Tokai

Springy Sound ST-100 OW

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Homage to the 1954 Strat

The Fender Stratocaster’s release in 1954 was amongst the most important of milestones in guitar design and development history. The contoured body, highly versatile three pick-up arrangement, and built-in tremolo/vibrato unit, among other notable features, set it apart from the competition and endured the test of time. 

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Fender 1954 catalogue

Pic Credit: guitar-compare.com

The Strat underwent a series of iterations over its initial years to improve its design and better meet consumer demands. Sales began to steadily pick up over the first decade. Then, at its peak, Fender was sold to CBS in 1965. The new management took measures to make the company’s production more efficient and economical, but the guitars leaving their factories were flagged by players as declining in quality. Strat fans started seeking out “Pre-CBS” models instead of the new ones. The building demand and limited supply of vintage guitars led Japanese guitar manufacturers to exploit an apparent opportunity in the market. They started to design and sell replicas of the 50s and early 60s models for a fraction of the real deal, even inspiring Fender itself to do the same later! Tokai was one such Japanese manufacturer... 

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The Springy Sound

In the late 1970s, Tokai launched the Springy Sound model that was based on the 1954 Strat. Tokai’s 1978 catalogue mentions this fact explicitly several times, even calling it, “the returned 54 Strat”. They were chasing the “springy sound” of the vintage Strat that was “sharp, crisp, yet warm”. The catalogue explains how the ‘54 Strat was the ideal guitar according to musicians and hence Tokai attempted to reincarnate it. In fact, not only did Tokai claim to reincarnate the iconic Strat, but they were audacious enough to suggest that they “improved it”. A rough translation from a catalogue tells us that Tokai “formed a project team consisting of about 10 people including musicians and veteran craftsmen; (and) as a result of thorough research and tireless efforts, we have completed a series in which the performance has been upgraded as well as completed restoration of the original.” They dismantled and reverse engineered actual vintage Strats in their efforts to achieve “thoroughness and transcendence”. And the results were clearly appreciated by players, even as famous as Stevie Ray Vaugn who has been pictured in a few places with a Tokai Strat. These guitars were becoming an actual threat to Fender’s own sales at the time. A communication from Tokai to Leo Fender in 1982 expressed the budding company's respect for the iconic design of the original Strat and explained that Tokai had no intentions of interfering with CBS's business in the US. I believe the two companies were exploring a partnership of some kind in the 1980s which did not materialize and might have cost Tokai some financial setbacks. Finally, however, Fender entered into an agreement with Tokai to manufacture Fender guitars at their Japanese factories in the late 1990s.  

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Stevie Ray Vaughan playing Tokai STs

Pic Credits: srvarchive.com (left); grammymuseum.org (right)

This article focuses on a guitar I recently acquired - the Tokai Springy Sound ST-100 OW. It is my fourth Tokai, after my ST-42 (link), ST-100 GSR (link), and ST-100 N (link). I love doing research on these vintage instruments, and so here is a synthesis of information from all the catalogues and websites I could access...

Dating

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The ST-100 features in catalogues as early as 1978, and this is the same year that mine was made. The earliest models, like mine, did not have serial numbers on the neck plate, and instead had stamps in the neck pocket and neck heel. As per the numbering system that Tokai used at the time, we know this guitar was made in 1978. Typically, STs have codes stamped in their neck pockets and heels telling us which month they were produced, but this guitar doesn't have such stamps. Maybe the earliest ones didn't have them? 

Price

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Tokai took the gold hardware seriously! Every screw is plated as well!

The 1978 catalogue positions the ST-100 as the top model ST. The “100” in the model name indicates that it was priced at 100,000 Yen at the time, or around USD $450 at the time. It was the most expensive Springy Sound, yet half the price of the US-made Strats priced at around USD $900 while being a higher spec guitar - from the choice of wood to the paint job and even its gold plated hardware. One might say it was great value for money! Also, just for reference, 100,000 Yen in 1978 translates to about 136,962 Yen in 2022 (about USD $1200) after considering inflation. Today, an all-original, near-mint condition ST-100 can sell for more than double that amount. 

