Japan Vintage

STOLEN FROM Peerless Tone

copied in case it goes offline

Story of Fender Japan

By the late seventies, Fender found itself in trouble. Sells were slacking and the reason why was all too obvious. The quality of CBS Fender was no where near where it had been before Leo sold the company in 1965. Since this time, the Fender Stratocaster and other Fender products suffered a series of “production costs” modifications that left the guitar a mere shell of it’s original instrument that launched the company into greatness. Word on the street amongst Fender playing musicians was that Strats are great guitars but you gotta buy the old ones. Guitarist searched pawn shops over for pre-CBS guitars. Most notably were the ’57-59 models with its solid one piece maple neck and cleaner pickups or the ’62 models with its rosewood neck and 3-tone finish, pickups that could do both ultra-clean and overdrive. These are the guitars musicians wanted. Not the CBS strat with its larger than necessary headstock, poor electronics, 3-piece bolt-on design that did not stabilize the neck, and a slew of other modest and subtle cutbacks that one by one seem unnoticeable but taken together produce one lousy guitar. Cheaper woods made these guitars abnormally heavy and thus was coined the “boat-anchor” strat. While salesmen tried to talk about heavy guitars and their sustain giving qualities and yes some players even needed to add brass parts to their strats to make them heaver, those “in the know” players knew that nothing sang sweeter than that 60’s strat.

Enter the Japanese and its on going love affair for everything western. Mickey-mouse, apple pie, Coke-a-cola, and yes the Fender Stratocaster. The Japanese were buying up strats by the boatload (quite literally), while most of America were not paying attention to select woods and the virtues of real steel over zinc for the bridge. These American stratocasters shiped off to Japan became the genesis of the vintage market. Japan was already strat crazy. Not the CBS guitar, mind you, but the real-deal Leo Fender Stratocaster. Their was a great demand for these instruments on the Japanese market. Not everyone could afford vintage stock mind you. Plus, even though many of these USA made strats from the 1960’s were being shipped in, not enough to qualm the demand. Japan, had the solution. Make replica’s and clones of the Fender Stratocaster.

Enter Gecko, one of the many copycat guitar companies of the late seventies law-suite era that made a good profit from offering clones of these sought after instruments. These instruments were good. Arguably better than the current production USA made instruments at the time. The only way these guitars suffered was they used cheaper hardware to keep costs low. After all, many of these copy cat guitars were intended to be budget guitars. Surprisingly, many of them were better than the real thing.

Meanwhile, back in America, the corporate heads at Fender started to realize they were in trouble. They accepted the fact that their buying public wanted guitars like they used to make. Further, Fender realized how they could cleverly market this “comeback” as a vintage reproduction market rather than simply saying we are going to start correctly making guitars again. One problem soon arouse however. Fender could not make a proper guitar anymore. Whatever the company had been doing right in the past was lost on the new generation of employees and modern production equipment. Be it the subtleties of proper pickup winding or the correct production of a vintage steel block Fender could not make a guitar to the standard of the Pre-CBS era instruments. This was a real problem at Fender. Corporate heads were faced with the challenge of mass producing a reissue guitar. It seems that they had subtly changed so many things along the way that had unknowingly lost many of the elements that made Leo's guitars sound so good in the first place.

Eventually, Fender became aware of the Japan copy cat guitars. Originally, this was looked at as an attack on the market share and hence the term lawsuit guitar. Fender soon realized that the Japs may be the ones who could indeed recreate the PRE CBS guitar. Indeed, if this were true, Fender could also take advantage of cheaper production costs of making guitars and importing them out of Japan. A solution seemed to be at hand.

Shortly thereafter, Fender contacted the Japanese makers of Gecko guitars. It was decided to let this factory and its workers have a go at becoming Fender Japan. They sent this factory the original Fender blueprints for the 57 and 62 strat and said they should do a run of guitars for Fender employees and representatives to later inspect. So in May of 1982 a historical meeting took place. The Fender USA team of employees meets and tours what is soon to be the Japanese factory. The run of guitars the Fender representatives inspected where to eventually become the first line of Fender JV Guitars which were sold on the domestic Japanese Market. As the story goes, the Fender employees were shocked at the craftsmanship of the guitars. They were in a special place to scrutinize these instruments as these were the craftsmen who had been painstakingly trying to reproduce this guitar and failing to do so back in the states.

