- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

TOKYO — The hand-aged Gibson Les Paul Special is a replica of the 1960 original, but an American master craftsman made it exactly the way the guitar would look today, complete with aging cracked paint and tiny dents from scuffs and scratches.

What’s unique, the instrument isn’t sold anywhere else but in guitar-loving Japan, where the entire limited edition of the electric guitars is sold out, underlining the nation’s never-ending affair with American guitars.

Never mind that Japan has its own respected guitar brands, including Yamaha and Ibanez. No Japan-made guitar has the ring of an American icon, and Gibson Guitar Corp.’s biggest competitor here may be another American company famous for electric guitars, Fender Musical Instruments Corp.

Nobuaki Suzuki, an editor at Guitar Magazine, a major Japanese publication, said more Gibson and Fender electric guitars sell here in numbers — not just in revenue — than Japanese-made guitars.

“The Americans dominate in numbers,” he said. “Then come the domestic-made guitars.”

Although Gibson is making marketing pushes elsewhere where demand is expected to grow, such as China, Japan is still Gibson’s biggest market outside the United States and twice as large as its biggest European market, Britain, although the Nashville, Tenn., producer of electric and acoustic guitars isn’t disclosing numbers.

Gibson makes a range of guitars solely for the Japanese market, including rocker Tak Matsumoto’s signature Les Paul in special guitar shades like canary yellow and sunburst.

“It is so cool,” said Yuki Yamaguchi, a 19-year-old student who bought a $5,400 Tak Matsumoto Gibson on three-month credit. “I open the case and look in and go: ‘It is so cool.’”

Amateur musicians such as Mr. Yamaguchi, who acknowledged he hardly has time to play his guitar and spends more time admiring it, may be just buying a dream.

But they make for serious business.

Gibson is one of the huge successes among American exports, which over the years have met mixed results in the finicky Japanese market. U.S.-made cars and rice have failed miserably while Levi’s jeans, Disneyland and IPods are hits.

Gibson does better in Japan against Japanese brands than it fares against those same competitors in the United States, said Gibson Chief Executive Officer Henry Juszkiewicz.

“The guitar itself is an art form very strongly associated with the U.S. The music that’s played on the guitar is very strongly associated with the U.S.,” he said from Beijing, where he was on a recent business trip.

“Foreign markets tend to revere our brand much more so than the domestic market where we might be considered just another guitar. We’re very successful in the U.S., but there’s less reverence,” Mr. Juszkiewicz said.

Some of the biggest fans of Gibson guitars are those baby-boomers who grew up on 1970s music and now have the money to splurge on guitars, said Thom Fowle, a Gibson sales executive.

“Some of these consumers own five, 10, 20 guitars because they’re collecting. They’re collecting for the love of collecting,” he said during a recent visit in Tokyo.

Mr. Fowle said Gibson’s biggest rivals are its own older models on secondhand and collectors markets, where they command eye-popping prices.

The Japan-only Les Paul model with the beat-up look costs about $3,000, but all 40 that Gibson made were shipped to stores earlier this year. Mr. Fowle said the price is still relatively affordable at a small fraction of what a vintage Gibson would command, as high as $300,000.

Gibson has built its fame on custom-made guitars, replicas like the one of Jimi Hendrix’s V-shaped guitar decorated with psychedelic paint, and so-called signature guitars tailored for musicians, which get snatched up by their fans.

Musicians who have yet to strike fame have more problems coming up with the money to buy expensive guitars.

Yosuke Onuma, a jazz musician who often plays Gibson guitars, won his first Gibson in a guitar contest. Mr. Onuma, 31, said the Gibson image among Japanese has reached legendary status. After all, guitarists he respects, including Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, all played Gibson guitars.

“Gibson guitars deliver a sweet, deep sound. You’re playing steel strings, but there’s that sound of wood — something that only Gibson has. It’s an earthy sound, very organic.”

Will Jones, who promotes Epiphone, Gibson’s more affordable lineup, thinks owning a Gibson is an opportunity to be part of the roots of rock because groups such as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin played Gibsons. Some even believe rock wouldn’t exist without Gibson, given the innovations guitarist Les Paul made for the electric guitar, he said.

Mr. Paul designed one of the first solid-body electric guitars and worked with Gibson to bring out the first Les Paul model in 1952. When he was injured in a car accident, he had the surgeon set his shattered arm at an angle so he would still be able to cradle and play the guitar.

“Other brands don’t have that kind of history,” Mr. Jones said. “We are living, breathing rock ‘n’ roll history.”

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