Guitarz.blogspot.com was the first guitar-blog on the web. Thus, we here at Vintage & Rare.com figured that it would be a good idea to have founder and writer Gavin Wilson write a couple of guest-posts on our blog. Below is the first one:
Yamaha SG-3 from 1966
As the author of the internet’s longest running guitar blog (at guitarz.blogspot.com – started in August 2002 – seriously there were NO other guitar blogs then) I am of course a keen guitar enthusiast, even if I do tend to find myself writing about guitars more than actually playing them. Over the years I have bought and sold many guitars; I have owned well over 50 guitars over the years, and currently have a modest collection of approximately 20 instruments. Of these I have three that I would call vintage guitars. Obviously this would depend on your definition of “vintage”; such instruments need to be of a certain age, but also there should be an element of desirability.
In the summer of last year I decided that rather than put some of my savings into a supposedly high interest savings account (not that the banks were offering very high interest rates at the time), I would instead go out and buy a cool old vintage guitar; not necessarily as an investment, but certainly as something that should at least keep its value. So, I planned a trip to London’s very own Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, which has a number of guitar shops all squeezed into one small area. The night before I planned to go, I was watching a TV programme on BBC4 called “Guitar Heroes” featuring clips from the BBC’s archives of various legendary guitarists doing their thing. One clip was of the late Link Wray performing the song “Midnight Lover” from his “Stuck In Gear” album (which sadly has never been re-issued on CD, but it is well worth tracking down on vinyl). You can view this 1975 clip, originating from the BBC’s late night music show “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, here:
Aside from Link Wray’s wonderful playing – his segment was the only thing on the programme that had really grabbed my attention – I was also drawn to the red guitar he was playing. Just what WAS that guitar? It was Jazzmaster/Jaguar-like but with much pointier horns. My initial reaction was that it was probably Japanese, maybe something like a 1960s Greco or Guyatone.
But I didn’t want “maybes”, I wanted to know for sure, and after trawling the net for a while I found the information I needed on a guitar forum dedicated to Surf Guitar. Link’s guitar, which he called “Screamin’ Red” was actually a 1960s Yamaha SG-2. By now I had decided, “I want that guitar!”
The next day, with a spending budget in mind, I made my way into London and to Denmark Street. Most of the shops I looked in had the “same old, same old” guitars. Walls of Gibsons and Fenders, and in one shop in particular a over-indulgence of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani style Ibanezs, which couldn’t be further than what I was looking for.
There was one shop, however, that on previous visits I’d always been too shy to enter. From some of the instruments displayed in the window this looked like it had some serious gear within, and in my mind, perhaps you needed serious money to venture into the shop. I’d always felt that mere browsing would not be tolerated.
But here I was. I had money, and I was indeed browsing, but browsing with an intent to buy, and so I went into the shop. Sure enough, the walls were covered with the usual suspects, Fenders, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, etc, but these were some really nice vintage examples and there were some oddities such as a Gibson Explorer mandolin. Then in the corner I noticed a staircase with a sign indicating “MORE” upstairs. I climbed the stairs and it was as if I had gone up to Heaven.
The upper floor was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of weird and wonderful guitars. There were Harmonys and Kays and Teisco Del Rays, glitter-encrusted Eko and Crucianelli guitars from 1960s Italy jostled for space with British-made Baldwin, Burns and Fenton Weill guitars and all-American guitars from the likes of Microfrets, Coral and Danelectro. There were guitars from Supro and an American Showster motorcycle gastank guitar alongside obscure British makers such as Egypt Guitars and Jim Cairns, plus one-off examples from eccentric British luthiers Brian Eastwood and John Birch. And there were a whole host of Japanese guitars: Zemaitis replicas, Arias and Yamahas.
And then, there between a Gordon Smith-made Gordy and a banana yellow (almost banana-shaped) Yamaha SGC3, I spied it: the Link Wray guitar… but in sunburst finish. Right then and there I knew I was going to buy it.
I took it downstairs and had to ask the assistant if this was truly a 1960s guitar and not a modern replica because the quality and condition was that good. There were one or two minor dents, as you might expect on almost any guitar that isn’t new out of the box, but other than that this guitar looked like it had come out of a time capsule. The neck was particularly fine-looking, with swirls and patterns in the timber on the reverse like a piece of fine Birdseye Maple.
Then I noticed, whilst this was nearly the same as Link Wray’s Screamin’ Red, it wasn’t the exact same model. Instead of the two single coils on Link’s guitar, this had a single coil in the neck position, and in the bridge position there were two coils paired together in a large plastic pickup cover like it was a giant-sized humbucker. Also the shape of the pickguard up by the upper horn was much pointier.
Ahhh… Link’s guitar was a Yamaha SG-2 whilst this was an SG-3, supposedly a superior model. I didn’t mind that it wasn’t the exact model I’d had in my mind’s eye; I still wanted it. I played it through an amp downstrairs in the shop, supposedly to try it out although I knew in my heart that it was already mine. I paid the assistant and, since the guitar sadly had no case, got him to throw in a gig bag so I could carry it back home. We had to try several different brands of gig bags before we found one that fitted, since the guitar was so long with its offset body shape and pointed headstock.
The Yamaha SG-3
Since buying my Yamaha SG-3 I have been trying to find out whatever I can about it and its sibling, the two-pickup SG-2. Additionally there was a 12-string version, the SG-12, which had the three pickups and electrics of the SG-3 but with a shorter-scale 12-string neck, and there was also a bass with two pickups, the Yamaha SB-2. The SG-12 is supposedly the rarest of the lot, but funnily enough within the last two months two examples have turned up on eBay: one was incomplete, missing various crucial parts such as bridge saddles, and the other had been rather inexpertly “customized” and had none of the original pickups, electrics or pickguard. (If someone had bought both of them, they could have faithfully restored a single SG-12 from the parts of both).
