Saturday, July 21, 2018

Teisco Guitars

Teisco MJ-1
I have an old guitar that my Dad gave me back in 1965. He owned a grocery store, and took it in  as pawn from a customer that could not pay their bill. Although there was no metal name plate on the headstock, by it’s pedigree, I can tell it was made by Teisco at a time when the United States and the United Kingdom were being flooded with cheap electric guitars made in Japan.

These guitars were normally sold by brokers, who usually re-branded them or had them rebadged  them prior to shipment, then sold them to music stores, department stores, and even pawn shops.

I cannot describe the incredible  demand for guitars and basses after the British Invasion. It was a fad, but many companies saw it as a bull guitar market and rushed in to make money.

Teisco Factory circa 1960
Teisco, was a Japanese Company that was founded in 1946 by a Hawaiian guitarist named Atsuwo Kaneko. He also played the “Spanish” style guitar. Kaneko teamed up with electrical engineer, Doryu Matsuda. The original name of the company was Aoi Onpa Kenkyujo, which can be loosely translated to Hollyhock Soundwave or Electricity Laboratories.

By 1956 the name was changed to Nippon Onpa Kogyo Company, then in 1964 it was changed to Teisco, which most sources explain is an acronym for Tokyo Electric Instrument and Sound Company. However, according to the company founder, Mr. Kaneko, that was not the case. He simply liked the name Teisco. There was another company called Tokyo Sound Co Ltd, that built Guyatone guitars. Teisco is the name that gave the company it’s recognition.

The Teisco brand lasted until 1967 when the company and assets were purchased by the Kawai Musical Instrument Company. At that time, Kawai discontinued the Teisco brand on their guitars, but kept the brand name for use on their electronic keyboards.

The original company produced guitars for domestic use. Tariffs made importing foreign instruments unreasonably expensive. The company didn't begin importing guitars to the United States and United Kingdom around 1959. Typically these instrument were re-branded Teisco Del Rey (Teisco, the King), at a time when manufactures believed adding a Spanish sounding name to a guitar. ie. Greco, Alvarez, El Degas, made the instrument more appealing.

Silvertone branded Teisco guitars
By the time Teisco guitars arrived in the United States, most  were sold under different brand names including Silvertone, Kent, Duke, Cameo, Encore, Hy Lo, Kimberly, Heit Deluxe Kingston, Norma, Sonatone, Zim-Gar, Kay, and Audition. Sometimes this was a name associated with a particular business. Many were sold in department stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Woolworth.

1967 Teisco U.S. Advertisement

Teisco guitars were affordable and sold in the twenty to one-hundred and fifty dollar range during an era when the average salary of a family in the United States was less than $5,000 a year.

In 1965 a new Fender Stratocaster cost $200, so Teisco seemed to be a great alternative for many families of budding rock stars.

1960's Teisco made Kent 
Many Teisco guitars were purchased by importer named Jack Westheimer, and his Chicago company W.M.I., then wholesaled to one of the aforementioned retailers.  Those guitars sold under the Kent brand name were imported by Bugeleisen and Jacobson of New York. In the U.K. Rose Morris Music imported Teisco guitars.

The Teisco guitar bodies were generally thinner than domestically produced guitars. The pickups were not nearly as advanced as those of U.S. guitars, and could be microphonic.

Ry Cooder's '60 Strat
with Teisco Gold Foil Pickup

Guitarist Ry Cooder, has replaced the pickups on several of  his guitars with Teisco pickups. He likes the sound,

Teisco necks were sometimes thicker, and on some the intonation was off as you went up the neck. This was probably not a problem for those who did not advance beyond 3 chord strumming.

Teisco J-5

The hardware on these guitars was very basic. The machine heads were usually open gear style, the nut was plastic, the bridge and saddle were not tunable, and if the guitar had a tremolo unit, it was a very simple arrangement with one spring housed under a metal plate at the instruments distal end.

Teisco Checkmate 4 pickup model

One unusual aspect of Teisco guitars were the number of pickups found on some guitars. While most guitars came with one or two pickups, some Teisco guitars had as many as four pickups.