Shape

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Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

The 50s Fender catalogues advertised the Strat’s “contoured” shape fitting the players body snugly and providing comfort. In its 1978/79 Tokai catalogues lamented that “The ‘54 Strat's body shape was significantly bolder than it is today, with distinctive deep back cuts and armrest cuts; these large cuts fit the guitarist's body and keep a high degree of performance and styling”. Tokai made a great effort to replicate this precise shape, explaining that “it takes very long to sandpaper a corner... you can feel these features when you pick it up”. Further, Tokai catalogues explain that, “for the woodworking process of the ST series, we have introduced a previously unthinkable computer; The "3D router" machine, which can process every inch of the three-dimensional body, and the craftsman's high level of technology were added to complete a body that boasts outstanding accuracy.” Tokai seemed very confident about how accurately it had replicated the original ‘54 Strat shape, asserting, “the body shape is a little different from the current Strat (1970s); the cuts on the body and armrests are very bold. If you compare it to an old copy from another company and find that the body shape is different, then it is not an old copy, and you have to be very careful.”

Wood

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The body of this guitar is made of Sen Ash, which is an Asian tonewood and nothing really like the Ash used in American Strats. Sen is renowned for its exceptional resonance and this is one of the reasons that Tokai guitars are considered high quality - even their lower-tiered guitars had this wood on them in the early years. Sen Ash is known to accentuate bass and mid-range tones, rather than the twangy highs that American Ash is known for. The lower-tier Tokais like the ST-42 were made of 3 pieces of wood, and the mid-range models were 2-piece bodies. The ST-100, however, was a 1-piece body. Does this affect tone? I believe not. Even the vintage sunburst Strats were 3-piece constructions. Same for high-end modern sunburst Strats. It's rather wasteful (and hence, expensive) to make 1-piece bodies. This might be why Tokai used 2-piece bodies even in its highest models later on, as per a 1982 catalogue. However, I cannot deny the visual perfection of a seamless 1-piece body, especially on this translucent finish! Finally, my guitar weighs about 3.38 kg (7.45 lb), similar to the vintage Strats it is paying homage to.

Bridge

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With regard to the tremolo/vibrato, the catalogue says “what makes this unit superior is that it is based on the fact that the subtle sound of the '54 Strat was created by a pressed (built-in) bridge”. Tokai differentiated the quality of its bridge by explaining that it was made of a strong alloy that would allow players to exert full power with confidence. And, they even went on to say that their bridge’s quality was better than other companies attempting replicas and even modern Fender guitars themselves, lamenting that, “it's a shame that the current Fender Strat (1970s), as well as the old copies from other companies, are die-cast”. On the other hand, “The ST series was born as a highly completed model that has a quality that transcends the original, from heavy and high quality plated hardware to the tremolo arm, it is not just a replica”.  

Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

Headstock

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My ST-100 headstock is shaped like the ‘54 Strat, with the decal in the exact same spaghetti-style font that was found on the Fender. The decals say “Tokai Springy Sound”, and “This is the exact replica of the good old strat” and “Oldies but Goldies”. These decals were in the exact places that Fender had its decals saying “Fender Stratocaster” and “with synchronized tremolo” and “Original Contour Body”, respectively. The Tokai ST guitars and the ‘54 Strat are indistinguishable from a distance. One Tokai catalogue said, “The name is pasted on top of the painted clear coat, just like the old one. If you scratch it hard with your nails it will come off. If you use this often it will wear and tear.” Both the headstock shape and the decal font were changed a few years later to avoid legal issues with Fender. With regard to the string tree, the ST-100 has the single round one like the ‘54 strat, instead of the later butterfly design. 

Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

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Tuners

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Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

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The ST-100 has Kluson type ‘54 vintage-style tuners, with a gold plating reserved only for this model. The catalogue very audaciously claims that Tokai’s Kluson-type tuners were even better than that of the original Kluson, with its shorter tuner pegs that allow for more downward break angle.

Neck & Fretboard

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Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

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The neck shape on my ST-100 is similar to the 1954 Strat's "V" shape. The ST-100 neck is a four-bolt type, just like the ‘54 Strat. The Tokai catalogue goes on to explain that, “The neck mounting area is perfectly machined so that the neck fits perfectly and the long sustain is perfect”. Further, “The elaborate finish of the neck joint greatly affects the sound; this completely overturned the fate of the detachable neck - it is a finish that can be said to be exactly the same as a set neck.” A 1979 catalogue explains that the ST-100 has a flamed maple neck, like "tiger stripes." However, none of my ST 100s have such flame! Notice that my guitar has the skunk stripe at the back of the neck and the teardrop at the headstock. This is because the neck is a one-piece maple neck. Finally, there is no "100" imprint on the last fret of the fretboard like many STs of this era typically have. My later ST 100s both have such imprints. Maybe they didn't imprint the first few batches?

