Tokai ST50 Guitar and PB80 Bass
Reviewing new instruments for you guitar buffs out there is not quite the easy, pleasant task you may imagine it to be. By and large, there is more to depress the budding muso than there is to impress him. But once in a while along comes something that really catches your eye. The something that caught my eye is the new Tokai range of guitars from Japan, and the reason for this is Tokai make a 'new line' of instruments that are closer to forgeries than copies, so closely do they resemble the real thing.
The Tokai factory in Hamamatsu, just outside Tokyo, has for some time now been producing instruments under license for some of the major names including the Yamaha company. The factory is huge, ten times the size of either the Gibson Kalamazoo or Fender Fullerton plants. Word has it that Tokai owner Mac Seshimoto has done a deal with Fender, and will now be producing instruments for them at his factory.
The distributors in the U.K. for Tokai (pronounced tock-aye) are Blue Suede Music of Lancaster, and initially they will be importing around 55 of the 100 or so models in the Tokai range; they've already sold the first shipment. Amongst these will be an amazing copy of a 1958-1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard, complete with tiger stripe top. Though this is more expensive than Gibson's own ill-fated reissue, the Heritage series, it is a much more accurate copy, the pickups don't sound mushy and the neck angle is correct. If bass is your thing then Tokai have several choices for you, six variations of the Precision Bass (more of these later) and a choice of nine Jazz basses, three of them fretless. If dot fretboard 335's are your turn on take your pick from four of these. You may have had trouble finding one of those beautiful old Custom Telecasters, the type with the double binding that Andy Summers uses, Tokai have one of these too. Where these Japanese 'pirates' are really going to score is with their range of Stratocasters which number around two dozen. Tokai have copied the neck profile of the 1964 Fender Stratocaster (pre CBS of course) and come up with the ST 64 range. They've also copied a 50s maple neck Strat and given us the ST 54 range, which to my mind is the biggest thrill in guitars since way back when.
The Tokai ST50 from the ST54 Vintage range (damn confusing all these numbers) is in effect a copy of the 1954 two tone sunburst Fender Stratocaster, a very endearing one at that. I showed the instrument to fellow Japanese guitar loather Richard Thompson, who does in fact play one of the originals. I had to agree with him when he said "It looks like the Japanese have finally cracked it." Some people have said that they are still only copies. So what is the average Schecter, have you asked yourselves?
To start with, do you like your headstocks small, pre-CBS in other words? Of course you do. Now look a little closer at that writing on the headstock. Those Japs sure are inscrutable, they've very cleverly changed the writing so as to avoid any copyright complications. "Original contour body" becomes "Oldies but Goldies", and the patent numbers are replaced by the legend "This is the exact replica of the Good old Strat"; how right they are.
The finish is breathtaking and would do credit to a master forger, or a master sprayer if it comes to it. Colour options are flamingo orange (very close to Fender's own Fiesta Red), metallic red, metallic blue, black, Olympic white, natural, three tone sunburst. My test model is in the original style two tone sunburst. The guitar balances perfectly, and feels just right as far as weight goes. One annoying thing I notice is that Tokai have omitted to give us a bridge cover, they're pretty useless but make wonderful ashtrays.
The guitar neck sports the usual 21 frets, and the gauge is somewhere in between Fender thin and Gibson fat frets. There is one circular string guide and the nut is made of plastic. Neck camber is medium, and my test model is fitted with a delicious 'U' style neck which is incredibly comfortable to play. The range is offered with optional 50s style 'V' neck, which is perhaps slightly more ethnic given the situation. Both necks, I hasten to point out, are extremely comfortable; I've tried them both. Position markers are black dots as you would expect, and the grain on the timber is something to behold and marvel at. Machine heads are Tokai heads in the old Fender (Kluson) style, they perform very well and much better than you could hope to find on an old Fender.
