The story of Kiso Suzuki guitars 1951 to 1987

by Chris Wynne

I have been making guitars for some thirty years and playing music for almost forty. In that time l progressed from the long-haired teenager in the late ’70s, trying to impress my first real girlfriend with woeful Neil Young covers to making and teaching people how to make guitars for a living. Over the years I’ve studied, performed and recorded music, with opportunities to travel and meet great people in the industry along the way. I learned the importance of knowing the history and evolution of guitar-making; the people and guitar companies each have their own story to tell. I recently had the opportunity to meet two great men — Hara-san and Tabata-san — artisans who worked for the Kiso Suzuki guitar-making company in Japan from 1951 until it closed its doors in 1987.

“The valley of the kings” came to mind as my train wove through the lush green mountains that surround the valley leading to the small town of Kiso in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan. Changing direction every few seconds, the train rocked me like a newborn, bringing calmness to my mind. Kiso is a small town in a region with no more than 14,000 people, with a history that dates back to the Edo period in the 16th Century, when the Tokugawa family ruled most of Japan. Kiso was of importance as it was one of five checkpoints that travelers had to go through, as we do with a passport when we travel. Travelers paid a fee to travel on a walking trail that would lead them to the Edo (Tokyo) to trade. Kiso was also a town rich in the forest industry. The beauty of the forests l passed through on my way here is represented in the town’s temples and buildings that showcase local craftsmanship spanning hundreds of years.

When the train pulled up I was greeted by the first of many wonderful people l would meet on my journey and an air of calmness. No one hurried, people moved in and out of shops with a quietness that reminded me of the strength of the surrounding mountains. It is as if the mountains evoked safety, protecting Kiso from what lies beyond … the modern world. The reason for my trip to Kiso was to speak to two men who worked for Kiso Suzuki Guitars — a violin and guitar-making company that began producing instruments in 1887. Now in their 80’s, Hara-san and Tabata-san are amongst the last surviving people who worked in the factory. Born and raised in Kiso, they worked at the factory for most of their lives. As a guitar-maker, l have always been interested in past influences on guitar making; these two gentlemen are part of that history.

We’d planned to meet at a community center in the town, which, many years before, had been a school for the local children. It is now used to run classes in textiles, cooking, and other activities. On the day of my visit, there were no classes running. The floors creaked as I entered the former school, and it smelled of wood. As I walked to where we set up the interview in the former woodworking room, I imagined the laughter, children running up and down the hallways, the excitement that children bring to learning. Hara-san and Tabata-san sat on one side of a small, old workbench with a guitar placed in front of them, quietly talking to each other. Alone in the room, the two men looked as though they’d been held in class by their teacher for misbehaving rather than waiting to talk to me about the great history of Kiso Suzuki Guitars.

I was introduced to Hara-san and Tabata-san through my interpreter, Takashi Yamada, who is in charge of the inbound tourism from overseas to Kiso. People say you can sometimes tell how a person has lived by how they have aged, through the story-lines on faces and hands. Although our languages were worlds apart, we connected through a shared understanding of the art of instrument making and music. Hara-san appeared physically strong; at 80 years of age, he still works on small projects at home. Four years older, Tabata-san seemed frail and tired. After the interview, I found out that he had been unwell for a number of years. As we sat down l was quick to notice the beautiful guitar in front of me and I immediately wanted to pick it up and play. After the introductions were made, I was surprised by Hara-san and Tabata-san’s interest in my guitar-making and use of Australian woods. l began by asking them if they played guitar — neither of them did. Hara-san said that he played a little harmonica, but Tabata-san did not play an instrument.

Masakichi Suzuki began the first Suzuki violin making company in 1887. He quickly established a reputation for making very good instruments. He was also the first person to open a company mass- producing violins in the world. Passionate about making a range of instruments, Suzuki made a few guitars in the early 1900s. I asked Tabata-san and Hara-san why Suzuki turned to making guitars in 1951, after establishing a world market for making high-quality violins and cellos? The two men sat, talking quietly in the otherwise empty room, discussing a question that they had possibly never been asked before. Hara-san answered with gestures, pointing to the guitar on the table. He tapped the soundboard, pointing at the strings and the fretboard as if to awaken the answer from within the guitar itself. He said that Masakichi’s son visited the Kiso factory in the late 1940s and encouraged them to make guitars. That son was Shinichi Suzuki — the man who created the world-renowned Suzuki method of teaching music. Shinichi had spent a number of years in Kiso during wartime helping in the factory. At the time his job was mainly logging Cypress wood to send to the Suzuki factory in Nagoya, where the timber was used for ship and plane parts for the war. He had also worked for more than twenty years in his father’s first factory, in Nagano. As a young man, Shinichi worked for his father and taught himself how to play the violin. He learned to play by listening to any recordings he could get his hands on. He played to the workers in the evenings by the light of slow- burning oil lanterns. As both a musician and craftsman, Shinichi understood what was needed to make fine instruments, and that the climate in Kiso was suitable for guitar-making.

After the war people were rebuilding lives and countries. It was a time of rapid change. The 1950s ushered in a type of music no one had ever heard before — the beginnings of rock and roll. America was at the forefront of musical change, with artists like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bill Haley. Driven by the guitar, their music played a part in helping people get on with their lives. It was easy to travel with a guitar, to learn a few chords and have friends over for music nights. Kiso Suzuki realized that rock and roll was powerful and that if they were serious about producing guitars, they needed to send workers to America to listen to popular music. They needed to study how to make guitars and find out what types were popular.

