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Musical moola

Japan is just wild about U.S. guitar legends and their tool of choice: Glossy, pricey Gibsons.

Published August 22, 2006

TOKYO - The hand-aged Gibson Les Paul Special is a replica of the 1960 original, but an American master craftsman made it exactly the way the guitar would look today, complete with aging cracked paint and tiny dents from scuffs and scratches.

What's more unique, the instrument isn't sold anywhere else but in guitar-loving Japan, where the entire limited edition of the electric guitars is sold out, underlining this nation's never-ending affair with American guitars.

Never mind that Japan has its own respected guitar brands, including Yamaha and Ibanez. No Japan-made guitar has the ring of an American icon, and Gibson Guitar Corp.'s biggest competitor here may be another American company famous for electric guitars, Fender Musical Instruments Corp.

Nobuaki Suzuki, an editor at Guitar magazine, a major Japanese publication, says more Gibson and Fender electric guitars sell here in numbers - not just in revenue - than Japanese-made guitars.

"The Americans dominate in numbers," he said. "Then come the domestic-made guitars."

Although Gibson is making marketing pushes elsewhere where demand is expected to grow, such as China, Japan is still Gibson's biggest market outside the United States and twice as large as its biggest European market, Great Britain, although the Nashville-based producer of electric and acoustic guitars isn't disclosing numbers.

Gibson makes a range of guitars solely for the Japanese market, including rocker Tak Matsumoto's signature Les Paul in special guitar shades like canary yellow and sunburst.

"It is so cool," says Yuki Yamaguchi, a 19-year-old student who bought a $5,400 Tak Matsumoto Gibson on three-month credit. "I open the case and look at in and go: 'It is so cool.' "

Amateur musicians like Yamaguchi, who acknowledges he hardly has time to play his guitar and spends more time admiring it, may be just buying a dream.

But they make for serious business.

Gibson is among the huge successes among American exports, which have over the years met mixed results in the finicky Japanese market. U.S.-made cars and rice have failed miserably while Levi's jeans, Disneyland and iPods are hits.

In fact, Gibson does better in Japan against Japanese brands than it fares against those same competitors in the United States, says Gibson chief executive Henry Juszkiewicz.

The Japan-only Les Paul with the beat-up look costs about $3,000, but all 40 that Gibson made were shipped to retail stores earlier this year. Thom Fowle, a Gibson sales executive, says the price is still relatively affordable at a fraction of what a vintage Gibson would command, as high as $300,000.

Gibson has built its fame on custom-made guitars, replicas like the one of Jimi Hendrix's V-shaped guitar decorated with psychedelic paint, and so-called signature guitars tailored for musicians, which get snatched up by their fans.

The real musicians who have yet to strike fame have more problems coming up with the money to buy expensive guitars.

[Last modified August 21, 2006, 23:48:31]

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