village line of Telecaster-style guitars and the L.E.S. (Lower East Side) line of Stratocaster copies. While Atelier Z instruments are most popular in Japan, players from other countries have begun to purchase and perform with them.

14. Suzuki

You may already be familiar with the Suzuki Method of learning an instrument. However, Kiso Suzuki was also the name of a Japanese guitar brand (it was named after a master Japanese luthier). The company was founded in 1887 and began making violins, lutes, and other stringed instruments. Later, it moved into guitar manufacturing. In the 1970s, Kiso Suzuki (which was then called the Kiso Suzuki Violin Company) was one of the many manufacturers creating copies of popular American guitars.

Kiso Suzuki primarily made acoustic guitar models, many of which were Martin guitar copies. In many cases, these guitars were made with laminated backs and sides, but their sound quality was still remarkably good. The copies were designed to be very accurate replicas (at least visually), and Kiso Suzuki even adopted Martin’s scripted headstock logo.

Kiso Suzuki also made copies of the Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar, and these Hummingbird guitars are still sought after by collectors. You can see one in action in this video demo. The company also produced classical and parlor acoustic guitars, many of which can now be found for sale on vintage guitar sites.

Kiso Suzuki also manufactured electric guitars in the 1970s. Many of these were marketed under different brand names, including Tomson and Thunder, but some had the Suzuki name on the headstock. You don’t hear as much about Suzuki guitars as you do some of the other guitar brands on the list, but they’ve managed to draw a bit of a cult following.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re in search of vintage guitars made in Japan or want a model from a Japanese guitar brand still producing guitars, we hope our list has been helpful. What do you think? Is there a Japanese-made guitar we should have mentioned? Let us know in the comments, and please like and share if you found our list useful!

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