Today we pretty much take it for granted that if you want an inexpensive guitar, you’re going to buy one made in Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Indonesia, China, maybe even India. And you have to admit that, for the price, what we get is pretty darned good. In fact, these days, where a product is made is almost irrelevant to the consumer. We’re in a global economy; McLuhan’s global village instantaneously connected with e-mail.
Now, youngsters, take note. This wasn’t always the case. Indeed, from the middle of the 19th Century until the 1960s, inexpensive guitars were the province of American mass manufacturers with names such as Haynes, Lyon & Healy, Regal, Stewart, Oscar Schmidt, Harmony, Stromberg-Voisinet, Kay, Valco, and the United Guitar Company. How did we arrive at our current state of affairs, and who is responsible?
“How” is a long, interesting discussion that covers most of the last century or two and that we’ll have some other time. “Who” is a little easier. While there may have been a handful of intrepid pioneers who began developing international guitar manufacturing, it’s no exaggeration to say that no one has had a bigger impact on the globalization of guitars than Mr. Jack Westheimer – one of the pioneers of global guitarmaking. Among the brands associated with his activities are Kingston, Teisco, Teisco Del Rey, Silvertone, Emperador, Cortez, and Cort, not to mention a host of other monikers that have graced guitars coming from the Cort factory. Even if you haven’t played one of these guitars, there’s a good chance that if you’ve ever played a decent-quality beginner import, you’ve played a guitar associated with Westheimer.
In fact, Westheimer was one of the earliest (and most influential) importers to cultivate Japanese manufacturing in the years surrounding 1960. And it was Westheimer who, along with folks like Jerry Freed and Tommy Moore, brought Korea to the point where today more than half of all guitars made in the world come from that Asian peninsula.
VG recently had the pleasure of a number of long conversations with Westheimer, and we’d like to share some of what we learned, and use the opportunity to document the brand he’s currently most associated with – Cort. Some of what you are about to read will correct previous misinformation that has been perpetuated here and by other sources.
Westheimer didn’t set out to get into the music business. It was kind of an accident. He went to college in the early 1950s and upon graduation went to work for World Wide Sporting Goods, Chicago, a company involved in the import/export trade. Shortly thereafter, Uncle Sam came knocking, and Westheimer was drafted into the Navy, where he served from 1955 to ’57. Following his hitch, he returned to the gig at World Wide. However, this career path was not to be. In 1958 the firm was sold to Lionel, the electric train outfit, and Jack was given his walking papers.
About a month and a half later, his old boss, Bill Barnet, was also given the boot, and he contacted Jack about going into business. That sounded fine to Jack, and they became partners in what would soon become Westheimer Sales Company. The only problem was they hadn’t really figured out what business to go into. It was about that time that Harry Belafonte and Caribbean music were coming on strong, so in a way you can say that Belafonte was indirectly responsible for the avalanche of Japanese guitars that was about to begin… Belafonte, whose most memorable tune was probably “Day-O,” was tangentially associated with the burgeoning folk revival gaining an audience in the late ’50s. The popularity of Belafonte, coupled, no doubt, with the somewhat related “beatnik” craze (poetry, dark sunglasses, coffee houses, and guitars), caused a surge in demand for bongo drums. Jack and his former boss decided to start a business importing hand-tunable bongos made by Pearl in Japan.
The budding bongo boom quickly expanded into importing drum kits made by Pearl. This, of course, put Jack in the right place at the right time. It became immediately apparent that a guitar boom was looming, and he had excellent connections in Japan. The problem was that Japanese guitars were fairly primitive at the time (remember Aria?). Recall that Shiro Arai brought over some higher-quality Japanese acoustics in the early ’60s, only to have them explode when subjected to winter heating systems due to inadequate seasoning of the timbers.
In any case, around 1959 Westheimer began to see enough improvement in Japanese guitar quality he thought the time right to begin importing. To assure quality, he took an approach that would later be used successfully by some other importers. He offered the guitarmakers more money if they’d improve the quality. Westheimer imposed what’s known as the 80/80 quality test, a litmus test based on Sears-Roebuck quality standards. This meant that guitars had to survive 80 percent humidity at 80o Farenheit for three to four days. Westheimer introduced the concept of a truss rod to Japanese guitarmakers. And ca. 1959, Westheimer Sales began importing Kingston acoustic guitars (made by the Terada Trading Company) from Japan.
