Tokai TSG 60 CH
As good as the real thing? The ultimate rock guitar? Tokai's S.G. standard copy gets the treatment from Gary Cooper
Whatever you might think of the morality of profiting from other people's ideas, it's hard not to have a sneaking admiration for the dedication to the craft of copying shown by Japanese makers Tokai. They (even before Fender got into their self-emulation act with Squiers) took the idea of the beginner's cheap copy and turned it into something quite different - a genuine replica. Their attention to detail and workmanship resulted in some of the best copies on the market, guitars which have found favour with players who would never before have even considered walking on stage with a copy.
But copying a Gibson is a different task altogether. Fenders (not to disparage them in any way, of course) were designed from the start to be mass produced. Their bolt-on necks and simple bodies, rudimentary hardware and machine-easy shaping made them inevitable targets for a mass production orientated nation to whom originality in guitar design came about as naturally as walking does to a fish. It was the natural starting point for a whole host of Japanese makers to begin with in their climb up from obscurity.
Inevitably, though, Tokai have turned their gaze on Gibson. Now we're seeing Tokai 335 simulacra, Explorer dupes, Les Paul types, and even S.G. lookalikes in the shops, all bearing the Tokai name and aiming to prove that they can get as close to an original Gibson as they can a Fender. But how close to the original can Tokai get - given that a Gibson isn't so easy to mass produce? I borrowed a Tokai TSG (in a 'Cherry Red' finish) to try and answer this question.
Straight from the box, the Tokai looks close - but not quite perfect. The shading on my 'Cherry Red' sample was a degree too pink, even given that this Tokai is supposed to be a copy of an older (faded?) S.G., rather than a new one. Colour matching isn't easy (ask any car sprayer!) but this could have been closer to the original, if a real 'replica' is what Tokai are after. But, colour aside, the fundamental mechanical specifications are quite correct. The 24 3/4" scale, 22 medium/fat frets, glued neck joining the body at the top fret are all copied faithfully from a basic S.G. Standard.
The precise vintage of the sample which went into Tokai's cloning tank to father this generation of test-tube babies is impossible to guess at. It has the hallmarks of an early '60s version (somewhere between '61 and '63 at a guess) with accurate copies of the Kluson machine heads used then, complete with their pearloid buttons. The rosewood fingerboard bears the correct shape of mother of pearl (plastic?) inlays and the headstock carries the 'flowerpot'-like inlay and bell-shaped truss rod cover which characterise the original. The neck pickup is set - faithfully - further back from the fingerboard end than you find on current S.G.s, and the Tokai has the black plastic insert between this and the neck end which earlier S.G.s also had. A black and white laminated scratchplate, contoured (early design) controls, a jack socket on the body's face and properly positioned pickup selector all add to the overall accuracy of the image.
But there's much more to the worth of a guitar than such detailed minutiae. How it plays, sounds and feels are, in the end, vastly more important. To put it another way, what I wanted to determine was whether or not this Tokai was just a geisha girl in Levis, still speaking with a Japanese accent.
My initial reaction to handling the guitar was that Tokai's mahogany isn't the same mahogany that Gibson use nowadays. Compared with the weight of my own (1984) S. G. the Tokai felt quite a bit lighter but, in fact, this could be quite correct as earlier S.G.s were often lighter than current types, I understand.
The overall finishing standard on my Tokai was first rate. The ivoroid fingerboard binding had a yellow-ish tone, to simulate age, and the paintwork was fine. I wonder if they use real cellulose lacquers, though? Possibly not. The rosewood fingerboard was also of a high quality and the fretting standard was excellent, just a shade thinner than those on a current S.G. but again, probably quite correct for the emulated vintage. Whoever had set this sample up had done so well, using lightish gauge strings and getting the action down nice and low, with perfectly 'in' intonation at the 12th fret Strap the Tokai on and start playing. From this angle it's good - very good. The neck may be just a degree wider than those on some earlier S.G.s I've used, but, as the originals vary one from another to no apparent pattern, this hardly signifies at all. The neck's depth was slim, making for a beautifully fast playing instrument - in this respect typical of those much-loved qualities of the early originals.
O.K., so (colour shading and weight aside) the Tokai both looks and feels quite remarkably close to an early 1960s S.G. Standard. But does it sound like one?
The problem here is that no two genuine Gibson S.G.s from the early 1960s will sound the same today. Minute differences in the pickup tolerances, the effect of ageing on the magnets, the results of short circuiting of some of the coil windings etc., will all work together to make for quite noticeable differences between individual vintage guitars, and it's impossible to say exactly what the actual sound of any one early '60s model will be without trying it. Of course, this means that you can get both good and bad vintage guitars, and it's well worth while bearing this in mind if anyone tries to tell you that all old guitars are automatically better than new ones. They're not.
This factor poses the maker of a vintage replica a major problem. Do they copy just one sample, aim for an overall approximation of the average sound of several old ones, or try to guess what they'd have sounded like when new? The only way to find out is to test the guitar under the best circumstances possible - which is just what I set out to do.
