Best remembered as the year of the Woodstock Music Festival and the first manned mission to the moon, 1969 also marked the U.S. debut of Yamaha guitars. The unveiling of Yamaha guitars lacks the historic significance of the lunar landing, but in the context of the music industry, it was an event of no small significance. For the record, Yamaha guitars also figured at Woodstock, most prominently in Country Joe MacDonald’s now famous “Fish Song.” With a marketable combination of value, proven designs, and consistent quality, Yamaha instruments quickly found a following among top performers including James Taylor, Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, and Bruce Springsteen, along with millions of ordinary enthusiasts. Today, the company can boast having one of the best-selling guitar brands worldwide.
The longevity and global success of Yamaha guitars provides compelling testimony to the company’s management skill. Yamaha first began building guitars in a corner of its Hamamatsu, Japan piano plant in 1945. Production was initially limited to classical nylon string guitars, and was directed primarily at consumers who wanted a musical experience but couldn’t afford a piano. By the mid ’50s, as guitar sales ramped up, thanks to the increased popularity of folk music and rock ‘n’ roll, dozens of small guitar makers set up shop around Hamamatsu and Nagoya, Japan. When the Beatles hit in the scene in 1964, these small Japanese producers, with their low cost structure, saw their sales literally explode, and within a few years Japan was the world’s largest guitar manufacturer.
Throughout this boom, Yamaha showed remarkable patience. Genichi Kawakami, who took the reins as president in 1950, was anxious to transform Yamaha into a prestigious, global brand. However, after a 90-day, round-the-world trip in 1953 he put his plans for an aggressive export initiative on temporary hold. In a 1987 Music Trades interview, he recalled, “I came home very disheartened. I realized that our quality was nowhere near good enough for the global market. I decided we would have to improve before we could be successful outside of Japan.” Thus, while other Japanese guitar manufacturers flooded the U.S. and Europe with inexpensive guitars and top overdrive pedals, Yamaha sold only in Japan and invested heavily in refining designs and production methods. In 1963 Yamaha began shipping pianos to the U.S. Only by 1969 did Kawakami conclude that the Yamaha guitar was truly ready for the global stage. From the vantage point of hindsight, this restraint obviously paid off. U.S. consumers’ first experience with Yamaha guitars was a favorable one, which helps explain why Yamaha is one of the few remaining Japanese brands left and enjoys such a commanding presence in the market.
With roots that date back to Antonio Del Torres in the mid 17th century, the guitar can fairly be described as a “mature” product. From a management standpoint, however, Yamaha has approached the instrument as something in need of continuous improvement. Over the past 40 years, the company ceaselessly refined product designs and production methods in pursuit of the ultimate guitar. The first Yamaha guitars were the workmanlike FG series, highly playable, durable steel-string instruments at an irresistible price. In the early ’70s, the FG series was supplanted by the “L” series, which boasted better materials, a wider selection of models, and more graceful cosmetics. The L series won praise from a diverse collection of guitarists running the gamut from George Lynch to Liz Phair. In the ’80s Yamaha further augmented its line with the APX electric-acoustic line. With its proprietary hexaphonic piezo bridge pickup, the APX was tailor-made for the high-volume folk rock music of the time. When it was introduced, studio legend Steve Lukather remarked, “What killed me about it was its true stereo feature. Not fake stereo, real!” The ’70s saw Yamaha enter the electric guitar market with the introduction of the SG series, an exquisitely crafted set-neck model outfitted with twin humbucking pickups. At a time when domestic guitar makers were plagued with quality problems, the SG attracted top players such as Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, Robben Ford, Steve Cropper, and Al McKay of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Although Yamaha enjoys a deep in-house reservoir of marketing, manufacturing, and engineering talent, the company has never hesitated from hiring outsiders to provide specialized expertise. In the ’60s its guitar designs were influenced by Eduardo Ferrer, a noted Spanish luthier. In the late ’70s, the company retained Andres Segovia to help refine a line of classical guitars. Then in 1990, Yamaha Guitar Development was opened in Hollywood California. The workshop initially served to build custom models for artists but quickly evolved into a critically important research and development center.
By the early ’70s as production costs began to increase in Japan, Yamaha shifted most of its guitar production to a newly constructed plant in Taiwan. In response to continuing economic shifts, in 2003 guitar production was established at a gleaming new factory in Hangzhou, China. The new plant boasts the latest in automated manufacturing equipment. Less apparent but equally important is the investment Yamaha has made in employee training. Novice employees are paired with veterans who explain the subtleties of production techniques. Having upwards of 10% of the factory workforce devoted to training rather than production is a heavy direct expense that many manufacturers would probably forego. For Yamaha, however, it’s a necessary step to ensure that Chinese products meet its stringent quality standards.
LEAVING THE MASS MARKET
Yamaha remains as patient and deliberate as ever in managing its guitar division. In a surprise move, last year the company opted to withdraw its guitar line from all mass merchants. In a challenging economy, it’s difficult for any manufacturer to forgo orders. However, John Shalloup, national sales manager of the Pro Audio & Combo division, explained, “Creating low-priced products that diminished the Yamaha reputation for quality was a dead-end for us. We felt it was important to support our m.i. dealers with a product line that wasn’t found in every mass merchant.” Today, management credits the decision to drop mass merchants with expanding Yamaha’s market share.
THE MOST POPULAR GUITAR
Looking to the next 40 years, Dennis Webster, guitar marketing manager states, “There are more Yamaha guitars on this planet than there are from any other manufacturer. This is a testament to the build quality across all lines–from student guitars to professional models for performance and recording. Over the next 40 years, we’re confident that our market share will only increase.”