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Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

Searching for Spock (Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar)

In a Trekkean view of the electric guitar universe, space is populated by all sorts of exotic and unique tribes and creations. You got your Fendermen and Gibsonians and other assorted “normal” beings. Then you have a whole bunch of guitars related to potatoes, like Micro-Frets and Ibanez Musicians, frequently from the 1970s, as it happens. You have your usual run of space weapons, like Vees and Explorers. And then you have assorted vehicles, like Dave Bunker’s guitars, the Burns Flyte, or the Riverhead Unicorn seen here.

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

You can probably justifiably consider certain lap steel guitar designs to be the forerunners of the headless guitar. Oh, like all guitars they need some basic structural components and they need some sort of tuning mechanism, but they kind of reduce the guitar to a plank with strings. You even orient to them in a different way that kind of negates the idea of a head.

Whether or not you buy that argument, probably the first headless guitar I’m aware of was Dave Bunker’s appropriately named Astral Series Sunstar, which debuted in around 1966. Dave rather brilliantly stripped the guitar down to its essence, then appended all these removable pods and appendages (including detachable head), making it truly a Starship Enterprise! I don’t know exactly when New York guitarist Alan Gittler began his experiments on minimalist guitars, but I think it was after Bunker.

It was, of course, Ned Steinberger (and his principal disciple, as it were, Andy Summers of The Police) who codified the headless guitar concept right around the end of the 1970s. Cort in Korea licensed the design and produced a number of brands popular in the early 1980s. I have one that I used to be able to cram on top of the family’s shore supplies when we vacationed. It’s in the context of those New Wavey guitars of the early 1980s that this rather fetching Riverhead belongs.

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

The Riverhead story is a little hard to piece together coherently. They were primarily made in Japan by the Headway company and briefly in the mid-1980s were imported into the U.S. and actively marketed. Headway, it appears, began as a high end acoustic guitar maker in around 1977 in Matsumoto City, basically the epicenter of Japanese guitarmaking. In 1981 Headway made the transition to electric solidbody guitars. Information is sketchy, but it seems they began with Fender-style copy guitars, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. They seemed to have used the Headway name, as well as the brands Bacchus and Momose, named for the luthier and Headway founder Yasuo Momose, who’d learned his art at Fujigen Gakki, builder of Ibanez and Greco electrics. There have been other brand variations, including, obviously, Riverhead.

Online sources (which seem credible) suggest that Headway experienced two factory fires in 1983, which ended in the construction of the Asuka electric guitar factory in Matsumoto in 1983, coincidental with the launch of the Riverhead brand. Unlike the Bacchus copies, Riverheads seem to have been Headway’s “high tech” line. Another source suggests that Headway made all (or most) of its own components. Certainly its guitars had many unique and innovative features, like vibratos designed to pivot two ways.

Riverhead’s Unicorn Series was distributed in the U.S. by a company called Prime, Inc., of Marlboro, MA, the same outfit that imported those curious Quest guitars. Designed somewhat after the fashion of the Burns Flyte guitars, Unicorns came with either two single-coil or, as here, two humbuckers. These were probably a unibody construction, with a mahogany core, though the wings might have been added on. Their advertising in late 1984 touted the fact that the pickups were mounted directly on top of the body for maximum tone. The heavy duty cast adjustable bridge/tuner assembly is very similar to a Steinberger, though I’m sure it was Headway’s own innovation. For such a high tech looking axe, it’s actually pretty basic, with a simple threeway select, one volume and two tone controls. Still, you’d look pretty darned cool in your orange and black Starship Trooper jumpsuit, eh?!

The Riverhead Unicorns were promoted in 1984 and ’85, so they were around at least in that time frame, probably 1983-85 or ’86 at the latest. They’re not exactly plentiful. Prime seems to have had a presence in the Northeastern U.S. I don’t know if they achieved much national distribution. The online sources suggest that Riverhead brand guitars were produced until 1997, after which Japanese production stopped. Japanese guitar production recommenced in 1999 and continued at least into 2009, although the company operates factories elsewhere in Asia. At this writing, Headway’s web site was not active.

