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Ibanez "Lawsuit" & Elger Guitars

Back to History > Large Shop Guitar Builders

The folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s helped create a tremendous demand for acoustic guitars. The Limelighters, the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and other vocal groups built their sound around traditional stringed instruments: guitar, banjo and bass. The music was simple and compelling. The songs and the message were firmly in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and the common folk of the American landscape. The blues, sharecropper work songs, union songs, immigrant songs and all manner of stories and tales that articulated our everyday lives. It was music of the common folk – Folk Music.

You didn’t need a Big Band, an auditorium or a record company to be relevant. All that was needed was a guitar, a good tune and a creative thought. For many, the guitar was enough. There were hundreds of traditional songs and tunes that had been made available by the Lomax family. The recordings they made around the country offered a window into the hearts and minds of musicians from all walks of life. The songs and recordings gave a voice to people who were otherwise lost to American society – they were too obscure, downtrodden, ignored or forgotten. The remarkable recordings filed with the Library of Congress by the Lomax family demonstrated that the human condition is common to all people, from all backgrounds and all walks of life. There were songs from Southern prisons, sharecroppers, immigrant laborers, miners, Black work songs, union organizing songs, traditional songs, new songs, songs of heartache, heroism and defeat.

The songs were there and ready to be delivered to the public by anyone with a guitar and voice. The traditional songs were so effective in delivering messages in very human terms that new singer-songwriters began to pop up with songs of current issues: the Vietnam conflict, nuclear proliferation, unionization, corruption, greed, blind conformity, social injustice, pollution, etc. The genre allowed public discourse and affected the body politic by humor, sincerity and entertainment.

Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ritchie Havens, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Rush, and dozens of others emerged from the Beat Generation with current Folk songs. The music was accessible, meaningful and real. All you needed was a guitar and a desire to be part of a growing movement.

Acoustic guitars flew off the music store walls. The major manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand. Harmony, Gibson, Guild and Martin responded by ramping up production as fast as they could. It wasn’t nearly enough. Predictably, the manufacturers began to cut corners and simplify the designs to make production easier and faster. The quality of the instruments began to suffer.

The musicians at the forefront seemed to be more interested in older instruments as they were closer to the traditions that were being expressed. There is a ‘vibe’ to a Gibson or Martin guitar from the 1930s being used to perform songs from the same era. This subtlety, however, was lost on the general public. If Dylan was playing a Gibson, then just about any guitar would do as long as it said ‘Gibson’ on the headstock. In fact, it was probably OK as long as it looked vaguely like a Gibson or a Martin.

There was a demand for affordable instruments that the US manufacturer’s were not able to fill. In 1954, Harry Rosenbloom opened a music store called Medley Music in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, just northwest of Philadelphia. Business was good and as the store grew, Rosenbloom had difficulty getting sufficient guitars. The waiting list for a new Martin guitar was approximately 3 years.

Elger Guitars and Harry Rosenbloom

To solve his inventory problem Rosenbloom imagined that he could start a guitar manufacturing business. The Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, PA, was only about 70 miles from his store. Rosenbloom’s idea was to exceed their quality and beat them at their own game. The new company was named Elger Guitars, after his 2 children: Ellen and Gerson. The first few instruments were built by Rosenbloom himself in 1959. He immediately understood the challenges of producing sufficient quantities of high quality guitars. To his credit, he didn’t give up.

Rosenbloom found and hired a German master violin maker named Karl Muller. Karl and his brother, Georg, led a small team of craftsman who designed and built the Elger Guitars in a workshop in nearby Ardmore, Pennsylvania. They continued to hand-build high quality instruments until about 1964.

By early 1965 Rosenbloom had come to realize that the profit margin on the instruments he was building was not large enough to make their continued manufacture worthwhile. He decided to stop production of the hand-made instruments and begin importing guitars. He had seen the very good quality of instruments manufactured in Japan. With lower labor costs, the Japanese instruments were a fraction of the cost of their American counterparts. Not only that: the import process would relieve him of all the tiresome responsibilities of staffing and maintaining a domestic manufacturing business. Higher profits – less responsibility – more free time: win-win-win.

Rosenbloom decided to make Elger Guitars the exclusive North American distributor for the Hoshino Gakki Gen Company, a Japanese instrument manufacturer. The business arrangement was that Rosenbloom would hold 50% interest in the USA distribution of their products. To avoid the negative connotation of products labeled: ‘Made in Japan’, he adopted the name ‘Ibanez’. This was the name of a small Spanish guitar company owned by Hoshino. Interestingly, the last ‘Elgers’ (1965 to 1970+/-) are Japanese-made and quite close in design to the Ibanez line of the 1970’s.

Hoshino Gakki Company

The Hoshino Gakki company had begun in 1908 as the musical instrument sales division of the Hoshino Shoten bookstore company. In 1935, they began manufacturing their own stringed instruments. The name ‘Ibanez’ dates to 1929 when Hoshino Gakki began importing instruments by Salvador Ibáñez. When the Spanish workshop was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and their guitars were no longer available, Hoshino Gakki bought the rights to the Ibanez brand name and started building Spanish and acoustic guitars of their own. The earliest labels read: ‘Ibanez Salvador’ but eventually simplified to: ‘Ibanez’. The company in it’s current form is based in Nagoya, Aichi, Japan.

The guitars of Japanese guitar makers in the 1960s were mostly copies of European designs like Hagström and EKO. Hoshino Gakki stopped manufacturing their own guitars in 1966 and began to use the Teisco and FujiGen Gakki guitar factories to manufacture Ibanez guitars. Following the closure of the Teisco guitar factory in early 1970, Hoshino Gakki shifted all manufacturing of Ibanez guitars to the FujiGen Gakki guitar factory.

In 1971, Hoshino bought Elger Guitars and regained the full North American distribution rights for Ibanez. The company name was finally changed to ‘Ibanez USA’. Hoshino maintained Elger’s Pennsylvania facilities for quality control of imports and maintenance and repair prior to shipping to their dealers. The serial numbers of American instruments were applied there.

Ibanez ‘Lawsuit’ Guitars

In 1970 Ibanez started making copies of well-known American guitars like Gibson, Fender and Rickenbacker. They did a good job: the guitars were good visual copies. They were not, however, true reproductions. The materials and methods, bracing, glue and finishes were all different. They looked like the originals, were fairly well made and sounded pretty good – but they were not the same. They were much more affordable and sold very well.

On June 28th, 1977, Norlin, the parent company of Gibson, filed a lawsuit against Elger (Ibanez) in Philadelphia Federal District Court . The case was “Gibson Vs. Elger Co.” with Gibson claiming trademark infringement based on the duplicate ‘open book’ headstock design of the Ibanez copies. Gibson had allegedly threatened to sue Elger/Ibanez regarding the use of the headstock for some time prior to the actual suit. Ibanez made an out-of-court settlement with Norlin and agreed to stop copying the Gibson headstock and using names similar to Gibson models on their instruments.

By the fall of 1976 Ibanez had redesigned their headstocks to look more like Guild guitars. The new headstock design appeared in the 1976 catalog. Ironically, by the time the lawsuit was actually filed, the headstocks had already been changed.

In February 1978 Ibanez officially stopped making copies and began to develop and refine original designs.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth
Original material: Leonard Wyeth
Research compiled, expanded and edited from Wikipedia and other web sources.