The Allure of Lawsuit Guitars

Guitar
Photo by Thomas Kelley (Unsplash)

Emily Chow is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. 

What does it mean to be a rockstar? A metalhead? A good-for-nothing punk? A rebel without a cause? One can easily conjure up the image of a “rockstar” identity or lifestyle that appears inseparable from the genre itself. Just as communities coalesce around particular musicians, artists, or genres of music, so too do instruments, music labels, and brands. Add a little mystique or appeal, a practitioner’s specific tastes, superstition, and a dedicated following, and you have a growing subculture eager to participate in its own traditions and identity-formation.

Historical Context

Accompanying the advent of rock & roll in the 50s and 60s was a larger demand for premium quality electric and acoustic guitars. Familiar companies like Gibson, Fender, and Martin quickly grew to widespread acclaim. Models such as Gibson’s Les Paul and Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster emerged and remain to this day an essential part of most guitar players’ or collectors’ dream lineup.

Gibson and Fender’s signature craftsmanship and quality declined dramatically due to changing economic circumstances, decisions to cut material costs (while keeping a high price point), and new ownership. American-made guitars had largely dominated the market in the 50s and 60s. However, the mid-70s brought in a host of new, Japanese-made guitars that (some venture to say) surpassed the quality of their US competition. These instruments had the significant benefit of looking extremely similar to the models that made Fender and Gibson household names—without the steep prices. Copycats collectively became known as “Lawsuit Guitars.”

In 1977, Gibson sued Ibanez’s US distributor Elger Co. in Philadelphia for trademark infringement, seeking to protect their signature headstock design. The case was never heard, as the two companies reached a private settlement outside of court in 1978. Ibanez ceased production of their lawsuit guitars outright, and instead focused on existing original designs that were gaining popularity; the 80s saw the rise of shredding and increasing trends for features that would augment speed and playability over the traditional Gibson/Fender designs. In catering to these niche preferences, Ibanez established itself as an original guitar manufacturer in its own right.

The Allure of a Lawsuit Guitar

What appears to be a literal manifestation of legal issues to some is precisely what makes lawsuit guitars by Ibanez—and other Japanese manufacturers like Bunny, Greco, Tokai, and Takamine—so special. Examples include a quirky sans serif font that looks suspiciously like the Gibson logo, the styling of Bunny’s “Super Grade” guitar to spell out “Les Paul” (or “Luper Grade”), and even the absence of serial numbers. Most importantly, the economic benefit of purchasing a vintage/used, high-quality guitar at a fraction of the price speaks for itself.

A fascinating circumstance where the copycat takes on a new life of its own, indeed.

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