A few weeks ago we explored the symbiotic relationship between Japanese guitar manufacturers and Western wholesalers. Due to Japan’s lower production costs, both the US and UK opted to outsource from the ‘60s onwards, which also allowed Japanese companies like Ibanez and ESP to get career-defining exposure. And with the rise of Japanese imports came, significantly, close ties with American and British musicians.
Since the ’80s, scores of big names have used or signed endorsement deals with those Japanese manufacturers, among them the likes of KISS, the Rolling Stones, Metallica, Eric Clapton – the list goes on.
We take a look at three shining examples of signature Japanese basses that modern metal players swear by including Frank Bello, Fieldy and Troy Sanders.
In this new millennium the signature business continues to boom, with numerous artists capitalising on endorsement deals to reinvent older Japanese-made favourites. And it would appear these artists are, overwhelmingly, metalheads (followed, at a smaller percentage, by jazz fusion performers).
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause, although arguably it can be attributed to the impact of Japanese metal from the ‘70s onwards, which probably pushed manufacturers to cater to trends – Ibanez, most notably, designed several guitar models specifically for ‘heavier’ playing (the RGN, DN, and AR).
Those same sensibilities are apparent in Japanese basses, masses of which have been embraced by heavy metal players in the West. The following is just a sample of Japanese-originating signatures from this century, endorsed by US bassists for their versatility and metal-friendliness.
Ibanez SR Soundgear — signature K5: Korn’s Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu (2002)
Ibanez was one of the first Japanese manufacturers to make a mark internationally, with popular imports to Europe and the US starting from the ‘60s. Among these were imitations of famous American models, were distributed by one US importer in cahoots with Ibanez’s owner Hoshino Gakki.
This practice eventually got Ibanez into trouble with Gibson, who sued the American distributor in 1977 for the use of their headstock design. After settling out of court, Ibanez gave up on the habit and began focusing instead on their unique originals, for which they’ve racked up international acclaim and endorsements.
One of these is the SR Soundgear bass series, production of which has mostly now moved outside Japan (with the exception of the high-end “Prestige” line). The 2002 Ibanez K5 signature was designed with Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu’s endorsement, and based on the Korn bassist’s own beloved Soundgear SR885 from the late ‘90s.
Ideal for heavier playing, the K5’s active pickups and a sweepable midrange EQ offer both power and control of tone. If you’re anything like Fieldy you’ll maintain that the best kind of midrange is no midrange, and turn the EQ way down for a rumble distinct from the bottom ends of any guitars close by.
Design-wise, the 5-string K5 stays true to the Soundgear’s famously thin and highly playable neck, made of maple/walnut in this version and with a fairly cute “K5” signature inlay. Fieldy has raved about the Soundgear for its lightweight construction, especially convenient for high-energy performances before the masses. “I’ve got other companies that want me to endorse, but I don’t like any other basses,” he once succinctly said. Fair enough.
ESP Vintage-4 — signature J-4: Anthrax’s Frank Bello (2011)
As Ibanez’s chief competitor in Japan, ESP also dominated the market in the US from the ‘80s onwards, being based both in Tokyo and LA (initially New York). They started first with replacement parts and then, from 1983, began making custom guitars for the likes of KISS and the Rolling Stones in NYC.
Much like Ibanez, ESP also was notorious for replicating Gibsons (played by Metallica’s James Hetfield, among others), and Gibson slapped them with the same lawsuit as Ibanez to protect their own sales.
Not that this slowed down ESP’s overall success – aside from crafting custom instruments in the US, the label’s major claim to fame was shipping Japanese-made guitars for hard rock players, with thrash metal guitarists in particular flocking to the label.
Anthrax bassist Frank Bello’s custom-shop signature model was derived from the ESP Vintage-4 line, which was designed to appear as if it came straight out of the ‘60s or ‘70s, artificial ‘roadworn’ wear and all.
Indeed, the 4-string J-4 retains the classic bass design with the shape of its body and U-neck. It then, however, modernises itself with a 21-fret ebony fingerboard, two active pickups, and high-end tuners from esteemed Japanese parts manufacturer Gotoh (famed for their tuners). Completing the upgrade is a black satin finish, which also comes with striking red fretboard accents if ordered from ESP’s custom shop in Japan.
Sonically, the J-4 aims for the best of both worlds with its split-coil neck and single-coil bridge pickup combo. The former provides a full-bodied vintage timbre and high-end emphasis, while the latter a more modern sound with mid-range richness. As it was with the Vintage-4, there are also three controls for fine-tuning of balance, tone and volume.
Fender Japan Jaguar — Mastodon’s Troy Sanders signature Jaguar (2013)
Like the weary Gibson company, Fender too suffered in the ‘70s from Japanese replicas threatening their sales. Fender, however, decided if you can’t beat them, join them; hence, in 1982, Fender Japan Ltd. was created, a joint-venture involving Japanese holesalers Kanda Shokai and Yamano Gakki.
In 2015 the Fender Corporation took over the venture with its own product line, and all Japanese-made guitars have since been labelled “Japan Exclusives.” One of the gems to come out of that era is the Jaguar bass and guitar series, originating in Japan in 2006, and later repackaged by Fender USA from 2014.
Troy Sanders’ signature bass is essentially a cool Silverburst version of the Jaguar models, which originally only came in black and red. These basses largely take after the prototype Jaguar guitars in design, and sonically resemble the guttural timbre of Fender Jazz basses.
However, the Jaguar bass differs in offering an unprecedented selection of controls, for a veritable feast of tones: one control panel is equipped with an active preamp; another includes controls for the pickups, including a series vs. parallel wiring option (i.e. higher vs. lower output); finally, a master panel allows adjustment of overall tone.
Staying true to the Jaguar’s mixing complexity, Sanders’ version mixes it up even further with its combo of Jazz bass bridge pickup and middle pickup taken from ye olde Precision bass. Altogether, it’s a highly dynamic and charmingly convoluted instrument befitting of an alt-metal musician.
This Jaguar keeps to traditional materials, but with fancy pearl inlays typical of Fender’s high-end models. Topping it all off is Sanders’ signature on the matching Silverburst headstock.