Westheimer was not the first to import guitars from Japan, but was certainly the first significant player in this new enterprise. Westheimer recalls that some of the earliest Japanese guitars were imported by a Mr. Rose, who specialized in selling to pawn shops. Also, the St. George brand had begun before his Kingston brand. Marco Polo is another brand that got going at about this same time, certainly importing Japanese-made guitars by 1960, if not earlier. Buegeleisen and Jacobson, the big New York distributor had opened its Kent subsidiary in early 1960, but at first its focus was on microphones and guitar accessories, coming to guitars a year or so later.
Most early Kingston acoustics were humble beginner guitars, which was their intent. Few reference materials are currently available regarding these early Kingstons, so no detailed accounting is possible at this time. Westheimer recalls that they were very similar to Harmony’s Stella line, with which, of course, they were competing.
A sneak peek is provided by an undated (probably ’64) Imperial catalog. Imperial was a Chicago-area accordion manufacturer that got into guitars in ca. ’63, first selling Italian-made guitars, but quickly adding Japanese models to its rather eclectic line. Shown in this catalog (along with a Galanti Grand Prix, an Italian guitar imported by Frank Galanti, another Chicago accordion manufacturer) was a Teisco SD-4L (Imperial SW4), obtained from Westheimer, plus a guitar, mandolin, and two ukes with the Kingston brand. The guitar was the 3/4-sized Model S503 Student Guitar, clearly inspired by a Stella. This had a mahogany-shaded finish with fake flame “graining,” white pickguard, simple adjustable bridge, and stamped trapeze tailipiece. The mandolin was a flat-backed pear shape. The Model No. 16 Ukulele was made of hardwood, stained brown (with the fake flame), and a plastic fingerboard. The Model B6 Baritone Uke actually bore the Exotica brand name, but was also a Kingston and was similar to the No. 16.
One innovation Westheimer introduced to his Japanese makers was the use of a steel T-bar for reinforcing necks. In the past there was a lingering perception that many Japanese acoustics from the ’60s had bolt-on necks. In reality, most had glued-in necks. It was, as far as we know, the American Kay company that began employing bolt-on necks for some of its acoustic models in the early 1960s (so did Valco, but they were never a major factor in acoustics). In any case, the Kingstons were successful from the beginning, fuelling the growing demand for acoustic guitars as the folk revival gained steam amongst maturing babyboomers.
Westheimer and the SG
One of the more amusing anecdotes Westheimer relates is his connection to the Gibson SG. As he tells the story, there was a Gibson employee named Walter DeMarr who retired in around 1960, at age 70 or so, and moved from Kalamazoo to Chicago. Westheimer met DeMarr and hired him to do some consulting work. Westheimer was looking for a new shape for electric guitars. DeMarr, as it turns out, was in possession of a prototype for a new Gibson guitar with double cutaways, pointed horns, and a bolt-on neck. Gibson, never a bolt-neck kind of company, didn’t know how to produce the guitar. DeMarr used the basic shape of the prototype to sketch out a new design for Westheimer with more rounded horns. Jack took this design to Kawai whose Hanshu plant proceeded to produce the Kingston A2 or S2 (two pickups) and A1 or S1 (one pickup) guitars and the AB1 shortscale bass which were introduced in 1960. These were produced in both a three-and-three or a six-in-line headstock versions. They had mahogany bodies and a metal pickguard that held the pickups under the strings. Pickups were the chunky chrome-covered single-coil kind with angled corners. There was an adjustable bridge (not compensated) and a covered stop-tailpiece. The Kingston S1 was featured in the previously mentioned Imperial catalog, as was a three-pickup version of same.
In very late 1960, Gibson’s first SG-shaped Les Pauls were introduced, glued neck versions of the DeMarr prototype. So in a funny kind of way, the SG was more or less simultaneously launched in both Gibson and Kingston versions!
