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Is My Vintage, Made-in-Japan (MIJ) Guitar a Real Ibanez?
I have been playing, collecting, repairing and analyzing vintage Ibanez (and other MIJ guitars) for over 30 years, and I am often asked this question. The reason I get asked it is because many people who are selling an old guitar without the Ibanez brand on it put something to this effect in their ad:
So, if you have found this article because you are considering buying a cool old guitar, the information I have presented below should help you avoid paying more for a guitar than it is actually worth, or finding out later, when you go to sell it, that it really isn't an Ibanez at all.
The Bottom Line
Let me get right to the point: If a guitar does not have a valid "Ibanez" logo on its headstock, then it's NOT an Ibanez guitar. I'll explain the reasons behind this in a moment, but first, take a look at text from an ad run during the 1970s:
That gets right to the point. Hoshino Gakki (the Japanese trading company that owns the "Ibanez" brand name) took great pains to address the issue way back then, but these days, nobody seems to take their word for it.
Hoshino Gakki, Fujigen Gakki, and the "Ibanez" Brand
To understand why a lot of people get confused about the issue of whether a guitar is "made by Ibanez" or "made at the Ibanez factory" we have to look at the relationship between Hoshino, Fujigen, and "Ibanez".
First, "Ibanez" is just a brand name. (Yes, it's confusing because even Hoshino refers to themselves as "Ibanez" in their modern advertisements.) There is no "Ibanez" company or factory. What does exist is a Trading Company named Hoshino Gakki Group. That company owns the Ibanez and TAMA brands (as well as some other minor brands). They are based in Japan, but also have a US subsidiary, Hoshino USA, headquartered in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Hoshino owns no manufacturing facilities beyond a small custom shop in California. All of its guitars are built by various manufacturers around the world. Currently, Ibanez brand guitars are sourced from factories in China, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan (and possibly other countries I don't know about).
During the 1970s, Hoshino used a single Japanese manufacturer for its electric guitar production. That company is named Fujigen Gakki. Currently Fujigen makes its own line of self-branded instruments, but in the 1960s up through the present, it also contracts with a number of other companies to produce instruments with other brand names on them. Beginning in the late 1960s, Hoshino began contracting with Fujigen to produce Ibanez-branded instruments. Through the 1970s and early/mid 1980s, Fujigen was the exclusive manufacturer of electric Ibanez guitars and basses.
The Big Confusion
It's this intricate relationship between distributor (Hoshino), brand (Ibanez) and factory (Fujigen) which makes for much of the initial confusion surrounding MIJ guitars and their origins. You see, Fujigen did not make Ibanez-branded guitars exclusively. It always had contracts with other distributors and even made non-branded guitars that could be sold by anyone willing to purchase them wholesale. Fujigen is known to have produced guitars with these brands during the 1970s:
And, there are obviously many more. To confuse matters more, Kanda Shokai (the Greco brand owner) entered into a contract with Fender and Fujigen to produce the first of the "Joint Venture" Squier stratocasters and telecasters, beginning in 1982. So the waters muddy even further.
The result is that people get confused about WHERE a guitar was made and WHO it was made for. Since Fujigen is one of the major Japanese guitar manufacturers, people assume that any guitar they've made was "made at the Ibanez factory" or was "made for Ibanez under a different brand". That's simply not true. To add to the confusion, there were other large guitar manufacturers in Japan at the time (Matsumoku was one and Kasuga was another) and people have made the leap to say that literally ANY guitar stamped "MADE IN JAPAN" must have been produced at the Ibanez factory or for Ibanez.
Some brands known to have come out of the Matsumoku factory:
Kasuga Factory Origin:
Here's a quick way to tell if you have a Matsumoku factory guitar (whether branded or not). On its neck plate (or stamped into the guitar, or on the truss rod cover) it will say, "STEEL REINFORCED NECK". That's a dead giveaway that you've got one of "Uncle Matt's" guitars.
No Name MIJ Guitars
Another big point of contention is the subject of no-name (unbranded) guitars. As I said above, Fujigen and the other manufacturers produced guitars with no logos at all for sale around the world. That in itself shouldn't cause much confusion, because we know (from Hoshino) that "if it doesn't say Ibanez" it's not an Ibanez. However, Fujigen Gakki, the manufacturer of Ibanez-branded guitars would provide stock, no-name images to Hoshino and other distributors for use in their catalogs. It made sense. Fujigen only had to take one picture of a guitar instead of one with each different brand on it. I can't confirm this, but Fujigen may have gone as far as to produce the majority of the catalog, and Hoshino would put its "Ibanez" brand on the front and back covers. Some people have found online copies of these older catalogs (a good source for these can be found at Vintage Ibanez Guitar Catalogs - 1971 through 2007) and point to the pictures without logos as evidence that "Ibanez" made unbranded guitars. As we can see now, that's just not true.
