Not an SS4L, but rather an S180

I took my guitar into the office to show off to some interested fellow guitar geeks and while there, one colleague (Hi Tatu!) spotted, after doing a Google image search on his phone that my guitar might actually be something other than a Kawai SS4L.

My assumption (and clearly also that of the guy who sold it to me) was that this was basically a Teisco SS4L re-branded as Kawai, after Kawai acquired Teisco.

But if you google Teisco SS4L and Kawai S180 they are actually pretty different guitars. Both have four pickups however, so I guess it is a reasonable mistake to make.

Teisco SS4L

Kawai S180

I googled Kawai S180 and found Jarmo’s Guitars.

(First hit. In Finland. Spooky).

I exchanged emails with Jarmo and he told me that my guitar is definitely an S180. Probably 1964.

So that makes this guitar 51 years old, Wow.

Some smaller updates…

  1. I am told (thanks, Marko!) that Kawai means “cute” in Japanese!
  2. I plugged the guitar into an amp and clonked the pickup pole pieces with a screwdriver. All pickups are alive, but two out of four of the toggle switches are a bit ropey and will need replacing. Tone circuit clearly works too. I could hear the pickup noise being shaped. Who knows about the volume pot. At least it doesn’t feel good.
  3. I just bought some Teisco / Kawai tuners on eBay that I hope will fit this guitar. Let’s see.

That is all.

Kawai evaluation. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty knackered.

So I found an hour the other day to start really examining my cheesy late 60s guitar purchase, the Kawai SS4L I bought last week.

The first impression that this could be a mighty fine guitar still holds, but I am now more intimidated by the amount of work needed to get it into playing shape.

Let’s summarize what I know so far.

Hardware

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The mounting plate on the back is in horrible shape and there seems no saving it. I have already taken it off, probably permanently.

As noted previously, the tuners are missing. Or in fact it looks like bits such as the posts, keys, gears have been ripped off for use somewhere else. The nice front mounting plate remains though. So I will try to keep it. The sub-assembly on the back is knackered and bent and probably not useful once I buy new tuners for the guitar.

Like the tuner mounting plate on the front of the headstock

The tuner mounting plate on the front of the headstock is nice and distinctive. I hope I can buy tuners to fit through it

Further down the neck the string guides and truss-rod cover look OK. But who knows what the nut is like.

Sting guides, truss rod cover and nut

Sting guides, truss rod cover and nut

The frets are really really small and low profile. Maybe this is why it is used so much for slide? But I will want the option to play it normally. So let’s see down the road if that is possible. If not then a re-fret by a professional will be necessary.

Semi floating bridge

Semi floating bridge

The bridge is there and not attached. Unlike the Fender guitars I am more used to, this is semi-floating and will rely on string pressure to keep it down. I say semi-floating because i also have my Ibanez ES175 copy where he bridge is not attached in any way. The thumb wheels remind me of a Tunomatic.

I don’t understand the vibrato system at all. It looks cool from the outside, but when I take off the cover I don’t get how it moves. It doesn’t feel springy. Maybe with strings on?

Vibrato assembly from above

Vibrato assembly in context

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Vibrato assembly

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Inside the vibrato assembly: What is going on?

The neck plate is has a nice “Japan” stamp on it. I read on a forum that it might actually be a set neck and not bolt-on at all, but Teisco / Kawai just wanted to make it look like a Fenders, so they screwed on a plate. I haven’t taken it off to check.

Neck plate stamped "Japan" Merely cosmetic?

Neck plate stamped “Japan” Merely cosmetic?

Whole lotta switches

The front of the guitar is taken up with three metal scratch-plates. One in the centre of the guitar holds the four pickups. Another chrome plate on the upper bout has holes where two pairs of rocker switches used to be. The third on the lower bout holds the master tone and volume, plus four toggle switches. That is a lot of switches.

Upper bout. Missing the rocker switches.

Upper bout. Missing the rocker switches.

Lower bout. With tone, volume and four toggle switches.

Lower bout. With tone, volume and four toggle switches.

If the toggle switches are original, then this means there were 8 switches in total on the guitar. That’s pretty crazy. But it could mean that, if each pick up had a switch in both signal and ground, any combination of the four pickups in series and parallel would be possible. This is something like the way Brian May’s Red Special is set up.

Looking under the hood of the lower bout chrome plate then it seems like even though the rocker switches have been removed, the wiring seems pretty complete.