Model E-100

The earliest Teisco guitars were produced at a time when the Japanese market found it difficult to import US made instruments, so Japanese companies made “replica” guitars. This eventually lead to problems.

The earliest models designated for domestic use and import tended to resemble Gibson guitars. These were Spanish guitars, and Hawaiian electric guitars

Model EO-180
The Spanish guitars had thin hollow bodies and one of two single coil pickups, and sometimes a very basic tremolo unit. The earliest Teisco electric guitar, from 1952, is the model EO-180. It resembled a full size hollow body guitar with a slot peghead, round sound hole, and belly bridge. Just below the sound hole is a single coil pickup. An input jack is mounted on the lower side of the guitars body.

By 1953 Teisco produced a series of guitars under the designation EP. These bore more of a Gibson-like shape.

Vance Brescia with
his Teisco EP-8L

Guitarist Vance Brescia has toured with Peter Noone / Herman's Hermits for years. Brescia saw a Teisco EP-8L at a music store. It was bolted to the wall as a decoration. He purchased it and has been using it for years.

Model J-1

In 1954, Teisco introduced a Les Paul Jr. type shape, the J-1.

Model TG-54
The TG-54 had a slab Les Paul body, with a single pickup, but a Telecaster-like control panel, and a huge bridge cover/palm rest. The model J-5 was based on an original and unusual shape.

The 1960's came, and Teisco guitars took on more of a Fender-like quality.

Glen Campbell with T-60

The model T-60 was a mainstay guitar for a young studio musician named Glen Campbell.

When he started singing, and appearing on television shows such as Shindig!, and Hullabaloo, he played his T-60.

Model T-60
This guitar was modeled on Fender's 1959 Jazzmaster, but with some modifications.

The scratch plate was made of metal, and it had 3 single coil pickups. Controls included a single volume and tone control, and a selector switch near the lower cutaway. The bridge/saddle unit was similar to the one on a Telecaster, with 3 adjustable saddles, though the strings attached to the bridges distal end.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this guitar were the cut-outs on the body, and the matching one on a headstock. Another unusual feature were the fret markers on the instruments rosewood neck. These looked a bit like croquet hoops, with a rectangle to mark the 12th fret.

Model EB-1
A bass guitar came out around this same time, the Teisco EB-1. It was a "replica" of a Fender Precision bass, from different eras. The sunburst body was similar to a 1960's P-bass. The scratch plate was made from metal, and had a one single coil pickup in it's center. The controls were tone and volume. The bridge/saddle was a two-piece adjustable affair, with the strings attaching at its end.

The neck was capped in rosewood, and had small block markers on the lower edge, except the 12th fret had small block markers on both sides.

The headstock was similar to the one on a 1951 Precision bass, except it was finished in sunburst. A friend of mine owned one of these. They retailed for about $60, compared to the cost of an early 1960's Fender Precision bass, which sold for around $240.

Teisco produced many guitars, but a few that stand out from the early to mid 1960's. I saw dozens of Teisco ET-100's, and ET-200's in pawn shops back in the mid-1960's.

Teisco ET-100
The ET-100 featured a tulip shaped sunburst body, a bolt-on neck with a six-on-a-side headstock, and a single coil pickup that was mounted on a black plastic pickguard that had a lovely white floral leaf design. It came with the obligatory volume and tone controls, and a simple metal bridge. The tailpiece was covered by a metal palm rest. This model was made in Taiwan.

the first version

A several prior models with the same designation came out in the early 1960's, only it had a different shape that was similar to a double cutaway Gibson Melody Maker, only the lower horn was more set in. This guitar was not as elaborate, and came with a smaller metal scratchplate.

Model ET-200
The ET-200 had similar features, including the elaborate pickguard, but it came with twin single coil pickups, with on/off rocker switches, and a tremolo unit. An earlier model came with the smaller scratchplate, and the non-tulip shaped body.

First version ET-200

This guitar also had several prior incarnations.