In late ’59 or early ’60, Westheimer also began to import Teisco electric guitars made by Teisco in Japan. These earliest Teiscos were plain Teisco-brand (not Teisco del Rey). Teisco was founded in ’46 by Hawaiian and Spanish guitarist Atswo Kaneko and electrical engineer Doryu Matsuda. Teisco was the brand name put on domestic instruments and the company was called Aoi Onpa Kenkyujo (roughly translated: Hollyhock Soundwave or Electricity Laboratories). Early Teiscos included Spanish guitars, lapsteels, and amps, the guitars frequently reflecting the influence of Gibson. In ’56, the company changed its name to Nippon Onpa Kogyo Co., Ltd., although instruments continued to be called Teisco.
By the end of the ’50s Teisco had clearly become interested in exporting guitars to the U.S. They apparently sold some to the aforementioned Mr. Rose. In any case, through his connections with Pearl and the Japanese music industry Westheimer hooked up with them and began to bring in Teiscos. By this time Teisco had begun to make the transition from its Gibson influences to a more Fender-esque styling, approaching the Jazzmaster shape. Westheimer’s Teisco imports also met with success, and were soon outstripping acoustics in sales.
Westheimer Sales invested a lot of engineering expertise into the development of Teisco guitars and by the mid ’60s their quality had grown by leaps and bounds. A number of key events converged in ’64. For one thing, the company that made Teiscos changed its name again to Teisco Co., Ltd. Also, Westheimer changed the name of the Teisco guitars he was importing to Teisco del Rey, the brand most commonly seen. And finally, the Beatles arrived and the mad rush from acoustic guitars to solidbody electrics got underway. Thus began the golden age of Teisco de Rey guitars. But not necessarily for Jack Westheimer…
Weiss Musical Instruments (W.M.I.)
The primary area of confusion surrounding the Teisco story and Jack Westheimer comes at this point and involves the complication of W.M.I., best known as the importer of Teisco del Rey guitars. The confusion is easy to understand because you have guitars coming from the Teisco factory carrying both the Teisco and Teisco de Rey brand names, and because the two importing companies involved are Westheimer Sales and W.M.I., which many of us have assumed stood for “Westheimer Musical Instruments.” Not so. Let’s sort this thing out, once and for all.
As we’ve discussed, Westheimer Sales did, indeed, pioneer the importing of Teisco guitars made by the Teisco factory in Japan. And Westheimer did, indeed, coin the Teisco del Rey name ca. ’64. However, in ’65 events transpired that separated Westheimer from the Teisco connection.
First of all, the success of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, plus the American folk rock response, collided with the first babyboomers pouring into their teen years to create a huge demand for guitars. All sorts of companies saw gold in them thar’ hills, and started snarfing up guitar-related companies. CBS bought Fender. Baldwin bought Burns, then Gretsch. Seeburg bought Kay, then Valco bought Kay. Norlin bought Gibson. Even Westheimer’s new competitor, Strum & Drum, was begun by the Sackheim family, which had cashed out of a nuts-and-bolts business and went into guitars.
In fact, even Westheimer Sales was caught in the acquisition web. Barnet, Westheimer’s partner, was interested in leaving the Chicago area for his hometown down near St. Louis and an opportunity arose for him to purchase a Volkswagen agency. As Westheimer recalls, Volkswagen franchises were goldmines in those days, requiring a minimal sales force because people were putting down deposits and waiting for their cars to arrive. Westheimer Sales had caught the eye of one of the big trading stamp companies, King Korn. This was that long-lost era when you got trading stamps at the grocery store or when you bought gas, you pasted them into little books, and when the books were full you could redeem them for stupid merchandise (S&H Green Stamps was probably best-known). Anyhow, King Korn purchased Westheimer Sales, with Westheimer installed as president and Barnet off to southern Illinois to sell VW bugs.
Another pair of fellows who also set their sights on selling guitars at this time were Sil Weindling and Barry Hornstein. Both had been involved with Hornstein Photo, a large Chicago-area multi-location wholesale and retail photography business owned by Hornstein’s father, Al. In any case, Hornstein Photo was purchased by another company and Weindling and Barry Hornstein found themselves flush with cash and looking for a new business venture. Weindling and Hornstein hooked up with an employee of Jack Westheimer’s named Sid Weiss. Weiss’ specialty was importing cellos from Germany, but he convinced Weindling and Hornstein that he had the Japanese connections to mount a guitar-importing operation. He was recruited as the front man, and in ’65, Weiss Musical Instruments (W.M.I.) was born.
