What we refer to as the Japanese Vintage Guitar was produced between 1971 and 1982. Of course, many Japanese guitar manufacturers were producing guitars of their own design prior to this period. Many were influenced by the designs of Gibson, Fender, Mosrite, Burns, Vox etc. but these were not true replica guitars.
The first true replicas were the GRECO brand produced by Kanda Shokai Corporation. Kanda Shokai was established as a distributor and trading company for musical instruments in 1948. The GRECO brand was first introduced by Kanda Shokai in 1960. In the beginning, GRECO manufactured guitars of their own design. The design had many similarities to American guitars but they were largely original.
In 1966, the Beatles concert tour of Japan influenced GRECO designs. GRECO introduced a new solid body influenced by the Fender Telecaster shape and a Hofner type violin base guitar.
In 1969, the British rock band Led Zeppelin released two memorable albums(Led Zeppelin I and II). Their guitarist, Jimmy Page, made famous the Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar with a sunburst finish. Suddenly, the Japanese younger generation was clamoring for Gibson Les Paul Customs, SG’s, Fender Stratocasters, Telecasters and others.
In 1970, the average monthly starting salary of a college graduate was 43,000 Japanese yen (JYE). With the currency exchange rate being about 360 Japanese yen to 1 US dollar at the time; this starting salary was about $120.00 in US dollars. The price for a new Stratocaster was 239,000 JYE; over $660.00 US dollars. It was a determined generation that saved over five months salary to buy their dream guitar.
In 1971, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grand Funk Railroad and other famous bands toured Japan. This further fueled the young generation to buy their dream guitar and play rock’n roll like their hero’s did and this did not escape GRECO’s attention.
Due to the high price of Gibson guitars in Japan, only a few jazz musicians had them and GRECO didn’t have one on hand. GRECO wanted to introduce a Les Paul Standard replica (their EG series) and scaled drawings from Gibson’s catalog and rock musicians’ photos. The original EG-360 series was quite different from the Les Paul due to such things as the neck scale being calculated from Gibson’s catalog and completely different body construction but it was still close enough to be the first chapter in the “lawsuit guitar” story.
As mentioned, Kanda Shokai was primarily involved in marketing and distribution and used two main subcontractors for the actual manufacturing. These were Matsumoku Gakki in the early years and Fujigen Gakki from 1974-75 to the present. This is why GRECO and IBANEZ are considered brother guitars in Japan
During the early ‘70’s, GRECO asked Mr. Hidesato Shiino (formally worked for Yamaha) to develop the guitar producing and marketing as a consultant.
In early days, Mr. Shiino was in charge of most of guitar manufacturers not only Greco. He consulted ELK, Guyatone, Fernandes, Kasuga and others. He contacted his old friend Mr. Shigeru Narumo (1947-2007 Mr. Narumo is grandson of founder of Bridgestone Tire, Cusin of Formal Prime Minstar, Mr. Yukio, Hatoyama); a very popular Japanese guitarist. Mr. Narumo started to supervise GRECO guitar development with Mr. Shiino. They advised GRECO to develop a better guitar than the Les Paul at a more affordable price and to scale the neck down to be more suitable for the smaller Japanese hand. Mr. Shiino conducted the factory side and made a proto type guitar for Mr. Narumo due to his required specifications in just a few days and he was very surprised with the new custom EG. He had his band members play a Gibson, a Fender and this new EG custom blindfolded and they all agreed the EG was the best of the three.
Narumo played this new EG-360 Custom on stage alternating with a Gibson. The audience was surprised to see and hear a Japanese made guitar that was as good (if not better) than the original.
Narumo’s only complaint was with the finish color which GRECO had copied from a photo of Paul Kossoff (of the rock band Free) supplied by Narumo. Kossoff was playing a No. 2 that was finished in the brown sunburst but GRECO couldn’t ascertain the color of the rear so they just furnished the sunburst on the back and neck.
