Japanese Guitar Brand Guide (2022) – ESP, Takamine and More!

Some players tend to overlook Japanese brands in favor of US based companies. There’s an often incorrect perception that “Made in the USA” means that a guitar is the very best. While US made guitars are often of very high quality, Japanese made examples are often equally as good, or in many cases better.

Japanese guitar brands have crafted for themselves an incredible reputation for their craftsmanship, and second to none quality control processes. Of course, this means they don’t come cheap, and so while they’re technically imported far east guitars, they are nothing like examples that come from plants in China, Indonesia, Korea, and other areas in the Pacific rim.

In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide we’ve rounded up the best Japanese guitar brands, and highlighted some of the best models produced by each company. If you’ve been looking to learn more about Japanese guitars then you’re definitely going to want to keep on reading.

ESP

Overview

In 1975, Hisatoshi Kobayashi founded ESP in Tokyo, Japan. The company’s first products were spare parts for existing guitars. However, they quickly began to produce their own line of electric guitars and basses.

In the early 1980s, ESP began to gain a following among heavy metal and hard rock guitarists in the United States, and as more prominent metal players began using ESP guitars, and the company quickly gained a large following in the American guitar market. Today, ESP continues to be one of the leading manufacturers of high-quality electric guitars and basses with a metal and hard rock focus.

Entry Level

ESP LTD Viper-10

The ESP LTD EC-10 is an SG style guitar with a twist. It has the familiar “horns”, but comes with a slightly offset body, giving it something of a unique look. It gets a pair of ESP designed humbuckers, and represents extraordinary value, coming in at just under $200 at most retailers. It’s an aggressive looking guitar that plays and sounds great, and really stands out from the Squiers and Epiphones in its price range.


Intermediate

ESP LTD F Black Metal

The ESP LTD F Black Metal is one of the most aggressive looking models in the entire ESP line up. It has more points and angles than any one guitar should have, and it looks absolutely fantastic. For lightning fast play, it’s fitted with an extra thin U shaped neck, and to hit all of those crazy divebombs, it gets a Floyd Rose Trem. The F Black metal gets a single active EMG humbucker that puts out the most guttural chug you could possibly imagine.


Flagship

ESP Kirk Hammett Signature KH-2

The ESP Kirk Hammett Signature KH-2  is one of the most incredible models the brand has ever produced. It’s the signature model of one of the brand’s longest running players, Kirk Hammett, and it’s one of the most playable guitars on the market. It’s a super Strat style guitar with an ultra thin neck, and a pair of custom EMG 60 and 81 active humbuckers. This guitar is made to the exact same spec as Kirk’s, and it screams just the same.


Takamine

Takamine is a Japanese guitar manufacturer founded in 1962. The company’s founder started the business after inheriting a small workshop from his father. Takamine quickly gained a reputation for quality craftsmanship, and by the 1970s, the company was exporting its guitars to the United States.

In 1983, Takamine released the EF- series, which featured a unique preamp system that allowed Takamine’s guitars to be played accurately through an amplifier, an uncommon feature at the time. Today, Takamine continues to produce high-quality guitars with some of the best acoustic electronics in the business, and their instruments are still used by some of the world’s most renowned musicians.

Entry Level

Takamine GC5

The Takamine GC5 is a wonderful nylon strung classical style guitar that performs well and looks great. It offers smooth playability, and thanks to the solid spruce top and genuine black walnut back and sides, it offers fantastically balanced tones and surprising projection. The build quality is a serious step above what you’d fond on entry level models from other brands, and it’s an absolute joy to play, even for experienced guitarists.


Intermediate

Takamine GY93E New Yorker

The Takamine GY93E New Yorker is something a little different in the Takamine lineup, but it still retains all of the hallmarks of quality and performance you’d expect. This is a parlor style acoustic, so it’s quite small, but it still has a big voice. It’s made with a quality solid spruce top that keeps the tone bright and punchy, and should you want to plug in, it’s equipped with a Takamine TK-40D preamp system that provides fantastic reproduction of the acoustic tone when amplified.


Flagship

The Takamine TSP178ACKN Thinline

The Takamine TSP178ACKN Thinline is one of the most comfortable acoustic guitars on the market thanks to its slender dimensions. It features a gorgeous all koa body that resonates beautifully, and considering just how slim this model offers strong volume and projection. Playability is exceptional, and it’s further aided by the slim C shape neck, and the deep cutaway for easy access to the upper frets.


Yamaha

Founded in Hamamatsu, Japan in 1887, Yamaha is a leading manufacturer of musical instruments. The company began as a producer of reed organs and soon became known for its quality craftsmanship. In the 1960s, Yamaha expanded its product line to include guitars, and other stringed instruments.

