Dude...it's a Lawsuit Ibanez!

Lawsuit!  Lawsuit!  Anyone who cruises eBay looking for old Ibanez guitars quickly finds the word “lawsuit”.  Like many words in our society, this one is oft used, seldom understood.  Find an old Ibanez that is a copy of another, more familiar guitar? Clearly a “lawsuit”!  I have seen guitars go for much more than they are actually worth simply because the purchaser has fallen for the hype or actually didn't know what constitutes a "lawsuit" model.  Here is my attempt to clear up an urban legend, and, in the words of Chuck D., “Don’t believe the hype.”

In 1954, Harry Rosenbloom opened a music store called Medley Music in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, just northwest of Philadelphia. The country was in the post-World War II music boom, and guitars were very popular. As the store grew Mr. Rosenbloom was having trouble getting product.  For example, the waiting list for new Martin guitars was reportedly over three years..

Mr. Rosenbloom decided to start a guitar manufacturing business to solve his inventory problem. The Martin guitar factory was located about 70 miles from his store in Nazareth, PA, and his goal was to exceed their quality.  He formed a new company called Elger Guitars, named for his children Ellen and Gerson.  He made the first few instruments himself in 1959, but quickly realized the challenges of producing sufficient quantities of guitars.  He brought in a German master violin maker named Karl Muller. Karl and his brother, Georg, led a small team of craftsman who designed and built the Elger Guitars in a workshop in nearby Ardmore, Pennsylvania. They continued to hand-build exceptional quality instruments until about 1964.

In 1964/65 Mr. Rosenbloom decided to stop production of the hand-made instruments and begin importing guitars instead.  In a stroke of remarkable insight -- and 90’s style outsourcing -- Elger Guitars chose to become the exclusive North American distributors for the Hoshino Gakki Gen Company, a Japanese instrument manufacturer.

Remember that back in the 60’s Made in Japan still had a negative connotation. In my opinion, Mr. Rosenbloom understood this, and chose a decidedly non-Japanese name for the guitars. Hoshino had just bought a small Spanish guitar company named Ibanez and would use this as their product name.  Interestingly, the last Elgers (1965 to about 1970) are all Japanese-made (and indicate that on their labels) and are actually quite close in design to what was to become the Ibanez line of the 1970's.

In 1971, Hoshino bought Elger Guitars, regaining the North American distribution rights, and changed the name to "Ibanez USA".  Hoshino did maintain Elger's Pennsylvania facilities to check incoming shipments and correct any flaws prior to shipping merchandise out to their dealers. It is also my understanding that the serial numbers were actually placed on the guitars in the USA when that practice started.

Having started as a relatively unknown and low-budget Japanese guitar brand, Ibanez discovered the way to success around 1970 when they started making copies of well-known American guitars like Gibson, Fender and Rickenbacker. They did a good job: the guitars were good copies, at least from a visual point of view.  Non-Free Traders take note: they were able to make these guitars affordable due to cheaper materials and labor, coupled with a higher level of automation when compared to their American counterparts.   Mr. Rosenbloom figured it out early: make a guitar that “looks” great and similar to a “big name” guitar and people will buy it. This is precisely the phenomenon we see with today’s Epiphones.

Before we get too sentimental we must remember that when you inspect some of the earlier guitars that the construction was not completely accurate and faithful to the originals. Most of the Les Paul copies had bolt-on necks and multi-piece, plywood tops. Routings for electronics and wiring were pretty rough in a manner similar to today’s Indonesian guitars. But Ibanez got very popular because young guitarists that could not afford a Gibson or a Fender could buy a guitar that offered a good balance between price and quality...and looked professional!

On June 28, 1977, Norlin, the parent company of Gibson, filed a lawsuit against Elger (Ibanez) in Philadelphia Federal District Court .  The case was "Gibson Vs. Elger Co." with Gibson claiming trademark infringement based on the duplicate "open book" or "moustache" headstock design of the Ibanez copies.  Allegedly Gibson had threatened to sue Elger/Ibanez for a long time regarding the use of the headstock which Norlin claimed as a Gibson trademark.  Ironically, by the fall of 1976 Ibanez had redesigned their headstocks to look much like those found Guild guitars. The new headstock design even appeared in the 1976 catalog!  So, conspiracy theorists, by the time the lawsuit was actually filed, the headstocks had already been changed.  While "lawsuit" head generally means a Gibson copy headstock, the Ibanez headstock at the time of the lawsuit was actually a copy of a Guild headstock. It is an urban legend that the Gibson/Norlin lawsuit was filed against a number of Japanese companies. It is also commonly held it was over the exact copying of American designs. Neither of these urban legends are true.


This is what the headstocks looked like pre-lawsuit.   Note the "open book" or "moustache" cut that was the same as Gibson's headstock.

This is the post-lawsuit headstock.  Note that it looks almost exactly like a Guild headstock.

This headstock change came shortly after Ibanez introduced serial numbers. There might be a few “lawsuits” with a serial number dating from November/ December 1975, but most of them will not have a serial number.

Reportedly other companies like St. Louis Music (Electra), whose guitars were made in Japan by Hoshino, offered to help with the suit. To end the action, Ibanez made an out-of-court settlement with Norlin and agreed to stop copying the Gibson headstock and using similar names for their instruments.

The quality of Ibanez guitars increased rapidly during this period. Many set-neck copies like the Model 2459 Destroyer, an Explorer copy and its Flying V counterpart, the Rocket Roll Sr., we pretty decent guitars, but probably weren't as good as the Gibson/Norlin guitars of the era. The big jazz boxes and the ES-335 copies were very well made, but probably weren't up to Gibson standards.  The first models introduced after the agreement were the Performers, Les Pauls with the Telecaster-like cutaway, and the tulip headstock.  Quickly thereafter followed the Studios and Musicians.

In February 1978 Ibanez officially stopped making copies and headed to the next level. They started cranking out their great original designs such as the Artist Series and the Iceman.  I used to play a 1978 Paul Stanley Iceman -- an incredible guitar that I wish I still had. We still look at the late 70’s Artists with maple tops on eBay.  In our collective opinion they were as good as the Gibsons of the day.  We all remember the Bob Weir Artists...with all of those knobs!  The ads for that one were really cool; Bob standing there behind a mic with what looked like a prototype -- with five volume knobs in a sort-of pentagon shape!  A good friend of ours, Keith Gray, sold Ibanez guitars back in the 70's and 80's, and the guitars were just great.  In retrospect, it is probably a good thing that the lawyers got involved!

So there you have it – beware of the “lawsuit” line, and don't believe the hype!  As always...be careful what you buy on eBay!


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