Immediately thereafter, W.M.I. began importing Teisco del Rey guitars purchased from Teisco. Westheimer could have objected to the use of his brand name, but the advent of W.M.I. coincided with increasing supply problems with Teisco; i.e., Teisco was unable to supply sufficient quantities for Westheimer’s needs. Westheimer basically let the Teisco del Rey brand name go, allowing W.M.I. to market them.
According to Westheimer in an interview conducted with Dan Forte (a.k.a. Teisco Del Rey, just to keep you on your toes) in Guitar Player magazine, Westheimer and company’s concern were working on improving the quality of the instruments. The forte of W.M.I. was flash design and marketing. The fancier Teiscos with the striped metal pickguards and colorful finishes generally date from the later 1960s and were done in conjunction with W.M.I., not Westheimer.
Back at W.M.I. it quickly became apparent to Weindling and Hornstein that Weiss’ expertise was, alas, in German cellos, not Japanese electric guitars, and he was in over his head. Not long after W.M.I. was formed, Weiss left the company, leaving Weindling and Hornstein in control of the business until they sold it in 1980.
Weindling and Hornstein continued to import and market Teisco del Rey guitars until around ’72. But in ’68 the guitar boom came crashing down, and demand was finally satisfied. A number of Japanese companies went out of business. In the U.S., Valco-Kay went belly up, marking the end of America’s dominance of budget guitar manufacturing. In August ’69, the Valco/Kay assets were auctioned off and W.M.I. purchased the rights to the Kay brand name. W.M.I. began to slowly transition Teisco del Rey guitars to the Kay brand name, which gave them greater credibility with dealers. This change was completed by around ’73 and the Teisco del Rey name then disappeared. This explains why you will occasionally see a Teisco guitar with a Kay logo.
Be that as it may, this should now clear up the confusion that has hitherto surrounded Westheimer Sales Corporation, W.M.I., and the Teisco and Teisco del Rey brand names.
Several years ago Westheimer regained the rights to the Teisco del Rey name, though it is currently not in use.
After the handoff of the Teisco del Rey brand to W.M.I., Westheimer refocused his energies on the Kingston brand name, which he began to apply to acoustics and electrics in ’65. Again, few reference materials are available, so any detailed accounting of Kingston guitars is impossible, but the majority of the electric Kingstons were probably sourced from Kawai, a piano company that began making guitars around ’56, getting into solidbody electrics in the early ’60s, like everyone else.
By ’65, when Westheimer began working with them and not Teisco, Kawai was using distinctive, fairly large, chunky single-coil pickups on its electrics. Some early units were chrome-covered with angled corners. Others had chrome sides, a black plastic insert, and round, flat polepieces. The Kingston logo came in a number of forms, including as stenciled block letters, a small oval decal parallel to the nut, in a molded plastic piece of script, and sometimes molded plastic script superimposed over a kind of crown-and-shield design. Not enough is known to draw any dating conclusions from these logos.
It’s not known how much of the Kawai electric line came here as Kingstons, but both small-bodied Jazzmaster-style and inwardly pointing Burns-style double-cutaway solidbodies have been sighted. All were Kawais.
The small Fender-style guitars had an extended upper horn with the lower cutaway sloping backward, sort of like a Fender Jazzmaster. This was probably a version of the Kawai S-160. All we sighted had the sort of truncated Strat-style headstock featured on Kawais (and Kingstons) at the time. The fingerboards were bound with dot inlays. Several Kawai configurations exist, including versions with chrome control housings above and below the strings and with a matte-finished aluminum pickguard, both with a pair the chrome pickups with angled corners. One Kingston version, probably from around ’65, had on/off rocker switches and a covered stop-tailpiece. Another has been seen with sliding on/off switches on the treble side and a typical Japanese Jazzmaster-style vibrato. Kawai also made three and four-pickup models; you may find Kingston versions of these, as well.
