5 Myths Electric Guitar Players Can’t Let Go

Myth 1: Tube amps are expensive kit for experts*

A loud, expensive tube amp img src: 515musicservices.com

When electric guitar really became a mainstream hobby in the mid ’70s, “solid state,” transistor amplifiers were already available, and had a reputation for being more reliable and less expensive that amps using vacuum tubes, as all the older amps had been. So from around then until around the mid 2000s, they were the cheap amps that all beginners had to learn on. Eventually you’d scrimp and save, and buy yourself a tube amp that was way too loud to play in your house.

This has all changed. There’s large range of low-cost tube amps that are affordable for beginners–especially used–and that are either very low powered, or have a low power setting, that allows you to play them at home with having to hover the volume between 0 and 1.

The new Kong TubeFifteen with 1W setting. Retails at 340 Euros img src: session.de

Beginners should be getting these amps. Not only do they allow new players to learn about guitar tones with the gold standard of tone, but their low wattage allows players to learn about power amp distortion that you hear on those old rock records–because many are quiet enough to turn up far enough to begin driving the power section of the amp. Many owners of high wattage tube amps have never heard their power amp drive because they daren’t turn them up loud enough. If a beginner needs an amp, recommend tube amps. Every time.

Myth 2: The Stratocaster is the default, do-anything electric guitar

The Stratocaster guitar, designed way back in 1954 by Leo Fender with consultation from various country guitar players is undoubtedly the most popular electric guitar design in the world. They’re used in every context of playing, and stages are positively lousy with them.

This is wrong img src: et.wikipedia.com

But the Stratocaster has a really particular sound. It’s far from generic. It can be described as ‘quacky,’ (as Strat fans may describe my opinions). Many players, who pick it up for its great ergonomics and toughness, sound much better with other styles of guitar.

While a Telecaster can genuinely be used in any context, from jazz to heavy rock, there’s a short list of players whose sound was actually enhanced by using a Stratocaster–and that list doesn’t go much further than Dick Dale, Buddy Holly, and Hank Marvin. David Gilmour sounds way better whenever he straps on a Les Paul.

This is right img src: mentalfloss.com

Myth 3: Guitars don’t stay in tune with Bigsby tailpieces

I suspect that this myth started with players in the ’60s before it became common for players to have their guitars set-up. Players would lightly use their Bigsby or Gibson Maestro vibrato arm and the guitar just wouldn’t return to pitch properly.

OMG! Sum1 tell him it’ll never stay in tune! img src: neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.com

Guess what? 99% of the time it’s because the nut (the bit at the headstock end of the fretboard with slots cut in it to guide the strings back to the headstock) is badly cut and the strings are sticking in it–and hence not returning to pitch.

The nut is not an easy thing for a beginner to get right DIY style. But take it to a competent guitar repair person and nothing short of constant whammy dive bombs will knock it out of pitch.

You do not need special bridge saddles like nylon or teflon. And you especially don’t need roller saddles that can ruin the tone of your guitar. Any decently cut saddles will do. Lots of guitar players who’ve known this have used these tailpieces for years in live settings. Someone like Brian Setzer, or Neil Young, wouldn’t keep shaking that bar if it was impossible to set them up to stay in tune.

Myth 4: Certain brands of guitars have better resale value over time

It’s so common to see this said that it’s become frustrating. You buy a guitar for R10,000 (US$777). Ten years later you successfully sell it for R11,000. You congratulate yourself that you chose the right brand and made R1,000 on the deal. I’m sure some of you can see what’s wrong here already.

“When I retire, I’ll sell my LP Studio and buy a house, lol!” img src: gak.co.uk

In real terms (adjusting for inflation), very few instruments, and certainly no entire brands, ever reach the new retail value over time. But people make these claims as a justification for choosing some brands over others. What they usually really mean is that their more expensive brand has more real value after the 40% drop after taking it out of the shop (you can look at the used prices of guitars that are still available new in the stores to confirm that this is roughly true) than a cheaper one. But of course the 40% they’ve lost is much more cash too.