As I recall the original price of an ET-100 was around fifty to sixty dollars.

Teisco TRG-1 
The other Teisco guitar I recall from that era came with a built-in amplifier. This appealed to those folks that didn't want to spend any more money on an amplifier for their kid, however the built-in amp was useless except for practicing guitar.

This was the 1964 Teisco TRG-1 which came with a  "gold foil" single coil pickup, the volume and tone control were mounted on the top side of the guitar, along with a switch to turn on and off the amplifier. The amp worked on two 9 volt batteries that mounted in the rear. The 2" speaker was under the pickguard on the instrument's lower bout.

1965 Teisco TRG-2L
By 1965 Teisco offered the TRG-2L, with featured twin pickups with a switch for each, and a tremolo unit. It contained a similar built-in amplifier.

Teisco ET-440

Teisco also produced some four pickup guitars under the ET designation. The ET-440 to be precise. These had four, count 'em four pickups, and four rocker switches.

Different versions of the Teisco ET-440

But Teisco also made other four pickup guitars under the Checkmate brand, the Norma brand, and the Kimberly brand to name a few. Some came with rocker switches, while others had simple slider switches. Some came with a single volume and tone control, while others had volume and tone controls for each pickup.

I fail to see the point of more than three pickups, but I guess it was a way to sell more guitars.

May Queen

One of the most unusual Teisco guitars was the May Queen. Most sources date its origin in 1968. This was hollow, sort of a artists palette-shaped guitar, but with a large cutaway. This guitar was produced after Teisco was acquired by Kawai.

May Queen

It came with twin single coil, and somewhat microphonic, pickups, and a tremolo unit. On the guitars upper side was a long cats-eye "f" hole, while the lower side had a long white pickguard that read "MayQueen, and TEISCO". On it were a volume and tone control, a thee-way selector switch similar to a Switchcraft switch, and the input.

May Queen

The 6-on-a-side headstock had an unusual shape and its colour matched the body. The body on this guitar was very similar to the one on the 1967 solid body Vox Mando Guitar. The May Queen came in black, red, and yellow. It was a most unique design.

Teisco Del Ray Spectrum 5

I am saving the best for last; the 1966 Teisco Del Ray Spectrum 5 guitar. Teisco had made other guitars under the Spectrum series, but the Spectrum 5 was the top-of-the-line.

The headstock was like no other up to this point. There were four tuners on one side, and two on the other. It had a very unique shape. The colour of the headstock matched the guitars body, but the headstock also had a white plastic cover that set it apart.

The bolt-on neck was capped in ebony was topped with unique position markers.

The guitars mahogany body was offset, and a total space-age take on the Fender Stratocaster. It also featured a "German carve" that made the top stand out. The top also had a 7 layer hand rubbed finish. The guitar came in blue or red.

Spectrum 5 integral bridge

This guitar featured an "integral bridge" that moved with the vibrato to help with tonality.

Teisco Spectrum 5 controls
The white scratchplate bore a metal name plate that declared this to be a  Spectrum 5 in stylized script. The guitar was so named due to the five different tones that were available. The guitar had one tone and volume control, but there were five different coloured slider switches to control the pickups.

The guitar's three pickups were unique, as they were split and staggered with three pole pieces on bass side, and three more on the treble side. This was because the Spectrum 5 was a stereo guitar.

Teisco Spectrum 5 - 2 inputs for stereo
A switch on the pickguard turned on the stereo feature. This guitar came with two input jacks. The top jack was used for monaural play. For stereo, two cables were necessary. The pickups under the three bass strings would be routed to one amplifier, and the others under the treble string would go to another amplifier.  It was a unique instrument.

Teisco was acquired by Kawai guitars in 1967. By then Teisco had built over 1 million guitars.  Kawai did maintain the Teisco brand name  until 1969 on imported instrument, but kept the Teisco brand it on guitars sold in Japan through 1977. Guitars built and imported after 1969 seemed to lose the originality of the original Teisco instruments, and became copies of popular instruments.

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