Tokai make guitars. They do it in Japan. One Two Testing reviews guitars. In Britain. Between the two is the distributor. Sometimes the distributor will say, "These are on sale, waddya think?" Sometimes the distributor will say, "These might be on sale, later in the year, so bear in mind that..." and a host of conditions and riders will follow. Sometimes they just buy you a drink and let you get on with it, but not often.
So, should you be deliriously excited with any of these three, there could be a couple of months to wait before they dock at a convenient port. And they're only a selection from the sizeable catalogue, but at least they'll give you an idea of how the Tokai mind is working.
The nicest thing about Tokai's VX65 is its case. If you stare at the yellow-and-brown tweedy cloth covering for long enough, it causes little retinal flashes every time you move your eyes. In their infinite colourblindness, Tokai chose for my turquoise VX65 a violent plush-red lining which assaults the oculars. If you can get the instrument out of its case without damaging your eyesight, you'll find the VX65 is a familiarly shaped six-string with – gasp! – two humbucking pick-ups, one volume and one tone control, and a three-way pick-up selector.
The guitar also comes equipped with Tokai's new patented Super Vibrato and its accompanying Lock-Nut unit. These "amazing" (the catalogue again) units lock the strings in position at the bridge and at the nut, preventing slippage when the tremolo arm is wiggled about.
It works, as far as I can tell, though I am a little dubious about the extra pressure put on the strings where they pass through the body behind the bridge.
The bolts locking the strings are provided with Allen keys, I would not recommend anything greater than finger-tightness if you intend using the guitar on stage, as fumbling about in the dark trying to change a string is hard enough without having to undo bolts at either end of your guitar neck.
The VX65 is well-finished, barring a slight gap between the neck and the body. Tokai seem very proud of their butch new neck fastenings, the "Super-Detachable Neck Joint System. This revolutionary... joint system that Tokai takes pride in throughout the world" involves four independent brass bolts being passed through 10mm nuts on their way through the body, giving a strength and firmness which actually is "quite outstanding".
This feature was standard on all three models I tried, and felt most effective in all.
Access to all 22 frets on the VX65 is good, and the neck itself is tolerably playable on a fat, round style. It feels wider and flatter across the fingerboard (rosewood on maple) than yer average you-know-what, which means making a slight mental adjustment (back two notches) before the guitar begins to feel comfortable.
All three pick-up positions sound reasonable, but they're just not special enough. The R.R.P. of the VX65 is nearly £400; that means in green folding terms, you'd be lucky to get one for less than £250.
The bass reviewed was the MBX45, a ¾ scale, 22 fret P-bass look-alike. At the moment there is some doubt as to whether this guitar will be imported, in preference for the full-scale LBX series, but the workings and shape are identical. As with the VX, the MBX feels a bit light to wear, though both are well-balanced and thankfully free from running away from your fingers as they flash manically up and down the frets.
I liked the neck more than its six-string equivalent. Although the frets are high, they don't quite achieve railway line status, shredding the flesh from the ends of your fingers. The spacing of the strings is good – lots of room to grapple with pulls and slaps – as the neck broadens considerably towards the body. The two tone controls on the bass give it an edge over the VX65, enabling a versatile mix between boom and crack, with adequate punch at both ends of the scale.
Sustain is good ("Super-Detachable Neck Joint System"), which is perhaps not surprising given the weight and enormity of the heavy-duty bridge and tail-piece. Strings are passed through this fist-sized lump of ore on their way to the individually adjustable saddles – they're not body-bound as in the six-strings.
The pick-up is supposed to be a split-coil type, but my model had one double-coil fitted; the double-coil is standard for the rear position of the two p/u MBX70, so what it was doing sitting on my MBX45, I can only guess.
When a new guitar arrives in a case emblazoned with the bold statement "TALBO – The New Legend Of The Guitar History", you are quite within your rights to expect a turkey to come flapping out when you undo the catches, especially if the distributor has already described it to you as looking like "a turd on a stick."
From the nameless VXs and LBXs, we are now presented with a superfluity in the Tokai Talbo Blazing Fire. Back to the catalogue: "The original Talbo guitar, employing new materials never before used, is a new sound concept that has definitely advanced the electric guitar world a step further." Definitely?
This week's big deal is the metal body – maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, gold hardware, and a metal body.
And it is heavy.
The glossy black polyurethane finish and black scratch-plate look good, though I managed to chip it in my efforts to remove the backplate. This indicates either great ineptitude on my part (surely not) or rather hurried application of coats of paint. Underneath this shiny piece of metal there lurks a hole, just right for the installation of a Super-Vibrato, or the concealment of illicit substances should you be so inclined.
Moving back round the front of the Talbo, we find the same double coil pickups as the VX65 nestling up to the same basic volume and tone controls. The gold bits are new-looking, and seem well-finished, though only time will tell how they stand up to months of acidic muso sweat. One item that will survive, much to the detriment of the appearance of the guitar, is the name "Talbo" which is varnished into the lower horn.
Although it may look like a Vox Phantom that sneezed, the Talbo has a surprisingly distinctive sound. The remarkably undetachable Super-Detachable Neck Joint, coupled with the density of the body gives excellent sustain, and a pleasingly positive live feel to the neck, which plays not dissimilarly to aluminium-types such as the Travis Bean.
It sounds clean and bright, but with enough body to give solos warmth and strength to cut through in either front or back p/u setting. Middle position is mushy and Fenderish in tone, and is good for rhythm work. But as with the VX, it is debatable that the sound is distinctive enough to merit the cost (around £350, although that is the distributor's estimate).
It's not revolutionary but it does make you want to play it, which neither of the other two quite manage. One niggle is the accessibility of the strings. Using the Talbo in rehearsal, it took two minutes of concerted effort to remove the ball-end of a broken string from the back of the instrument. Again, this could be a nuisance on stage.
Tokai have obviously put considerable effort into making these three guitars, as they are all well put together, and tidily finished. It's a shame that the same amount of thought wasn't put into design and development, for it must be said that the world really doesn't need another original Japanese guitar.
TALBO A100D: £350±
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Review by Jon Lewin
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