Example: You buy two guitars, brand A, and brand B. Brand A is super prestigious American guitar. Brand B is a less prized Asian guitar. A costs R20,000, while B costs R10,000. You try to sell them 6 months later, and you can get R12,000 for A, and R6,000 for B. So A is still worth more, but you’ve also lost more money than on B. Ten years later, at inflation of 5% per year, A costs R31,000 in the store, while B costs R15,500.

But when you try to sell your 10 year old guitars, A sells for R18,600, and B sells for R9,300. They’ve nearly reached the figure that you payed for them. But they’re still worth 40% less than the item in the store. They haven’t increased in value at all and A hasn’t gained in resale value over B. Even in terms of the speed of the sale, the greater desirability of A is offset by the higher price–people will more easily part with a smaller sum of money.

Guitars aren’t particularly good investments (very few increase in real value) but used guitars can are pretty easy purchases as they tend to maintain their value over time (unlike cars, for example), whether the brand is prestigious or not.

Myth 5: You need to jack up the action to use a guitar for slide

This one’s bewildering and walks hand in hand with the clear fact that, while everyone tries slide guitar, only a handful of people, “get it.” There is an, “it,” to get, but it’s not about jacking up the string height. I can only presume people get this idea from lap and pedal-steel players, or at least seeing those instruments.

This is a different thing from slide guitar img src: makingmusicmag.com

The thing about those two instruments though, is that they don’t have frets and aren’t designed to have their strings pushed down onto the board. But a cursory glance at almost any electric slide guitar player will make it obvious that players fret notes, play fretted chords (although the players who play with the slide on the middle, or index finger may be unable to do so very effectively), and, in many cases, switch between slide playing and fretted playing mid-phrase.

Having the strings hovering at a dizzying height would not make that very feasible. In fact, slide guitar players use medium to low action. Their touch with the slide is so light as to avoid accidentally fretting out with the slide, but the low action still makes it very easy to fret and bend with the fingers. The one aid they will tend to use is a heavier string gauge so that the strings are less easily pushed down onto the frets by the touch of the slide. .11s and .12s on the high E are not unusual on electric guitars used predominantly for slide.

It was brought to my attention that some may think I’m dissing solid-state amps. There are fantastic SS amps out their for pro players who love that sound–such as the Roland Jazz Chorus. But for learning to play electric guitar, they’re less versatile than tube amps. And my main point is that, among budget beginners’ amps, solid state amps are not the only option. Not even a good option, in my opinion.

A South African Guitar Maker: Hayward Guitars

Graeme Hayward begged to be retrenched. The corporation in which he’d worked for years had been purchased and was down-sizing. But Graeme was easily offered one of the remaining jobs. He’d had enough. He convinced them to pull the offer and give him a severance package instead. Stepping out of the rat-race, he rented a Salt River workshop, filled it with industrial power tools and began making guitars.

Graeme Hayward’s Salt River guitar workshop

Graeme is no novice builder; he’d built guitars in his spare time before. He completed several of what has to be the gold-standard for electric guitar makers–exact replicas of the 1959 Les Paul. With its carved maple top, glued-in (rather than bolted on) mahogany neck and its legendary scatter-wound pickup coils, the ’59 Les Paul is possibly the greatest challenge for any guitar maker to get right.

And he did it. I know. I’ve played it. I know way too many details about the original guitars, and the only thing I could find on his Les Pauls that wasn’t identical to the ’50s originals was the little plastic cover that hides the access to the truss rod that adjusts the guitar’s neck tension. But now Graeme is taking that hard-won skill and using it to build guitars full time during the longest recession since The Great Depression and with our president pointing the SA economy at the waterfall and rowing with all his might.

The unfinished flamed maple top of a bound, semi-hollow T-style guitar

If he succeeds, it’ll be a triumph of craftsmanship over widget-making. I went down to visit Graeme at his workshop at 9 Friend Street, Salt River. Hollering through the gate got Graeme to open up for me. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a place for people who love guitars to come and hang out. The hall is decked with pictures of iconic guitars, and the men and women who made us worship them. Couches make it a great place to talk about our beloved bundles of wood and wire. Graeme tells me he’s going to build a fake fur-lined case for finished guitars for players to paw at, and possibly a feature wall of stand out instruments to ogle.

