Collecting Vintage Pawnshop Guitars

By Bob Cianci

Let’s look at funky “pawnshop” guitars, and focus our attention to Asian and Italian manufacturers, where “funky” takes on a whole new level of meaning. American designs were tame compared to some of these “works of art.” Did you ever see the Teisco guitar with a monkey grip handle? Or, how about an Italian beauty from EKO with lots of Veg-O-Matic switches and a plastic covered body? Read on.

Kingston Electric

For many collectors, the name Teisco or Teisco-Del-Ray first comes to mind when the subject of low budget ‘60’s guitars comes up. After The Beatles and their contemporaries created a worldwide demand for electric guitars, Japan, which had become industrialized again after the end of World War II, concentrated on lower end guitars, aimed squarely at the beginner and intermediate market. Teisco stands for Tokyo Electric Instrument and Sound Company, and produced guitars and amplifiers from 1948 until 1969, when they were acquired by Kawai, who still owns the trademark. Teisco instruments were sold under numerous names, such as Kingston, Kent, Kimberly, Belton, Duke, Norma, Heit, Encore, Jedson, Lyle, and many others. Musical instrument distributors would place an order and put their own chosen brand name on the headstock, something Teisco was quite happy to do. I can’t help but think there’s a woman named Kimberly out there today who secretly hides the fact that a line of guitars was named after her. Dad made sure his baby was immortalized.

Teisco-made guitars feature numerous body shapes and styles, but most of them were modeled after Fender products, including the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster and Jaguar, although one will also see features taken from Gibson, Hagstrom and EKO and Vox guitars as well. The Japanese, always clever copyists, changed a few things here and there so the guitars weren’t direct copies, but it’s pretty easy to spot the similarities. Teisco guitars are usually characterized as having numerous switches and control knobs, and most frequently, single coil, unpotted, low output pickups. There’s no getting around the fact that these were cheaply made instruments, and many of them featured necks of varying shapes and sizes without truss rods (the necks usually warp, of course). Despite their low end character, hundreds of thousands of Teisco and Teisco/Kawai-made guitars have survived.

Kingston Sorrento Swinger

Collectors often prefer the more oddball Teisco examples, such as the Spectrum 5 and the artist palette-shaped May Queen, both of which now fetch prices in the thousands. Your standard Teisco models however, are still bargains, and are easily obtainable just about everywhere, especially on eBay, where they abound, although some rarer models are now bringing higher dollars. Scanning a guitar forums’ classified section the other night, I came across a Teisco/Heit for a mere $99 or best offer! I paid $189 for my Kingston one pickup screamer, with an intact whammy bar, and the biggest baseball bat neck in existence, and it’s a great slide guitar that I gig with all the time. If Hound Dog Taylor was still with us, I’m sure he’d agree, because he also used Kingston guitars, purchased at Sears. Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Jackson Browne, and James Iha, formerly of Smashing Pumpkins, are all Teisco fans, and Jim Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Eddie Van Halen have played the Spectrum 5, thereby driving the price up on that model. Teisco’s six string baritone guitar (also called a six string bass), the ET-320, was played by bassist Vern Miller in his Boston band, The Remains, from 1964-66. Today, they are as rare as hen’s teeth. Indeed, I have never seen one.

In addition to Teisco, there were several other smaller guitar factories in Japan. This collector owns an offset bodied, two pickup electric with a six-in-line headstock that features no makers’ name. The fellow who sold it to me, an expert on vintage Japanese guitars, hadn’t a clue who built made it, but it’s clearly not a Teisco.

Moving now to Southern Europe, Italy had been known as the world’s leading manufacturers of accordions, and to a lesser extent, stringed instruments and cymbals. After the Beat Boom hit in 1964, Italian manufacturers, realizing that accordions were hopelessly out of style, turned their attention to electric guitars. The leading Italian guitar maker of the day was EKO (pronounced “echo”), a company started by Oliviero Pigini in 1959 in Recanati. EKO guitars were of a higher quality than their Japanese counterparts, and were most frequently exported to the USA, England and Australia, by the LoDuca Brothers of Milwaukee, Rose-Morris and Rose, respectively. EKO also made Vox guitars after the English Vox company ceased guitar production.

EKO 500V4 Silver

EKO instruments were often covered with plastic covered bodies (accordion makers had lots of plastic lying around, after all), sometimes three or four pickups, and numerous switches and knobs. The 500-V4 in my collection features a white “mother of toilet seat” covered body, a comfortable neck painted black, and four low power, microphonic pickups, each with eighteen small pole pieces! If you crank this baby up too loud, it squeals, but it’s a fun guitar to play with a look and sound all its own, and I have gigged it on rare occasions. With a little TLC by my Italian/American guitar tech, Tony Marchatelli, it plays just fine.

Another EKO oddball is the Rokes model, a rocket-shaped solidbody that was made famous by the English expatriate rock band The Rokes, who recorded the original version of “Let’s Live For Today,” a hit for them in Europe, and big seller for The Grass Roots stateside. Interestingly, EKO’s best selling export guitars were their Ranger 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars, which are fairly plentiful. Vintage EKO electrics are starting to climb in price, so now is the time to buy.

Italy also produced numerous other electric guitars in the ’60’s, with names like Crucianelli, Gemelli, Meazzi, Zero Sette, Bartolini, Galanti, and the infamous Wandre guitars, the brainchild of Bohemian conceptual artist, Wandre Pioli. Most of Italy’s guitar factories were located in the town of Castelfidardo, including Wandre. If you Google Wandre guitars, you will be amazed at the strange globular shapes, styles and colors of the instruments. Wandre guitars are like nothing else produced back then, and are highly prized items these days that fetch prices much higher than their Japanese counterparts. American roots rock and Americana guitar player Buddy Miller owns several Wandre Les Paul shaped solidbodies that he uses all the time. He paid $75 apiece for them in, where else? A pawnshop!

For more information on Japanese and Italian vintage guitars, visit teiscotwangers.com and fetishguitars.com.