An Old


In more recent times, that which came before is increasingly revered. This has been true of any age. And this day, too, will be romanticized at some future date. It’s part of a cerebral sifting process, tied to selective remembrances. Ford Mustangs, yes. Pintos, not so much. The mind, after all, can’t actually remember pain - other than conceptually - and that’s a good thing, too. It, instead, leaves us with the fragrances, stored in memory for a future encounter, that trigger the fondest of recollections.

And there are those who were not yet born when the scents were sweet, but have since heard of them, now wishing to experience the aromatic air of previous periods. They’ll further pay the price, often dear, to ride that time machine …

Enter Yamaha acoustic guitars – the offerings from the late 60s to those that made their debut in the early to mid 70s, in particular. They’re discussed and savored like fine wine, with labels and vintages. Red Labels. Black Labels. The Nippon Gakki vineyards. Those cultivated in yet other regions.

As a longtime owner of a Yamaha FG-140 ‘Red Label’ – the first real guitar I purchased for myself, with former hand-me-downs set aside, I’ve been long familiar with Yamaha’s ‘special qualities’ emanating from what was a $100 guitar, back when -- now fetching up to five times its original price. But after some Martin guitar acquisitions, the Yamaha would be somewhat foolishly dismissed as being a lesser instrument. Certainly a cheaper one.

It would be my renewed and accidental familiarization with the newer Yamaha acoustics that revived my interest. And, with a research tool not available in the days of ‘Red Labels’ – the Internet – I came to learn that the old, laminated Yamahas were now revered as both collectibles, as well as serious instruments for those who wished to extend their sonic palette beyond – if not above – the predictable choices of Martin, Taylor, or Gibson.

With this, an intellectual curiosity took hold, prompting me to revisit the old Yamahas with a more matured ear, relative to my childhood with an aural prowess, less discriminating.

Finding the Upside-Down, Dyslexic Orphan …

It would be in this time of renewed interest that I would come across a Yamaha FG-160 acoustic steel string guitar as a compliment and comparative example to the somewhat older – and generally more revered – FG-140 ‘Red Label’. Following a fair amount of tweaking and analysis, I elected to focus this article on the newer FG-160 acquisition for two reasons – one controversial: Simply stated, the ‘lesser’ FG-160 turned out to sound somewhat better than its FG-140 forebear in many of its parameters. Secondly, the FG-160 was an easier guitar for many people to find – and generally costs significantly less than the legendary ‘Red Labels’. There are, indeed, exceptions out there. As of this date, the high price I’ve seen on an FG-160 ‘Black Label’ was $575 in ‘okay’ condition, as seen in a music store specializing in classic instruments. As for me, my ‘160 Sample’ would be all of $110, with a cosmetically tattered, hard-shell case …

Upon first inspecting the 160 prospect, my initial assessment was that it was one of the quirkiest guitars I had ever graced my fingers across. Perhaps not the most idiosyncratic of all, as I’ve also encountered guitars that had stencils of cowboys and horses on the front soundboard, but certainly strange – unlike anything I had recollected among the classic Yamaha offerings.

But within the space of one minute, I finally realized that the saddle was mounted backwards (or upside-down), as if the guitar had been set up for a left-handed player, but still strung for the right-hander. That would tend to explain my initial response. In addition, the bronze strings were seemingly from the Bronze Age, itself ... well, except for the ‘B’ string that was missing in its entirety. Still, for a lousy $110, this guitar would find a more caring home: Mine.

It was, indeed, a ‘Black Label’ issue from 1976, produced in Taiwan. More specifically, it was an FG-160-1 (dash-one). One source proclaims this series to be ‘”a return to the Red Label standards”, but I haven’t been able to verify this anywhere else. Many believe that the renowned high build quality belonged exclusively to the previous, original ‘Red Labels’ from the late 60s to early 70s, produced in Japan. But, in truth, it’s very unlikely that Yamaha would have let its caliber slip to such a purported degree so soon after their guitars had just caught on in The States, with a high degree of success. It may be true that the initial production runs of the Taiwanese guitars may have had issues as Yamaha was overcoming an initial learning curve in a new factory (with new workers). If true, this may have led to negative impressions at the time. But by 1976, these were likely sorted out. Or perhaps the reported distinctions were folklore all along, not based on objectivity, other than the country of origin.

