Yamaha SG

The Classic

Of all the excellent – and generally unheralded – guitars built by Yamaha over the years, none has achieved quite the legendary status as the Yamaha SG-2000 (SBG-2000), based primarily because of its association early on with Carlos Santana. Most sources cite 1976 as the debut date of this model, however, as usual, there’s more to the story.

The First Steps
The Yamaha SG actually had its roots in two new solids that debuted in late 1973 – the Natoh mahogany SG-35 and Katsura-wood SG-30. These were bolt-neck guitars with slab bodies in the Yamaha SG shape, reminiscent of a Gibson SG, with small pickguards and twin humbuckers with black plastic covers. The SG-35 had parallelogram inlays, the SG-30 had dots. All had stop tailpieces with adjustable bridges.

In ’74 these were joined by more models. The SG-30A was essentially the same as the SG-30, but with a maple body. Likewise the SG-35A (maple). The SG-50 was similar to the SG-30, but with a glued-in neck with dot inlays and a large, laminated pickguard that went from the upper horn down to the lower bout. The SG-70 was very similar to the SG-50, but had a mahogany body.

The ’74 SG-90 and SG-175 marked the debut of guitars that clearly can be identified as Yamaha SGs. Both were set-neck, carved-top mahogany guitars with a little elevated pickguards. The SG-90 was fairly plain, with simple top binding, no binding on the fingerboard, dot inlays, and chrome hardware.

The ’74 SG-175 was as handsome a guitar as you’d ever want to see. Its carved mahogany top was trimmed in abalone inlay. The first 175s had the older square-humped headstock. Hardware was gold. The ebony fingerboard was inlaid with abalone split wing or pyramid inlays. Finishes were natural, black and red, at least. It was, in fact, an SG-175 that first caught the eye of Carlos Santana, who began playing one around this time. He had custom pickups without the covers, and a fancy pearl inlay design covering the belly of the guitar.

In ’75, the headstock changed to having the double-dip or “W” cutout we associate with the SGs. There were at least one custom-made SG-175 with a brown sunburst finish and large pearl block inlays.

These initial Yamaha SGs lasted until mid ’76 when they were replaced by the SG-2000.

Enter the Classic
While these new SGs held sway, Yamaha designer Yojirou Takabayashi and his staff went to work improving the guitar’s design. The results were the SG-2000, SG-1500, SG-1000, SG-700 and SG-500, introduced to the world in July of ’76, at the height of the “copy era” (typically, the model number is engraved on the truss rod cover).

Yamaha was definitely pursuing its own vision, so it’s no wonder the SG-2000 was greeted so enthusiastically.

The SG-2000 employed the basic look of the SG-175, combined with both subtle refinements and some bolder new ideas. Instead of carved solid mahogany, the SG-2000 had a carved, mildly figured three-piece maple top, with the grain of the center section set perpendicular to the sides. Instead of a set neck, it featured a three-piece mahogany/maple/mahogany laminated neck-through design conducive to greater sustain. The body wings consisted of a “sandwich” of laminated mahogany.

In order to further enhance sustain, the SG-2000 had a brass block under the bridge.

Replacing the flat back of the SG-175 was a contoured back with a scoop out of the top waist to increase playing comfort. The head of the SG-2000 featured the now-standard double-dipped shape, with five-ply binding, a block lettering logo, and a fancy three-piece floral inlay. The 22-fret ebony fingerboard was bound with mother-of-pearl split-wing inlays. The top also featured five-ply binding.

The twin-shielded Alnico V humbuckers were covered in black plastic with a cool cover that surrounded the bobbins, but left them and the poles exposed. Electronics were conventional two-humbucker, same as on the SG-175. The laminated pickguard was slightly elevated, as on the SG-175. The finetune bridge had metal saddles, and the stop tail was engraved with a harp-and-scroll design. Hardware was gold-plated. Five finishes were available initially – cherry sunburst, brown (tobacco) sunburst, cherry, brown (tobacco) and black. A plush-lined hardshell case was standard.

In ’76, Yamaha produced a limited edition SG-2000 Devadip model with a fancy engraved pearl inlay on the belly of an antique Japanese woman in native dress holding a flower, obviously inspired by Santana’s custom SG-175.

The Gibson Influence
In ’79 or so Gibson began to object to Yamaha’s use of the SG prefix. Gibson had already gone through the copy challenge of Ibanez in mid ’77, so their objections may have even begun before that. In any case, in 1980 Yamaha changed the name of the guitar to the SBG-2000 in the U.S. In the U.K. (probably Canada and perhaps elsewhere outside of Japan) it became the SG-2000S. The name was not changed in Japan.

It appears Yamaha also modified the 2000’s specs, probably to further differentiate it from Gibson models. The main difference was the addition of push/push coil taps on the volume pots, allowing for more tonal flexibility. One other change that had occurred by ’80 was the elimination of the cross-grain centerpiece of maple in the top in favor of a single piece of maple.