I’ve always thought the headless technology was cool, but I was never a New Agey kind of guy, and I wouldn’t look good in an orange and black jump suit. I always found I liked a head to help me know where I should stop. Guess I occupy more of that boring normal part of the guitar universe than I care to admit!

Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

1985 Riverhead Unicorn Series Driving Force

1985 Riverhead Unicorn Series Driving Force

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Off With Her Head (Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar)

As a rule, I’ve never been too enamored of “pop” music, if you define pop as largely vocal-oriented music with catchy melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics, almost always love-themed. So, ordinarily, a pop band like The Police would be off my radar. Still, Andy Summers was able to weave some pretty interesting guitar textures—without traditional flash solos—behind Sting’s singing, so I paid attention. Besides, it was Andy Summers who almost single-handedly created a market for minimalist guitars like this c. 1985 Austin Hatchet.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Summers famously played a headless Steinberger guitar, which is probably the best known minimalist guitar among guitar fanatics. But it certainly wasn’t the first. I suppose the earliest in the category were the first successful electric guitars, the first Hawaiian lap steels. The legendary Ro-Pat-In Electro “frying pan” had a body, neck, and head, but it sure was minimalist! Most electric laps had these elements, but by the 1940s these were pretty perfunctory. How many lap steels are basically a slab of wood with some pickups, a “fingerboard,” and some tuners, reducing a guitar to its bare minimum?

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

I’m not sure who gets credit for building the first minimalist “Spanish” guitar. It pretty much had to be an electric guitar, since acoustics depend on having an acoustic chamber to produce their sound. In 1967 Dave Helland, then a music teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin, got the idea that an electric guitar needed to be nothing more than a 2×4 with a neck. He had a couple dozen of the legendary La Baye guitars built.

Around the same time Dave Bunker, a guitar player and luthier came up with his Astral guitar designs. These looked like a cross between a Star Trek starship and a guitar. However, many of the parts were screwed onto a minimalist core, so you could customize the way it looked when you performed.

Neither the La Baye nor the Astral guitars were particularly successful, so you’ll be lucky to ever play one. The ultimate in minimalist guitars were probably the so-called “fishbone” jobs built by Alan Gittler in New York during the mid-1970s. These reduced the guitar to a tubular spine and tubular “frets.” Indeed, Andy Summers played one of these for one of his Synchronicity videos. Only 60 of these were ever made before Gittler moved to Israel, where he became Avraham Bar Rashi and contracted out another 240 or so of a slightly more substantial version, still remarkably minimalist.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Around the same time that Gittler was building his fishbones, Ned Steinberger was coming up with his small-bodied, headless design, which was produced by Stuart Spector. These went on to become the most famous of minimalists, thanks, in large part to The Police. Steinbergers were, however, expensive. To help fill the void, Cort licensed the design and began producing cheaper versions, bearing the Cort name as well as others, including models for Hohner and Washburn. I have one called Blake that used to be my “shore guitar.” In 1981 Kramer threw its hat in the ring with its aluminum-necked, headless Duke guitar.

None of the guitars mentioned so far were “travel guitars,” strictly speaking, though it was nice that you could pop your little minimalist guitar into the overhead compartment or on top of all your vacation luggage. There were travel guitars in the game at the time, including the little yellow Hondo Chiquita Banana. They were only minimalist in the same sense as the early lap steels in that they were small.

In any case, this was the environment in 1984 when Jack Westheimer of Cort got the idea to come up with his own cross between a minimalist and a travel guitar and designed this guitar. Actually, Westheimer’s inspiration was less the Steinberger or Duke or Chiquita and more the Colt 45 handgun. Yung Park tweaked Jack’s design and in 1985 the Cort 45 debuted. Jack used to laugh that he was the only one who ever connected either the name or the shape of the guitar to a pistol! Obviously the big distributor Targ & Dinner didn’t because they called their version the Austin Hatchet, seen here.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

If you like playing minimalist guitars, this actually isn’t too bad. The neck-through construction gives it a solid feel. It’s powered by a pair of Korean Powersound humbuckers that are actually pretty darned hot. One of the mini-toggles is a threeway while the other reverses phasing. The headstock and tuners do make it a little top-heavy since there’s not much body to act as a counterweight.

