Tokai SD50 Guitar
Having made their name as producers of some of the finest replica guitars, Tokai have evolved to the point where they are now creating originals and semi-originals of their own. By 'semi-originals' we mean that new class of 'Superstrat' equipped with humbuckers and advanced floating tremolo systems, the guitar style which almost every Japanese and American maker is now producing, following the trend probably established by Eddie Van Halen and his Kramer/Floyd Rose combination.
Bearing in mind their undoubted skill at making S???t-like guitars with single coil pickups, Tokai are a good bet to have got their 'Superstrat' right. Enter, therefore, this month's heavyweight contender, the Tokai SD50, a rich metallic red sample of which was recently loaned to us by importers/distributors Blue Suede Music.
Handsome our sample SD50 certainly was. The finishing quality, the woodworking, the tough chrome plating on the substantial cast hardware, the sturdiness of the four bolt neck joint - everything was as it should be, confirming our long-held opinion that Tokai definitely know what they're about. Speaking of hardware, this is what separates the SD50 from less expensive models in the Tokai range. Apart from having a more advanced own-brand pair of humbuckers, it has almost the full works of current Tokai thinking on tremolo systems - the AR-1, complete with one of those controversial nut-lock units. Incidentally, the 'AR' tag stands for Ayers Rocker - Ayers Rock being a sign from God to Australians that AC/DC were meant to be (or so), but you have to make do with a standard Tokai trem (although 'make do' is really rather an unfair slight on a more than acceptable basic trem system). There is, for that matter, an even more adventurous Tokai trem available on some models (the AR-II), but as it's the SD50 we're looking at here we'll not delve into the mysteries of that.
The AR-1 is really a hybrid design, halfway between a typical Strat-like trem and some of the wonder-whammers like the Floyd Rose and Kahler types. The bridge's baseplate (a nice chunky piece of cast metal) is screwed down onto the guitar's body, and equally workmanlike saddles (fully adjustable, but only with allen keys) carry the strings, which can be inserted either through the back or the front of the body. The strings fasten internally onto what Tokai call 'lever hooks'. These devices are what enable the bridge unit mounted fine-tuning screws to work, the shafts of which act against the lever arches to tension and de-tension the strings. Fortunately (albeit with some typically Japanese 'English' misspellings!) Tokai provide an excellent illustrated guide on exactly how to use and set the AR-1, so you've no problems in store, either for setting-up or string changing.
Once you've inserted the ball ends, you thread the strings beneath the nut lock and wind them on as normal, then do your Robin Hood act and stretch them, to take out any unwanted tension (always a good ploy, under any circumstances). Keeping on stretching the strings (using the snap-in trem arm preferably) you then tune up in the normal way. Once you're satisfied that your strings won't slip too grotesquely from pitch, you lock the nut-clamp down, using yet another allen key. Three screws clamp the top bar, holding the strings in pairs against a baseplate. Once locked tight behind the nut, the theory runs that the strings will be prevented from slipping on the machines, and that only fine tuning will be required, this being achieved by using the small screws positioned at the back of the bridge. On our sample Tokai, these bridge tuners were smooth as silk to operate and gave plenty of adjustment potential, thus allowing extremely precise and fine-geared pitch adjustments.
Earlier, we called nut lock systems 'controversial' - why? Well, imagine, as most of us real-world players have to, that you only have one guitar on stage. Now imagine breaking a string and the consequent hassles involved in replacing it! You'll need to unscrew the nut lock (including finding your allen keys) fit the string, screw the lock up again, and so on. As a principle it might be o.k for the player who has a guitar roadie to do the work for him, while the superstar uses guitar number two - but life isn't that easy for most of us, is it? Tokai aren't alone in fitting these locks, so it's no criticism of them However, in our view, it's a wholly impractical system.
Nonetheless, the AR-1 trem works a treat. With the nut clamp locked and the strings sufficiently well played-in, even the most obscene wham-bar pyrotechnics were possible; from having the strings flapping against the fretboard like rubber bands, right back again to pitch, with very few problems at all.
Being as concerned about the practicalities of nut locks as we are, we also tried the Tokai with the clamp unfastened, and the tremolo seemed to work almost as well as it did with the lock secured. Left to us, we'd not bother to use it, especially on stage.
Having delved at some length into this aspect of the SD50, what about its other qualities? Fitted with two exposed twin coil (humbucking) pickups, the Tokai has a three-way Strat-style selector with two knurled metal controls; one volume, one tone. This combination makes the SD50 a nice simple guitar to handle on stage - not too much induce mistakes, but not too little to give you a good tonal variation, either. Having said that what would have been nice would have been some device to select single coil operation. Ambitious do-it-yourselfers should be able to fix this, though, as could any reasonable repairman. Meanwhile, how about it as a standard feature, Tokai?
The SD50 is a particularly reassuring guitar to handle. It's nicely heavy and has that indefinable 'quality' feel which separates the men from the boys, even if you can't always say why.
The Tokai, in keeping with current high fashion, features a flat-profile rosewood fingerboard. Flat 'boards are increasingly favoured today, some players claiming that cambered profiles can 'choke-off' notes against the frets on lengthy string bends. Although we can't say that traditionally profiled types bother us at all (assuming the guitar is properly set-up and strung in the first place), users of extremely light strings and ultra-low actions might well find this a benefit. Players used to conventional Strat necks might find this feature unfamiliar at first but you'll soon get used to it especially as the width and depth are so good that you're soon belting around the fingerboard with its well set medium/fat frets like you were born with it in your hands.
Given the high quality feel of the AR-1 tremolo system, the excellent fine tuning and the overall virtues of the guitar, what of the sound - is this where the Tokai falls down? Definitely not! In fact (bearing in mind the oft-quoted opinion that Far Eastern humbuckers buck hum but don't do much else) these two work very well indeed. The output level is on the high side and, through our test Laney AOR valve combo, the raunch from the SD50 was definitely of the hip-grinding variety, with no apparent loss of either sustain or harmonic content due to the floating trem, as far as we could tell (not having tried this guitar without an AR-1).
Obviously intended for the hard Rock player, the SD50 sounds the part to near perfection. The pickups snarl and rasp into an aggressive attacking sound that you won't need a Mesa Boogie to get. To test that point we fed ours into an ancient tranny Carlsbro Hornet and it was quite capable of overdriving that with conviction. Pleasingly, although well up to distorted soloing the pickups weren't of the 'all balls, no subtlety' variety. In many respects they would count among the best Jap humbuckers that we've tried.
Given that we have some very practical reservations about nut locks, we really enjoyed having this guitar around the office. True, it's very much a heavy metal player's delight - it sounds best in the hands of someone who likes going wild with the tremolo arm, and that's compounded by the fiery attack and bite from the pickups - but any player with a spark of life lurking somewhere in their veins will probably enjoy this guitar. Among the current crop of 'Superstrats' the Tokai SD50 is certainly one of the best, and both plays and sounds like the quality instrument it undoubtedly is.
On the question of value for money, we gather that some caution should be applied to the official RRP. In theory this model (minus case) costs a steep-ish £357.63. However, a more typical selling price is likely to be around £250. If that's the case, then the Tokai SD50 isn't only a very suitable guitar for the heavy Rock player - it's also a very fairly priced one!
Tokai SD50 GUITAR (WITH AR-1 TREMOLO SYSTEM) RRP £357.63
More details from Blue Suede Music Ltd., (Contact Details).
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!