Other Burns-style Kingston models have been seen, also with direct Kawai analogs. These were basically Kawai’s SD series, with inward-turning pointed offset double cutaways, bolt-on necks, bound fingerboards, plastic mini-block (really elongated oval) inlays, and covered vibratos. One Kingston model was a version of a ’65 Kawai SD-4W with four of the chrome-with-angles pickups mounted on a matte aluminum pickguard. On/off switches were paired rockers above the strings. The headstock was a deeply hooked Fender-style with a little scalloped piece of metal under the tuner collars. A little chrome plate sat under the strings. Controls were four volumes and a master tone. Two other models have been seen, these probably from slightly later, with the truncated headstock design, tortoise pickguards and sliding on/off switches (versus rockers). One model had three pickups, evenly spaced, like a Kawai SD-3W, while another featured one at the bridge and two side-by-side up near the neck. Many of these were in a black-to-red two-tone sunburst, but others have been seen in white, and other colors were undoubtedly employed.
Kingston thinline hollowbodies from the ’60s have also been sighted, also clearly the same as sold by Kawai, with the same chunky chrome-and-black single-coils. Westheimer does not recall that hollowbodies were actually made by Kawai, although they had a small factory that may have produced hollowbodies; otherwise they were probably sourced from the same Japanese factory that supplied Kawai. One model had equal pointed double cutaways, two f-holes, elevated pickguard, adjustable bridge, and trapeze vibrato tailpiece. Controls were on a triangular metal plate on the lower bout, typical of both Kawai and Teisco guitars of the late ’60s.
Ca. ’68, Kingston offered a violin-shaped hollowbody that was almost identical to a guitar marketed by Kawai as their model VS-180, a design borrowed from the successful Italian EKO company. The model in hand was finished in white, with a three-and-three head with an extended point on the bass side, bound rosewood fingerboard, little plastic mini-block inlays, two of the chunky Kawai pickups, three-way select, f-holes, a pickguard that followed the edge contours of the waist, and a trapeze vibrato, all features typical of other Kawai models of the time, reinforcing the notion that Kawai was the main source for Kingston electrics.
At least one Kingston violin bass model was available by ’68, again a Kawai. This was pretty much the companion to the guitar, with the same bass-side peak to the head. Except for having a three-tone sunburst finish, a covered stop bridge/tailpiece assembly, and controls mounted on a squiggly tortoise plate on the lower bout, this was virtually the same as the guitar.
Another Kingston violin bass has also been sighted, sticking a little closer to the Höfner original, with two Höfner-style “staple” pickups. This had a brown sunburst finish, with a bolt-on mahogany neck, a French curve on the head, and a 22-fret rosewood fingerboard with dots. This bass did not have f-holes. Controls were mounted on a rectangular plate on the lower bout, with volume, tone, and three sliding switches, function unsure. This could be a Kawai product (Kawai was one of the few major Japanese makers to use the little sliding switches, versus either rockers or three-ways), but it also smacks of Aria. Aria was using the “staple” pickups by the late ’60s, though most Arias employed three-way toggles. So who knows?
There were also Kingston amplifiers, all typical of late-’60s Japanese solidstate amps; small and lightweight, with top-mounted controls. Some, at least, were covered in black tolex with black-and-silver grillcloths, metal Kingston logo and vinyl strap handle. These were built specifically for Westheimer by a small electronics factory in Japan.
By the late ’60s/early ’70s, Kingston acoustics had come a long way from the smallbodied guitars of a decade earlier. Again, few reference materials are available, however, as can be seen by the example shown here, there were now dreadnoughts inspired by Gibson, at least. This particular guitar (called a V-4 in later versions) has a solid spruce top, glued-in neck, kind of a Gibson headstock (decal logo and design), tuners with fancy plastic buttons, gold hardware, and actually a complete finetune bridge set into a massive mustache bridge, similar to late-’60s Harmony Sovereigns. The pickguard has a groovy mockingbird design, suggesting a Dove. The rosewood fingerboard (rounded end, typical of Japanese guitars before ’73) is bound with double arrowhead inlays. However, the coolest feature of this particular instrument is the body, which is a laminate of flamed maple, finished in that ugly red/orange that only came on Japanese guitars of this era. Clearly, this guitar reflects considerable, if eccentric, progress.