I’ve never seen a Cort 45 and only a couple Austin Hatchets. That’s no evidence, but I don’t think these were too popular! They seem to have been gone by 1986. While other minimalist guitars like the Steinberger soldiered on (even they started getting bigger bodies), the craze for minimalist guitars had pretty much run its course. Which, come to think of it, pretty much also describes The Police, who broke up that same year. I can’t recall listening to any other “pop” bands since then either.

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

Matsumoku’s Atak Gains The Ad-Vantage (Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar)

I count myself among the many of you who have discovered just how good guitars made by the Matsumoku factory in Matsumoto City, Japan, really are. Or were. They still exist as artifacts but have not been made more than two decades now. But one of the most bewildering aspects of tracking these fine electric guitars is following the myriad of brand names that came out of that plant. Most have been identified by enthusiasts. It’s easy tell a Matsumoku guitar, but it’s something else to figure out who the brand name belonged to. Probably the biggest outlier in this name maze is Quest.

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

I first encountered a Matsumoku guitar (I didn’t know what it was at the time) back in the early 1990s. I was hanging out with Mac and Joe at the Axe Factory in Southwest Philadelphia (long gone) after work one evening. They were just about to close down when a car pulled up to the curb and out came two guitar cases. One was a ‘70s Gibson Les Paul and the boys started to drool over it. The other was the most spectacular flametop guitar I’d ever seen, an Electra Endorser (recently profiled in Vintage Guitar Magazine). Without taking their eyes off the Paul, they sold me the near-mint Endorser for three bills. I walked out like the Chesshire Cat. Later I found out that beauty was made by Matsumoku.

Matsumoku Motto (or the Matsumoku Industrial Co., Ltd.) was founded in 1951 to manufacture sewing machine cabinets. They were located in an area with a long tradition of musical instrument making, so when the demand for guitars heated up in the early 1960s, it wasn’t so big a stretch to apply their woodworking talents to guitars. They began building guitars in around 1963.

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

Early Matsumoku guitars display that tentative awkwardness shared by most Japanese guitars of the time, but the workmanship is almost always a notch up compared to, say, Teisco, Kawai, or Zen-On. One of the early brands produced by Matsumoku was Cortez for Westheimer Music, the name that eventually gave us Cort guitars. By the middle ‘60s the factory was producing Arai and later Aria Diamond and Aria guitars. In around 1975 the luthier Nobuaki Hayashi managed guitar production and Arias became Aria Pro II. Meanwhile Matsumoku was producing guitars for St. Louis Music (SLM), including some, if not all, their late ‘60s Apollo line. When SLM changed its brand to Electra in 1970, the better models, at least, came from Matsumoku. Matsmoku also made the first Japanese Epiphones for Gibson beginning about this same time.

Another brand associated with Matsumoku was Univox, promoted heavily from 1968 on by the company known as Merson Musical Products, A Division of Unicord Incorporated, A Gulf+Western Systems Company. In 1975 the Merson part departed and the company became Unicord, Inc. In 1976 Unicord introduced the Westbury line, made by Matsumoku, which replaced Univox in ‘78. In 1979 and 1980 Matsumoku made the Washburn Wing and Stage Series guitars. In 1982 Matsumoku took over production of the D’Agostino Bench Mark series.

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Quest Atak-6 MK II Electric Guitar

The Merson folks moved to Garden City Park on Long Island, New York, and became Musical Technologies, Inc. (MTI). This company would eventually bring Korg to the U.S. and still exists. In 1981 the Westone brand appeared in the U.S. This may have been a proprietary brand name owned by Matsumoku because, while it was appropriated by SLM as its brand name in 1984, other Westones continued to be sold outside the U.S. until the end. Anyhow, it appears that MTI began to sell Matsumoku-made Vantage guitars in 1982, at least.