The main workshop contains an array of very large and serious machines that transform raw timber into objects of desire. Guitars in various states of completion are everywhere. The South African guitar expo is coming up next week, and Graeme is working non-stop to get his projects ready to show off. Chief among them is a series that marks a return for South Africa–resonator guitars.

Two styles of resonator guitar bodies at an early stage

Resonators were designed in the era of big bands, before amplified electric guitars, to make guitars loud enough to be heard alongside brass instruments. Since then they’ve become synonymous with blues, thanks to great players like Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. They were also very popular during the Hawaiian music craze, which is why many were decorated with palm trees and other island scenes. Made of steel, these guitars are known for being polished to a mirror finish. Paul Simon sang, “The Mississippi Delta, was shining like a National guitar,” on his song, Graceland. And it’s here that Graeme’s route departs.

The laser cut top-plate of a chemically distressed resonator body

Computerised machines have made producing perfect guitars trivial, he says. Even some budget guitars, like the LTD line made by Japanese guitar legends, ESP, are in many ways better made than electrics that were largely handmade, and might cost two months’ salary, back in the 1950s. But the downside is the decreasing individuality in each instrument. Those of us who adore guitars think of them almost as friends or pets. It’s not pleasant to think that our guitar may be pretty much indistinguishable from another. Graeme wants each of his guitars to be beautifully playable, but still unique. So a laser-cut cover plate has a bridge plate mounted on it that Graeme carefully hammered out himself over a mould. The neck shapes are shaped to different specifications using a range of cutting jigs, but the final finishing is done by hand.

A luxurious, flamed sapele, T-style fat neck with a buffed cocobolo fretboard

He’s turned to alchemy, experimenting with dangerous concoctions of chemicals, to distress the bodies of the guitars. No mirror-shine for him. Each guitar looks like it’s been discovered in an attic after 70 years, but with its playability and voice intact. He’s cooking the character into his guitars to make something completely unique and unavailable elsewhere.

Details count: a vintage punch makes deliberately uneven serial numbers

And hence, South Africa’s economic ailments may prove beneficial. With the exchange rate of the Rand with the dollar, Yen, and Euro weakening, Graeme’s handmade guitars and hand-wound pickups may become increasingly affordable even to working musicians overseas. But he’s not leaving it up to luck. He’s also going to have guitar building workshops in which local players can pay a sum, and then spend several days building their guitar from scratch in his workshop–using premium woods and hardware–and take home an exceptional electric guitar that they’ve built with their own hands under Graeme’s guidance. And on Saturday mornings he’s going to welcome players who want help getting their guitars set up to play better–so that we come in, talk guitars, and walk away with an instrument that plays and sounds its best.

Three glue in necks with their cut mother-of-pearl logos in holly wood veneers await finishing

My Yamaha Pacifica

I was playing in a surf guitar band, looking for something to replace a truly awful Squier Stratocaster.  My thought was to get a Strat.  But I was a bit put off by the extortionate prices the shops were asking for them – double the US prices (I didn’t realise then that this is an old story).

So I walked into MusicFest SA in Parrow, Cape Town – an exceptional store that made you feel welcome. They’d always try to make a plan to accommodate you.  There was this vintage styled Yamaha Pacifica on the wall.  My buddy had bought a reverse headstock, floyd-rose bridge PAC721 second-hand as his first serious guitar.  It was a wise investment.  So wise that it’s still his main guitar today – and he’s a great player (I’ve seen kids do the “I am not worthy” genuflection when he solos at his shows).

Most people are familiar with entry-level Pacificas like the PAC112. These have a reputation for being amazingly well built guitars that, with a couple of upgrades, can be serious, pro-level instruments. But this one was clearly better spec’d than the US Stratocasters I’d seen in the shops–Made-in-Japan, swamp ash top, alder back, Warmoth neck (with recessed and beautifully finished bolts), Sperzel locking tuners, a two screw vibrato tailpiece, etc., etc..

I just kept coming back and playing it over and over.  Finally they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Looking online it was less than half the cheapest price I could find it anywhere in the world, and a whole lot less than I’d have spent on a Fender Strat with less sterling specifications.  I’ve never regretted it.  It’s all the “Strat” I’ll ever need. I used it for surf for years until I got a Jazzmaster. Recently I’ve been playing it again and just marvelling at its versatility (I also scraped 13 years of gunge off the fretboard).

