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. Its part of a cerebral sifting process, tied to selective
remembrances. Ford Mustangs, yes. Pintos, not so much. The mind, after all,
cant actually remember pain - other than conceptually - and thats
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. Theyll further pay the price, often dear, to ride that time
Enter Yamaha acoustic guitars the offerings from the late 60s to those
that made their debut in the early to mid 70s, in particular. Theyre
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,
Ive been long familiar with Yamahas 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 Ive 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 Ive 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
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
havent 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, its 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
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 Browns
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.
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
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 Id 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,
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
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.
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
it was time to change out the stock plastic saddle with something better.
A realizable improvement could be had, I knew. Ive done it several
times before. But something just came together in this instance that blew
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, didnt 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
isnt 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
its 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 didnt have to squint
their ears to hear it. Your mileage may vary, but I was just this side
of drop-jawed. I certainly wasnt 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).
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
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
falling into perfect alignment. Its the best that I
can describe it. And in Drop-D tuning, its 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, its a go-to
guitar, whereby Id pull it from the rack before a Martin in several
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 anothers 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.