Which finally brings us to Quest. With heavy metal riding high, a taste for weird-shaped guitars developed. In 1984 MTI introduced a new line of Matsumoku-made guitars called Quest by Vantage. These were a little more outré than the Westone/Vantage aesthetic, but why they felt they needed a new brand name remains a mystery. But included in the new line was the Quest Atak 6, kind of a take on the Ibanez Destroyer. In the brochure were the A-6 of laminated mahogany and the A-6TX with a bound ash body. This example has “Mark II” on the truss cover and is like the A-6TX but with a bound spruce top over a solid mahogany body. With an SN of C400578 this dates to March of 1894. Controls are volume and two tones, with the volume a push-pull coil tap.

The only brochure seen for Quests is from 1984. I own two and both are from mid-1984. If they lasted beyond that, it’s unknown at this time. In 1987 Matsumoku was purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Co. and guitars were not in their future. It’s not clear if production ended immediately, or if they limped on until 1989 or even into 1990. At some point in the early 1990s the Vantage brand was transferred to the Samick company in Korea, mainly Gibson and Fender inspirations, sold by Music Industries Corporation of Floral Park, New York. These were certainly produced from 1995-97, and probably before and after.

Active sales of the Vantage brand have since ceased. Music Industries now rents instruments. I love the Quests, and many other Matsumoku guitars, but nothing is as sweet as that first kiss…er, Electra.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year, Korean Style (1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar)

The writhing, brightly colored paper dragons carried by a line of athletic young men to celebrate Chinese New Year is a sight most of us have seen. If you don’t live in a city with a Chinatown, you’ve at least seen them in a Stephen Segal movie. And if you’ve ever entered a Chinese gift shop, you’ve seen the gift boxes inlaid with colorful pearl and abalone dragons. The dragon is one of the most powerful images associated with East Asia. So, imagine my surprise when I first came upon a Cort Strat copy inlaid with a most spectacular mother-of-pearl and abalone dragon! What had I found?

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

Well, it’s always best to go to the source when you have a mystery (if you can), so I called Jack Westheimer to get the true story about my find. Jack’s name, unlike Leo or Orville, is probably not on most guitar fan’s lips, but he brought us Teisco (and other brand) guitars from Japan at a time when most folks in America didn’t think much about products from the Orient. There’s a whole lot more to this story that we don’t have time to get into here, but, long story short, Jack transferred from pioneering guitars in Japan to pioneering guitars in Korea. He took his Japanese Cortez guitars to the Peninsula in 1973, partnering with Yung H. Park, to create Cort guitars. Today they are one of the world’s top guitarmakers, and many Cort guitars are quite simply excellent instruments.

However, as you might expect, this quality achievement did not happen overnight. By Westheimer’s own assessment, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that they felt quality was at a competitive level. But how to show it? He needed a guitar to make an impact on the U.S. market.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

It was one day in around 1986 or ’87 while pondering this problem that Jack took a walk through an outdoor market that thrived outside the factory. There he encountered some of those gift boxes inlaid with fabulous pearl and abalone dragons. Maybe this was just the ticket. After a few inquiries he learned that the inlay work was done by craftsmen on a small island. He decided to take some Cort Strat and Explorer copies and have them inlaid with dragons.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

What do they say about the litter on the road to success? Despite his best intentions, the project was doomed. The cost of the inlay was reasonable, but Cort had to finish the bodies, carefully pack them up, ship them to the village where the work was done, then have them shipped back, touch up any dings, then proceed to clear-coat and complete the guitar. By the time you added up all the extra handling, the guitars had to be sold for a pretty penny once they arrived Stateside. Dealers wouldn’t pay the freight for a Korean guitar, no matter how fancy.

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

1987 Cort Dragon Electric Guitar

Their loss was my gain. This is a swell little guitar with neck-through construction (my favorite) and even if it didn’t play well, which it does, it would be fun to stare at all day!

The Cort Dragons are pretty rare, uh, dragons. About 400 Explorers and 100 Strats (StoStats) were built in 1987. Most were Corts, but some came labeled Lotus. Of those, most were made with laminated bodies like this one; only 50 were made of solid timbers toward the end of the run.

In the long run, it only took time, consistency – and a mature global economy – to secure Cort’s reputation. They didn’t need the Dragons. But this one, at least, ended up in my treasure hoard, and every time I open the case it’s like Chinese New Year to me!