Acoustic guitar

I LOVE Pedals Day #10: Xotic Effects

The Velvet Underground was a little before my time, but I discovered them at a great time in my life, when I had simple needs, a tiny budget and a rabid need to make noise with a guitar. For the uninitiated, try searching for songs like “I’m Waiting For the Man”, “I Heard Her Call My Name”, and my favorite VU, “Sister Ray”.

I’ve always been fascinated by real characters, people who are just oddly interesting. Usually I can’t find them; they find me. And man, the Velvets had characters. Watch the movie if you can. Well worth seeing how all of these interesting art movements have merged with a music scene in New York. But I have to say, one thing I kept digging into was the interesting gear the band used in their early days: including fuzz boxes, Sears amps, and a wonderful little Japanese guitar called the Kent Copa.

The Kent brand was made in Japan by Guyatone.

I guess you’ve heard this from me many times, but around 1963 the popularity of the electric guitar started to explode and the world was flooded with Japanese imports. The Kent brand name was used by the New York-based Buegeleisen & Jacobson Trading Company (B&G for short), one of several importers dealing with Japanese guitar makers at the time. From 1964 to 1966, nearly all Kent electric guitars were produced by the Tokyo Sound Company (better known as Guyatone), which had an extensive catalog of guitars, amps, pickups, effects and microphones – everything a budding musician would need.

And so it was that a humble Kent guitar made by Guyatone came into the hands of Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed. If you watch the documentary or search for photos, it’s easy to see Sterling and Lou taking turns tearing it up with a Kent Copa. (Of course the guys were playing other guitars too, and Lou is more associated with his black Gretsch 6112, especially early on. The VU was also Vox endorsed and I seem to hear all sorts of early Vox effects in the songs .)

Here’s a close up of those gnarly sounding pickups, tone and volume controls, rotary pickup selector. cheap-o plastic bridge, and surprisingly good vibrato.

As for the Kent Copa, it made its first appearance in the 1963 Kent catalog as a mid-level electric with a list price of $149. This model had a mahogany body and maple neck (supplied by the Japanese Mahura factory) paired with three Guyatone-made pickups, three volume controls, one tone control and a rotary selector. The model came in red or sunburst, but I rarely see the color red. Over the years the Copa has evolved a bit to offer better sounding pickups and a cheaper price. In mid-1966, the Copa was only $112 and had two additional finish options (honey blonde and cocoa tan), but the ax remained virtually unchanged during its short three-year run.

The Kent Copa that Sterling and Lou played belonged to the 1964-1966 lineup, as theirs had the more angular rectangle-shaped pickups. These were low-output pickups with high DC resistance, but were rather gnarly with a hint of overdrive, even at quiet control settings. The real magic happens when the Copa is paired with a scorching amp (à la Danelectro’s Silvertone 1484) and primitive fuzz like the first Vox Tone Bender.

Two other quirks to note: the bridge was a non-adjustable plastic job that didn’t help intonation. So if your guitar was dead on day one, it would be forever. Second, the Kent Copa’s tremolo is actually very good! The spring is recessed into the body and the take-up unit works great and has a nice feel. There was a story that Guyatone founder Mitsuo Matsuki visited the Harmony Guitar factory here in the United States. He observed all kinds of construction techniques and tried his hand at making his own tremolo. Knowing really nothing about guitar playability, he created an early tremolo that only moved one way and increased pitch. A little weird, but by the time the Copa came out, Mitsuo had it all figured out. You see, we can all learn and grow! So excuse me for now. I have to go upstairs to see the 76ers game!