Bodies for the Tokai ST50 (ST54 range) come in a choice of Alder, Linden or Castor Arabia which I have to confess I've never heard of, no matter. The neck joint is of the four bolt type and the fit is excellent; in other words no space to wedge in a selection of your favourite picks. Action is superb, and the bridge saddles look exactly like the old Fender type and adjust in the same manner. Three tremolo return springs are fitted to the guitar as standard, with another two in the case should you like to add them. The guitar holds its tune very well after I've given the tremolo a severe thrashing, which is unusual considering the guitar is fitted with very light strings.
Controls are identical to a Fender Strat, two tone and one volume, with the selector switch changed to a five way type which is eminently sensible if you're serious about doing business with this guitar. It's easy to change a string without removing the back plate, a positive bonus. The back plate and scratchplate are made from a single white plastic laminate which should in fact be a little thinner. Pickup covers on the originals were ceramic, on the Tokai they are plastic and all the metal parts are chromed.
Pickups are Tokai's own ST Hot and hot they are too. I noticed that the pole pieces are set higher than Fender pole pieces, though I doubt this explains away the sound. The tone, without mincing words, is that of a 1950s Fender Stratocaster, and it is staggering. I have never ever felt, played or heard a copy like this before. These pickups are a little less powerful than the originals but the tone is all there. Fender pickups have a very annoying habit of pulling on the bottom E, which has the effect of creating two notes instead of one. On my Tokai there is none of this, intonation is superb.
The main problem with this guitar, and indeed with all the Fender style models in the Tokai range, is this. There is no groove provided in the scratchplate below the neck for truss rod adjustment, this necessitates removal of the scratchplate, which is very laborious. Hopefully Tokai will remedy the situation.
All in all, of the thousands of guitars it's been my pleasure to play, this is one of the finest. And the price? Around £195 — treat yourself. You won't be disappointed.
And now, for the bass faces out there in guitarland, we have the Hard Puncher series. My test model is the PB80 which is not unlike a 50s maple neck contour body Precision, complete with anodised aluminium scratch-plate in silver. The scratchplate should be gold, however...
This guitar has a two piece body of Castor Arabia/Alder or Linden, type not specified. Machine heads from the front look like the normal Precision type, i.e. large Klusons. From the back we discover a funky reverse gearing, which means the system works in the opposite direction when you turn the pegs in the normal manner. Nice one here — there's even a strap button on the reverse of the headstock.
The neck is maple, has a slight camber, and there are 20 frets which are pretty much Precision gauge. Neck fit is again excellent and of the four bolt type, whilst the whole neck and board are lacquered, a bit too heavily I would say. The nut is plastic, inlays are black and colour options are the same as for the ST54 Vintage guitar range.
Weight is average for a Precision, but the balance is not as good as I'd hoped. The instrument is definitely neck heavy, and the neck itself is a little on the large side though it does play well. The contour of the body at the bottom left bout should be a little thinner than that on my test model.
All fittings are chrome, the bridge arrangement consists of four separate saddles and controls are one tone and one volume. My PB80 is in a two tone sunburst finish (again) and is very imposing, a classic in other words. One odd thing is this, the PB80 has no thumb rest but holes have been drilled in the scratchplate should you require to add this or a hand rest... How odd.
After I've been playing the bass for twenty minutes it's still in tune and it is sounding very tasty indeed. The pickups which could have been either Tokai's PB Vintage, PB Super or PB Dynamic (sorry, but the literature is in Japanese) have lots of sparkle on the top end and pack plenty of punch.
Once again, truss rod adjustment is impossible without removing the scratchplate, and I sincerely hope that Tokai will do something about this.
Fender style cases to fit these Tokai models are not included in the price of the guitar, but the case for this bass is particularly handsome due to its tweed/linen finish capped by a metal plate bearing the Tokai name.
The PB80 costs around £300, which is reasonable, but expensive when you compare it with its sister model that I've just reviewed. I have been able to draw several conclusions from my week spent in the company of the Tokai range. These guitars are a positive breakthrough for guitar players at all levels, i.e. beginner to pro, due to the price and the quality respectively. If Tokai can improve on their current output they are destined to carve for themselves a very large slice of the guitar market.
Review by Max Kay
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