Hara-san and Tabata-san said that they had never seen or even heard a guitar until they started building them at the Kiso factory. Suzuki identified Martin and Gibson —two big American companies — as builders of great instruments that they could learn from. They quickly produced good guitars for the world market, mainly exporting back to the USA. Hara-san said he worked on fretboards — making up to 300 a day — whereas Tabata-san continued to work on mandolins and cellos. They would work from 10.00am until 7.00pm each day, six days a week, with no break. At times up to 170 people worked in the factory, and up to 50% of the employees were women.

Suzuki mostly made Folk and Classical Guitars, subcontracting some guitar parts to be made in other factories in the area before assembling them at the Kiso Suzuki factory. After a final inspection, the guitars were then exported overseas. Very few solid tonewood guitars were made; most of the materials used were laminated woods. They had no custom makers and there were no luthiers who could build every part of a guitar. Everyone had a job, a job they did very well. ‘’We’re proud of what we did,” said Hara-san.
1960 was the year that mass production really began in Kiso. Producing up to 4000 guitars a year, most of the guitars that went overseas were laminates. They frequently used Linden, Maple, Rosewood, Spruce, and Cedar for the soundboards as they were less likely to crack during the exporting process. Some models had solid tops as Suzuki was always looking to improve the sound and workmanship of each guitar. Both men said that no instrument — mandolin or guitar — was ever returned because of issues with sound quality; instruments were only returned because they were damaged during transporting or everyday wear. The guitars they exported to the USA created so much interest that they had some very good guitarists and companies like Martin and Gibson visit the Kiso factory to see their guitar production. A remarkable achievement, given that this was a Japanese company that had never seen let alone built a guitar until 1951.
Tabata-san says that most of their work was done by hand without machines and that they worked well together, as people in Japanese culture do. So my next question to both men is about what happened that closed the factory down in 1987? Hara-san shook his head as if in disappointment about the factory closure. He said they were “trying to make too many different styles of guitars.” They tried to cover too much of the market instead of concentrating on fewer designs. Hara-san left two to three years before they closed the factory, and said he “could see it coming by the quality of materials they were using.’’ They were using materials that were “cheaper, not as good,” he said. Tabata-san wasn’t as aware of the issues, as the cellos and mandolins he was making were still being crafted from good quality materials and continued to sell well. Tabata-san worked for Suzuki right up until the factory closed.

When Suzuki guitars closed there were still up to 100 people working in the Kiso factory. The impact was huge in such a small community. It happened very quickly and while the old factory still stands, it is now an amusement venue. Both men went on working with their hands, making other wooden things such as tables and other furniture — but never another musical instrument. Hara-san and Tabata-san brought a couple of their own guitars along to the interview, a 1961 folk guitar and what looked like a copy of a Martin D28. The guitar that had been laying on the desk between us was the 1961 folk guitar that belonged to Tabata-san. While we had been talking, there were times when l couldn’t take my eyes off it; I tried to remember every detail of the beautiful instrument. l finally asked if l could play it. I have been a luthier for more than 30 years and it was one of the nicest guitars I’ve ever played, with a rich, beautiful tone. I didn’t want to put it down. As l played, Takashi- san told me the guitar had not been played for more than seven years. Hara-san and Tabata-san smiled as they heard the guitar, made in 1961, come to life again. It was a wonderful expression of the universal language of music. I then asked if l could loosen the strings and feel inside the soundboard to feel the bracing pattern and the design of the struts. It had a traditional seven fan bracing pattern, nothing different from what makers would do today. The workmanship was clean and tidy; the attention to detail in this a well-made guitar is reflected in the sound quality.

The Kiso violin guitar factory was an important part of life for Hara-san and Tabata-san and so many others in Kiso. It is unlikely they will ever fully grasp the impact their work had on the world of music. When Hara-san and Tabata-san are about to leave, Takashi-san mentions to them that there’s another reason for my trip to Kiso — to open up a guitar-making school in Kiso in 2018. The school will bring the art of guitar making back to the region, reawakening sounds and memories for these two artisans and for the people of Kiso — that have lain silent for more than thirty years.

Both men thought that the idea was wonderful. As the woods for the guitars will be sourced from the mountains in the area, it will bring work for the people of Kiso. It will also promote tourism, showcasing the beauty of Kiso and its rich history of instrument-making.
When these two great men left the room after we said our goodbyes, I was again reminded of the impression that they had been kept in after class. They left quietly with their guitars and with my most gracious thanks. l later had the opportunity to speak to some of the people of Kiso who had once owned or still own a Kiso Suzuki guitar. I met one man who remembered going to the factory itself and sitting in a small room where he was shown three guitars. He chose to keep one built in 1967. I had the great pleasure of playing the beautiful-sounding classical guitar … fifty years later. I spoke to them about the guitar making school and what it might mean for this small community; teaching people from Kiso and from all around the world, carrying on the legacy of Kiso Suzuki guitars. The response was positive. One of the first students l will teach is a man whose family goes back 24 generations in Kiso. He is a very proud man who does not play or make guitars but is a very skilled woodcraft artisan. After more than thirty years, this is where the rebirth of Kiso guitars will begin — through his hands and many others from Kiso and around the world.

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