Ever since Tokai electric guitars were reintroduced to South Africa, they have been controversial. I’m going to outline that controversy and give my take as a fan. There is little chance that this piece will convert those who loathe them. But for the fence-sitters, I’d like to bust some myths, and answer some criticisms.
What is Tokai?
Tokai is a Japanese stringed-instrument making company, still producing instruments in the same factory that the family has owned since shortly after WWII. Along with several other Japanese makers, such as Fujigen, they dramatically improved the quality of their electric guitars at the end of the seventies. Along with other brands, they also began to make clones of classic American electric guitars at that time. Why?
Japanese players felt that the quality of the American guitars had fallen since the end of the 1960s. Those pre-1970 instruments now commanded large premiums and were out of the budget of most players. To meet the need, Japanese guitar makers began making the best reproductions they could of the coveted 1950s and 1960s electric guitars. Tokai began making clones around 1978, and the guitars they produced until 1985 are considered classics, sometimes selling for huge prices.
The quality of these instruments was such that some makers threatened lawsuits, fearing the impact of better-made versions of their guitars being available in stores. But they then rapidly began making use of those companies to produce their instruments. Gibson guitars began contracting Fujigen, and then Terada, to make “Orville by Gibson” versions of its guitars (later Epiphone Japan) for the Japanese market, while Fender Japan had guitars (now classics) made in Fujigen in the ’80s, and later Dyna-gakki and Tokai in the ’90s. They also began improving their quality to try to match the Japanese makers.
Tokai in South Africa
Tokai Strats and Teles were briefly available in the early 1980s in South Africa, but then imports ceased. For a while Tokai did not make any Fender-style guitars while it was under contract to make guitars for Fender Japan. In 2010, a Johannesburg businessman, who’d long been impressed with the quality of Japanese guitars, began importing them. I’d heard of the reputation of Tokai guitars and had been trying to figure out how to get my hands on one. I own two beautiful Gibson guitars, but wanted a classic 1950s style Les Paul as played by Eric Clapton on the “Beano” record, and Jimmy Page–who’d first made me aware of the Les Paul on The Song Remains The Same concert film.
I went to collect my Tokai LS150 from Paul Bothner’s music store in Plumstead, Cape Town. When I arrived at the store, I found the 1950s style brown guitar case with pink lining empty on the counter. In the glass demo room I found one of the salespeople, a very experienced progressive rock guitarist, playing the instrument. He looked up at me and said, “This is the best Les Paul I’ve played in my life.” I agree.
My guitar is built to be nearly identical to how they were in the 1950s. It has a solid, one piece mahogany body, a one piece mahogany neck with long tenon, a two piece solid, heavily carved maple top, vintage style electronics, traditional nickel-plated hardware (including a lightweight aluminium tailpiece and slim ABR1 bridge), celluloid inlays, etc., etc.. Despite being completely solid it’s lighter than my 1983 Les Paul Deluxe (which has large, concealed holes drilled into the body to reduce weight), and it has magnificent resonance and sustain.
Better still, it looks just like the one Clapton played in 1965. And the attention to detail was impressive. No paint spots, tool marks, sloppy wiring, or any signs of rush that you can find on even high-end American guitars.
Since then I have played a lot of Tokais. My friend owns three, all wonderfully made guitars that sound superb. I’ve also had a chance to compare them to the American equivalents. Not just my own, but those owned by others or in music stores. Except for one Tokai with a neck that didn’t suit me, and one that was resonantly dead, they’ve all been good, and a few have been extraordinary guitars.
So, really nice guitars. What’s the problem? It turns out that, now, no one can mention Tokais or their American equivalents online in South Africa without a huge flame-war breaking out. Opponents see their existence as offensive, while proponents sometimes claim you’d be mad to buy anything else. I’m going to break down the core arguments against them as someone who owns and loves both my Tokai, and guitars from both of the biggest US manufacturers.
This one doesn’t get far out of the gate. A fake is designed to deceive. Tokai puts it’s logo right up on the headstock so it’s impossible to misrepresent them. No one will think a Tokai is made by anyone besides Tokai.
Western society tends to believe strongly that, if someone is allowed to copy your product, it won’t be worthwhile making it. This is a very convenient idea for copyright holders–who frequently lobby Western governments to extend copyright again and again, even after the original creators are long dead. But Japan, where these guitars are made, is hardly a creatively moribund nation, never having given rise to any innovations. The opposite is true. Japan and China are ferociously innovative despite having a much less rigid approach to copying.
Leo Fender, the designer of Fender’s most popular guitars, has been dead for decades, as has Ted McCarty, who led the teams that designed Gibson’s most popular guitars. For all the Western approach to copyright, neither modern incarnation of those companies has managed to produce new designs that have been as successful as its ’50s and ’60s guitars. Arguably, their ‘monopoly’ on those designs led to the deteriorating quality during the ’70s.
And yet, despite that, Japanese clone guitars never challenged their market dominance, even in Japan. Because people still have an emotional attachment to the brand. They also don’t usually compete at the same price points. If I couldn’t have got a 1950s style guitar for R16,000 (in 2010), I’d have bought nothing. I could not have afforded the Gibson equivalent (a 1958 reissue Les Paul), even second hand. And the cheap and cheerful Epiphone brand, which cost about R8,000 at the time, would not have been an adequate substitute.
