The Last Outlaws
They went down to the crossroads...

copyright 2012 by Tim Harman

Note: following narrative is based on an extensive conversation of 12/28/2012 with Electra/Westone product manager Tom Presley.

It recounts events of 30 years ago, attempting to reconstruct a coherent and definitive timeline for specific prototype instruments, placing them in their context as part of the Electra and Westone brands, as well as the larger historical context of the Japanese-American guitar manufacturing partnerships of the 80s and 90s.

Tom played a major role in this history, working with every major Japanese (and Korean) builder of the day: Kasuga, Fuji-Gen, Terada, and Matsumoku most prominently. Developments were fast and fluid at the time, and, while there must be a paper record (purchase orders, letters of credits, invoices) to buttress these recollections, it wasn't primarily Tom's job to take notes, and that record isn't immediately available.

The Last Outlaws is part of a much larger story, spread in maddeningly incomplete bits and pieces around the internet - all of them recounted by people doing their best with what they knew, but many of them contradictory and confusing. I have been responsible for some of the misses and near-misses in the story: in Ebay auctions and forum posts, recounting incomplete memories of my own involvement in the guitar business of the 80s, and repeating my misunderstandings and incomplete digestion of both technical and historical information Tom has relayed to me over three decades. Memory is fallible and downloads of one guy's data to another guy's brain inevitably garble a bit here and there.

Tom and I have discussed the potential (great), possibility (not IM), and likelihood (honestly, low) of collaborating on a book which would cover these topics more completely, "setting the record straight" at least from the Presleyan perspective. For the time being, let's pretend this article, at least, is factually authoritative as we can make it, today, for the matters it covers. (Subject, of course, to future revision.)

Tom unfailingly insists that he was far from the only actor in the drama of St Louis Music's guitar lines, and is quick to give credit to others where due. SLM management and associates Gene Kornblum, Abe Fortas, Curt Trainer, Jerry Proctor, John Karpowicz, John Maher, Rene Lopez; Japanese executives and partners Shiro Arai of Aria, Masao Terada, Akira Takei and Toshi Ohwa of Matsumoku; passionate SLM dealers such as Gary Wolfe of The String Shoppe and Tim Harman from Coffman Music (that's me): all played parts which could (and should) be clearly recounted. Tom reminds us that his perspective is only one of many.

But Tom was, for most of the years in this narrative, the hub of the commercial, industrial, and creative wheels which have left us, after the dust of their passing settles, these artifacts of wood and wire. These instruments have enriched our musical lives, and the best of them stand with the other great guitars of the 20th century.

This story, then, is based on the careful recollections of a guy who was indisputably there as it happened - who, if he didn't make it happen, certainly facilitated what happened. All history is subject to revision as others (who were equally there, or who have made a careful study) contribute their insight. But for the moment, information in this article supersedes any previous versions.

In January 1981, Tom Presley and Electra Guitars stood at a crossroads. On one hand (or, more specifically, displayed on one side of the Electra exhibit at the Winter NAMM Show at the Anaheim Convention Center) were several alternate versions of the Outlaw MPC model which had reigned at the top of the Electra line since its introduction in 1977. On the other hand, arrayed on another wall of the exhibit, was the new Phoenix line, in a new body style and with new pickup configurations.

Think of one side as The Way, and the other The Road Not Taken - or one side as The Past, and the other The Future. As a guitarist and proud guitar designer, Tom had his own opinion, and was pretty sure where he was headed. But he was businessman enough (and had learned enough caution from SLM president Gene Kornblum) not to confuse his will with the will of the market. He was offering his dealers and other NAMM attendees two alternatives: the Outlaws, now contrary to their name, represented continuity with the past (tweaked for a new decade); the Phoenix line pointed a new direction for the brand. Tom was willing to let dealer and public response guide his decisions.

Essentially, the question was this: should the Outlaw die?

The Outlaw and the MPC module had been good for Electra. Since 1976, when the MPC was introduced - and especially since 1977, when the Outlaw appeared - Electra had phased and overdriven its way into the awareness of most electric guitarists. Some remembered its roots as a pure commodity copy brand, but most also knew about the range of well-made, mid-priced, innovative guitars, many (but certainly not all) featuring the built-in MPC effect modules. Besides the Outlaw, there had been the Les Paul-based MPC Standards and a semi-hollow MPC.

For MPC non-believers (who either eschewed effects or preferred them on the floor), there had been clone choices leftover from pre-MPC days (the Rocks, Semi-Acoustic, Jazz Strad, Rock Strad). One way or another, most shapes had been available either with traditional Gibsonesque controls and switching or with Presley's Tone Spectrum Circuitry.

