Yamaha SG 2000 - Japan's First Megastar Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Sunday 6 December 2020
Yamaha SG 2000 electric guitar

Fabulously well made”... “Always a joy to play”... “A sound and sustain more like that from a Les Paul than almost any other Japanese maker's offering”... That's how seasoned guitar reviewer David Lawrenson summed up the Yamaha SG 2000 in its early 1980s heyday. He gave it a flawless rating score with a maximum five stars in all five categories of assessment. And he had one more show-stopping line for anyone still a little reticent to hand over the £620 UK retail price...
“I can quite sympathise with those players who argue that the Yamaha SG 2000 is the finest rock and roll production guitar currently available”.
By that time, the instrument was going out under the revised model code of SBG 2000, to avoid legal issues with Gibson, whose SG model had long predated Yamaha's 1970s series. But the SG 2000 and SBG 2000 were the same guitar, and the verdict was, it kicked serious posterior.

Yes, pat yourselves on the back, Yahama, for this beast was not a mere stand-in for the American behemoths. It was a gamechanger in Japanese guitar manufacture, creating an instrument so desirable as to subordinate premium American guitars in terms of market kudos. Essentially, the first high status Japanese electric guitar.

If there's such a thing as a megastar electric guitar, this was the first one to come out of Japan.

Pro guitarists queued up to use the Yamaha SG, whether or not there was an endorsement deal in it. For Carlos Santana, whose input helped establish the SG 2000's design detail, there was an endorsement deal. But most of the SG's 'name' users adopted it purely by choice, 100% on merit.

Introduced in 1976, the SG 2000 essentially refocused the basic concept and feel of the Gibson Les Paul. The body shape was different, the inlay styling was different, and the construction was different, with innovative use of high quality woods. But where the SG 2000 really scored points was in its porting of the familiar, heavy, luxurious, sustain-machine format into new musical territory.

The Gibson Les Paul had started its path to stardom in early 1950s jazz and rockabilly, then gained much more traction in the heavy blues of the mid to late 1960s, which had morphed into heavy rock by the early 1970s. Even when it was adopted by high-ranking punk guitarists around 1977, the Les Paul was still being used in basically the same way that it had been for the past decade. To beef up sustained, overdriven, slabs of power.

But while the Les Paul's image and associations became more typecast, the SG 2000 made the same basic feel of guitar comfortable in a wide raft of styles. The Yamaha could crank out thick overdrive. But with some artists it simultaneously headed back to the cleaner sounds used in the early life of the Les Paul. Aside from covering classic Les Paul territory, the Yamaha SG appeared at professional level in jazz fusion, funk, Latin rock, punk, proto-goth, reggae and pop - as well as the varied sphere of new wave music that peaked in the early 1980s.

One of the reasons the SG 2000 encouraged more diverse usage, whilst its cultural ancestor the Les Paul became increasing trapped in heavy rock, was the difference in electrical components. Even to begin with, the SG 2000 had more refined pickups, with greater definition than the Les Paul's twin humbuckers. More suited to clean tones. But additionally, by the dawn of the '80s the SG 2000 had evolved to incorporate pot-activated coil-tapping for brighter, single coil sound options. Meanwhile, the Les Paul's bridge pickup was actually trending towards a thicker tone, not really suited to much outside the realm of distortion.

So it could be said that the Yamaha SG better read the development of musical trends in its late '70s and early '80s heyday. The 2000 had enough poke to drive an amp hard, and it could produce long sustain. But it also had the finesse to articulate rhythm work in a way that a classic Les Paul Standard never really could. In its heyday, the SG 2000 also looked more modern than a Les Paul.

The SG 2000 certainly resembles the Les Paul in weight and general feel, but when you examine the detail you find a raft of differences. Although the Yamaha's body shape at a quick glance perhaps comes across as a 'Les Paul with two sharp cutaways', it's actually not the same shape as a Les Paul at all. The SG has less of a "waist" than the Les Paul, and if you set the two instruments back to back, you immediately see the Yamaha has totally original dimensions.

As I mentioned, the construction is a departure too. A tri-wood mahogany, maple and ebony neck, extending into the body, which utilises what Yamaha christened a “T-Cross” combination of mahogany - for the central “T” section - and maple - for the 'wings'. Proud owners also got luxurious inlay work, gold-plated metal hardware, and pre-aged binding on the body, neck and headstock.

One had to admit that the SG 2000 gave the Les Paul Custom a run for its money in terms of lush appointments. Okay, so if you've ever bought a brand new LP Custom and opened its case for the first time, you will know that nitro-gloss image and unmistakable new-Gibson aroma is almost on a par with a religious experience. But the LP Custom was in a higher price tier than the SG 2000, and it still could not compete with the Yamaha for versatility.

Indeed, the list of Yamaha SG range users - especially in the instrument's heyday - was almost like a who's who of intelligent guitar playing. Over the years, users of Yamaha SGs have included Carlos Santana, Bill Nelson, Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers, David Hinds from Steel Pulse, Keith Winter from Shakatak, Colin Hay from Men at Work, John McGeoch from Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stuart Adamson from The Skids and Big Country, Steve Rothery from Marillion, John Frusciante, Jakko Jakszyk, Tommy Smith... And the list genuinely does go on. This guitar was very, very successful by the early 1980s, and its appeal has continued into the modern day. It should be noted that whilst Santana endorsed and helped develop the SG 2000, the model he actually used was its close relative the SG 175B.

One of the interesting things about the SG 2000 was that although its performance on the retail market was clearly rivalling that of an American guitar, its performance on the secondhand market for long remained closely in keeping with Japanese guitars. By the mid 1990s, a brand new SG 2000 cost two and a half times the price of a vintage model, with the new purchase retailing at around £1,000, and the late '70s jobs averaging £375 to £425. Although the secondhand market values the SG 2000 more highly today, vintage examples are still, relatively speaking, a bargain, considering their esteem, their quality, their usability, and the age-maturity of their tone.

What was really important about the SG 2000, was Yamaha's understanding of how to beat the USA manufacturers in the market. And there was a definite formula to it. Produce an original guitar, which conforms to guitarists' existing understanding of a classic instrument. Deliver it at spectacular quality. Get at least one celebrity on board with it from the start. Price it 25% below the existing classic whose market you seek to capture. That turned out to be a magic combination.

While other Japanese manufacturers struggled to live or die by the sword of price, Yamaha took the bold step of wading into American price territory. The SG 2000 cost more than a Fender Strat, more than a Fender Tele, more than a Gibson SG Standard, more than a Rickenbacker 330, more than a US Hamer Prototype or Vector...

Didn't matter. Even at a time when Japanese guitars were expected to be cheap, there was a level of desirability beyond which guitarists would not be able to resist. Admittedly, as the Yamaha SG 2000 built its rep, both Gibson and Fender were on an extended nap. But that's what the electric guitar business is about. Seizing that chance. If you're in a position to do it, and you go ahead and build the “finest rock and roll production guitar currently available”, someone is bound to notice.

They did. And as a result, the first Japanese megastar guitar was born.