I feel that some people are angered by the thought, if they dislike the idea of getting a Tokai, that others are getting a similar guitar for much less money–or are able to afford that guitar when they cannot while they hold out for the name brand guitar. But I feel that this is foolish. You still get bragging rights to your name-brand guitar. A Toyota Land-Cruiser may even be a more reliable off-road vehicle than a Land Rover, but it doesn’t have nearly the same cultural cachet. Certainly bedroom players come and gawk at my Gibsons when I play them live. I never get that reaction to the Tokai. For me, that’s fine. I’m not up there to impress people with the brand of guitar I play. But certainly the name-brand guitars get their money’s worth with envy.
“They’re cheap knock offs”
This one is a bit of a joke. True haters will come up with some weird issues with some or other aspect of the guitars. Trouble is, the name-brand guitars often and easily fall very short when it comes to specs. While the high-end reissues from the big brands do offer some features that are more correct to the ’50s and ’60s originals, they also sometimes have features that are less accurate. And when it comes to their main guitar lines, the comparison is stark. Tokais are, generally speaking, much more vintage-correct than the modern name-brand guitars.
Not everyone wants the vintage style guitars (although the prices on the reissues strongly suggest that they’re the most desirable). But to pretend that Tokais are physically inferior products is laughable, and easily dismissed by any comparison of specifications or investigations of build-quality. It’s unfortunate that a lot of the “brand-name or die!” crowd don’t seem to have a good working knowledge of the brands they fiercely defend.
“Name-brand guitars have better resale value”
This is supposed to be the big gotcha for the Tokai haters. A Tokai is not a cheap guitar. So when you see one that sold new for R18,000 on sale for R11,000, and sit there for a few weeks, it looks like their resale is disastrous. But for this myth to stick, make sure you don’t look at the name-brand guitars.
A Gibson Les Paul Standard now sells for about R38,000 in the store. I know someone who bought one recently, used, for R22,000. This is the vaunted resale value of the name-brand guitars. A loss of R16,000 as compared to a loss of R9,000. People also get confused by the vintage instruments that have increased in value. But these are a specific era of guitars, and unlikely to be repeated. In real terms (adjusting for inflation), the used price of a mint name-brand guitar from 1985 still doesn’t match the new price, similarly adjusted.
When you take either a name-brand guitar, or a Tokai out of the shop, it’s value plummets. After that, the value is maintained pretty well against inflation. If you buy only used guitars, you are likely to sell them for what you paid for them plus inflation. Yes, naturally Tokais sometimes take longer to sell. They are less well-known and understood. For all that they cost much less than name-brand guitars, they are not budget instruments, and the economy is weak. But ultimately buyer and seller come together, just like for name brand guitars.
“The Tokai model numbers make no sense”
You got me there people. In Japan, it is typical to give a model number reflecting their list price. My LS150 had a list price of just under 150,000 Yen. Now, it’s a Tokai LS173. Same guitar. Same specs. All that’s changed is that the list price is now 173,000 Yen. ESP does the same thing (this well-respected company also makes clone guitars under three different brands at different pricing tiers: luxury Navigators, that cost the same as American custom shop guitars, and are essentially hand-made, mid-range Edwards, and budget Grassroots).
Japan is the second biggest guitar market in the world, and only a handful of Tokai’s sales come from beyond its borders. It works for them, so they don’t care.
“They’re just not the same”
This is the most legitimate argument, in my view. Some people just don’t feel like they’re getting the guitar they want without it being made by the iconic company. I respect that. If owning a Tokai is going to make you feel like you’re always missing out on a Fender whenever you pick it up, then they’re not for you. I’m happy with both. For me, but not for some others, it’s the particular details of the guitar that matters, not its provenance.
But saying that, let’s not kid ourselves. It is in our heads. I said I have one Tokai. Technically, I have two. My Fender Jazzmaster was made in Japan in the Tokai factory, by the same craftspeople who made my LS150. It’s a ’90s, “crafted-in-Japan,” Fender, made by Tokai under contract. Made by the same people, in the same factory, how is it somehow more special because a different decal was legally placed on the headstock?
And then there’s the player who revived Gibson’s fortunes in the 1980s: Slash. Many fans who want a Gibson because he played one don’t realise that his iconic Les Paul was a replica (you might even cruelly say it was a fake, since the maker put the Gibson logo on the headstock). Was Slash’s iconic Les Paul playing, “not the real thing?”
Tokai make wonderful guitars that put previously out-of-reach vintage versions of classic designs in players’ hands–once you negotiate their awful model numbers.The only big-name company that seems to be bothered by their existence is the one that is notorious for a fifteen year string of appalling management decisions. They are professional quality instruments, with pros and cons when compared against the big-name products spec for spec. They resell for less, but then they also cost less in the first place. They’re not for everyone. They may never give you the glow of owning the icon. But for players who want the playability, tone, and vintage good looks of ’50s and ’60s guitars, they hit a very sweet spot.
There is a suburb called Tokai in Cape Town, apparently named after some hills in Hungary. Tokai means: “East Sea” in Japanese–the region of the country where the Tokai-gakki factory is located and from which it gets its name.