The best Japanese guitar brands have significantly impacted and contributed to the industry for years. Known for their excellent craftsmanship, innovative designs, and reliable performance, these brands offer a unique combination of quality and value. As a guitar enthusiast yourself, you might be aware of this already.
This article will explore some of the best Japanese guitar brands that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the dominant US manufacturers we all know and love.
By knowing these brands, you can get a screaming deal on a similar-style guitar for a fraction of the price without sacrificing quality.
From well-known names like Yamaha and Ibanez to lesser-known manufacturers like Tokai and FujiGen Gakki, there’s no shortage of options for you to consider.
Whether a seasoned pro or a beginner, you will find something remarkable in this vibrant corner of the guitar world. And who knows, your next favorite guitar might come from one of these outstanding brands.
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History of Japanese Guitar Brands
In the early days of Japanese guitar manufacturing, several important companies paved the way for what is now a renowned industry.
One such pioneer is Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of Yamaha. Originally called Nippon Gakki Co Ltd, which translates to “Japanese musical instrument,” the company began manufacturing Western instruments such as guitars, organs, pianos, harmonicas, and more.
Another significant player in the history of Japanese guitar brands is Hoshino Gakki Gen. After importing Spanish instruments for several years, Hoshino Gakki began producing their own instruments in the 1930s under the name Ibanez Salvador, which would later be shortened to Ibanez.
During this period, Ibanez guitars made high-quality replicas of the famous Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacker models. They started outselling those brands in the US. Ibanez made inroads into the US market through the Pennsylvania distributor Harry Rosenbloom.
The popularity of the Ibanez guitars led to an influx of other brands like Tokai, Greco, and Burni, making almost identical-looking Gibson and Fender-style guitars. While Takamine acoustic guitars and Suzuki took cues from Martin.
These replica guitars are often called “lawsuit-era guitars” and are now collectors’ items. Lawsuit-era instruments will not sport a serial number and often refer to the guitars made by Hoshino Gakki in the FujiGen Gakki plant.
Thanks to this time in guitar manufacturing, we now have brands like Epiphone and Squier as a response to building “replica” instruments overseas at a lower cost.
Today, you can experience the legacy of their work through the exceptional quality and unique features of the many Japanese guitars available.
Top Japanese Guitar Brands
If you’re looking for a high-quality and stylish electric guitar that caters to a wide range of players, from beginners to professionals, look no further than Ibanez.
This Japanese guitar company has become a favorite among rock and metal players thanks to its sleek designs, fast & flat neck profile, and powerful tones. Its diverse range of models, including the popular RG series and S series guitars, offer excellent build quality and various tones for various music genres.
However, remember that some models can be pricey, and Ibanez is not as well-known for its acoustic guitars (even though Ibanez makes some fantastic acoustics).
But overall, if you’re after a versatile and quality electric guitar, especially if you’re into rock or metal music, then Ibanez is the perfect choice for you.
Popular players of Ibanez Guitars:
- Steve Vai
- Joe Satriani
- Paul Gilbert
- Nita Strauss
- Herman Li
- Munky Shaffer
- Jake Bowen
- Tim Henson
Who Ibanez Guitars are For? Ibanez is perfect for players who appreciate the versatility and quality of their electric guitars, particularly those interested in rock or metal music.
- Wide range of models for various skill levels
- Excellent, modern build quality
- Diverse range of tones for various music genres
- Some models can be expensive
- Not as well-known for acoustic guitars
If you’re hunting for a guitar that’s a great value for your money, you have to check out Yamaha guitars.
These guys have been making guitars since 1966. Still, you might know them better for their motorbikes and other vehicles from Yamaha Motor Co. But trust us; they’re a Japanese guitar brand with a rich history worth exploring.
One thing that sets Yamaha apart is its ability to straddle the line of price and quality better than most others in the market. This makes them a popular choice for new players who are just starting out on their musical journey.
And with their budget-friendly guitars and packs, you can’t go wrong.
But don’t let Yamaha’s reputation for affordable guitars fool you. They also make high-quality instruments that often rival their more expensive contemporaries. For example, their Red Label acoustic guitars look, play, and feel like a guitar that may be considerably more.
And in 2023, Yamaha put their hat in the high-end acoustic game with their FG9 series. These guitars rival the “big 3” acoustic guitar brands in construction, materials used (Adirondack Spruce!), and design.