Another model is a 12-string with a thick dreadnought shape, mini-block plastic inlays, trapeze tail and leopard plastic pickguard. The plastic Kingston logo was superimposed over a shield. More traditional Martin-style dreadnoughts are seen, often with the Gibson-style adjustable metal-and-plastic saddle in the pin bridge. Presumably there was a range of acoustics in all sizes and appointments. Whether these, too, were made by Kawai is likely but unknown.
By the late ’60s, Westheimer had become one of the four largest importers of guitars from Japan, in company with other Chicago-area outfits W.M.I. and Strum & Drum (owned by Norman and Ron Sackheim, selling Norma guitars).
The irony mentioned earlier? The irony of Westheimer’s Kingstons coming from Kawai, while W.M.I. assumed control of Teisco del Reys, is that in January of ’67 Kawai purchased Teisco, so even though Westheimer parted ways with Teisco in ’65, he ended up doing business with the company that would consume Teisco.
1974 Kingstons, Plus?
A glimpse of Kingston products can be seen in a 1974 Harris-Teller catalog. Curiously enough, these guitars surrounded a tipped-in Terada catalog. Terada, you’ll recall, was the original source of the original Kingstons 15 years earlier. During this period Terada guitars were distributed by Westheimer. No logos are seen on many of the instruments, however, some clearly bear the Kingston logo. Definite Kingstons include the No. U17 Standard Uke (mahogany, plastic fingerboard), No. B7 Professional Baritone Ukulele (mahogany, wooden fingerboard), No. T402 Steel String Acoustic (spruce, mahogany, decal rose, dots) and No. N3 Concert Size Classic (spruce, mahogany, dots). Several other acoustics, including a hummingbird dreadnought and a pear-shaped mandolin, bear no logos but are probably also Kingstons. Several other instruments might also be Kingstons, a couple of banjos, a couple thinlines (EA 300T, EA 500T), and several short-scale Fender-style guitars and basses (A-100, A-200, EB 200, EB 400).
As we shall discuss shortly, manufacturing in Japan became increasingly expensive as the 1970s dawned and Westheimer expanded his operations to include Korea as a source for his guitars. Beginning in around 1975 the economy Kingston models came from Korea, whereas the better models continued to be made in Japan.
1977 Korean Kingstons
A snapshot of the Korean Kingston line is provided in an undated catalog produced ca. ’77. Shown are nine solidbody electrics, six solidbody basses, 12 acoustic steel-strings, and three classicals. Interestingly, the guitars don’t have logos. Also, some model designations will be recalled when we get to documenting Cort.
Reflecting the “copy era,” which was still going full-steam at the time, all but two of the ’77 Kingston solidbodies were budget copies of American guitars. All had bolt-on necks and all but one came in plywood bodies with sunburst finishes. Most came with individucal covered tuners. The LP-2YS, as you might guess, was the top of the line, a Les Paul Custom copy with an arched cherry sunburst top, open-book head, bound rosewood fingerboard, plastic blocks, and a pair of chrome-covered humbuckers. The LP-2C was a downscale brother with a slab body, no binding, dots, wrap-around bridge/tailpiece, and controls mounted on a moon-shaped piece of plastic on the lower bout. There were two Strat copies, the Stat 2 (a name that would reappear on Cort guitars) and the Stat22N. The Stat 2 came with a maple fretboard and covered vibrato. The Stat22N was the sole solid wood guitar with a maple body finished in clearcoat. The S-250 was an SG copy, again with an open-book head, no binding, dots, adjustable bridge (no saddles), and faux-Bigsby. Pickups were controlled by two sliding switches. The S-200 was similar but with a “standard” tremolo, probably a simple Japanese-style unit. The S-100 had only one pickup and a stop-tail.
The B-200T was the only “unique” design, with two rounded, slightly offset double cutaways, similar to many other Korean-made guitars of the ’70s (Teisco, Kay, Hondo, etc.). The head was an adaptation of a Strat-style on a short-scale neck. The two pickups were, indeed, similar to the DeArmond-style used on Teiscos, sitting on a laminated tortoise guard. This had the adjustable bridge and standard vibrato. The B-100 was similar but with a single pickup and stoptail.