In any event, aside from a change in wood selection for the neck, the actual build quality proved to be virtually identical to my FG-140, Japanese ‘Red Label’. More significantly, after a proper setup – with some anal-retentive tweaking – the FG-160 would overtake my highly-esteemed ‘Red Label’ 140 … This appraisal is naturally subjective – as well as provisional, so read on …

The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree …

Upon opening the case at home, I inspected the guitar closely – something made more difficult by the layers upon layers of grime all over its neglected body and dehydrated fret board. With this, I used several passes of lighter fluid that kept my cleaning cloths coming up grey and brown … until there was no more toxic debris to be mined. Amazingly, the finish underneath was in exceptionally good condition, if with just the slightest hint of haze. The strings were off by now, naturally, and the fret board was cleaned with several passes of ‘0000’ steel wool. The frets, themselves, still had plenty of meat and there was virtually no wear on the board, down near the nut, just before the head. The wood of the fret board was, indeed, dry and grayish in appearance. It would tend to this later. For now, I just wanted a completely clean board and frets, requiring virtually no dressing or re-crowning. With clean wood and finish all around, I buffed up the finish with microfiber cloths and a jar of ‘Guitar Finish Restore Plus’ that had previously been given to me for review.

With this much done, I was reminded of the tree in ‘A Charlie Brown’s Christmas’. The neglected and seemingly unloved had now begun to glow, seemingly thankful for the efforts. At a later date, I would re-stain the fret board with ‘Sedona Red’, using a fine steel wool to remove any excess and then carefully removed even the smallest build-up at the frets. The stain would also be carefully removed from the pearl fret markers almost immediately after application. For those of you following at home, do this with patience and care – or not at all. In any event, I then added some nourishment to the board with virgin olive oil.

A little further down the road (after all of the setup and tweaking), I would ultimately change out the original tuning machines with a new set of gears – the same ones found on current Yamahas. This requires extreme care, in truth, as one needs to enlarge the holes in the head stock to accommodate the newer gears. If you use a standard twist drill mounted to your Black & Decker, you will regret it as you split the head … so don’t! I do believe that Waverly makes a set of gears that fit into the original apertures. Otherwise, let a trained luthier do this for you, please – as simple of an operation it may seem to be. Or simply keep the original gears unless they have a little too much slop. The originals are, indeed, entirely serviceable – if often somewhat pitted after so many years. (The photograph to the right shows the original gears) ...

But I Digress …

Before devoting so much attention to the cosmetics and swapping out the tuning machines, I had to see if such efforts were justified. For this, I roughly adjusted the neck (with the original Yamaha wrench I found in the case). It really needed this adjustment. And the saddle, ‘riding backwards’, was naturally set in the right direction. This, knowing that I’d likely be changing out the saddle entirely. These basic procedures were performed as establishing a ‘start point’ to be refined in the days ahead – if deemed worthwhile after initial evaluation.

After loading a new set of strings, as one might expect, the guitar was now playing much better than it did at our introduction. It was, in short, as I had always remembered these Yamahas as a kid – only somewhat better, somehow …

I had long dismissed those who proclaimed their old Yamahas of laminated construction improved with age – a phenomenon generally reserved for solid wood construction. Often, ‘Red Label’ owners contend that their spruce tops are made of solid wood – even though Yamaha, themselves, have long indicated otherwise, citing their FG-365s of 1977 as the first solid top of the FG series, outside of their notably rare handmade models that were forerunners to the later ‘L’ series ...

... from Yamaha's own literature, indicating 1977 as the year of the first FG solid tops ...

It should be noted that the hole-cutters (saws) that Yamaha employed would often leave marks at the sound hole that could look very much like a continuous run of grain. But at some point in that circumference, no matter how small, the truth will generally be revealed: Laminated construction.

In any event, without being able to rapidly transport myself back in time for a truly valid A-B comparison, there does seem to be ‘something there’ to the notion of old laminated Yamahas improving in time. They shouldn’t … but they seemingly have. I read someone ascribing it to “some sort of Ninja Voodoo magic that Yamaha must perform”. In any event, whether by design with a secret recipe – or mere happenchance, Yamaha somehow came up with something that defied conventional wisdom. After all, the very glues used to sandwich the laminated layers together should impede the ripening of the grapes and the aging of the wine. Go figure.