Yamaha is a safe bet if you want the “smart buy” for traditional acoustic, electric, and classical guitars. They offer great value for money at all skill levels, so you can’t go wrong with this Japanese guitar brand.
Popular players who have played Yamaha guitars (source):
- Carlos Santana
- Bob Dylan
- James Taylor
- Paul Simon
- Liz Phair
- Bob Marley
Who Yamaha Guitars are For? Yamaha is ideal for players seeking quality craftsmanship and affordability in acoustic, electric, and acoustic-electric guitars.
- Great value-for-money
- High-quality construction and materials
- Wide range of models for different skill levels & budgets
- Sometimes overshadowed by other renowned brands
- Limited high-end options
If you’re a gigging musician on the hunt for an acoustic guitar that’s reliable, sounds great through a PA, and is made by one of the best brands out there, check out Takamine guitars.
These guys are Japanese guitar specialists who know a thing or two about making stage-ready instruments that’ll blow your socks off.
Takamine’s famous NEX performance body and innovative preamp designs set it apart from the rest. They were the first to design a preamp and onboard equalization in acoustic guitars, which is now standard in any modern acoustic. Talk about trailblazers!
And when it comes to their craftsmanship, Takamine is all about innovation and quality. They offer models in most price ranges, but only some acoustic guitar models are made in Japan (the more affordable models are built in Korea or Japan).
Go with Takamine’s high-end Pro Series models if you want the real deal. But trust me, it’s worth it.
For good reason, these acoustic instruments can be found in the hands of many famous Western musicians. Whether you’re playing a small coffeehouse gig or a massive arena show, Takamine guitars are built to last and sound amazing. And with their innovative electronics, you can be sure your guitar will sound great played through a PA.
So if you’re a gigging musician looking for the best acoustic brand, Takamine is the way to go. Trust us; your ears (and your audience) will thank you!
Popular players who have played Takamine Guitars (source):
- Garth Brooks
- Blake Shelton
- Bruce Springsteen
- Glen Hansard
- Bruno Mars
- Glenn Frey
Who Takamine Guitars are for: Takamine is perfect for those who appreciate high-quality acoustic guitars with excellent playability and sound for the stage.
- Fantastic sound quality, especially for the stage
- Beautiful craftsmanship
- Wide range of models and price points
- Not an electric guitar brand
- For a Japanese-made Takamine, you have to go with their high-end models
Did you know that Electric Sound Products, or ESP for short, is one of the best brands for advanced and expert modern guitar players?
This company got its start as a small shop in Tokyo, Japan, way back in 1975. They specialized in making custom replacement parts for guitars and were a huge OEM for brands like Schecter and DiMarzio. They even built bodies and necks for Kramer guitars. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades!
ESP had a similar beginning to guitar building as Ibanez, making replicas of famous American-made designs like the Strat and Telecaster. But it was in the 1980s that they started producing their own guitar styles.
And boy, did they make a splash!
They quickly gained a reputation for making high-quality instruments perfect for heavy metal, djent, and hard rock players. And that’s all thanks to their sleek, modern designs and fast-playing necks. These babies are built to shred!
In 1993, ESP moved its headquarters to sunny Los Angeles, California, and they’ve been cranking out killer guitars ever since. They manufacture many of their instruments in the USA, so while they may not be a “Japanese Guitar Brand” in the traditional sense, they still import and manufacture high-end ESP guitars with the E-II series.
These are the cream of the crop, folks.
Oh, and here’s a fun fact: ESP is also the United States distributor of Takamine guitars. So if you’re looking for a modern performance guitar perfect for advanced and expert players, ESP is the way to go. Get ready to rock like a pro!
Popular players who have used ESP guitars:
- James Hetfield
- Stephen Carpenter
- Brian “Head” Welch
- Kirk Hammett
- Tom Araya
Who ESP Guitars are for: ESP is ideal for players who want modern high-performance guitars with a powerful sound, particularly for rock and metal genres.
- Solid, modern build quality and finishes
- Wide range of models to choose from
- Popular among professional rock and metal musicians
- Most models are now manufactured in the USA
- Japanese-made models are expensive
Suppose you’re searching for a high-quality guitar that looks and sounds like your favorite classic American model but don’t want to break the bank. In that case, you gotta check out Tokai guitars.
These guitars are the best choice for getting a replica of famous US guitar models for a fraction of the price.
Tokai is one of Japan’s top guitar brands, with a well-deserved reputation for excellent craftsmanship and sound. And they’ve been at it since 1947, so you know they’ve got the skills to pay the bills.