A new and original modified Les Paul shape, with Tele-like upper shoulder semi-cutaway, had appeared, and in 1981 was worn by Invictas, Vulcans, a new Omega, and the new MPC Ultima.

This range of guitars had come from several Japanese suppliers, including Kasuga (all production Outlaws, Rocks and their derivatives, the Semi-Acoustic MPC, Omegas) and Terada (most other Semi-Acoustics). Presley had been especially impressed with the work of Matsumota Moku, or the Matsumota Wood Company. This plant in Matsumota built sewing machine cabinets and Buddhist statuary; thanks to the guitar craziness of one Toshi Ohwa, in one corner of the factory they also built some guitars. They had already taken over production of many carved-top Electra models. Toshi wanted to build a lot more.

Industrial Politics, or How To Choose A Guitar Factory, a tangential back-story.

In the meantime, Electra's sister acoustic brand Alvarez had been growing faster than Electra, creating both problems and opportunities at Kasuga. Kasuga had traditionally been a strong acoustic builder - and were mostly interested in electrics which could be made in high numbers with a minimum of tooling and new development. Due both to factory equipment and personnel experience, Kasuga much preferred pressing tops to carving tops, and were prone to argue with customers who requested they change their approach. They were reluctant to buy electric guitar parts from Gotoh or other outside vendors in the quantity necessary for the economy of scale SLM needed to be price-competitive, and were increasingly uninterested in developing new tooling for pickups, hardware, even bodies - and they enforced their production prejudices with high costs to the customer.

Kasuga had done a good job with the Outlaw, for which production drawings had been provided by SLM - but even on that project, they'd been reluctant to provide rounds of pre-production prototypes. While Presley and Karpowicz had requested and gotten changes after the initial prototype, the first production run had been something of a pig-in-a-poke. SLM's relationship with Kasuga on a professional level remained completely positive, but that didn't make Kasuga more receptive to Tom's ongoing flood of new ideas and requests for short prototype runs.

One of Tom's strengths was his in developing strong relationships with like-minded guitar fanatics at factories in Japan. Of all the Americans working in the guitar import business, he was among the best at getting inside the heads of his Japanese counterparts. He liked and respected them, and they reciprocated. They responded to his innovative ideas, his enthusiasm, his clear-sighted way of working through problems to get to the goal.

He also enjoyed the culture, and considered people at the Japanese factories as equals and partners. They worked together side by side, and over the following years Tom spent months of every year travelling across Asia for the sake of better guitars. Thanks to his network of connections, and his way of putting the right people together, few would do more than Presley to shape the import guitar industry of the era, with influence that went beyond just SLM's brands.

Tom hit a collaborative stride with Toshi at Matsumoku, who offered everything Kasuga did not. When they met in the late 70s, Toshi was proudest of the recent work he'd done with Aria, where he'd been able to upgrade design, features, and build quality to bring the brand respect unusual for a Japanese builder of the era, considerably raising its market profile. But Toshi was frustrated as well, because Shiro Arai now continually pressed him to cut costs rather than develop innovative products, and he didn't want to be party to cheapening the brand.

It was Toshi who came to Tom proposing a closer relationship with SLM, offering exclusivity of production (in exchange for greater production runs) - but with a "let's build killer stuff" attitude rather than "let's build acceptable stuff cheap." Matsumoku was clamoring for the design, development, and prototype work that Kasuga didn't want. When Tom requested features or construction methods Toshi thought were impractical, Toshi might offer his counter opinion - but never resisted building as Tom had spec'ed, then working collaboratively afterward to resolve any resulting problem.

The factory was also willing to tool for short prototype runs, and to develop and source custom components from other vendors. It helped that Matsumoku was owned by Japan Steel, with its deep pockets: not only were custom metal guitar components easy to develop, but Matsumoku was connected to the highest levels of R&D in Japanese industry. It wouldn't last forever - someone always comes along and paves paradise - but for awhile Tom and Toshi could pull together resources independent guitar shops (and most of the American majors) could only dream of.

It was the kind of working partnership - a sort of well-funded skunkworks tucked away in the corner of Japan, Inc. - that comes along once in a lifetime. And it made it easy for Tom to decide to move electric guitar production away from Kasuga in order to consolidate it at Matsumoku. A clear benefit was that Kasuga could then increase their Alvarez acoustic production. Everyone was happy.

Since Tom had a slew of new guitars in mind, he was especially happy with the product development cycle which evolved at Matsumoku - a process which would minimize the kind of concept-to-product slippage he feared with Kasuga. The process featured at least two rounds of prototypes, each with its own purpose: early pre-production prototypes, which Tom calls "mules," and production prototypes.