The original JV line of Fender guitars as it was called (Japanese Vintage) was well met by the eager domestic Japanese market. Fender soon decided to name the company Squire to avoid confusion with American made Fender Stratocasters. A small Squire logo was placed at the end of the headstock. These were the guitars that were exported to Europe were they were also met with much enthusiasm. The exactness of the original JV line of instruments is striking.

Since the JV line Fender has done many reissues of the vintage lines. These guitars however are not exact replicas for various reasons including intent, marketing, and production issues. Guitars are made by CNC machines now due to the quantity needed to supply demand. When dealing with much larger scale of production the modern strats simply can’t be as exact or pay attention to every detail. Further, if Fender releases the perfect replica of their most sought after vintage guitars then there is nothing to upgrade to and no reason to hype new “and improved” lines of vintage reissue instruments. Seriously, it's marketing 101 or maybe 102. Ever notice how each new Fender reissue (this years model) is closer than ever to the “real thing”? If you pay close attention to the changes made through the Fender lines over the course of the last 20 years you will see a cyclic manor in which models are subtly changed and changed back in order to go with times or just to introduce something different. Fender is in the business of selling guitars. They are not in the business of producing the best instrument possible. That would be detrimental to their business model. Any Fender exec will tell you that any Fender product has a life span of no longer than 3 years after which it is replaced in the eyes of the consumer by a new product. If you bought a vintage reissue in 1983 you are going to once again be marketed to buy the ’87 because it is more vintage accurate thus taking away the allure of your ’83 model; it no longer represents itself as a adequate substitute of the vintage guitar of your dreams.

Now back to the JV Stratocasters made in 1982 by Fender. These guitars were true replica’s of the vintage 1962 and 1957 Stratocasters. They were not perfect mind you. Due to CNC machine precision some of the routing was not as accurately crude. CNC machines were used that had previously been cutting bodies for Gecko copy-cat guitars. Thus, some routing, especially around the neck-joint and neck pickup cavity is not accurate. This is most true for the earliest of domestic models as it was soon more or less corrected. Little details here and there are not possible to match such as the electronics and on the earliest JV’s cloth wiring was not used for the pickups. Many of these inaccuracies were corrected for by the time the JV imports started rolling into Europe by fall of 1982. These imports and about the latter half of the original JV domestics are near pefect replica's of pre-CBS Fender guitars. I am not sure if any attempt was even made to produce a vintage correct pickup during this time. JV strats, for the most part used current production American Fender pickups. The JV’s however, are arguably the closest Fender has ever come to producing a replica of the vintage guitars. On the newest of reissues the line is smeared a bit. For instance, sure Fender American 2006 reissues have nitro finishes, but the undercoat is still poly unless you go with the ‘new and improved’ (and more expensive) thin skinned line. For a while now Fender Custom Shop has offered the Time Machine series and these are truly remarkable and fine quality instruments. The JV line is more or less equal in both exactness and quality. I could argue for the better candidate in terms of both quality and vintage accuracy for either line given what side of the fence I wanted to stand on. The Time machines may just edge the JV out as the winner and much time and effort (and money) has been invested into the accuracy of these guitars. Remember that the JV started as a simple production line guitar and the only edge Japan had on their side were the original blueprints and their own ingenuity.

In regard to the quality of the Japanese made instruments (MIJ) one thing is apparent, they truly make fine instruments in Japan. The quality of Japanese made guitars is very high. For whatever reason, they give the American made guitars a run for their money. Even Fender Custom Shop (CS) guitars; a MIJ instrument can easily go head to head with a CS guitar in terms of craftsmanship. The CS guitars edge is the higher quality hardware and electronics. This is why many of the best playing strats are actually Japanese neck and bodies with upgraded hardware and electronics. Note that some current CIJ models (crafted in Japan guitars) come equipped with Fender Custom Shop issued pickups and these guitars, are excellent values.

While the exported JV Squires retained the vintage correct appointments of the original batch of domestic JV’s, the later domestic guitars were watered down with the existence of multiple product lines, some of which contained successively more nonvintage appointments. Furthermore, mixing and matching of vintage correct parts and specifications, such as fretboard radius, started occurring throughout the domestic JV line. Ultimately, the most sought after and vintage correct JV’s are the exports and/or the original early domestic JV’s (with exceptions)and the JV ST-85 or JV ST-115 models.