In fact, they’re so good at what they do that their replicas of American guitars, like Gibson and Fender models in the ’70s, are now in the coveted category of “lawsuit guitars.” This is because they were so similar to the originals that they faced legal threats from American companies. That’s some serious attention to detail, folks!
Best of all, Tokai guitars have been played by some of the biggest names in music, like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Devo.
But what models should you be looking for?
Tokai makes many electric and acoustic guitars, basses, and even autoharps. Some of their most popular models are the Love Rock (which is a Gibson Les Paul replica), the Springy Sound (a Fender Stratocaster replica), the Breezy Sound (a Fender Telecaster replica), and the Talbo (an aluminum-body guitar). And you can find them made in Japan, Korea, and China, with different quality and price levels to fit your budget.
Who Tokai Guitars are for: Tokai is a great choice for those who appreciate the quality and performance of iconic guitars but don’t want to pay crazy prices for tone.
- High-quality replicas of iconic guitars
- More affordable compared to original models
- Excellent performance and feel
- May not appeal to brand purists
FujiGen (FGN) Guitars
FujiGen Gakki is a Japanese guitar brand that has been making guitars since 1960.
It is known not only for its brand of guitars, FGN, but also for being the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for many other famous guitar brands, such as Ibanez, Epiphone, Gretsch, and Yamaha. Talk about impressive!
One of the things that set FujiGen apart is its history of making guitars for some of the most iconic brands in the world. They’ve produced some of the most sought-after guitar models from Fender Japan to Ibanez. And with their three factories in Japan, they’re able to make high-quality guitars with CNC machines and their own pickups.
But here’s the catch: FujiGen guitars have limited distribution in the United States, so they can be hard to come by. But if you’re willing to do a bit of digging, you’ll be rewarded with a truly one-of-a-kind guitar. Also, they only focus on solid-body electric guitars and have opted out of the acoustic game.
Suppose you’re after a guitar with a rich history and high-end playability at a more affordable price. In that case, FujiGen guitars are worth considering.
Who FGN guitars are for: Fujigen Guitars are suitable for players looking for quality craftsmanship at reasonable prices.
- Excellent build quality (OEM for other major guitar builders)
- Affordable pricing
- Wide range of models
- Hard to find new in the USA
Another Japanese guitar brand that deserves your attention is Fernandes Guitars.
This company started in 1969 as a builder of flamenco guitars. Still, it soon expanded to include electric guitars, bass guitars, amplifiers, and accessories, most famously the Gibson replica line of electrics called Burny.
One thing that sets Fernandes apart today is their Sustainer system, which uses electromagnetism to vibrate a string for an extended period like an e-bow. This innovative feature has made Fernandes guitars a favorite among musicians experimenting with new sounds and effects.
But here’s the catch, finding a new Fernandes guitar in the USA might be challenging since their USA division closed. However, you can still find used or vintage models online or in local shops.
With a long list of artists who have used or endorsed its guitars, such as (source):
- Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
- The Edge of U2
- Heath and hide of X Japan
- Robert Trujillo & Kirk Hammett of Metallica
So if you’re after a unique and innovative guitar brand with a rich history, Fernandes Guitars is worth checking out.
Who Fernandes guitars are for: Fernandes is the right choice for guitarists and bassists who want quality replica models of iconic guitars at affordable prices.
- Wide range of electric guitars and basses
- Affordable replica models
- They've been seen in the hands of famous artists
- Hard to find new in the USA
This Japanese guitar brand has been making electric and acoustic guitars since 1960. It is famous for its high-quality replicas of Gibson and Fender models.
One of the things that sets Greco apart is their attention to detail. Their Fender replicas were copied once Fender Japan was started, and Greco was part of the deal. And with a long list of famous musicians who have used or endorsed their guitars, such as:
- Ace Frehley of Kiss
- Elliot Easton of The Cars
- Peter Tork of The Monkees
- Brian May of Queen
You know that a Greco guitar delivers the goods.
But here’s the thing: Greco guitars were part of the “lawsuit era” of guitars, which means that some of their models were almost identical copies of famous Gibson and Fender models.
Their open-book headstock design was so similar to Gibson’s that they were sued for copyright infringement. However, this didn’t stop Greco from making high-quality guitars that are still sought-after by guitar enthusiasts today.
Who Greco guitars are for: Greco is an excellent choice for guitar enthusiasts who appreciate the craftsmanship and affordability of high-quality replica models of famous USA guitar designs.