Some unbranded guitar pictures from a 1973 Ibanez catalog:
OK, So My Guitar Is Not an Ibanez, But It's Still a "Lawsuit" Model, Right?
The answer to this depends on what your definition of "lawsuit" (as it relates to MIJ guitars) is. Loosely defined (and coming into more popular use on sites such as eBay and Craigslist) a "lawsuit" guitar is ANY old guitar made outside of the USA that is a copy of a popular US-made guitar. In this sense, any MIJ (or made in Korea, China, wherever) guitar that looks like a Fender strat or tele; or a Gibson Les Paul, SG, ES-335; or a Martin acoustic; or a Guild or Rickenbakker; can be labeled as a "lawsuit" model. The use of "lawsuit" in an ad is usually backed up with an explanation that "[INSERT MIJ BRAND HERE] was sued by [INSERT US BRAND HERE] to stop production because the MIJ copies were better than the US versions". But the fact of the matter is that there was just ONE lawsuit ever brought by an American guitar builder against a foreign distributor or builder during the 1970s.
Elger v. Hoshino
Hoshino Gakki (and more accurately, its U.S. subsidiary at the time, "Elger") was the only company actually sued by an American guitar maker over its designs. The suit was brought in 1977 by Norlin (the then maker of Gibson guitars) and the suit focused narrowly on Hoshino's use of Gibson-style, "open book" headstocks. Fujigen Gakki, as manufacturer, was also named in the suit. The problem was, by the time Norlin sued, Ibanez had changed their headstock shapes from "open book" to a (ironically) more Guild-styled top:
Differences in Headstock Style:
With nothing left to sue over, Norlin and Hoshino settled the suit, and it never came to court.
The Strict Definition of "Lawsuit" Guitar
Thus, the only true "lawsuit" guitars out there for sale are Ibanez-branded electric guitars that are copies of Gibson models and made with "open book" headstocks. That covers a range of approximately 1970 through 1976, when the headstock switch came about. The terms "pre-lawsuit" and "post-lawsuit" are just more confusion, since people will apply "post-lawsuit" to an even wider range of guitars that have been significantly changed from their "copy" forms. Just to be double clear: No lawsuit was ever brought against Aria, Greco, Ventura, Lyle, Fernandes, Tokai, or anyone else during the 1970s (or even 1980s). Just Hoshino (Ibanez) was sued.
Here's a copy of a letter sent to Gibson Dealers on June 9, 1977, announcing the lawsuit:
It begins like this:
June 9, 1977 Dear Gibson Dealer: Today, Gibson, Inc., started legal action in Federal Court to stop the Japanese exporter of Ibanez instru- ments and its distributor from importing and selling instruments similar in appearance to those manufactured by Gibson. We want you, who have a major stake in the outcome, to know why we are taking this action.
Just Because You're Already Here: Dating FujiGen Guitars
I want to say a quick few words about dating vintage Fujigen guitars. Note that everything I'm saying applies to Ibanez-branded guitars made between 1971 and about 1986. After that, Fujigen and Hoshino changed their serial numbering system. You can still date later builds, but it gets complicated.
Pre-Serial Number Guitars
Made at Fujigen from about 1971 through mid-1975, Ibanez-brand electrics have no serial number on them at all. There are some subtle ways to date guitars from this era, but nothing set in stone. For example, sometimes original pickups have serial numbers that can date their manufacture, and potentiometers sometimes have date codes. Also, up until 1973, the end of fretboards on Gibson-style, bolt-neck Ibanez guitars had rounded corners. After then the corners were more square:
Rounded vs. Square-end Fretboards:
Serial Number Guitars
Thankfully, beginning in August of 1975, Hoshino (via Fujigen) began marking their electric guitars with serial numbers. (The earliest electric guitar serial numbers we've seen at Ibanez Collectors World start with H75...,) For bolt-neck guitars, the serial number is found stamped on the neck plate, above "MADE IN JAPAN". For set-neck guitars, the serial is usually on the back of the headstock, but for some Jazz models, the serial might be on the label inside the guitar. These serial numbers are very easy to read. The first letter corresponds to the month the guitar was made (A = January, B = February, etc.) and the next two numbers correspond to the year (76 = 1976, 81 = 1981, etc.). After 1986, this method doesn't work. The final four numbers in the serial correspond to the production number of that guitar, for that month. Note that this is an overall production number, not model-specific. Therefore, the serial number D786589 would stand for the 6,589th electric guitar produced at Fujigen in April of 1978. (Please note that Fujigen also used this serial numbering system on other-branded guitars it produced, such as Greco and Antoria, and I am uncertain as to whether serials could be shared among brands, or if each production number is unique across brands.)
A Great Online Resource for Additional Questions About Ibanez Guitars
For everything you ever wanted to know about Vintage Ibanez guitars, please visit the discussion forums at Ibanez Collectors World. I post there all the time under the name ChuckE99.
Copyright © 2010 Charles F. Evans, All Rights Reserved.