Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ovation - Kaman Corporation - Aluminum Neck Guitars

Here is a short lesson in how the imported guitar market started.

In 1954 Harry Rosenbloom of Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania had a music store and was attempting to get guitars since this was the start of the guitar craze. He was having trouble obtaining distribution rights and product, so he decided to make his own guitars.

A music store had to be approved by the manufacturer to carry their brand. His store was a mere 70 miles away from Martin guitars in Nazareth Pennsylvania but the waiting list to be an approved retailer was over three years. So Rosenbloom started making his own guitars under the Elger brandname. It was a combination of his children’s names; Ellen and Gerson.
The first instruments were made by his staff, but due to the challenges of production he hired master violin makers Karl Muller and Georg Muller. They built extraordinary guitars from about 1959 to 1964. Sometime in 1964 to 1965 Rosenbloom decided it was too expensive to build handmade instruments and signed an exclusive agreement with Hoshino Gakki Gen, a Japanese guitar manufacture. Due to the stigma of Asian built products during this era, Rosenbloom wanted the guitars to have a Spanish sounding name. He chose the name Ibanez.
He continued the Elger brand, but the Elgers made in 1965 and after were made in Japan. By 1971 Hoshino purchased the Elger brandname from Rosenbloom and changed it to Ibanez USA.
Hoshino used Rosenbloom’s store to check incoming merchandise for flaws before sending the guitars to other dealers. The first Ibanez guitars sold in the United States were copies of well known American guitars.

This did not sit well with U.S. Manufacturers, especially Gibson/Norlin. This is a story unto itself and I present it only for background.

One of the outcomes of this obvious patent infringement was U.S. musical instrument companies got to thinking about having their own products built overseas, but under a different label. Epiphone was owned by Gibson, but they hadn't recently produced guitars under that name.

Under the Epiphone brand name Asian imports of Gibson guitars outsell their own Gibson brand. Fender had acquired a guitar string company called Squier. At first Fender attempted to produce some student grade budget models, but due to the cost of labor moved production to various Asian countries.

Even Martin got into the act when it acquired Goya and Levin guitars and built guitars under the Shenandoah Martin brand that had parts built offshore, but were assembled in the United States.
In 1973 due to expectation of Asian copies, Ovation decided to stave off this threat by manufacturing its own inexpensive copies. Launching a full-out research effort Ovation came up with new bowl materials, a new way to make tops, and a new neck construction based on more technology used on the helicopter side. One of the first off the production line was The Matrix. While not a great guitar, it was very playable.

The necks consisted of an aluminum frame covered with a polyurethane foam material. Initially they looked like more expensive Ovations, though in 1976 the design was changed to make them look different. The Matrix was constructed in the proven bowl back styling of the other Ovation acoustics with a new compression molded lyramold body, married to the same Sitka spruce top. As I have said, the neck was constructed from cast aluminum. The truss rod, peg head, fretboard and frets were die cast in a single unit, producing a neck immune to warpage by the effects of string tension or climatic change.

High density polyurethane was built around this neck structure to give the feel and look of a traditional mahogany neck, and the resulting design provided excellent sustain, playability and good looks at a very low price.

Applause Guitar
The Ovation Company took Matrix one stage further, and produced the Applause guitar.

This was a true budget instrument. It was built with the same lyramold bowl, the Applause was also fitted with an aluminum neck and a laminated spruce top. The price at less than $150 was a remarkable break-through in the proof that modern materials could offer a good sounding instrument at an affordable price.

The Applause line technology used to make the aluminum and foam necks was subsequently applied to Ovation's American-made solidbodies, the Ultra Kaman or UK II, which was introduced in 1979. The UK II featured an aluminum frame with urethane foam (Urelite) body, featuring the usual Ovation shape but with a little Tele-style curve on the upper shoulder and a sharp single cutaway.
Ovation UKII
The top featured a contour like a carved top, although it was molded, of course. This guitar had a bound 24 fret ebony fingerboard and the usual Ovation headstock. It had two small twin blade humbucking pickups with conventional electronics. The bridge was constructed of plastic and metal until the end of the run when the bridge was all metal. This guitar had it’s beginnings in 1979 and the last run was 1982.



Ben Jordan said...

Thanks for this. I had one of the Applause aluminum neck guitars and the first couple of frets were worn down from play and buzzed. The aluminum frets were topped with a harder metal, but I think the string still dented them more easily. Of course, they couldn't be replaced, having been cast with the rest of the neck.

I ended up filing the soft aluminum frets off and refretting it with a hacksaw and epoxy. It worked great.

The Anomalous said...

Hi, the facts here are slightly off. Elger was hand building acoustic guitars in PA. When demand got too high, they wanted to have them made off shore, so they went to Hoshino Gakki Gen Company to import guitars, and became their US distributor. Hoshino had bought a small Spanish guitar company named Ibanez.

Rosenbloom realizing that Japanese guitars had a bad rep, decided to use the Ibanez name. This was in 1965.

In 1971, Hoshino bought Elger Guitars, regaining the North American distribution rights, and changed the name to "Ibanez USA".

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