Mules, usually based on styroform or clay models provided by Tom, served as early proofs of concept for new models, often made up to a year ahead of any new model introduction, usually in a set of as many as a dozen variant versions. Production prototypes were then based on design or specification revisions to the mules, and consisted of a short but significant run (12-24) of the proposed production guitar, using production tooling.

Matsumoku could produce a mule in as little as 30 days.

And with that background, we're ready to discuss and appreciate the Outlaw mules featured here.

Tom and Toshi had been very busy throughout 1980, developing mules and production prototypes for the new Phoenix series which they knew would debut at Winter NAMM 1981. These guitars featured an all-new body design by Tom (with input from Toshi) they thought would be appropriate for SLM's American market. (My eyes see a certain continuity with the instruments Matsumoku was building as Westones for the Japanese and European markets, but that's a different branch of the story.) Tom hoped Phoenix models would become Electra's flagship line - as, with many significant changes in features and trim, they would.

Still, while the sales burst which had propelled Electra after the 1976-77 MPC introduction was slowing in 1980, it was by no means clear that MPC had reached the end of its cycle. MPC was incorporated in several new 1981 models (though, significantly, none of the Phoenixes). The big question was what to do about the Outlaw.

Outlaws had always been a Kasuga product: if production of solidbody electrics would be moved to Matsumoku, would the Outlaw come along? What about Kasuga's tooling, jigs, and hardware inventory?

The guitars featured here are two of Tom's suggested answers to these questions. All were built as mules for evaluation by SLM staff and selected dealers, as well as display at NAMM shows. They were developed during the first quarter of 1980, between Winter NAMM 1980 and Tom's spring 1980 trip to Matsumoku. Per the usual practice for mules, Tom first saw them "in the raw," as complete body-neck units, sanded and sealed, but without fingerboards, frets, or other hardware.

All have the neck-through construction common to all Outlaws; all have 24.75" scale, flat radius (probably 14") 22-fret necks, with 1-5/8" brass nuts, 5-way Tone Spectrum switches, Tune-o-Matic type bridges with stop tailpieces, and massive stop tailpieces.

Significantly, none have the routed E-brand peace sign on the body (as Tom thought that bit of cowboy kitsch had no place in the brave new 80s).

From there on out, each answers the Outlaw survival question in its own way; let's consider them one at a time. (And note that the names for the guitars are mine, not Tom's.)


Black Burst and Hot Chocolate are true one-offs; no other similar examples are known to exist. They also represent the Presleyest of all Outlaws, with revised body shapes, contours, and "heel" profiles as Tom would have done them from the beginning, had he had more of a hand in the original design of the model.

Tom maintains that the original "heelless" scoop on the back of the Outlaw, where the neck meets the cutaways - which provided unexcelled upper-neck access - was a structural weak point of what was otherwise a very rigid and stable design, allowing more neck flexibility and wobble than he preferred. (I put "heel" in quotation marks as it seems somehow wrong to refer to a heel on a neck-through guitar, as the heel is generally considered as the block where a set- or bolt-neck meets the body. But for purposes of play feel, that area of a neck-through guitar provides the same point of contact for the hand as a conventional heel. So..."heel.") You could "bend" the neck for a pseudo-vibrato effect by applying pressure behind the headstock in the same manner as on an SG or Melody Maker. Some guitars were broken in shipping at that location.

Tom and Toshi would eventually create a much more stable, and visually similar, heelless joint on set-neck Electra/Westone guitars with their bayonet joint. But Tom's solution for greater rigidity on these two Outlaw mules was to "hump up" the heel area of the through-neck, simply to put more wood mass there. It works.

Black Burst wears this heel hump in the profile Tom originally specified, but after handling the guitar in its unfinished form at Matsumoku, Tom thought it was too humpy. He left it alone on Black Burst (with its mostly hard maple neck), but took a rasp file to the hump on Hot Chocolate (with its mostly softer mahogany neck) and tapered the hump down to a compromise.

Tom also considered set-neck (rather than neck-through) construction for the possible new Matsumoku Outlaws, and the various "heel" profiles sculpted into on these neck-through prototypes gave him a way to do a visual and tactile test of the different heel joints he might have used in actual set-neck production.

Black Burst and Hot Chocolate share rounded over body edges rather than the more angular broad bevels featured on prior production Outlaws, as well as somewhat softened cutaway horns. This shape was under consideration for Outlaw production at Matsumoku.

Black Burst (like Hot Chocolate) also does away with the pickguard, for a cleaner look. These two are the only known Outlaws with "naked" tops.