By ’82, the colors available in the U.S. were brown sunburst, cherry sunburst, black, and a deep green stain.

Altogether, this was a superb guitar. The SBG-2000 was sold in the U.S. through ’84, after which it was transformed in to the SBG-2100. The SG-2000 was produced in Japan until regular production was stopped in ’88.

The American Cousin
Here, we encounter our first turbulence. In an American catalog from ’76 that shows the SG-2000, an SG-1500 is discussed at length. However, in a definitive Japanese history of the SGs published in Guitar Graphic, no mention is made of the SG-1500 until the ’80s, where it’s an upscale model. But the SG-1500 is illustrated in a ’77 American Yamaha brochure, so we can say with certainty that the SG-1500 was produced in ’76 at least for the American market, if not for others.

Basically, the SG-1500 was identical to the SG-2000 except it had dot inlays, chrome hardware, and was available only in cherry sunburst and black, although by ’77 it was also available in all the colors of the SG-2000. An SG-1500 was introduced in Japan in ’81, but with different specs, so we’ll discuss that as a new model. The export SG-1500 appears to have lasted through ’78 or possibly into ’79, probably at the same time as the SBG changes came about.

A More Traditional Alternative
The SG-1000, which was the second-in-line model in Japan, had some significant differences. From a distance it looked almost the same as the SG-2000 (including gold hardware), but with a bound rosewood fingerboard, “clay” split-wing inlays, and “only” triple binding. The top was a single piece of maple, without the perpendicular centerpiece, and was unbound. Instead of being a neck-through, it was set-neck with solid mahogany. Also, it did not have the brass sustain plate under the bridge.

The SG-1000 was equipped with slightly different electronics; the pots were wired such that when the volume pot was rolled up to 10, the tone control was bypassed – the equivalent of the slider switches on ’60s guitars. These came in cherry sunburst or brown sunburst. It is not clear how long the SG-1000 was exported, because it does not appear in many U.S. catalogs.

In ’77, an SG-1000L lefty version became available. The name was changed to SBG-1000 in the U.S. at the same time as the 2000, and the guitar remained in the line through ’83 (’84 in Japan).

The SG-700 and SG-500 were almost identical to the SG-1000, but without the special wiring circuitry. These had slightly less fancy headstock inlays and chrome hardware. The SG-700 had an unbound maple top made of several pieces of maple and came in cherry sunburst and brown.

The 700 had traditional black plastic pickup covers with only one row of poles exposed. The SG-500 came only in opaque colors, black and cherry, suggesting use of lower-grade maple on the tops. Pickups on the 500 were exposed.

The SG-700 appears to have bit the dust with the SBG change in ’78 or ’79. The SG-500 likewise disappeared at this time, though it returned in ’81 or ’82 as the SBG-500 (SG-800S in Japan).

In ’77, Yamaha added the SG-800. It appears to have been an SG-700 with white binding on the top and an even plainer flower inlay on the head. The 800 substituted a cream pickguard and pickup rings for the black laminate of the 700. This model made it at least through ’79, and possibly a year or two more. It was most likely not exported to the U.S.

Ch… ch… changes
While Yamaha was involved in modifying the SG-2000, no new models seem to have appeared. In ’81, however, several new guitars appeared in Japan. One was a version of the SG-1000 called the SG-1000X. No information is available on this guitar and it probably didn’t last long.

Another new model in ’81 was the Japanese version of the SG-1500. No details are available except it looked identical to the SG-1000, with the split-wing inlays, etc., and came in a Jade Green finish. How long this lasted is also unknown, but it was not in the ’84 Japanese catalog.

Finally, the SG-800S appeared in ’81. This was another set-neck guitar that differed from the earlier SG-800 in that it now sported dot inlays and white bobbins on exposed pickup bobbins.

These models show up in the ’82 U.S. catalog as the revived SBG-500. The SBG-500 was gone by ’83, so the Japanese SG-800S probably disappeared then, too. It was not in the ’84 Japanese catalog.

The Custom
The big news for ’82 was the introduction of a new deluxe SG, the SG/SBG-3000, also called the SG-3000 Custom. In Japan, this model was also called the Professional, which was engraved on the pickguard.

This guitar looked like a fancy SBG-2000 with gold-plated hardware, but it also sported significant differences. The SBG-3000 was still neck-through, with the mahogany/maple/mahogany laminated neck. The headstock inlays were the same, as were the mother-of-pearl split-wing inlays on a bound ebony ‘board.

One major difference in construction was the use of solid mahogany for the wings. Others included a smaller finetune bridge and lack of a sustain plate. The SBG-3000 also had new Precise Torque tuners, with a 15:1 gear ratio and a set screw on the button that let you adjust the tension to your taste.

