Big in Japan: Tokai’s Controversial Takes on American Classics

 

We all know the old adage: imitation is the highest form of flattery. Sure, that works most of the time, except for when the imitation is the controversial move to clone a classic. While many makers have attempted to capture the feel, tone, and quality of a vintage Gibson Les Paul or Fender Stratocaster, few have done so with such success as Tokai.

Well before Tokai became (in)famous the world over for their renditions of American made guitars, they started off in a smaller, niche market. Tokai’s modest origins start back in 1947 with the production of humble harmonicas. As the company grew, however, they extended into classical and acoustic guitars. But that was just the start of their six-string ambition.

The success of Tokai turned controversial in 1976 when they released the Les Paul Reborn model. The intention of this lineup was anything but a cheap knock off. Rather, Tokai’s attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship took aim at a high-end consumers in Japan who wanted to get their hands on an era correct, classic instrument. The early, limited runs of the Les Paul Reborn were a hit. So much so that Tokai expanded their market to North America and Europe, now renaming the guitar the Love Rock.

With the success of the Les Paul Reborn/Love Rock experiment, Tokai turned their eye to yet another American classic design. In 1977, Tokai released the Springy Sound and Breezy Sound, built in the spirit of the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, respectively. These too were designed, sold, and eventually highly sought after for their exceptional build quality and detail.

While these designs no doubt ruffled the feathers of Gibson and Fender, and are often lumped in a broad category of so-called “lawsuit guitars, the reality is the legal battles were few if ever actual. In fact, there is a case to be made for saying that builders such as Tokai fueled the American vintage guitar market at a critical time. Not only did these builds draw attention to the classic originals of Gibson’s and Fender’s past, their surpassing craftsmanship brought a much-needed challenge to many guitar companies in the late 1970s and 1980s who were increasingly compromising quality for cost.

In the case of Fender, Tokai did such a standup job of building guitars that they became one of the lead Japanese manufacturing partnerships for the now famous “made in Japan” era of Fender guitars. If that company endorsement weren’t enough, Tokai also seemed to have caught the appeal of major artists. Just have a close look at the cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood (1983) album cover: that’s no Strat, it’s a Tokai. A few years later, Tokai returned the favor as Stevie Ray Vaughan graced the cover of the 1985-86 Tokai Guitar Catalogue.

While Les Paul and Stratocaster-inspired designs are common in many makers catalogues today, Tokai was arguably one of the first to make the bold move. In recognizing a classic and remaking it, Tokai’s story has now come full circle. Their own guitars are now rare, vintage, and sought after on the used market.

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