The Lawsuit Era
By Daniel Brooks
The big American guitar makers, Gibson, Fender and Martin, earned their reputations as creators of the finest, most coveted instruments through decades of innovation, a consistently high level of craftsmanship and painstaking attention to quality materials. A handful of their original designs became essential, iconic guitars as high-profile musicians of every genre used a relatively small variety of these instruments to create the majority of musical moments that made up our collective popular culture.
Tokai and Fender headstocks, image credit Stratman323
But by the early 1970s, the perception among many guitarists was that the fabled quality of the old reliable manufacturers had begun to decline. Many believed corporate ownership was making questionable design modifications and profit-inspired, cost-cutting manufacturing decisions that reduced the essential quality of their favorite guitars to cheap imitations of themselves, with the same expensive price tag. This perception might not have been entirely unwarranted. It was not uncommon in the 70s to come across a new guitar, with its new price tag, that featured a defective finish, less-than-premium hardware and questionable construction. They just didn’t feel right.
But the show must go on, and the search for professional quality gear led some guitarists to seek out the old guitars from the 1950s and 60s. Long before the market began to reflect the value of old guitars as collectable vintage instruments worth tens of thousands, or, in some rare cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, any guitarist of average means and above average knowledge could find affordable access to all of the quality used gear he or she needed, for less than it cost to buy it new.
a Vintage 1974 Ibanez 2344-M, image credit LA Guitar Shop
Others found a wealth of performance-worthy gear in the growing abundance of Japanese imports. In 1964 Harry Rosenblum, owner of the Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania music store called Medley Music and the guitar manufacturing company, Elger Guitars, found that he could no longer keep up with the demands of a rapidly expanding market. He became the exclusive North American distributor of the Hoshino Gakki Gen Company and began importing Japanese guitars marketed under the intentionally Spanish sounding name of “Ibanez.” With access to relatively inexpensive labor and high-quality woods, Japanese guitar makers dedicated their focus on an ever-increasing level of manufacturing quality that could be measured in ever-increasing sales in the U.S.
In 1971, Hoshino had become successful enough to buy Elger Guitars and their North American distribution rights. Rechristening the whole venture “Ibanez USA,” they made free use of the classic guitar designs that were, and still are, very much in demand. Just as the quality of American made instruments was making the descent into the unsatisfying, companies such as Ibanez, Tokai and Greco had begun to offer good looking, inexpensive and quite serviceable copies of Les Pauls, Stratocasters, Telecasters, Flying Vs, ES-175s and 335s that were, arguably, equal to if not better than the originals. There were, of course, plenty of shoddily-crafted knock offs, but many budding guitarists who simply couldn’t afford a new Fender or Gibson found they could buy a perfectly good Ibanez and were pleasantly surprised at the quality of guitar they got for the price.
To their credit, it must be recognized that Ibanez did introduce many original designs of their own, and were well on their way to becoming an innovative company in their own right by the time the case of Gibson Vs. Elger Co. was filed in the Philadelphia Federal District Court on June 28, 1977. The “lawsuit” for which all Japanese-built copies of the 70s are somewhat inaccurately named, was over one specific design feature. It demanded that Ibanez stop marketing copies of their guitars, more specifically, the “moustache” headstock that Gibson claimed was their trademark feature. The case was resolved quickly as Ibanez had already redesigned the headstock that was the actual basis and focus of the trademark infringement case. In 1978, Ibanez stopped making copies and began to establish their own iconic guitar designs with the release of the Artist and the Iceman.
A “Gibson” with with no headstock logo at all, image credit SoundsCheapInc
It may be argued that the Lawsuit Era continues to have an impact on today’s guitar market. Gibson and Fender both have “Vintage” reproduction models of their classic designs as an essential part of their catalogs, each with the authenticity of materials, manufacturing details, design specs and components offered as featured selling points. Gibson, Fender and Martin each have an official line of quality foreign-made, relatively inexpensive copies (Epiphone, Squier, Sigma, respectively) for the budget-minded guitarist, each of which offer a suprising level of quality for the price. The Lawsuit Era guitars, regardless of any real claim to the title, are now valued as vintage instruments, with guitars in good, playable condition not only still in existence and playable but actually selling for respectable prices to collectors and, of course, budget-minded players. And Gibson, Fender and Martin returned to making high quality instruments.