Most noticeable was the addition of Mexican abalone purfling to the top. Less noticeable were the new, black-plastic covered Spinex high-output humbuckers. Surrounds were cream. Each came with a laminated pickguard and an optional brass pickguard. Finish options were metallic black (a kind of metalflake), wine red, and cream white. The SBG-3000 Customs were spectacular guitars. They were available through ’85.

Yamaha’s SGs started to proliferate in ’83 with the addition of eight new SGs. None of these show up in U.S. catalogs, only in Japan.

At the top of the line the SG-2500 was added. Basically this had SG-3000 construction and pickups (including the new bridge) combined with the multiple bound trim of the SG-2000 (minus the abalone trim). The SG-1600 was similar but with fewer plies of binding. Little information is available on the SG-1300, but it was probably a set-neck with a white-and-black top binding, clay split-wing inlays in bound rosewood, gold hardware, the new bridge and Spinex pickups, with the 2000 headstock inlay. The SG-1300-24 was a 1300 with a two-octave fingerboard and no pickguard, available in a metallic blue. The SG-1300T was a 1300 with a nifty new stud-mounted double-locking finetune vibrato, no pickguard, and only one volume and one tone. The SG-1000N was a version of the SG-1000 with the new smaller gold bridge and Spinex pickups (maybe “N” meant “new”?). No other differences are known. The SG-1000-24 was the 1000N with a two octave fingerboard. The SG-510 had all the new features with dot inlays and chrome hardware. The SG-1300T, 1300-24, and 1000-24 probably lasted only a year through ’84. The SG-2500, 1600, 1300, 1000N, and 510 made it another year through ’85.

In ’84, three more SGs were introduced in Japan. The SG-1300TS was a version of the 1300T with only volume and tone and some interesting variations. The head, fingerboard, and top were all free of binding, and inlays were dots. The edges were soft and the body was thinned down. Hardware and finish were black.

There’s no information about the SG-1000NW except that it was a variant of the 1000N. Likewise, nothing is known about the SG-710T except it probably had the new vibrato. These are not in the ’85 Japanese Yamaha catalog so, presumably, they were already gone, although the SBG-1300TS was still featured in the ’85 U.S. catalog, so it make it ’til about ’86.

In ’85, significant changes to the American line (at least) took place. The venerable SBG-2000 became the SBG-2100. Basically, the 2100 was identical except for having the new Spinex pickups and the new thinner bridge, still with coil taps. Available in black, burgundy, and orange sunburst.

New in the U.S. were the SBG-1200 and SBG-200, both set-neck models. The SBG-1200 had white binding on the top, ‘board, and head, with slate split-wing inlays on rosewood, the old Alnico V pickups, the new thin bridge, no sustain plate, gold hardware, in black and antique stain.

The ’85 SBG-200 was also set-neck, but with a solid flat-top nato body and new angled edges on the top (wider at the waist). This had no binding, dots on rosewood, chrome hardware, no pickguard, white pickup bobbins, and surrounds. Finishes were brown sunburst, black, and pearl white. These new SBGs probably lasted only a year through ’86. By ’87, Yamaha was promoting its new RGX line.

Custom Shop
By ’88, the legendary Yamaha SG line went out of production. But Yamaha continued to produce custom shop SGs. In ’89, it built a custom SG-T for the guitarist Takanaka, an SG-3000 that featured cool alphabet graphics, the vibrato, volume/tone, and a humbucker/single/humbucker pickup layout. Some limited edition SG25S models were made in ’91, again SG-3000s with an elaborate hummingbird and floral pearl inlay on the lower bout. Some in black, some wine red. Another custom Takanaka SG-25T was also produced at that time with a flame maple cap. Others undoubtedly exist.

In February ’96, Yamaha produced a limited number of reissue SG-175s as the SG-175B. These were based on the original Santana model and featured a fancy engraved pearl and gold inlaid Buddha on the guitar belly. A special engraved flower graced the headstock. Pickups were not covered, and the center maple strip in the neck was visible through the body on the back.

Finally, Yamaha reissued its visionary guitar as the SBG-700S circa ’99, a set-neck model with a mahogany body and neck, twin humbuckers and a coil tap. These lasted until around 2001, when Yamaha dipped deeper into its history to bring back a version of the ’60s SG-7 Blue Jeans.

Carlos Santana was not the only pro to favor the Yamaha SG in its heyday. Other players who flirted with the SG-2000 included Al DiMeola, Steve Cropper, Bill Nelson (Be Bop Deluxe), Paul Barrere (Little Feat), and Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music). Pros who strummed the SG-1000 included Mick Jones of Foreigner and reggae god Bob Marley.

Whoever picks up a vintage Yamaha SG knows he or she is playing a seriously nice guitar. Today, there’s a devoted cadre of collectors who focus on the SG-1000/2000/3000 models.

One unconfirmed source says only 24,000 SG-1000s and SG-2000s were produced. The days of finding these for a few hundred bucks are pretty much gone, but some SGs from the later years can still be found at bargain prices.

’82 SBG-500, the American version of the SG-800S

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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