Finishing out Black Burst's specs:

  • 5-piece through-body neck: maple-walnut-maple-walnut-maple, unlike any production model Outlaw
  • mahogany body wings (NOT VERIFIED) also unlike production models
  • rosewood fingerboard
  • humpy artificial neck heel
  • tortoise neck binding (NOT VERIFIED)
  • pearloid dot markers (instead of abalone bowties), logo, and peace-sign
  • E-branded tuners
  • brass sustain block under bridge
  • exposed-coil MMK pickups, probably early Magnaflux UBC IV w/hex polepieces
  • Tone Spectrum dial in lower cutaway, not top
  • smaller toggle switches instead of production bat switches
  • polished brass pickup rings and access plates

Worthy of note:

  • The sustain block under the bridge, while certainly worth its weight in malarkety (that's marketing malarkey) - "check out this brass SUSTAIN BLOCK, duuude!" - actually served little if any mechanical purpose on any Outlaw. It had been a leftover fix from pressed-top Kasuga Les Paul construction, where it did serve to anchor the bridge firmly to the solid body under the squishy pressed arched top. It had simply been carried forward to the all-solid Outlaws, where mounting studs sunk directly in maple provided excellent coupling between string and top - and where, in some cases, the sustain block may actually have blocked sustain rather than enhancing it.
  • This guitar features the only known appearance on a non-pickguard Outlaw of the Tone Spectrum knob in the lower cutaway horn rather than the top. (Tom occasionally made alternate pickguards with the knob in the lower position, but always decided against the location after inadvertently hitting the dial while playing.)
  • This guitar would would seem also to be the only Outlaw in captivity with dot markers rather than abalone bowties. Tom felt many "full-dress" design features from the 70s would seem over-ornate and gaudy in the 80s, and was moving toward a cleaner, more minimalist design aesthetic. (It can even be argued that the excesses of shape guitars were of form rather than ornamentation.) Thus these dots aren't a mistake, or an early design feature later reconsidered, but a step toward the future of the breed. The mini-toggles in place of the standard large bat switches are a similar minimalist gesture.
  • The MMK pickups, likely early Magnaflux IVs, were probably included in the guitar as part of its original spec. They were pickups Tom would include on future Phoenixes (and then Spectrums), and thus brought the proposed new Outlaw into the new regime.


Hot Chocolate is the brunette Black Burst's red-headed sister, sharing rounded-over body profile and smoothed cutaway horns, in contrast to the angular beveled edges and sharper horns of production Kasuga Outlaws.

This guitar originally shared the artificial "heel" hump Tom intended to provide greater structural rigidity where the body wings were glued to the through-neck. Unlike Black Burst, however, Hot Chocolate's "heel" was re-shaped by Tom to a lower profile which felt better under the hand. (Careful inspection of that area reveals that the profile is not completely symmetrical.) That mod was made in spring 1980, before Matsumoku finished the guitar.

Hot Chocolate is unique among all known surviving Outlaws for its 5-piece through-body neck comprised of three wide bands of mahogany interlaid with two narrow bands of maple - i.e., mostly mahogany with two narrow stripes of maple.

  • 5-piece through-body neck: mahogany-maple-mahogany-maple-mahogany, unlike any production model Outlaw
  • bookmatched mahogany body wings
  • rosewood fingerboard
  • humpy artificial neck heel, low profile
  • tortoise neck binding (NOT VERIFIED)
  • highly figured abalone bowties fret markers; MOP Electra logo and headstock peace-sign
  • Grover Rotomatic tuners with concentric-ring motif
  • brass sustain block under bridge
  • covered Magnaflux humbucker at neck, zebra Magnaflux at bridge
  • production bat switches for MPC modules
  • plain black speed knobs (not knurled as production models)
  • black plastic pickup rings and access plates

Worthy of note:

  • Sustain block under bridge, as on Black Burst, is a vestige of Kasuga practice, where it provided better string-to-body coupling on pressed-top guitars - but arguably serves no mechanical (as opposed to marketing) purpose on true solidbody guitars.
  • This guitar, with its expanse of reddish wood unsullied by pickguard, is surely of interest as the mahoganiest-looking of all Outlaws ever produced.

After Tom's visit to Matsumoku in May 1980, the Outlaw mules were finished with fingerboards and basic hardware, clear-coated, then shipped to SLM where pickups of choice (and possibly tuners) were fitted. They were likely ready for Summer NAMM in July, where Tom considered showing them, before ultimately deciding to protect current Outlaw sales and not confuse the market. Thus they had their coming-out at Winter NAMM 1981.

But these last Outlaw mules weren't allowed to reproduce. Sometime between Winter NAMM and May 1981, based on dealer feedback and sales of new models, Tom Presley had decided the Outlaw line would die here: Outlaws do not appear on that May Electra Price list. These two last Outlaws remain to testify both to their own history, and to what might have been.