Similarly, all but two of the ’77 Kingston basses were modeled on the Fender design, again all plywood with sunburst finishes save two. Fender-style basses included the JB-2, a Jazz Bass with two pickups, rosewood board and plastic block inlays. This came in a blond version with a solid maple body called the JB-21N. The PB-1 was a Precision Bass with one pickup, rosewood board, and dots. The PB-2N was the same, but again in solid maple and blond. The MB-2 and MB-1 were basically bass versions of the B-200T and B-100 guitars, with a Gibson-style two-and-two open book head, and two or one pickups, respectively.
’77 Korean Kingston acoustics consisted of a couple folk guitars and a series of dreadnoughts based on Gibson and/or Martin models. All had Martin-style headstocks. The folk models were the F-75, a grand concert with a maple top and body, hardwood fingerboard, dots, pin bridge with adjustable saddle, and a Martin-style pickguard. The binding was painted on. The V-1 was similar except for having a laminated spruce top, nato body, celluloid body binding, and rosewood fingerboard and bridge. There were five “mini jumbo” guitars, slightly downsized dreadnoughts. Three models came in all-maple plywood, with rosewood fingerboards and bridges (adjustable saddles), dots and painted trim (except for a celluloid rose). The #745 had bookmatched brown engraved gaudy hummingbird pickguards. The #770 had a Martin-style pickguard. The #745S had twin fancy red painted hummingbird ‘guards. The V-3 mini jumbo was spruce and nato in a red-to-yellow sunburst with celluloid top binding and only one of the fancy red hummingbird pickguards. The #86 was similar to the V-3 except for having a natural finish, Martin-style guard, and triple celluloid top binding.
Full-sized dreadnoughts included the V-4, identical to the V-3 except for having plastic block inlays, the V-2, big brother to the #86, and the V-2-12, a 12-string version of the V-2 (trapeze tail added for stability). The top of the ’77 Korean Kingston line were the W-10 and W-11 dreadnoughts. The W-10 had a spruce top and curly maple plywood body, bound maple fingerboard, black dots, bound body, Martin-style guard, and blond finish. The W-11 was similar except for having a laminated rosewood body, with a three-piece rosewood/maple/rosewood back, and a rosewood fingerboard with plastic block inlays.
Three classicals finished the line. These all had steel-reinforced necks, by the way. The C-60 was spruce and maple plywood, with painted trim but an inlaid mosaic rose. The C-70 added a nato body, a mosaic strip on the head, and gold tuners. The C-120 added rosewood to the C-70.
The Kingston name would continue to be used on a variety of guitars made either in Japan or Korea until around ’83. It would resurface again in the very late ’80s or early ’90s on generic low-end Fender-style guitars of unknown Asian manufacture. One model was a slightly offset double-cutaway bass with pointed horns and an elongated four-in-line headstock, 20-fret rosewood fingerboard with dots, with one split-coil pickup, one volume and tone control, and bridge/tailpiece assembly. By ’94, the Kingston was appearing on “high volume, low end, acoustic guitars,” probably of Indonesian origin. These included the D40 (OM shape in natural, black, blue, or tobacco sunburst), AG10 dreadnought, and four decreasingly sized slothead folk guitars (number reflecting the length), the DT38N/S (nylon or steel strings), DT36N/S, DT34N/S and DT30N/S.
This is a highly imperfect accounting of Kingstons, but since they do continue to come up at online auctions with considerable frequency, at least now you have a start for understanding their context.
Teisco del Rey and Kingston were not the only brand names associated with Jack Westheimer. Another, which would have added significance today, was Cortez. Cortez would be important because it’s from that moniker that today’s Cort brand derived, in abbreviated form.
The Cortez brand name dates bact to around ’60, and the beginning of our tale. The Cortez brand was given (by Westheimer) to a line of good-quality Martin-style dreadnoughts manufactured in Japan by the Hiyashi (or Yashi?) factory. Westheimer dispatched some of his staff to visit the factory and work with them to develop the product, resulting in Cortez acoustic guitars. Remember, guitars were still called Spanish guitars in those days, an appellation that has fallen by the wayside; hence, the “Spanish” names like Cortez and del Rey. According to Westheimer, Hiyashi was one of the top Japanese acoustic factories, and it was responsible for many Cortez and Emperador acoustics. Hiyashi was bought out by Pearl sometime in the early ’70s and that marked the end of its glory days.
