I consider “vintage” Yamaha FG series acoustic guitars to be models made between the years 1966 and 1981. These are the years where the truss rod adjustment is in the headstock. All models introduced in 1981 and later have the truss rod adjustment accessible through the sound hole. I’ll concentrate on models imported into the US as there were many other models not imported but have made their way over here initially brought back by US military stationed in Japan, and more currently, via eBay. A word of caution: beware of inflated prices and misstated descriptions on eBay.
Most people interested in vintage acoustic guitars will recognize the “signature” red label as the start of the historic Yamaha FG line. But the first models, FG-150 & FG-180, where actually available in October 1966, but only in Japan. These models had light green labels, very similar to the familiar red labels. There are other differences on the headstock; the Yamaha logo is smaller, the headstock shape has a slightly flared shape (wider at the top), and the truss rod cover is bell shaped and says “REINFORCED NECK”. The “REINFORCED NECK” truss rod cover made it to some of the early 1968 models before changing to the new style cover, a way to roughly date the early models. They changed to the Red label at the start of 1967.
In 1967 the FG-110 (a less expensive folk size) was introduced with the familiar red label.
In 1968, the Yamaha FG line came to America consisting of: FG-75, FG-110, FG-140, FG-150, FG-180, FG-300, and the 12 string FG-230. They have the familiar red Nippon Gakki label, the larger Yamaha headstock logo, and the Yamaha truss rod cover with the three tuning fork symbol. Although it seems the earliest ones were built in 1967, using the bell shaped “REINFORCED NECK” truss rod cover. The FG-140, FG-150, and FG-180 continued with the wider flared headstock shape. The FG-75, FG-110, and FG-230 have the familiar tapered headstock shape.
The serial numbers initially consisted of 6 digits. It has been assumed the first digit is the year, but the remaining five digits do not fit any other dating systems. Actually, they pick up where the previous “Dynamic” series left off. Consecutive numbers with the first Green label starting with 52XXXX, then they incremented to 600000 at the start of 1967. It is assumed all guitars (not just the FG’s) being built shared these numbers. The 6 digit serial numbers grew to 7 digits in 1969. In mid-1971 they changed the serial numbers to 8 digits, the first being the year, the next 2 the month, the next 2 the day, and the last 3 the unit number. YMMDDUUU.
The best way to date the early FG’s is to look inside. On one of the sides, you should find an ink stamped date code, such as 45.12.28, which has the format YEAR.MONTH.DAY. The 45 refers to the 45th year of the SHOWA emperor era (1926 – 1989), which is 1970. This date code is probably when the sides were made, not the date the guitar was built. But, it’s the only way to determine when the guitar was made, since the serial number is a sequential with no relation to date.
The FG-75 has a classical guitar size body, with rounded shoulders. It has “ladder” braced (bracing perpendicular to the strings) instead of the normal “X” bracing all modern steel string guitars have. Probably a copy of classical guitar bracing but much heavier to withstand the additional steel string tension.
The FG-110 and FG-150 are Folk size guitars similar to Martin’s 000 size.
The FG-140, FG-180, FG-230, and FG-300 are dreadnought size (which Yamaha calls “Jumbo”) guitars with a slightly different shape that is unique to Yamaha. The FG-300 was the top of the line non-hand built guitar of that era. It has a laminated Spruce top, laminated Rosewood back and sides, split fretboard inlays, a fancy engraved pick guard, and a saddle with individually adjustable saddles (for intonation) and the whole assembly is adjustable for height (action). The bridge pin holes are arranged in an arc instead of the usual straight line, although the early 70’s models made in Japan (not for export, white rectangular label) have the pins in a straight line. The FG-300 is well known for its sweet tone and deep bass making many question whether it’s actually all solid wood.
The laminates of vintage Yamaha guitars were made differently than today’s laminates. All the layers are tone wood not a cheap wood filler. The top has three layers, thin top and bottom ply and a thick mid ply (oriented perpendicular to the top and bottom ply), making it hard to tell that it isn’t solid wood. If you were to take a close look at the sound hole with a jeweler’s loupe or magnifying glass, you will see the layers. The back and sides are two ply. The FG-300 having two ply of Rosewood. You can tell it’s two ply by looking at a grain pattern or a defect on one side and looking for the same on the other side. The inside will be different even though it looks like solid wood. It really is, but it’s two saw cut ply, and not of today’s rotary peeled log ply. The grain of cut vs. peeled wood looks very different. Almost all commercially produced vintage Yamaha FG’s for export are laminated. This was because of the uncontrolled climate (temperature and humidity) on the ships bringing them to America. Many earlier solid wood Yamaha guitars cracked in shipping. The laminates ensured that wouldn’t happen. Additionally, the 100 series guitars were very lightly braced. This combination of all tone wood ply and very light bracing gave them the sonic quality of a solid wood guitar.
