Three months into quarantine, I got my father’s old guitar down from the attic. After I cleaned and polished it and put on new strings, I was impressed: The dusty wood transformed into a sleek brown and tan instrument that looked very similar to Martin’s classic acoustic dreadnought guitars. When I strummed, it had a full, rich, melodic tone. But the guitar manufacturer’s name stamped on the inside of the body—the Nagoya Guitar Company—was unfamiliar.
My father’s guitar wasn’t the only Nagoya around, though. First popular 50 years ago, people in the D.C. area still had them, still talked about them, and were as impressed by them as I was. I was holding a local gem, sold in the thousands during its production run in the 1970s, and still prized, sought-after, and played by musicians in the region.
Fifty years ago, the construction and marketing of guitars went through a period of bedlam. Clone guitars of established electric and acoustic brands were being produced cheaply in Japan. Some were similar enough to result in copyright litigation: In 1977, the Gibson Guitar Corporation sued the Elger Guitar Company, which imported Ibanez guitars, for copyright infringement of its headstocks. In addition, C. F. Martin & Company acoustic guitars—which were established, expensive, and dated back to the 1920s—were going through a perceived drop in quality. That was rooted in two factors: a high increase in production from the popular folk music phase and a sea change in the expertise of guitar technicians, according to Reverb and guitar technician Dru Lore, who works for Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center in Wheaton. “The older generation all retired at the same time [at Martin], and there was a learning curve,” Lore says. The guitar world was like an open road for someone with a little imagination.
Into the void stepped Koob Veneman of Veneman Music, a local chain of stores based in Rockville, Silver Spring, Greenbelt, and Falls Church, though it would later branch into Bethesda and Springfield. Veneman had a reputation for creatively marketing and selling musical instruments.
“If you could think of it, he did it,” says Tony Litz, of Gaithersburg’s Victor Litz Music, whose music store competed with Veneman’s.
Veneman’s previous successful ventures included opening musical instrument superstores and publishing a national mail-order catalog. Albert “Ted” Veneman, the son of Koob Veneman, who died in 2010, says his father saw a market for inexpensive, quality guitars, and forged ahead in a new space.
“He went to Japan in the 1960s with a Martin guitar to see who could make anything similar, but a lot cheaper,” Ted Veneman says. “My father got to know a number of guitar makers in Japan who could work when and at what price.”
Starting around 1971, Koob Veneman had the guitars manufactured by a group of Japanese independent contractors, who worked for less money than U.S. guitar technicians. Because the contractors were based in Nagoya, Japan, Koob named them the “Nagoya Guitar Company.” There was no factory floor; the guitar-makers worked in whatever space they had available. “Dad [once] described guys working on a guitar in the alley outside, wherever they could find the space,” Ted Veneman says. The Nagoya N-18—my father’s model—was one of seven Nagoya models, which included 12-string guitars as well as the six-string acoustic N-18.
Though they were listed in Veneman’s national catalog, Nagoya guitars were intended for D.C.-area customers. “He never intended to sell them outside of the area,” Veneman says.
And sell they did. Although no official numbers were kept of the number of Nagoyas sold, William Johnson, who worked for Veneman Music from 1971 to 1985, said thousands of the guitars sold during the years they were made, from about 1971 to 1979. “At its height, we sold 20 to 30 guitars a day, many of them Nagoyas,” Johnson says.
“They were a household name in the region,” Litz says.
Ted Veneman, who co-managed the stores starting in 1971, agrees the guitars sold well. “The guitar business was very good to us, we made money, they were profitable guitars,” he says. Ted also says that the success of the guitars was based on his father’s good market instincts. The Nagoya’s appearance, which was similar to Martin guitars with a dreadnought shape, a spruce body, a mahogany side and back, and a rosewood fingerboard, helped the guitars draw customers’ attention. Essentially, “it has the same basic specs” as a Martin guitar, says Ryan Clarke, a Rockville-based guitar repair technician.
But the differences between the Nagoya and Martin guitars were what really allowed the Nagoyas to become popular. Instead of costing $600 to $800 per instrument, the prices for handbuilt Martin guitars at the time, the Nagoya models ranged from about $70 to $200, according to Reverb and Levitz.
The key to their affordable price was the guitars’ construction. The tops of Nagoya guitars were made from multiple pieces of wood, instead of one solid piece like Martins, Clarke and Johnson say. In addition, the back and sides of the Nagoya N-18, my mid-price model, were made from lower quality wood than the mahogany used for Martins. The neck of the Nagoya was also made from different pieces of wood glued together, and Clarke says the peghead, which bore the implant “Nagoya,” was a thin layer of rosewood veneer over a stained piece of plywood.
