Tokai ST50, FV-1
If anyone deserves an Oscar in the guitar business, it's these guys. In 1982 they almost singlehandedly changed the meaning of the word "copy" from cheap mimicry to professional bargain. The copy guitar came of age, and it was a great piece of acting.
Their imitations of the two classic American makes were not only accurate to the finest details (screw placings, internal wiring, etc) but very good, well produced and beautiful sounding instruments.
The Tokai success story prompted CBS/Fender to react with a flurry of writs protecting their trademarks — Strat, Tele, etc — AND produce the Squier series — their own Japanese budget versions of veteran originals. Reviewed elsewhere, the Squiers were also fabulous instruments and in fact Tokai's greatest legacy to us all may be in urging the slumbering CBS/Fender giant to reassess its plans and standing.
As a result of the legal action I can't even tell you that the Tokai ST-50 is shaped like a Str... whoops, that was close, but you know what I mean. It belongs to the second wave of Tokais where the headstock lettering has been changed. The originals were very cheeky impersonations of a stylised script which could be mistaken for the real thing from a distance — or so argued the legal beavers. Later models now bear the word Tokai in an upright typeface.
This particular salmon pink finished, rosewood fingerboarded model takes its inspiration from guitars made in 1964. The three white pickups have protruding pole pieces and are coupled to a five way pickup selector offering a bonus of two out of phase mix positions.
Tokai began by offering U and V neck profiles, the latter having a sharper angle at the rear of the neck. But the V option has proved to be less popular and this is the fuller and more comfortable U variety. The frets are thin and fairly low and the fingerboard is silky, fast and dead easy to get on with.
The neck curvature makes for blissful riffing around the octave since its rounded enough to prevent the edge of the fretboard cutting into your hand, but not too thick to snarl the fingers.
Soundwise (horrible word, but there you go) the ST-50 is rich and lively with a natural gutsy middle, reminiscent of rocks grinding against each other. It's that "crunchy" character that made the original real thing so popular, and the ST-50 pans gracefully from a fairly twangy neck pickup, through a tight, attacking middle coil to a searing tail pickup which is slightly lacking in body.
I wasn't able to put the new Tokai and the Squiers side by side, so I had to rely on ear memory, but I'd say the 50 falls somewhere between the Squiers' really bright '57 and the fuller '61 — so a wise choice for anyone after a bit of both worlds.
The two out of phase slots are great, especially the middle/tail which keeps that honky quality right across the strings and up and down the neck. Other rivals often succeed on the D, G and B, but not all over.
It hangs sweetly and has the high quality production we've come to expect of the Japanese. You can even get a tweed case, same as the originals and the Tokai range includes various combinations of Alder bodies, Linden bodies, Kluson machine head copies etc.
And there's the TE six string and the JB and PB basses, but of course, I've no idea what the initials might mean... £249
To be fair when I tried this, Tokai were still thinking about it. Importer Eric Dixon had wired some suggestions back to the Japanese factory. For example the volume controls were well duff since they did practically nothing from 10 to 2, then swallowed the output all in one go. A few minor changes should be made before you see them on the streets.
As a version of the 1958 Gibson Flying V, it's cosmetically on the button. We have the lanky V headstock, gold plated pickups, black plastic surrounds, a black/white/black scratchplate covering the lower half of the body, a brass V-shaped tail plate and a circular plate for the jack socket in the corner of the bottom wing.
Fastidious accuracy involves copying the boo-boos such as one end of the Tune-O-Matic styled bridge resting on the scratchplate. The action was fine, but you couldn't have lowered it any farther.
The first Vs were fitted with black ridged rubber grips along the bottom edge so they wouldn't skid off your knee. Thus it is here. So, too, the scribbly plastic logo in Christmas decoration gold, except it says Tokai instead of Gibson. The bell-shaped truss rod is approximated, but not parroted since it's protected by copyright.
Guessing (though of course with VAST intelligence and experience), I'd say the two-piece body and one-piece neck were mahogany rather than the true Korina of the early Vs — a term reserved for certain selections of African Limba wood. I bet you didn't know that. Neither did I until someone told me.
Having tried Tokai's 335s some time ago, I'd formed the opinion that their Gibson work was not as convincing in sound as the other half of their brand copies.
The V reinforces that belief. Though still an impressive bargain and a detailed realisation, it seemed lacking in spirit after trying the ST-50. Sure, they're two entirely different tones and tactics, but the ST lived while the V merely imitated.
The neck was thin and pleasant near the nut, but thickened as it approached the octave, lending it a gawky feel. But that's just how the original was, so how do you pass judgment on something like that? This review lark is growing more difficult by the day.
Review by Paul Colbert
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