Tokai Guitars – What You Need to Know
The Tokai Gakki Company Ltd. is the brand behind Tokai guitars, also sometimes known as Tokay guitars. This is the most popular guitar brand in Japan, and the guitars themselves are very highly regarded by musicians the world over.
So, what do you need to know about Tokai guitars? Is the fame well-earned? Are they better than American or European guitars? And how do you go about choosing the best ones?
About the Tokai Gakki Company Ltd. – An Early History
The Tokai Gakki Company Ltd. was founded in 1947. Back then, it was just a small and obscure instrument manufacturer operating out of Japan, and with nothing particularly setting it apart.
It wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that the company began to grow and gain popularity. Initially, this was sparked by the creation of some replica Fender and Gibsons. These were able to accurately recreate the old-school sounds of those instruments, while costing far less than the originals.
In fact, by the early 80s, these guitars started to become more popular than Fender’s own American-made guitars in their popularity. They also began to develop a sound of their own – referred to as the ‘Springy Sound’ or ‘Silverstar Sound’, which was undoubtedly nostalgic.
Demonstrating just how successful the Tokay guitars had become, Stevie Ray Vaughn was seen posing with the Tokai Spring Sound on the cover of the album Texas Flood in 1983. Similarly, Billy Gibbons took a Tokai replica on the road with him during a tour.
At this time though, the guitars were still considered effectively knock-offs. In fact, they were sometimes referred to affectionately (?) as ‘lawsuit guitars’ owing to the potential legal issues surrounding their nature and use. Despite some flagrant attempts at intellectual property infringement, Fender never went as far as to sue Tokai. Partly, this was likely due to the fact that many patents, trademarks, and copyrights are very difficult to police overseas. This is why it’s still possible to get knock-off handbags and a whole host of other imitation products.
Growth and Maturity of Tokai Guitars
While many companies start out this way and never grow to become anything else, Tokai eventually went on to develop a more serious name in its own right.
It was in the 70s that Tokay guitars really struck gold. At the time, Fender was actually struggling with its own products, when Tokai and several other similar companies identified a niche in the market for high quality, vintage reissues of classic guitars. Tokai was in an ideal position to execute on this concept.
To that end, the Japanese firm started producing its first reissue – a Stratocaster replica – during the mid 70s. This was built to the original specifications and was accomplished by reverse engineering the original vintage Strats. Engineers literally stripped them down for parts, took measurements, wrote notes, took photographs, and then recreated them from the ground up. This was the birth of the ‘Springy Sound’ guitar.
And despite being technically knock-offs, the quality of these guitars was second to none.
In fact, Fender actually went on to make a deal with Tokai in 1997. The agreement stipulated that Tokay guitars could continue to be made as long as they featured subtle changes to the branding and headstock shapes.
But in return, the company would actually supply Fender with the guitars and materials they would need for the real thing. Talk about ‘fake it until you make it’!
At this time, Tokai began selling some of its guitars with the label ‘Made in Japan’. And interestingly, these guitars are now actually considered collectible in their own right!
In short, the company had actually managed to beat the original at their own game. By managing to produce the same products for less, they undercut the original manufacturer. What’s unique is that the original manufacturer responded in a smart way – taking advantage of the clear talent that the smaller company had in order to improve its own offering.
Tokai Model Numbers
One interesting unique feature of Tokai guitars is the use of model numbers which can be used to identify specific models and those with particular collectible value. Tokay guitars use a seven digit serial number that is pressed on the back of the headstock for the Gibson model replicas. The Love Rocks models use the first digit of the serial number for the year, while the 1989 Love Rocks used the first two digits for the year. Reborn models on the other hand only use the first digit still.
However, the very rare ‘Reborn Olds’ models have inked serial numbers on the reverse side of the headstock. These are sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘inkies’. The guitars are generally agreed to be from 1980 to 1981, though that is contentious.
The original 1978 Les Paul Reborns also have inkied serial numbers it is thought.
Some of the MIK Love Rock models actually have no serial number at all, and instead have ‘Made in Korea’ inked on the back. In other cases, the serial number might be located beneath the bridge pickup.
Again, it is interesting to note that what began life as unlicensed replicas have now become collectible in their own right!
If you’re looking for where to find Tokay guitars for sale, then you might be wondering whether they can really recreate the excellent sound of the originals that they seek to replicate. Moreover, you might be wondering about the general build quality and attention to detail.
Many people these days consider that the Tokai Strats are actually better than the Fender ones. Considering the lower prices and the availability online, this is a very tempting option.
So, is there truth to this? Are they really able to compete with the originals?
Of course, this is a matter of opinion, and doing research online doesn’t yield any definitive answers. Many people claim that Tokay guitars are actually superior to the Fenders. Others say that they are not quite as high quality.
Others still will argue that ‘any guitar can sound great’ as long as you know what you’re doing. And of course there are those who will tell you that you should really avoid looking at any big names and instead aim for the lesser known indie manufacturers.
The truth, as ever, is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that Fender guitars are actually made by Tokai in many cases. This alone should tell you that there is very difference in terms of the quality, and that really any differences are going to be incredibly slight. Tokai guitar reviews are also extremely positive across the board.
And it’s also key to note that a guitar is not entirely about the sound. Sure, it’s about the sound to a big degree! But if you’re looking for Tokai guitars for sale, there’s a good chance that it’s just as much about owning a classic instrument that has history, nostalgic value, and all that other good stuff. And in that regard, these are absolutely lovingly made guitars that should certainly tick those boxes. For those that collect 70s guitars, or who want to own the same guitar as one of their favourite music icons, there is an awful lot to enjoy here.
Keep in mind though that set-up really is king. If you want to make something great to play, then spend the time with it and you’ll get there. Eventually, it will fit like an old shoe. Jut keep plugging away and be sure to invest the time.
One potential downside is that Tokay guitars may have less resale value. However, you should consider that this won’t be the case if you should invest in an inky or if you generally look into the more collectible options. And anyway, it won’t be an issue unless you plan on selling your Tokay guitars! For those just looking for something great to play, or to hang on a wall, it’s not a problem.
And lastly: remember that there are multiple models and each is going to be different. Make sure to read the Tokai guitar reviews before you choose the specific model you’re looking at, and that way you can ensure it will be a well made product and one that will suit your musical stylings.
The bottom line is that Tokay guitars will provide you with a real homage to some classic guitars. They might have begun life as knock-offs, but today they are just as authentic as the real thing – seeing as the same company actually makes the real thing. Tokai guitars are now highly reputed across Japan and around the world in their own right, and for those that want to take a stroll down memory lane, who like the classic 70s sound, or who just want to own a Fender for less – this is a fantastic option.
Take a look around our site to find the best Tokay guitars for sale, and to begin your musical journey down memory lane.