Narumo’s involvement and performances provided GRECO a huge sales increase. So much so that GRECO asked Narumo to endorse GRECO exclusively. While reluctant, Narumo saw possibilities in getting his dream guitars made. In a visit to the Fujigen factory, Narumo suggested opening the rear Humbucking pickup and to contour the back much like the Stratocaster. The resulting guitar was the EG-420 and was much superior to the EG-360.
GRECO and Narumo collaborated on many models following the EG-420 and this became GRECO’s golden age of replica and clone guitars. This culminated in the EG-800 which was largely influenced by Narumo. It had the open pickups and contoured back of the 420 with higher quality wood. The EG-420 was a semi-hollow body of 6p mahogany sandwich. The new EG-800 had an ebony finger board, a solid 2p maple top and a narrow neck. The neck joint became the set neck type, too.
Officially, Narumo has said that he didn’t know anything about the EG-800. He has mentioned that he was in charge through the prototype of the EG-700 and only heard about the EG-800 several years later. Despite Narumo’s stance, the EG-800 is called the “Narumo Model” by collectors. As a side note, the EG-650 has also been called the Narumo Model. It was a semi-hollow bodied construction with other of Narumo’s suggested features. Now, we could guess the reason of their relations were not smooth, because, the middle man, Mr. Shiino was not there, He concentrated the Armature Rock Festival that time.
Greco started to make many Gibson replicas in mid of 70’s. It is very simple reason. Kanda-Shokai was an importer of Gibson USA that time. Kanda Shokai asked Fujigen make many kind of Gibson replica. Fujigen started to export these guitars as Ibanez brand for U.S.A. Well, these guitars became the “lawsuit guitar”.
Kanda started the custom made guitars around 1972. The guitarist, Mick Ralphs of Bad Company, visited Kanda’s guitar repair room, then, discussed about his custom Guitar. This guitar became “MR” series guitar. Kanda started “project Series” after “MR” guitar.They offered the replica of Brian May guitar, Rickenbacker Paul McCartney model and etc…
Late 70’s, many overseas guitarists used the Alembic guitars. It has the though neck constructions with long sustain. Greco marketing team developed the “GO” series guitar which has though neck and complicated many control switches in 1978.
The market (players) accepts these new series guitars. Kanda started the TV commercial films, also had many endorsement contract with Japanese musicians. It made the good sales of GO series. Kanda added “GO-II”, “GO-III” and “Mirage” series under good sales situation.
Kanda offered “Super Real” series almost same time. Les Paul Replica EGF-1000 was evaluated as better than original by many musicians here.They invested much cost for “Super Real” series. The wood materials are better than original. The metal parts were re-designed, close to the original Les Paul. They developed the humbucker pick up which were called “DRY”. Greco use this pick up for EGF-1200 and EGF1800 (EGF-850 had “PU-2”, EGF-1000 had “Dimarzio PAF”).
In 1981, Kanda started talk with Fender USA and Yamano to establish the Fender Japan. Naturally, GRECO SE-1200 super real Stratocaster replica became the last Greco branded Stratocaster. Greco started Strat Replica in 1973, they ended 9 years Strat production.
In 80’s, Greco brand had a hard time. They have targeted the original model. Of course, they could not make Strat replica. Gibson had started the “Orville by Gibson”. No more Gibson replica from Greco guitar even now.
Now, Greco brand still exist. But, it became mostly GRECO-Zemaitis guitar (They distributed Ornetts guitars before Zemaitis replica).
Kanda Shokai is trading company and had many agency of international brand. Kanda took the license of Zemaitis brand manufacturing. They are producing Zemaitis by High-End guitar, Greco-Zemaitis by Tokai.
in 2012, Kanda Shokai started the new Greco brand guitars. These are not Gibson, Fender or other guitars replica. The designs are still similar with those big name brand. However, they added the new designs and concept on them. These are currently made by Hi-End Guitar.