Again, no reference materials are available to document Cortez guitars in detail.
Westheimer recalls one acoustic/electric model made by Hiyashi carrying his Emperador brand that was actually played by the Everly Brothers. Fewer than 180 of those guitars were imported because they just didn’t catch on. One day, the Everly Brothers’ manager called Westheimer to see if any more could be obtained because the Everly’s guitars had run into repair problems. Westheimer was able to locate several examples in various warehouses and got them to the crooners. He still gets requests for that guitar.
Most Cortez guitars have fallen into a “copy” vein – Strats and Les Pauls. The latter came in both bolt-neck and set-neck versions, many made by Matsumoku, the factory responsible for many of the better Aria guitars, as well as the Electra, Westone, Univox, and Westbury brands. Matsumoku also made sewing machines, and was purchased by Singer in 1987, after which the guitarmaking operation was closed.
There are also some Cortez copies of the Gibson ES-175 that appear to be similar to Japanese-made Venturas of the time.
Cortez guitars were always made in Japan, never in Korea. The Cortez brand remained active at least until ’86, although it may have lingered another year or two.
As the ’70s got underway, Westheimer recalls the winds of change. The writing on the wall was writ by President Nixon in ’72, when he decided to stop tying conversion of the dollar to gold. This allowed currencies to float in a free market, and the value of the Yen, which had been steadily increasing, jumped way up against the dollar. This had devastating effects on beginner-grade guitars. Basically, they were becoming increasingly expensive to import and still be sold at the price-point customers expected.
Another change that occured involved the King Korn Stamp Company. The stamp redeeming business suffered a downturn and the company fell on hard times. Ca. ’73 Jack Westheimer and several other executives purchased Westheimer Sales back from King Korn, and the Westheimer Corporation was born.
Then, in ’73, Jack Westheimer crossed the Gulf of Tonkin and expanded his operations from Japan into the Korean market. He founded a company called Yoo-Ah (roughly translated “you-and-I”) with a partner named Yung H. Park and they built a Korean factory to build inexpensive electric guitars. Initial output included many guitars, branded and unbranded, for a variety of wholesalers, adding, as mentioned, the Kingston brand in ’75. Indeed, most people are surprised to learn that by ’76, according to figures published in The Music Trades magazine, Korean imports actually surpassed those from Japan! Quality slowly but steadily continued to improve.
Over the years, the main output of the Cort factory has been devoted to producing entry-level lines for established brand-name manufacturers, so you may see many Cort-made guitars which are not identified as such. Some early ’80s D’Agostinos were Cort Products. A lot of the early Cort-built guitars can be spotted by their fairly narrow bound rosewood fingerboards with rounded ends and brass position markers. Many also featured humbuckers with cream bobbins and surrounds that have a distinctive coloration. By ’85-’86 Cort was producing lines for Kramer (the Striker series) and B.C. Rich (the Platinum series). For reasons hard to understand, larger manufacturers frequently do not like to identify the factories where their budget lines are made.
Except for the higher-end Kingstons and the Cortez brand made in Japan, the Westheimer story pretty much shifts to Korea and beyond from this point on. Jack estimates that his legacy from the ’60s was bringing in as many as 200,000 guitars from Japan, “…many of which ended up under Christmas trees tied in a bow.” While many went straight to the closet, many more were the first guitars babyboomers cut their teeth on before graduating to more expensive instruments.
In many ways, Westheimer’s work in pioneering global guitarmaking with the Teisco, Kingston, and Cortez brands was the prelude of what would become his greatest achievement – Cort guitars. Again, the Cort name derived as an abbreviation of the Cortez, primarily used on electrics because it was felt that a Spanish-sounding name was appropriate on an acoustic, but not on an electric. Some Japanese-made electrics may have appeared bearing the Cort logo in the ’60s, but the name would not really get wide circulation until the end of the ’70s. We’ll begin to chronicle Cort guitars in detail beginning with our next installment.
Here’s a short summary of the brands with which Jack Westheimer has been involved, either as an importer/distributor or manufacturer:
Ca. 1959-’64, Teisco (electrics)
1964-’65, Teisco del Rey (electrics)*
Ca. 1959-’65, Kingston (acoustics)
1965-’83, Kingston (acoustics and electrics)