That led to major savings. “You can make three to four [Nagoya] guitars from a piece of wood that Martins used to make one out of solid wood,” Clarke says.
And despite the cheaper construction, Nagoya guitars maintained a good sound. “[My father] always did try to get the best quality for the money,” Ted Veneman says.
Not only did people buy a lot of them, they remembered buying them—even half a century later. Harvey Reid, a professional musician for 45 years who grew up in Adelphi, bought a Nagoya guitar in 1971 from Veneman Music’s Greenbelt store.
“I was a 17-year-old kid, it was a decent-looking guitar, and it was a lot cheaper than a Martin,” Reid says. “The salesman steered us toward it.” “Us” refers to Reid and Glen Morgan, who grew up with Reid in Adelphi and bought a Nagoya guitar on the same day so they could play as a duo.
“I played that guitar until the late 1990s before I bought a replacement for it. It was really good at a fantastic value,” Morgan says.
And my father, John N. Maclean, who is not a professional musician but loves playing the guitar, originally bought my Nagoya N-18 from a D.C. guitar store so he could take it on Boy Scout camping trips for campfire songs: “You could take it anywhere and it played well.”
The quality sound also drew the attention of professional musicians who had to travel extensively. “If you had to take it on an airplane, it would still sound well, and from two rows back from the stage, no one could tell that it wasn’t a Martin,” Lore says. And if the guitar got lost, they could afford to buy a new one.
Johnson says production for the Nagoya guitars stopped in 1979 due to the rise in popularity of electric guitars, while Ted Veneman believes production continued until the early 1980s. Veneman Music was sold to Guitar Center in 2002.
But despite the fact that Koob Veneman’s Nagoyas were clearly imitating the Martin line at a lower price, Ted says he and the Martin company got along well; Veneman Music also carried Martin guitars. Johnson and Ted Veneman say that despite the Nagoyas’ similarity to Martin guitars, C.F. Martin & Company never sent Koob a cease and desist regarding the Nagoyas. Clarke says that while the Nagoyas were similar in spirit and design, the difference in construction was marked.
Ted Veneman speaks with pride and some nostalgia when talking about the guitars; so does Morgan. That kind of nostalgia is one of the reasons Nagoya guitars are valued in the area today. Morgan, for example, says he still owns his Nagoya guitar and played it recently. “I held onto it for sentimental reasons,” Morgan says. “It sounds as good as I remember it sounding.”
Joe Kane, a former manager for Veneman Music, wrote in an email that he still “own[s] and love[s] his Nagoya N-28.”
Mark Leary, of Atomic Music in Beltsville, said some people in the D.C. area now buy used Nagoya guitars because of the nostalgia. “They have a niche mark, they have big fans, and they try to get them all,” Leary says.
But used Nagoyas also sell because 40 years after their construction ceased, they remain good instruments. Leary, who recently sold a Nagoya guitar for $389, says he’ll recommend them to customers if they are in the customer’s price range when they are looking for quality guitars.
Reid agrees the instruments have aged well for their quality. “They got a little better with age,” says Reid, whose career accolades include releasing over 10 solo recordings and winning the 1981 National Fingerpicking Guitar Competition. “It is a perfectly decent sounding guitar.”
And 50 years after they were first made, parts of their construction are viewed as innovative. Using multiple pieces of wood for the body of the guitar helped prevent warping, which allows the guitars to stay in good condition today, Johnson says. The Martin guitar company even later adopted an aspect of the Nagoya N-18. Clarke says the Nagoya N-18 has a “moveable truss rod” inset in the neck, which allows the owner to lessen the stress on the strings, making it possible to play slide guitar. Additionally, the ability to adjust the neck helps protect the part during winter, when the angle of the neck can move from lack of moisture. According to Clarke, the Martin guitar company added a moveable truss to its guitars in the 1980s.
“It’s a little ahead of its time,” Clarke says. At the time, not using a solid piece of wood for one guitar “was a cost-saving measure, but now it is how many woods are often cut.”
But perhaps the strongest legacy of the Nagoya guitars was and continues to be bringing quality, affordable guitars to people in the Washington, D.C. area.
Morgan, the Nagoya owner who bought one on the same day as Reid, agrees that it’s a solid instrument. He’s played it recently.
“It has a warm tone, it is resilient, it is held together well,” he says.