- Affordable replicas of iconic guitars
- Well built
- Great value for money
- Limited options beyond replica models
- May not appeal to brand purists
Morris guitars are based on Martin and Gibson acoustic stringed instruments. You can expect a vintage-inspired look and sound with modern features and quality. And with a long history and reputation for excellence, you know you’re getting a high-quality instrument that’s sure to impress.
Interestingly, Morris’s founder, Toshio Moridaira, was Japan’s first distributor of Fender and Gibson guitars.
He was passionate about guitars and wanted to create a brand that could rival the American giants. And with his attention to detail and dedication to quality, Morris Guitars quickly gained a reputation for excellence.
But here’s the catch, Morris guitars have limited distribution in the United States. However, if you’re willing to search online or in local shops, you might be able to find one. And with a reputation for excellent craftsmanship and sound, it’s worth the effort.
Who Morris guitars are for: Morris is a great choice for players who appreciate high-quality acoustic guitars with vintage-inspired designs and warm tones.
- Beautiful vintage-inspired designs
- High-quality materials and craftsmanship
- Warm, resonant tones
- Hard to find new in the USA
- Can be pricey
Quality and Craftsmanship
When you think of Japanese guitar brands, the first thing that comes to mind might be their excellent build quality and craftsmanship.
Japanese luthiers take great pride in their work, which shows in their instruments. Their attention to detail and craft distinguishes them from other guitar manufacturers worldwide.
Many top guitar brands in Japan, such as Yamaha, Ibanez, ESP Guitars, Tokai, and FujiGen Gakki, have earned a reputation for producing high-quality guitars that are not only meticulously crafted but also offer outstanding playability and sound for the price.
The production process in Japan is highly focused on ensuring the highest quality of the final product. Japanese guitar makers pay great attention to:
- Wood selection: Only the best tonewoods are used, often sourced from traditional sources or carefully selected from sustainable suppliers.
- Construction: Expert luthiers employ traditional methods, such as hand-carving and hand-fitting, to ensure a perfect fit and finish.
- Hardware: Quality components, such as pickups, tuners, and bridges, maintain the guitar’s performance and longevity. Companies like FujiGen also are the OEMs for other guitar builders.
- Innovation: Japanese guitar brands are known for innovation. Some examples are Yamaha’s TransAcoustic technology creates reverb and chorus effects without external amplification. Ibanez’s Wizard necks offer a slim profile for faster playing, and Takamine pioneered modern preamp design in acoustic guitars.
This dedication to unparalleled quality stems from Japan’s cultural emphasis on the value of craftsmanship. In Japanese culture, there is a deep appreciation and respect for the work of the artisans who create these outstanding instruments.
Their attention to detail, combined with their passion for the art of guitar making, results in genuinely exceptional instruments that you, as a musician, can be proud to own and play.
It’s essential to remember that when you choose a guitar from a top Japanese brand, you’re not only investing in a quality instrument, but you’re also supporting a long-standing tradition of artistry and excellence.
Take your time to find the perfect guitar for your needs, and you’ll experience the world-class qualities that have made Japanese guitar brands renowned for their world-class craftsmanship.
Signature Series and Collaborations
You’ll encounter various collaborations and signature series with renowned musicians when looking into Japanese guitar brands. Several well-known guitarists have partnered with Japanese brands to create unique signature instruments.
Steve Vai, for instance, teamed up with Ibanez to create the JEM and Universe series. These guitars are widely recognized for their iconic “monkey grip” handle and bold designs. Steve Vai’s partnership with Ibanez has led to the development of several influential guitar models, including the RG series.
On another note, James Taylor has been known to play Yamaha & Takamine guitars on stage, demonstrating the bond between influential musicians and Japanese guitar manufacturers. Yamaha is celebrated for producing quality instruments at affordable prices, making them a popular choice among many artists.
Takamine guitars are often regarded as fantastic on-stage guitars and are found in the hands of many music stars. Some artists you may recognize that have been seen playing Takamine are Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton, Bruce Springsteen, and Bruno Mars.
Here’s a quick overview of the notable Japanese collaborations:
- Steve Vai: Ibanez JEM and Universe series
- James Taylor: Yamaha guitars
- Joe Satriani: Ibanez JS series
- Garth Brooks: Takamine guitars
- James Hetfield: ESP Guitars
- Bob Dylan: Yamaha Guitars
These signature series and collaborations showcase how Japanese guitar brands can hold their own against American guitar brands.