Yamaha has grown to become one of the world’s largest makers of musical instruments, with a wide range of products that are used by professional musicians and beginners alike. The company’s commitment to peerless quality and manufacturing innovation has made Yamaha one of the most trusted names in the world of guitars.

Entry Level

Yamaha PAC112 Pacifica

The Yamaha PAC112 Pacifica is a seriously good guitar at an extremely wallet friendly price. It offers some of the best build quality you’ll find in any budget guitar, and the tones punch way above their weight. This particular model has a humbucker in the bridge position and 2 single coil pickups, giving you access to a wide variety of tones, making it a great option to learn how to play just about any genre.


Intermediate

Yamaha PAC612VIIFMX Pacifica

The Yamaha PAC612VIIFMX Pacifica builds upon lower level models in the series with high end appointments, including a full set of Seymour Duncan pickups in a HSS configuration, delivering huge tone, with incredible clarity. The humbucker features coil splitting for a further expanded range of tones. The C shape neck plays like a dream, and as it comes stock with locking tuners, tuning stability concerns will be a thing of the past.


Flagship

Yamaha GC82C Classical

The Yamaha GC82C Classical is the pinnacle of craftsmanship when it comes to classical guitars from big name brands. To look at, the GC82C is simply stunning, with incredible detail poured into every facet. Tonally it is exceptional, with incredible balance and responsiveness across its entire range. It’s made with a solid American cedar top with solid Madagascan rosewood on the back and sides. This is an heirloom quality piece designed with serious guitarists in mind.


Ibanez

Ibanez is a Japanese guitar brand that has been in operation since 1957. The company started out by making Spanish style guitars in the style of those made by Salvador Ibanez. When his company became defunct, the name was up for grabs, and that’s how this Japanese company ended up with a Spanish name.

Ibanez as we know them really began to make a name for themselves in the US during the 1970s with the controversy of their “Lawsuit” guitars. Today’s Ibanez has moved on from copying other brands lock stock and barrel, and has now developed a reputation for making some of the best shredder style guitars on the market.

Entry Level

Ibanez Gio GRX70QA

The Ibanez Gio GRX70QA is a fantastic entry level super Strat that’s ideal for budding shredders on a budget. It’s a handsome model, with a really nice transparent sunburst finish that really makes it look more expensive than it is. This model has a HSH pickup layout, giving a wide range of tones, but it’s definitely best suited to high distortion. It has a thin neck, designed for ultra fast play, and the excellent build quality really stands out at the price point.


Intermediate

Ibanez RGMS7

The Ibanez RGMS7 reflects another area of Ibanez’ expertise – extended range guitars. This 7 string model has fan frets, a staggered bridge, and compensated pickups, all designed for the best possible intonation and tonal range. It has Array 7 MS humbuckers, which do a phenomenal job at cutting through heavy, distorted mixes, and when pushed hard, they will deliver punishing chug. The RGMS7 is extremely comfortable, too – it features the famous Ibanez Wizard neck, and the super Strat style body provides excellent ergonomics.


Flagship

Ibanez J Custom RG8560

The Ibanez J Custom RG8560 is a real head turner, and showcases the capabilities of the Ibanez Japan plant beautifully. It’s made with an African mahogany body, topped with a stunning AAA flamed maple cap, both contributing to the warm, yet snappy tones that this super Strat produces. For comfort and fantastic playability, it’s equipped with a Custom Super Wizard neck, one of the thinnest ever fitted to a full size guitar. The pickups are DiMarzio Black Velvet in a HSS configuration, and perform well with everything from fat, high gain tones, to crystal clear lead lines.


Fender Music Corporation Japan

Most people are familiar with Fender, but would naturally tend to categorize them as an American brand. Interestingly enough, Fender Musical Instrument Corporation Japan is a separate entity, formed as a partnership between Kanda Shokai and Yamano Gakki, and licensed to build Fender models in Japan using the Fender name.

They previously went by Fender Japan, and have been in operation since 1982, and are most famous for their vintage reissues of classic Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Precision Bass models, amongst others.  The company has also produced a number of signature models for Japanese musicians.

Entry Level

Fender JV Modified ‘60s Stratocaster

The Fender JV Modified ‘60s Stratocaster draws its inspiration from the reissues made by Fender Japan in the 1980s. Those guitars, which were originally intended to be low cost imports turned out to be some of the finest ever to wear the Fender name, and are now highly sought after. This particular model actually gets some modern upgrades, including a modern 9.5” fretboard radius, and a push pull tone 2 pot, opening up a whole range of additional tones with no modding required.


