I love the classic guitar shapes. They’re what attracted me to the guitar oh those many years ago. But as you can probably tell from these little essays, I’m also a sucker for a pretty face. Pretty weird, that is. Like this 1983 Electra Lady XV1RD with a Little Dutch Girl shape!
We’ve already talked about that great period in the early to mid-1980s when the New Wave of Heavy Metal, combined with the emergence of L.A. as an important music center, Eddie Van Halen, and hair bands. For just a couple years before Superstrats hijacked everyone, weird-shaped pointy guitars were hip. Well, this is an example of a guitar that takes that to the extreme!
Electra guitars were made by Matsumoku in Japan for St. Louis Music (SLM). SLM started in the 1920s and grew to be a large regional music distributor. They were thick with Kay and from the late 1950s or so through to Kay’s collapse in 1968 offered Kay-made Custom Kraft guitars. Some of these, especially the later ones, are really pretty good guitars. We’ll profile one in time.
Like everyone else, SLM couldn’t resist the allure of Japan. Sometime in the late-’60s, SLM started to bring in guitars with the Electra brand. It was probably pretty tentative at first. But when Valco/Kay went under, options were running out. In around 1970 they introduced a “copy” of the Ampeg Dan Armstrong “See-Through” guitar called The Electra. This coincided with the rise of the copy era, and it wasn’t long before Electra was competing with Ibanez for the “beginner” market and beyond. One advantage they had was that they hired a guitar designer named Tom Presley who started designing guitars and supervising the manufacture of the electronics in St. Louis. From a certain point on, guitars came made by Matsumoku but without pickups, which were installed in the US. Those open-coil zebra pickups on Japanese Electras were American. Paul Yandell, who backed Chet Atkins, endorsed them.
Other stuff happened, but this brings us up to the early 1980s and the craze for pointy guitars. Two things happened in around 1983. One: SLM started playing with new pointy guitar designs. Two: SLM entered into a joint venture with Matsumoku and began a year-long process of taking over Matsumoku’s own brand name Westone.
There were a bunch of different radical designs introduced by SLM, including this Lady (obvious name!). All had the same hardware and electronics, but different shapes. The shapes speak for themselves. The cool thing was the electronics. These had two humbuckers on either side of a reverse-wound single-coil. This was Presley’s idea from back in 1971. This was controlled by a 3-way with a master volume, two tone controls for the humbuckers, and three pull-up pots. The front pot tapped the humbuckers to single coil. The middle pot activated the middle reverse-wound single-coil, and the rear pot has an out-of-phase function. There are 11 possible pickup combinations, making this one of the most versatile tonal layouts ever invented. These are great, hot, swell-playing guitars! Comfortable too! If you like to sit down, as I do in my old age, this fits very nicely with a classical position. And relatively rare. According to Presley, fewer than 200 of these were ever made. This was not cheap either. Cost was $439.50 in 1984.
From 1983-84 SLM changed its brand from Electra to Electra-Westone to Westone. You see examples of these strange shapes under a variety of names. By 1985 this novel switching system was gone and the Superstrat form was adopted. Too bad. By 1987 or ’88 Singer Sewing Machines had bought Matsumoku and killed guitar production. SLM changed the brand to Alvarez (it’s acoustic brand) and switched production to other plants, including Korea.
It’s kind of funny in a way. Rock and roll has this image and reputation for being on the edge. You know, sex, drugs, throwing TV sets out of your hotel window. Yet if you look at it from a guitar point of view, things look way more conservative. The vast majority of guitar players like the classic old shapes. Not everyone, but most. Except every once in awhile things get turned on their heads. Like when this Electra Lady was made.