The partnership with world-class musicians validates the high standard of craftsmanship. It brings innovative features and designs to the market, capturing the attention of guitar enthusiasts worldwide.
Japanese Guitar Pedals
Japan has made huge waves in the guitar world that go beyond simple guitars. Brands like Roland/Boss and Ibanez have transformed the guitar pedal market.
Let’s first start with Boss…
Boss Guitar Pedals
Boss pedals are super popular because they revolutionized the guitar pedal industry. They were first produced in 1977, but before that, they were made under the Roland name.
These pedals were huge, like, massive. But when Boss started making them, they made them a lot smaller and more compact, which was a game-changer. Plus, they had a ton of different effects to choose from.
One of the things that set Boss pedals apart was their durability. They were built to last, which was important for gigging musicians who needed gear to withstand the wear and tear of touring. Plus, they were affordable, which made them accessible to a lot of people.
One of the most famous Boss pedals is the DS-1 distortion pedal, which countless guitarists have used over the years. It’s a classic sound that’s been heard on countless recordings.
However, there are so many other great Boss pedals, like the DD-3 delay pedal, the TU-3 tuner, and the Metal Zone distortion pedal.
Boss pedals are popular because they’re reliable, affordable, and sound great. They’ve been a staple in the guitar world for decades, and for a good reason.
Ibanez Guitar Pedals
Ibanez didn’t stop its innovation and disruption with guitar design. Ibanez is also known for being one of the most important guitar pedal manufacturers.
First, they created the coveted Tubescreamer guitar pedal. While not everyone’s favorite sound with its classic midrange bump and rolled-off high-end, contemporary boutique pedal manufacturers (like Wampler) are still re-creating the circuit 40 years later, which says something about the impact.
Ibanez has come out with many different series of guitar pedals throughout the years. Many are still highly sought-after for their innovation, quality, and being built like tanks (I’m looking at you, Tone-Lock series).
Suppose you want to find great pedals for an affordable price. In that case, you can’t go wrong with the current line of mini pedals and old analog re-creations like the Tubescreamer and Echo Shifter.
Japanese Guitar Amps
You can’t ignore that Japan has dramatically impacted the guitar industry. Their innovation and popularity also extend into guitar amps. Two of the biggest (and most sold) brands are Boss and Yamaha.
The Boss Katana is a popular solid-state amp that uses modeling technology to give you the sound of classic tube amps.
It’s versatile, affordable, and easy to use, with many amp models and built-in Boss effects. It’s also highly connectable, with USB, effects loop, aux input, and headphone output.
It’s a great option for guitarists of all skill levels who want a reliable amp to deliver a wide range of tones.
You can’t talk about Japanese guitar amplifiers and not bring up the Roland Jazz Chorus.
The Jazz Chorus is a solid-state amplifier known for its crystal-clean amp sound, stereo-chorus effect, and vibrato.
The amplifier is well-regarded by jazz guitarists, indie guitarists, and guitar players who prefer to play with loads of pedals (Roland also owns Boss).
Yamaha may not be well known as an amplifier brand, but in 2011, they released a “desktop amp.” The THR series solved a significant problem for many guitarists who live in small spaces or share walls with roommates, family, or neighbors. The problem is getting excellent tube tone at low volumes.
These excellent mini amps have tons of bells and whistles, like wireless connectivity, built-in effects, and the ability to record direct into your computer.
The THR is just another example of the ingenuity of Japanese guitar brands, and they continue pushing the envelope forward.
What about Fender Japan?
Fender Japan was a joint venture between Fender USA and two Japanese distributors, not a Japanese brand.
They were created to compete with lower-priced Japanese-made guitars copying Fender designs. Fender Japan guitars are made in Japan by different factories and are highly regarded for their quality and sound.
Fender ended their joint venture in 2015 and became Fender Music Corporation (Japan), still producing and selling Fender guitars for the Japanese market. Fender USA recently released a “Made in Japan” (MIJ) guitar series replicating classic Fender Japan guitar designs.
The best Japanese guitar brands have undoubtedly made a significant impact on the guitar industry. From Yamaha to Ibanez, Tokai to FujiGen Gakki, these manufacturers have produced high-quality guitars with innovative designs and reliable performance.
By exploring these brands, you can find a guitar that suits your style and your budget. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, there’s no shortage of options.
So, why not try something new and discover your next favorite guitar from this vibrant corner of the guitar world?