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There is also a lot of really thin paper-backed foil inside the electronics cavities. A theory emerges. I wonder if the guitar suffered from a lot of hum picked up by its single-coil pickups? Maybe someone thought that the wires running up from the output jack to the pickups to the rocker switches on the upper bout were part of the problem. There is also some really pathetic paper-backed foil lining the guitar pickup cavity, which might be trying to address the same problem. But if so, they clearly didn’t know what they were doing, as the shielding material seems inadequate and no attempt has been made to ground it. But anyway, I’m guessing the toggle switches were added later and replaced the original rocker switches. The wiring certainly seems amateurish.

There are no loose connections and it could be that if I am lucky, the electronics will work as they are.

In terms of values, it seems to be difficult to read the pots, but If I desolder them I can take a reading with a multimeter. The tone capacitor seems to be 0.05uF.

Pots. 500k?

Pots. 500k?

Tone cap. 0.05 uF ?

Tone cap. 0.05 uF ?

Pickups

The pickup wiring all seems OK. But there was some crazy stuff going on underneath that middle scratch plate.

Firstly, a previous owner had taped — using basic clear sellotape type tape — a big black magnet to the underside of the bridge pickup. To boost its output? Is there any reason to think this would work?

Underside of pickups with extra magnet piggy-backed on bridge pickup

Underside of pickups with extra magnet piggy-backed on bridge pickup

I also found that most of the pickup height adjustment springs were missing and half that were left were in bad shape. One was even straightened out somehow.

Crazy messsed up pickup height springs.

Crazy messsed up pickup height springs.

So that was pretty much it, except to mention that someone has signed the inside of the volume and tone cavity, and put a date? 2000.

At least I know that someone who owned this guitar before really cared about it. At least enough to do mods to the electronics and try and boost pickup output. And maybe they also signed their name?

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HNGD to me: Kawai SS4L

Huuto.net and tori.fi are the two websites here in Finland for buying second-hand stuff. Huuto is the equivalent of eBay and Tori the equivalent of Craigslist. I trawl both regularly looking at guitar-related stuff, but it is extremely rare to see anything interesting on either of them. They are typically both awash with over-priced Corts and Harley Bentons, budget brands that seem very common in this neck of the woods. Almost all Strat or Les Paul copies, with the occasional pointy-pointy or Telecaster. Quality guitars are expensive and there is very little funky or interesting to be had, unless you go for serious vintage, which means serious money.

So I was really intrigued when I spotted an ad reading HOUND DOG TAYLOR KAWAI SS4L on huuto.net. The starting price in the auction was 100 EURO. When I googled it the first hit I got said Dan Auerbach owned one. More googling revealed this video

And this one:

It was the exact same guitar.

It turns out that Hound Dog Taylor, as mentioned in the ad is also fantastic by the way.

Apparently Hound Dog favoured Teisco or Kawai guitars for two reasons. Firstly because they were important to create his ‘head-cutting’ tone and secondly because they were readily available in pawnshops for around $25, so it didn’t matter much if he pawned or sold his own in order to get some extra money for the kind of hijinks that must have inspired his nickname.

More googling revealed this guitar to be a model originally developed by Teisco in the mid 1960s. When Kawai acquired Teisco in 1967, they continued to produce this model, but changed the brand to Kawai around1969. So this put this guitar around 1969 ish or shortly after. Even older than me!

The ad warned that the guitar on Huuto was missing a few things, such as tuners, pickup switches and pickup wiring. i.e. in need of some pretty serious work.

Still, I was totally in. A crazy four pickup Japanese guitar that might be older than me and has been used by Dan Auerbach and an amazing bluesman I had never previously heard of? For less money than our weekly shop? Wrap that beauty up…

I bid, putting up the price to 105 EURO and waited the 24 hours until sunday evening for the auction to close. I watched it live over the final 20 minutes, sure I was going to get a rival, but that never happened. The guitar was mine.

The next day I paid the seller, Friday afternoon it arrived. Looking like this.

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It’s a bit of a wreck. But completely beautiful.

it should look like this:

5b4461f7faca5c4884d3c0047a1db-orig

So apart from the things mentioned it is also missing a bunch of screws from the scratch plate and is otherwise pretty beat-up and dirty. The seller described its condition as “tyydyttävä“, which translates as “satisfactory”, but really means “not in good condition at all”. So this was no surprise.

The important things are that the neck is in good condition and all four (!) original pickups are there. The original bridge and whammy bar are also there.

Next I need to find time to do a full evaluation of what needs doing to get this little charmer back into playing shape.