Intermediate

Fender JV Modified ‘60s Custom Telecaster

The Fender JV Modified ‘60s Custom Telecaster is a high end version of the Fender classic with a few custom twists. Unlike a more traditional Tele, it has a 4 way switch instead of 3, and additionally offers a push pull tone knob for additional out of phase tones that aren’t typically accessible. The craftsmanship on this guitar is absolutely impeccable, and is easily comparable with US made examples.


Flagship

Fender Richie Kotzen Telecaster

The Fender Richie Kotzen Telecaster blurs the line between musical instrument and work of art. It’s built with a solid ash body, topped with a sublime flamed maple cap, which really catches the eye, and the gold hardware looks perfect paired with the sunburst finish. It’s fitted with upgraded DiMarzio pickups, with a Chopper in the bridge, and a Twang King in the neck, both of which complement the guitar perfectly across all styles, from fingerpicking and clean open chords, to crunchy lead lines.


Alvarez

Founded in 1965 by luthier Kazuo Yairi, the Alvarez company has a long history of producing high-quality acoustic guitars. Alvarez has been a leading innovator in the guitar industry, developing new techniques and technologies that have helped to shape the sound of modern music.

Among their most famous innovations is the use of scalloped bracing, which allows the top of the guitar to vibrate more freely and produce a louder, fuller sound. Today, Alvarez remains one of the most respected names in the guitar world, known for their uncompromising commitment to quality and craftsmanship.

Entry Level

Alvarez Regent

The Alvarez Regent is a solid choice when it comes to value acoustics. It’s extremely well equipped for the price, including the use of rosewood on the saddle, and synthetic bone on the nut rather than plastic. It has a laminated spruce top, with laminated mahogany back and sides, making it an extremely durable guitar, perfect for beach days and campfire singalongs. The dreadnought shape gives it a big, booming voice, and fantastic clarity.


Intermediate

Alvarez Artist Series AJ80CE

The Alvarez Artist Series AJ80CE is a gorgeous Jumbo style acoustic-electric guitar, made by hand with a solid Sitka spruce top for exceptional brightness and clarity. This is an extremely responsive guitar that reacts well to changes in touch. It’s fitted with an SYS550 electronics setup, that includes both an under saddle piezo pickup and a preamp for superb amplified performance, and even includes a backlit chromatic tuner built right into the guitar.


Flagship

Alvarez Yairi Masterworks Series PYM70

Boss is a brand of the Roland Corporation, and was founded in Hamamatsu, Japan, in 1973. Boss are almost exclusively known for their effects pedals, and more recently, their Katana amplifiers, but in 2021, Boss unveiled their newest product – a guitar.

As modeling technologies continue to develop, Boss tend to remain at the forefront, providing accessibly priced, and high quality gear. While there is only one Boss guitar on the market at present, the chances remain good that they will eventually bolster the lineup with more models in future.


Boss

Boss is a brand of the Roland Corporation, and was founded in Hamamatsu, Japan, in 1973. Boss are almost exclusively known for their effects pedals, and more recently, their Katana amplifiers, but in 2021, Boss unveiled their newest product – a guitar.

As modeling technologies continue to develop, Boss tend to remain at the forefront, providing accessibly priced, and high quality gear. While there is only one Boss guitar on the market at present, the chances remain good that they will eventually bolster the lineup with more models in future.

Flagship

Boss Eurus GS-1

The Boss Eurus GS-1 is the very first guitar from famed electronics brand, Boss, and they got a lot right with this one. As for form factor, it has a slightly offset S Style body. The body itself is made from Alder, and it’s paired with a maple neck and rosewood fretboard. The Eurus GS-1 is made in Japan, to the highest possible standards, and it really shows with a superb fit and finish. The biggest draw to the Boss Eurus is most certainly the electronics array. For standard tones, it gets a pair of Eurus CTM humbuckers, which deliver big on fat rock tones but handle cleans nicely too. The real party piece, however, is the on board synthesizer technology, allowing you to run synth tones direct from the guitar to an amp, interface, or FOH setup.


Final Thoughts on Japanese Guitar Brands

Once thought of as inexpensive Far Eastern Imports, Japanese brands have risen above those from their neighboring nations and have become genuine rivals for US based brands. The Japanese have a well earned reputation for exacting standards, and incredible quality control processes, resulting in fewer guitars leaving factory floors with defects, which is a great way to build a reputation for quality.

If you’re yet to try a Japanese guitar, we highly recommend you do, given the chance. There’s a lot of variety out there, and you’ll find comparible, if not better quality instruments that typically cost less than US made counterparts.

Simon Morgan

Simon is an Orlando based musician, but originally hails from Newcastle, England. He started playing bass and guitar in 1998, and and played the local scene throughout his teen years before life got in the way. Favorite Genres: Blues, Classic Rock, and he’s not ashamed to admit - Emo

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