To start with, you're not likely to notice much difference if your amp is a 'cooking' 50 watt tranny combo. Instead, just as a fast car should be tested on demanding roads, an S.G. and its copy should be compared under conditions where they can each give of their best. Hence I dispensed with a cheap tranny amp test (after all who's going to pay this amount of money for a guitar when all they have is a beginner's amp?) and opted for using my current favourite all-valve small combo, a Laney AOR-30.
The Laney is fussy. Feed it a poor guitar with bad pickups, and the massive amount of gain it can deliver will reveal any and every weakness. On the other hand, give it a professional class instrument and it sings like a nightingale with dynamite in its beak! It was testing like that - with the Laney's valves cooking away - that I first began to feel the stirrings of dissatisfaction with the Tokai. To my ears (and I'll admit that it's a highly personal thing) it didn't have anything like that sweetness of tone which I associate with the best old S.G.s (and which, curiously, the new ones seem to have in abundance). True, it had some of the cutting edge - that sharpness and attack which can make an S.G.s sound so spine-chilling - but even then it just wasn't mellowed in that unique way in which a good S.G. manages to blend sharpness with warmth. This, admittedly, was when I was using the bridge pickup alone, but even switching to both the sound wasn't sorted. Instead of mellowing the tone when overdriving the valves, there was the impression that the sound was somehow muddied rather than enriched. The neck pickup just made this effect worse. However I set-up the amp (even when I tried other amps) I found that as I ran down off the top three strings onto the wounds, the richness, warmth and sweet woodiness just wasn't there. Somehow it was lacking that essential 'bittersweet' quality which makes a prime S.G. such an attractive guitar. Ideally, an early S.G. will get you close to that early Clapton/Cream sound. Alternatively, it should scream like one of Zappa's. I couldn't get it to sound like either.
Now, some of this may have been due to the sound which the makers were actually aiming for. Some earlier S.G.s (especially those lighter bodied ones) didn't have the warmth of the denser mahogany versions, but it still sounded lacking to me, as if the pickups weren't right. The real difficulty here lies in trying to find enough early S.G.s to compare the Tokai with. They vary so much that whilst the young pretender might very well be close to the sound of one individual guitar, it might be miles away from another - so how can you come to a meaningful conclusion?
In the end, it comes down to using whatever sound you happen to hold in your head as your 'ideal' of an S.G. and, personally, I found that lack of sweetness and warmth leading me to the eventual conclusion that it just didn't sound right. Maybe a change of pickups would have helped? In fact that wouldn't be very surprising. Although, in theory, there's nothing so clever about making (or copying) a pickup, there can be very major differences in sound quality just depending on what type of magnetic material you use for the pole pieces, and what purity (or impurity, in fact, if you're comparing it with an old pickup) of copper is used in the wire for the coil windings. Very few Japanese pickups that I've heard seem to get an 'American' sound quite right and it might well be a good move for Tokai to look to sourcing their pickups not from their homeland, but rather from the U.S.A.
All this doesn't necessarily make the Tokai either a bad guitar or a poor value one. It's a close visual replica of a particular vintage S.G. It's well made, and plays very nicely. The fact that it doesn't to me, sound like my idea of an early S.G. doesn't mean that you won't like the sound - it doesn't even imply that I don't like it; just that I couldn't make it sound much like a vintage Gibson. But it does (if I'm right) go some way towards supporting the view that a Gibson isn't so easy to copy.
If this sounds like a damning review of the Tokai, it isn't. What? Is Cooper trying to hedge his bets and save his relationship with Tokai in the last few paragraphs? No, because the Tokai does have virtues of its own. To start with, it sounds a heck of a lot better than any other Japanese Gibson copy I've tried. What's more, it both plays and feels so good that it outperforms many equally priced Japanese 'own design' instruments by a substantial margin. So how, in the end, do I feel about this Tokai? It's well made, finished to a good standard and plays well. Price comparisons, in trying to arrive at a 'value for money' assessment are almost impossible. It's pointless comparing this with a new generation Gibson S.G., because they differ from the early versions in many ways. If you compare it with a secondhand Gibson, however, then that's pitching new against old, and almost every new guitar will suffer by that sort of financial comparison.
To be strictly fair, you have to make comparisons with the Tokai on a price basis for new guitars. Even then you have to read between the lines to discover a genuine selling price, as opposed to the full RRP. Although the full price (inc. VAT) is now £448.82, it's quite likely that you could pick one of these Tokais up for a fair bit less. In that case, put it alongside similarly priced new Japanese guitars and it's both better made and finished than many, and at least equal value for money. Whether you'd prefer one to a secondhand Gibson S.G. is another matter altogether, but that's true of any new guitar viewed alongside a used model.
Trying to get my views into a short concluding paragraph or so isn't easy, as I've some very mixed feelings about this instrument. In fact it's almost a shame that this is such a close lookalike to an early 1960s Gibson. It stands very highly recommended in its own right, but, for me at least it just doesn't sound the same as the real thing.
Having said that, the Tokai is closer to the original than any copy I've tried. You'll obviously have to judge the sound for yourself. I can vouch for the constructional and physical aspects and suggest that you try it side by side with a genuine oldie S.G. to see how it compares with the secondhand model you're being offered. In fact I'd be very interested to know your opinions.
RRP £448.42 Inc. VAT
More info on Tokai guitars from Blue Suede Music Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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