Tokai Van Halen
TST50 Six String
The Tokai Van Halen model looks a vision of modernity, but it's actually part of a longish tradition of single pickup six strings, including the Fender Esquire, and Les Paul and SG Juniors. There's something very appealing about the simplicity of this type of guitar - no tone control, no pickup selector, just strap on and go.
And it encourages playing - like all the best guitars, the Tokai has a positive feel to it that makes you want to play more. So though its two faults are minor, they do spoil the flow. More of them in a moment.
From the front, this guitar looks a very familiar shape - that rounded, contoured body, those curvy horns, the single-sided head... but why does it have those horrible yellow stripes painted to look like insulating tape all over its fine form? And who's removed ail the pickups? While Edward Van Halen can't be held personally responsible for this, it's obviously his attempts at DIY (and his rather good playing) that have inspired this copy. So how does it work?
Looking down from the headstock end, you'll find six smooth, Tokai own-brand machine heads, and a plain plastic nut without the string-damping machinery that accompanies a locking tremolo system. The 21 fret neck has slim rounded Fendery frets, a slim rounded profile, and a nicely slippery rosewood fingerboard for your slim rounded fingers. The neck screws onto the body at the 16th fret, and the body itself has one humbucking pickup with its cream coils exposed, a volume knob, no scratchplate, and a Strat-like bridge/tremolo unit with adjustable brass saddles and traditional through-body string loading. And that's all.
Back to the faults. The current vogue for locking-nut tremolos is not without reason, as the Eddie Van Halen school of wang bar dive-bombing (as it is known) has a tendency to put guitars out of tune. Locking trems don't stop strings stretching, but they do stop them slipping or sticking when you wiggle the wanger. If the string is prevented from moving by being clamped at both the bridge and nut, it obviously can't stick.
The TST50 has an older style tremolo system without any of this new-fangled lockery. Which is why it can go out of tune if you wrestle with it. Proper setting-up will ease matters but can't cure the ailment completely. Then again locking trems are more expensive.
My other complaint is less important. This particular Tokai had a high 16th fret that deadened the B string when you bent it up to E from D at the 13th (my main "lick"). High frets are important things to look out for when buying guitars, and are usually visible if you peer down the length of the neck. The neck should appear either straight or slightly concave with all frets even in height. High frets aren't incurable, or fatal, but they can occasionally catch you out in mid-riff. Apart from this quibble, the rest of the neck played excellently.
It didn't sound so bad either. The humbucker is good, growling and howling as much as required, though still clear and clean enough for rhythm work with the volume backed off. As you might expect with a single pickup guitar, the tonal range is quite narrow. The TST50 is hard and middly, sounding somewhere between a Strat and a Les Paul - like a Gibson Firebird, perhaps? Good if expensive. It's well-finished (except for that 16th fret) and is - most importantly - rewarding to play. But the Tokai TST50 is still essentially a simple and limited guitar. Depends whether you think £300 is a simple price.