My Yamaha Pacifica 904

And I’m not the only person who thought so. I found an old Guitar Player in which the PAC904 was reviewed along with 36 other solid-body guitars, including a few American and Japanese Fender Strats and Teles (some of which caught serious flak).  This is what the huge review panel – including guitar tech guru Dan Erlewine – thought:


Yamaha Pacifica 904 ($1,249; case $150)

This classy-looking Strat-style guitar has an absolutely sensuous 251/2” -scale Warmoth maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, as well as a rounded four-bolt neck joint.  The neck is smooth and blemish-free, and the wide, low frets are beautifully dressed and finished.  They’re so highly polished you can see yourself in ’em.  Likewise, the hard white nut is the best in this lineup.
The 904’s flawless tobacco-sunburst finish looks like some ’30s-era Gibson flat-tops, and it really enhances the highly figured ash top over the alder body.  The mint-colored pickguard adds a hip vintage vibe.  Nice modern touches include a satin-nickel Yamaha steel fulcrum bridge, Sperzel locking tuners, and a truss rod that’s adjustable from the body end.
The Yamaha pickup scheme consists of an Alnico V single-coil neck, single-coil middle, and double single-coil at the bridge.  The controls include volume, tone, 5-way selector, and a push-on/push-off tone-knob function that cuts the rear coil of the bridge humbucker.  The switch was dodgy and would not stay reliably in its “in” humbucker position.  The 904 is very nicely built and finished right down to the graphite-paint-shielded interior and the neat shielded wiring.  The back of its cover plate is also foil-shielded.
The Pacifica 904 delivers an array of superbly balanced clean and distorted textures.  It plays very nicely too; like we said, this neck is mighty good.  The trem feels like a classic Strat and gave us no tuning guff whatsoever.  The neck and middle pickups retain good clarity in the high-gain modes, offering excellent harmonic overtones.  The bridge humbucker is especially fat and clear.  The 904 also offers great Strat cluck in the in-between positions (one editor preferred them to those on his ’63 Strat), and the coil-cut position delivers yet another lovely clean sound.  The Pacifica deserves an A+ for tonal balance, but its sophisticated voices are cooler for clean shimmer than field-clearing macho shred.

– Guitar Player, February 1995


One thing they don’t make clear is that the guitar doesn’t have the usual splittable humbucker. Instead it has two single coils at the bridge of varying strength. This means you get a full power single-coil pickup (think Hendrix or Dick Dale tones) and a full power humbucker sound when you hit the push-push volume knob. I don’t know why more guitars don’t offer this, and I don’t know why Yamaha are the only company that seems to be able to make a decent push-push knob (mine, unlike the review model, was not dodgy at all and still works perfectly).

Original ad showing colour options img src: flickr.com

Most Pacificas are out of production.  But I strongly recommend people look out for the higher end used models. Like most Japanese guitars, the model numbers reflect the specs–higher number means more good stuff. There’s a pacifica for every need, from the very rare solid flame top, set-neck, shred monsters, to totally basic vintage style hard tail guitars. Confusion among guitar players that they’re all budget guitars means that people often sell high-end Pacificas for stupidly little money–making them a great way to put top-notch guitars into the hands of a beginner.

A solid flame-top PAC1412 img src: flickr.com

Why Tokai?

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.

An Orville by Gibson Les Paul Custom – img src: www.12fret.com

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.

Eric Clapton’s “Beano” Les Paul – img src: mylespaul.com

My Tokai

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.

My LS150 when brand new

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.

One of my buddy EZ’s 3 Tokais. “Big Red”

The Controversy

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.

“They’re fakes”

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.

img src: offsetguitars.com

“They’re unethical”

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.

A Gibson ’58. Lovely, but I can’t spend 80 grand on a guitar. img src: www.guitarjames.co.uk

“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.

A Tokai LC200. Not a budget guitar – img src: kemper-amps.com

“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).

A sweat-inducingly pricy Navigator ’54 style guitar by ESP – img src japanguitars.com

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?

My Tokai-made Fender Jazzmaster

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.

My LS150 after years of hard knocks on stage, and some boutique pickups


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.