Hand crafted models FG-500 and FG-550 (12 string) were added in 1969 followed by models FG-580, FG-630 (12 string), FG-1500, FG-2000, and FG-2500 (12 string slot head) in 1971. All were Jumbo size. FG-500, FG-550, and FG-580 have solid Spruce tops while the FG-630 is laminated Spruce. All four models used laminated Jacaranda for the back and sides. Jacaranda is similar to Brazilian Rosewood, but Jacaranda is not in the rosewood family. FG-1500, FG-2000, and FG-2500 have solid Ezo Spuce tops and solid Jacaranda back and sides. These are very beautiful guitars, and all are highly respected and sought after. The FG-1500, FG-2000, and FG-2500 are very rare and can sell for many thousands of dollars!
In late 1971 most of the FG production moved from Japan to Taiwan. You will notice 2 serial numbers inside most of the Taiwan models (8 digit number on the brace under the end of the fretboard, and a 7 digit number starting with a “T” on the neck block), except for the first few months of the Taiwan Red label guitars, they only have the 7 digit number beginning with “T”. It had been thought the dual serial numbers were because some of the parts were made in Japan but they were assembled in Taiwan. I don’t think so because the first few months they didn’t have the 8 digit number on the brace. The 8 digit number is a serial number and date when the guitar was made, YMMDDUUU. The 7 digit numbers are sequential, used by all guitars, no relation to the date. In mid-1973 the stopped using the “T”. In 1979 they stopped using the 7 digit number.
There were a few different Taiwan labels during the 70’s. The first is the familiar red label with the Nippon Gakki removed. Starting in September 1972, there were 4 slightly different Tan labels, over a period of 3 years. Then a Black label, used from late 1975 to early 1977. Then a White oval label that was used for the next couple of decades.
In 1972, several new models were added: FG-45 (¾ scale guitar), FG-160 (Jumbo), FG-165S (Jumbo, Sunburst), FG-170 (Folk), FG-200 (Jumbo), FG-210 (12 string slot head Jumbo), FG-280 (Jumbo), and FG-295S (Jumbo, red sunburst). Yamaha also introduced two models with pickups: FG-110E (Folk) and FG-160E (Jumbo).
To add to the confusion, starting in 1972 guitars made in Japan, not for export, also have a Tan label, which say Nippon Gakki. See another guide Yamaha FG Serial Numbers, Interior Markings, and Labels for more info.
In 1975 most of the existing models numbers had -1 added to them, on a black rectangular label. The -1 is in a small font and some people don’t see it as part of the model number: FG-45-1, FG-75-1, FG-110-1, FG-110E-1, FG-160-1, FG-160E-1,FG-165S-1, FG-170-1, FG-180-1 (3 piece back), FG-210-1, FG-280-1, and FG-295S-1. There was another 12 string model added, the FG-260 (slot head, made in Japan). Yamaha also added the FG-700S (Jumbo, sunburst, made in Taiwan). This model number has also been reused between 2004 and 2016.
I’ve found a couple of rare models not listed in Yamaha’s Guitar Archive, which unfortunately has been taken down (http://www.yamaha.com/apps/guitararchives/guitarchive2.asp?t=ac). The FG-160-1 BK (Jumbo) is one such model. I’ve only found four references to that model on the Internet. It’s an all black guitar with a white pick guard. There looks to be another label under the label. I’m left wondering if these may have been factory seconds, maybe ugly grained wood, and they just sprayed them black to be able to sell them. Another, possibly rarer model, is the FG-110-1 SBK (Folk). It’s all black except for a sunburst top, and it too has a white pick guard. I’ve only found three references to this model on the Internet.
In 1975, the high end FG models (FG-1000 and up) became the L series.
In 1977 a new line of FG-3XX guitars was introduced. Three models with laminated mahogany back & sides (all Jumbo); FG-335, FG-335L (the first left hand model), FG-340, and FG-336SB. And 5 models with laminated Rosewood back & sides (all Jumbo); FG-345, FG-350W, FG-365S, FG-375S, and FG-351SB. The FG-350W became the new flagship model, replacing the FG-300, featuring an adjustable 1 piece saddle. The first solid top FG models were introduced carrying an “S” suffix, which previously indicated Sunburst finish (now noted as SB). Three 12-String models were also introduced (all Jumbo), the FG-312, FG-412SB (cherry sunburst), and the FG-512 (laminated Rosewood back & sides). Other models included the Classical Folk body FG-325 (obsolete in 1978) and the Folk size FG-330 and FG-331. All these guitars featured white oval labels.
In 1978 a mid-range series (both Jumbo) was introduced featuring the FG-750S (solid Spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides) and the FG-770S, the first all solid wood non-hand crafted model, with a solid Spruce top and mahogany back and sides.