Tokai Flying V
When Theodore McCarty at Gibson put pen to paper and designed the first Flying V way before 1958, little did he realise what he'd let himself in for. The model, when released along with the Gibson Explorer in 1958 as part of the new Gibson Modernistic range, was a total flop. This was presumably a fatal blow to his ego as only 81 of them were shipped in 1958, with only another 17 leaving the factory in 1959. Gibson did make up for lost time in 1962 and '63 when they shipped the remaining V's that had lain in the factory all this time, albeit with a change of colour in some cases i.e. red or black, the addition of a bar stop tailpiece, non PAF pickups, and nickel as opposed to gold parts. Some of these models came fitted with a Maestro Vibrola as standard, others did not.
In 1970 Gibson re-released the V again, and all of these models came in cherry with a gold medallion number plaque fixed to both the body and the matching case. 1974, and Gibson couldn't resist another try, and this time they really hit the jackpot. This model was also a non tremolo model but in the natural clear varnished look of the original 1958 Flying V. It's said that Gibson's intention was to release 600 or so, but when the idea appeared to be catching on, Gibson seized their chance and started churning them out like there was no tomorrow. Since then it's been re-released again as the Gibson Flying V II with modifications made to the original design. And yes, only very recently they re-released it yet again as the vintage replica of the 1958 original. Phew!
Ibanez had a crack at it, but had problems with the copyright, so close was theirs to the original, and have since desisted from this practice. Today it's the turn of Tokai, Japanese manufacturer and champion of the downtrodden musician, with their version of a Flying V, 1958 original style of course.
As the Tokai is indeed meant to be a copy of the very first Flying V's, I shall now take them to task and compare it directly with the original. For this purpose I have on loan from Mr. Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, one of the only 17 V's made in 1959 (serial no. 92046).
What follows is intended to be of an educational nature for the lovers of the original Flying V, and a sales aid to the beleagured musician who's having a hard time deciding whether to go the whole hog on an original 50's V, and spend up to £4,000, or settle for the Tokai V, gain the respect of his/her bank manager, and save £3,605. That's right, the Tokai V is only £395, so it does seem like a saving worthy of investigation.
First of all, the colour is wrong. I know it's mahogany and the originals were Korina and therefore lighter, but there's no excuse for this, it should be and could be lighter.
Comparing the headstocks of the Gibson 1959 V and the Tokai V, something is amiss. Measuring the headstock, I discover that the original is much wider at the base of the headstock. Another visual failure of the Tokai is the V shaped brass tailplate; it should be held on by three gold studs, this one's held on by three gold screws. Likewise, the rubber knee grip on the lower edge of the original has a finer tread than the coarser variety to be found on the Tokai. Little things like this do not affect the sound, but may affect the judgement of a considerable number of people who wish to use them as onstage posing guitars as a substitute for the real thing.
The 58/59 V had a rather bulky neck, the Tokai has a slimmer neck and it's very easy to play. It's fashioned from three pieces of mahogany and the rosewood fretboard houses 22 of the old fat frets that one associates with a V. All of these frets are easily accessible due to the design of the instrument.
Camber on the fretboard is of the mildest, and the action is superb. Pearl dot markers indicate playing positions and the neck join is good, bar the odd speck of glue. Bearing in mind that the guitar in front of me is a prototype, perhaps I shouldn't be too hard on the Japanese.
One of the more worrying aspects of this Tokai is the fretting, and I would be delighted to see a little more care taken in this department. Machine heads are faithful to the originals, i.e. Kluson type green tulip heads which do in fact hold excellent tune. The nut, as expected is plastic and the logo is faithful to the original. You'll find it on the headstock in large gold letters that stand proud of the guitar. This is copied from the 58/59 V, which in turn was a lift from the Gibson amplifiers of the day which carried the same logo.
Another failure in the headstock region is the famous Gibson bell that acts as a plastic truss rod cover. Its shape is nothing like the original and would not have altered the cost of the instrument if they'd got it right. Lose 10 points!
The mahogany body of the Tokai V is, I presume, coated in polyester, due to the fact that it has received a knock somewhere down the line and has chipped already. Rather typical of polyester finishes these days I'm afraid! Weightwise the body feels the same as Andy Powell's 59 Flying V, and like the original it balances just fine.
Strap buttons are in the normal place and so is the jack socket, i.e. on the front of the guitar. The scratchplate on the Tokai surprises me somewhat. Whilst 90% of the originals carried a white/black/white laminate, the Tokai prefers to differ and follow the other 10% by being black/white/black. Brian Ferry owns one of the latter, and if it's good enough for him it's good enough for me...
String wells at the rear of the Tokai V are finished off with metal grommets which the 59 original isn't, though I could swear Andy P. is missing six grommets. One up to Tokai!
Both guitars have two volume controls with a master tone, and passive electronics. Both guitars sport gold hardware, a 3-way toggle switch that's beautifully faded on each, and a bridge that's the right way round on only one of these guitars! One up to Gibson! I know it's a prototype fellas, but please, it is important to have the string harmonic screws facing the rear of the guitar in order to avoid snapping the strings with a sharp screwdriver whilst making the necessary intonation adjustments. When they're the right way around, each bridge saddle offers individual adjustment for length on each string.
The unfortunate thing with both of these instruments, is the use of a Tune-O-Matic bridge which moves all six strings to some degree, when making an adjustment to any one single saddle. However this is an original feature, and now I feel I'm giving the Tokai V a hard time, which I am!
Good news comes with the pickups which are a pair of humbuckers (not claimed to be PAF's - and very wise too), with gold covers. The gold covers are irrelevant, the pickups are not. Too many manufacturers are claiming their PAF (which was in fact the original Gibson humbucking pickup) sounds just like the original and they don't. Tokai make no such claims, but their sound is a reasonable approximation. What they do have is a sparkle, which in fact all Flying V's have, and a certain amount of ZING in the upper reaches of the treble department, which is only found in the oldies. What the Tokai pickups lack, is warmth in the rhythm position which would have rounded out the pickups nicely. Since pickups have become the major disaster area for let downs in the Japanese copy market, the Tokai V fares quite well here. The tone control works, and since the variables obtainable within the pickup parameters are extremely suited to the instrument, I'd say the sound is a very good one for the money.
Now just in case you think I hate this guitar, you're wrong. I do like it, cosmetic faults apart except for the fretting, a departmental Tokai need to take a long hard look at. For your £395, you will receive no case with your Tokai V, however, you will be able to afford one with the £3,605 you've just saved.
The Tokai Flying V was kindly loaned by Blue Suede Music, (Contact Details).