It stands in the corner, always there for me when a dalliance with a new guitar fades. The deep tobacco hue and those timeless curves. The guitar I have had for longest and the only one my wife likes, “it’s so pretty, not like that tatty old Telecaster you have”. Those elegant f-holes and deep mouse ear cutaways have been idolised since 1958 but this is not a Gibson 335, or a Gretsch. This is a Westone Rainbow, built in Japan in 1981 and I bought it for £50 in 1991 and when I bought it I joined a secret band of brothers of guitar nuts with a particular fondness of the Westone brand.
To appreciate the particular pleasures of Westones and indeed Japanese guitars of the early 1980’s, you have to understand where the guitar market was in the early 1980’s. Guitars were crap.
Even at the high end, Gibson and Fender were at the nadir of their fortunes. Gibson could not make a decent Les Paul for any money, Fender seemed simply to have forgotten how to make a Telecaster or a Strat. And this is the high end of the market. For those with £200-300 to spend (Perhaps £1,500-£2,000) you could find some of the Arias, Vantages and Ibanez’s that were being imported, manufacturers who recognised the weakness of the American brands and were frankly kicking ass.
For a beginner or someone who could not run to 2 months’ salary for a guitar, it was truly desperate. A friend of mine back in 1980 bought a guitar advertised in Sounds (a truly great British music paper, now sadly no more). It looked like a Les Paul, it had 2 pickups. It was illustrated by a line drawing – the lack of a photograph should have been a clue. It cost £75. It took my mate 3 months to save for it. And when it arrived, it was an abomination. The body was a plywood skin stretched over a clumsy wooden frame. The neck had no truss rod, it had brass frets. The humbuckers were a single coil with just a humbucker cover. It did not matter anyway as the wiring was bad and it made no sound. My friend wept for a month.
So there was a huge market waiting for someone who could make good quality guitars at a decent price.
Matsumoko were a Japanese sewing machine company that has somehow branched out into guitar manufacture and by the early 1980’s had a fabulous reputations as a supplier of very high quality guitars to a number of famous names such as Epiphone and Vox, as well as established Japanese brands like Aria and Vantage. In 1981, Matsumoko launched their own label, Westone and began exporting a range of instruments to the UK and the US. These early models, the Thunder active guitars and basses, Rainbow semi –acoustics and more eccentric offerings such as the Paduak, a single active pickup guitar with (if I recall) 22db boost.
These were all superbly built with high quality parts and were (for the time) absurdly cheap. The Paduak sold for £110, the cheapest Thunder for £120 and even the Rainbow – which stood up very well against the 335 – was £197.
At modern prices, these don’t look like bargains – £500 to £1,000, but at the time, this was extraordinary value for beautifully made instruments and so Westones sold very well. And with this success came new models, the carved top Prestige aped Gibson bling for a non-Gibson £250, the Concord represented a move into Fender single-coil territory and Spectrums covered the emerging poodle-haired rock market. There were even headless basses such as the Quantum and the Rail (with a sliding pick-up! I want one!)
But the success of Japanese guitars finally pushed Fender and Gibson to get their act together. Fender even ended US production for a while and got all Fenders made at the same Japanese factories as their rivals, and the introduction of the Japanese Squier range really shock things up (those first Squiers were so, so lovely).
And the fashion for pointy headstock superstrats totally wrong-footed Westone. Their product range, so exciting in 1981 was looking tired by 1985 and even the introduction of the Pantera, the last really good model made by Matsumoko, in 1986 could not reverse the decline. Japanese production ended in 1987 and the Westone label was attached to various collections of indifferent Korean and then Chinese guitars in the 1990s, it seemed that the label would fade into insignificance.
But there is an interesting little coda to this tale. In the late 1990’s, the old UK importer of Westone, FCN, decided to resurrect the Westone name, but not by slapping it on a generic range of Chinese imports. They instead worked with Status Guitars (famous because of the legendary Status Basses) and Sid Poole, perhaps the finest luthier to come out of the UK. This resulted in 2 models, the Corsair and the Prestige. All were made in the UK and were remarkably cheap given the very high spec involved and the extraordinary quality of the instruments. Oddly, these lovely guitars did not sell, and production quickly ended.
So that is the end of the tale, except of course in the age of the internet, these things never die. Westones pop up all the time on Ebay and, with their bomb-proof build quality, they’ll be available for many years yet.
With the increased respect given to all those great Japanese guitars, used prices for Westone are rising quite quickly – but a good Westone Thunder can still be had for under £200 and a clean Rainbow can be easily got for under £300. Take my word for it, that is a lot of guitar for the money. Even the fantastic Sid Poole Westones often appear on Ebay in the UK for under £400.
There is also a fanatical online community of Westone nuts, a good introduction to this can be found at www.westoneguitars.net.
Westones were never fashionable but they sound great, were made with love and they played a major part in the musical lives of thousands of young guitarists who otherwise may not have had the pleasure of a quality instrument. So if you see a Paduak come up on Ebay for £75, give it a go, it could be a first step into a wider world.