VG Q&A: Odd Dots

Import fretboard markers, and Kay’s Model 1961
VG Q&A: Odd Dots
“For the advanced guitarist”; a ’60s ad for the Decca DMI 203 (left) shows its rare 10th-fret dot marker. A trade ad for New Jersey-based Heit Distribution shows guitars with dot markers at the ninth and tenth frets. Distributors like Heit might put their name on the headstocks, or they’d leave them blank so retail stores could apply their own.

In the mid ’60s, why did some Japanese electric-guitar manufacturers put the marker on the 10th fret rather than the ninth? – Joe Bigley

Very few Japanese makers put dot markers at the 10th fret. A survey of numerous catalogs of Japanese builders and American distributors from the early to mid ’60s turned up only one with a dot at 10 – a Suzuki acoustic from 1965. Suzuki had been one of Japan’s major mandolin-makers dating back to 1887 or shortly thereafter. Mandolins were introduced in Japan in the 1880s and had dots at 10 and 12, probably explaining Suzuki’s positioning.

Guitar-making in Japan began in the mid 1930s, when guitars made in America and Europe had dot markers at either nine or 10 with no consistency. Anyone who made guitars with 10th-fret dots was probably operating under these influences.

Japanese guitars offered in the U.S. in the early ’60s with dots at 10 were almost always inexpensive and from a maker who was not easily identifiable. Guitars produced by major manufacturers such as Guyatone, Kawai, Teisco, etc., are usually recognized with a little practice. However, there were a few trading companies in Japan that relied on very small suppliers – sometimes family home operations – for parts or even finished instruments. It’s highly likely that guitars with 10-dots derive from such sources.

While some position markers may have appeared on guitars previously, the use of dots seems to have begun in the 1880s with the rise of popular string orchestras and is related to The Spanish Students phenomenon. When the gut-strung six-string guitar emerged in Italy circa 1780, it had no dots. This is reflected in its modern descendants, classical guitars. The earliest American-made Martin guitars had no position markers; Martin did not begin using “snowflake” markers until 1897.

The Spanish Students was a revival of a Madrid tradition in which musicians wearing student costumes played traditional music on 10- and 12-string bandurrias (which have no dots but are related to eighth-string Italian mandolins with markers at 10 and 12) and performed athletic dances. In 1878, they walked from Madrid to the Exposition Internationale in Paris and were the fair’s biggest hit. The Prince of Wales tried to get them to move to England. In 1880, an American promoter convinced them to tour the U.S. coinciding with the great influx of immigrants from Italy and Sicily. Enterprising Italian musicians saw gold, bought “Spanish Student” costumes, and – reasoning that Americans wouldn’t know a bandurria from a mandolin – sent scores of Italian troupes touring the country playing mandolins and billing themselves as “Spanish Students.” The phenomenon lasted at least 15 years and made the mandolin one of the most-popular stringed instruments in America.

Mike Wehring’s Kay model 1961.

This explosion of Spanish Students groups coincided with the increased popularity of the five-string banjo, which began in the 1840s with the rise of blackface minstrelsy. As the original Spanish Students arrived, there was a growing movement among banjo players to “elevate” the instrument by playing popular music written in music notation using fingerstyle, like a guitar, rather than stroke-style songs derived from minstrelsy. This led to the formation of banjo clubs and orchestras that became extraordinarily popular at colleges and universities, usually including guitars and violins. Because most of these banjo players were amateurs, banjo makers began installing position markers including dots at frets nine and 12.

The concurrent rage for Spanish Students and banjo clubs combined to create mixed string orchestras that became popular in virtually every city and town. These usually included whatever people could play – mandolins, banjos, guitars, and violins.

To compete, more instrument manufacturers began to employ dots. If a guitarmaker wanted to lure a mandolin player to change, his guitars might have the dot at 10 to make them more comfortable. If the target was a banjo player, the dot would go at nine.

This inconsistency of guitars with dots at nine or 10 persisted into the 1930s, due in part to the fact many of the best musicians had roots in the earlier traditions and liked one or the other position depending on their backgrounds. By the mid ’30s, American makers had largely settled on the ninth-fret marker.

In Japan, guitarmaking began in the mid ’30s, before there was consensus around the ninth-fret dot. Western instruments were banned during World War II, and when guitarmaking resumed in the late ’40s/early ’50s, builders – especially smaller shops – had reference to earlier American or European guitars with dots at nine or 10. With electric guitars being entirely new, it’s understandable that smaller makers or parts suppliers in Japan would not have known the correct position of the dot. – Michael Wright

As a singer/songwriter, I’ve been looking for a good guitar to accompany myself when I play live – not solidbody or full acoustic, but in the middle. Then I saw a Bellfuries performance and thought Joey Simeone’s orange guitar sounded great. I’m trying to find out what it is – could be an old Guild, but the tailpiece doesn’t look right. – Paul Galley

Joey plays what looks like a very early Guild Savoy X-150, circa 1954. The blocky logo, clear knob, and white Franz pickup are the best clues. His was possibly stripped to natural. – Peter Stuart Kohman

I found an Airline guitar at a swap meet in Houston four or five years ago. It had no tuner buttons but was structurally sound and, after a marathon cleaning and tuner search, it’s back on the road. But I’m not sure what it is. The pots date to July, 1962. – Mike Wehring

That’s a Kay model 1961. Kay made hollowbody archtop electrics through 1959 and the model 1961 was one of their first solidbodies, made from 1960 to ’65 (Kay model numbers had nothing to do with their build year). The model 1962 had two pickups, while the 1963 had three. In ’66, the company made more Fender-style guitars with the “bushwacker” headstock, and it was gone in ’68. – Michael Wright

This column addresses questions about guitar-related subjects, ranging from songs, albums, and musicians to the minutiae of instrument builds, manufacturers, and the collectible market. Questions can be sent to with “VG Q&A” in the subject line.

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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