Bridge to Somewhere: The Unexpected Wow Factor …

But my initial setup encouraged me to go further. And in that endeavor, I made a sizeable improvement that I was totally unprepared for … Yes, it was time to change out the stock plastic saddle with something better. A realizable improvement could be had, I knew. I’ve done it several times before. But something just came together in this instance that blew me away … On this particular evening, I was out of bone saddles at the house. That would be the common upgrade. But I did have some ‘TUSQ’ compensated saddles laying around. With that at hand, I filed and sanded one to fit the Yamaha. The original stock was a little short in the slot, top to bottom (but that, in itself, didn’t matter). More significantly, I sanded it for a very snug fit in the bridge slot in the sound hole to bridge pin direction. That is, no wobble at all, side to side. The fit required something short of mallet navigation, but did require a very firm thumb press (assuring that the saddle fully hit bottom in the bridge slot). This is the way I normally fit saddles. For vibrational transmission to the bridge isn’t just at the bottom of the saddle -- as many fixate on, exclusively -- but to the sides, as well. Arguably, there can be a larger point of contact to the sides, depending upon the particulars.

After restringing the guitar and playing for just a few seconds, there was an immediate sense of ‘wow’. This, quite a bit beyond any saddle swap I had ever done before, either with bone or TUSQ. In this particular instance, the TUSQ saddle transformed this acoustic in a way I had never experienced in the past. I know – many gravitate toward bone because it’s regarded as being more esoteric than the man-made TUSQ. But, in this case, the TUSQ proved to be an exceptionally fine match for this particular guitar (more than the bone I tried at a later date, in fact). It was, in a word, stunning. The guitar simply opened up in a way I had never heard in a classic, laminated Yamaha – and one didn’t have to ‘squint their ears’ to hear it. Your mileage may vary, but I was just this side of drop-jawed. I certainly wasn’t expecting it – not to such a degree. This $100 guitar, while distinct in its own character – sounding unlike more revered names – was now sounding remarkably high-end. And yes, it had overtaken the more cherished ‘Red Label’ 140 (outfitted with a bone saddle, long before).

With this, I simply refined the action for improvements in playability, without sacrificing the sound I had achieved. Exercising careful and incremental turns of the truss rod, I had what I was after – with some adjustment room still remaining for the future, without the need for a tedious neck reset.

The guitar would no longer be a mere ‘wall-hanger’ in my media room. I knew it would be a go-to guitar for particular tracks. Yet, which ones? This thing was magnificently suited for, say, Pete Townsend acoustic-rock aggression … while also being so rich and chime-like in the finger-picking context. It could easily be argued that a Martin D18 is somehow more balanced and clinically correct, up and down the scale, but this Yamaha could still be cited as being ‘more interesting’ – perhaps, more engaging. To consider it in the hyper-analytic, on a string-to string and note-to-note basis, one might consider it as a six-string series of imperfect planets … falling into perfect alignment. It’s the best that I can describe it. And in ‘Drop-D’ tuning, it’s to die for …

In fact, in many respects the sound is so textured and complex, it could get in the way of a vocal or yet other instruments if not deftly mixed amidst the ensemble. It certainly has a ‘stand out’ sound that commands attention. But again, for those acoustic rock flourishes, it’s a go-to guitar, whereby I’d pull it from the rack before a Martin in several instances.

In the end, the guitar turned out better than my recollections of the same model as a kid. I had a Yamaha FG-140 Red Label, while my musical partner at that time, Doug Adams, was poised with an FG-160 (‘Green Label’ that looked more tan in character, actually). I remember Doug once commenting that he thought my 140 sounded a little better than his own. Oddly, I thought that his 160 was a little richer. It was some time later that I figured out that we were accustomed to hearing one another’s guitars from the front, as intended. Our own guitars – the ones that we were actually playing – were respectively listened to off-axis. Duh.

In any event, when properly set up – and with a change in saddle – this classic Yamaha is certainly worth the relatively small investment – in any age, at any time.


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