In my researches about these guitars, I was finding a lot of misleading and conflicting information. Well, to set the record straight, the SG-2, SG-3 and SB-2 were initially released in April 1966 and were each discontinued in 1967. (I’ve seen people dating these guitars to 1965 and 1968. Not true! They were only produced from 1966-1967). Colours available were limited to pearl white, sunburst, and coral red. I cannot find any data for the SG-12, but it’s reasonable to assume that it was produced within the same 1966-67 period and was available in the same colours (I’ve seen photos of red and sunburst examples). The original retail prices in Japan were 42,000 yen for the SG-2, 48,000 yen for the SG-3, and 37,000 yen for the SB-2 bass. (The bass was a simpler affair with none of the separate circuits for pre-set sounds. More on this later…)
Something that confused me greatly was that several people when talking about their SG-2 guitars referred to their short 24″ scale length. That didn’t sound right to me at all. My SG-3,which is essentially the same guitar as the SG-2 but with different pickups and switching, certainly does not handle or feel like an instrument with a Gibson-like 24″ scale. Also remember that I already mentioned the problem we had in the guitar shop finding a gig bag to fit. So, just to make double check, I measured from zero fret to the bridge saddles, and sure enough, I was right: the scale length is definitely 25 1/2″; there is absolutely no doubt about it.
Through communication with another owner, I’ve learnt that the SG-2 does indeed have the same 25 1/2″ scale length, but that the SG-12 has a shorter 24.75″ scale which does make some sense when you take into consideration the increased tension offered by 12 strings. Still, I am perplexed that there are players out there who say things like “the short scale of the SG-2 suits my small hands” when they are actually playing a guitar with a longer Fender-like scale. Can they not tell from feel alone? It just goes to show how suggestible people can be; they read something once on the internet and believe it must be true despite any evidence to the contrary.
OK, having gotten the scale length question sorted once and for all, let’s move on to the question of what all those switches and controls on the SG-3 actually do. Basically, the guitar features two circuits so you can set up two different tones on the guitar and switch between them, say between rhythm playing and then going for a guitar solo. The volume and tone controls on lower part of the guitar work in the usual way for the main circuit, but the switch nearest the point of the upper horn allows you to select the alternate circuit which has separate volume and tone “wheels” just above the neck pickup. There is a third “wheel” situated slightly apart from the other two, slightly towards the housing for the rear two pickups. With the alternate circuit selected, whatever position on the wheel I tried I could not make any difference to the tone using this control. I began to suspect that someone had re-wired the guitar incorrectly. Then – I don’t know what made me think to try this – I selected the main circuit again, and this time the wheel operated properly and I could hear tonal differences as I rolled it back and forth.
But what was it doing? Using an Ebow to ascertain which pickups were actually being selected, I worked out that whilst switched into the main circuit the two pickups in the large pickup housing near the bridge operated as single coils, and you could select one or the other – or a blend between the two – using the roller switch situated above. However, with the alternate circuit engaged these rear two pickups operate together as a humbucker. What had confused me was that the blend control which only worked when the main circuit was engaged was physically located on the pickguard nearer the controls for the alternate circuit, so that I thought it must be related to that same circuit. (I guess you could call these circuits, the “rhythm” and “lead” circuits, but like the “Rhythm/Treble” legend on the pickup selector surround on a Les Paul this is often nonsensical because you can get very useful rhythm sounds using the so-called “Treble” bridge pickup and can also play great solos using the so-called “Rhythm” neck pickup).
The Yamaha SG-2 has the same set-up with the two independent circuits, but of course there’s no blend control because it doesn’t have that third pickup.
I suppose had I been a Fender Jazzmaster player, I might have figured all this out much sooner, for the Yamaha SG-2 and SG-3 were quite obviously inspired by that guitar.
To tremolo or not to tremolo…
Finally, whilst evaluating the various features of the guitar, I must make mention of the tremolo. At last here’s a tremolo that I can use without sending the guitar out of tune. Over the years I have mainly been a Strat player, but I always remove the tremolo arm (and usually lose it) because it’s such a nuisance, always sends the guitar out of tune and generally gets in the way. The Yamaha SG-2/3 trem is, I believe, based on that employed on the Fender Jazzmaster. The mechanism/movement is from behind the bridge rather than being integral to the bridge as on a Stratocaster. The fact that the strings pass over roller saddles on the bridge no doubt is instrumental in you being able to return the tuning back to true when using the arm. I’m sure the way it operates is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it works for me!
(As an aside, in personal communication with Eric Geevers who toured with and played bass with Link Wray on his final couple of albums, he told me that Link’s SG-2 “Screamin’ Red” was quite messed up and that some of the strings didn’t actually pass over the bridge saddles but went between them, but somehow, miraculously, it still played in tune. Apparently Link’s attitude was “Leave it, it’s fine.”)
The SG-2 and SG-3 represent Yamaha’s first foray into the world of solidbody electric guitars, and coming from 1966 they pre-date the better known, strangely-shaped and “Samurai” sword-headstocked models such as the SG2A and SG3A and similar (reissued in 2000 as the Yamaha SGV series). The SG-2 and SG-3 were produced in Japan solely for their home market. They were not exported for sale into the West (which is possibly why the Samurai models are better known), but reportedly a number made it to America in the hands of GIs who bought them on tours of duty overseas. How some made their way to Europe and to the UK, I could not tell you. I only know that the chances of me seeing Link Wray playing an SG-2 on TV one night and then buying an SG-3 the very next day in London were incredibly remote; I don’t think I appreciated at the time that the odds should have been stacked against me.