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I had the guitar professionally re-fretted, with replica vintage style thin frets. They're almost identical to my other ST-100 with original frets. The catalogue says, “The fretting is perfect on all of them; the fret grooves where the frets are driven in are individually cut to fit the depth of the fret legs, so they are ready for your hard playing.” The fretboard radius is 7.25, just like the ‘54 Strat. It takes some getting used to if you play modern guitars with flatter fretboards. Further, the black dots on the fretboard are like the ‘54, and as Tokai explained, “smaller than current (modern) guitars”.

Trussrod 

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The truss rod on my ST-100 is the Allen key style, unlike the Philips style rod ends which were used on the original ‘54 Strats or on the Tokais later on. The rod is adjusted from the bottom of the fretboard, as expected. 

Colour

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The 1978 Tokai catalogue presents the ST-100 in just 2 colours - BL (Black) and N (natural). The OW or Olympic White that my guitar is in was only shown as an option for the ST-60, and later for the ST-42, 50, and 60. So, how is it that my guitar is in Olympic White? It doesn't have an "OW" stamp inside the pickup cavity like an ST would typically have. Instead it has an "X" and what looks like "L" and "N" stamps. I don't think they refer to the colour but instead the tooling and contouring used on the guitar. Maybe this was done on the earliest guitars? I know the OW colour is factory original because the certificate of authenticity states this. It was probably a custom colour made at the request of the buyer, which I believe was possible during the initial years of production. Custom colour requests were entertained for an additional charge during later years. The finish on the ST-100 is lacquer or nitro, while the lowest models had a poly finish.

Pickups

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The ST-100 has Alnico V magnet pickups that were called “Type A” in Tokai catalogues. They have grey underplates with “E” stamps and the ones on this particular guitar produce just shy of 6k ohms resistance (which I understand is very similar to the original ‘54 Strat). The Type A pick-up was reserved for higher-end Spring Sound models. Tokai catalogues explain that “Type A is a handmade exact alloy reproduction of a 1954 single coil unit; Type B is a production model of the same pick-up." Additionally, “The secret P.U. is the secret weapon for 100% old school sound... Paraffin-impregnated treatment minimizes noise! In any case, the ST series P.U. is outstanding in expressing a sharp and attuned sound.” The original ‘54 Strat had staggered-height pole pieces to address the varying output of the heavy string gauges in use at the time, just like the Tokai. 

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The brass shielding plate that Tokai catalogues boasted about. 

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Control Knobs & Switch

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Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

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As for tone and volume knobs, the ‘54 Strat had two tone controls (middle and neck PU) and no tone control for the bridge pickup, because Fender believed it “does not require additional tone modification”. Same with the Tokai ST-42. The plasticware on this guitar has turned yellow like is found on most vintage Tokais. I love the colour!

The original ‘54 Strat only had a 3-stage switch. But players accidentally discovered and started appreciating the midway positions. These were a bit of a fiddle to achieve though. The 5-stage switch was finally incorporated into Strats later in the 70s. The vintage Tokai Springy Sound have a 3-stage switch like the original ‘54 Strat. But, they acknowledged the midway tones and made an accommodation for them. A 1979 Tokai catalogue says, “of course, it's extremely easy to get a '54 Strat halftone; half-positions can be set quickly and will not fall out during a performance.  (Newly developed, 3-stage, 5-position changeover switch)”. Further, it says, “An old Strat is nonsense if it doesn't produce a halftone! That's why Japanese copies have developed a 5-step switch” but this wasn’t period accurate. So, “the ST series uses a newly developed 3-stage 5-position switch, which does not feel as stiff as a 5-stage switch, and provides smooth switching and a perfect half-position.”

Pickguard

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Tokai 1979 Catalogue

Pic Credit: Sigmania (Tokaiforum.com)

The pickguard on ‘54 Strat is an 8-screw single ply/layer white vinyl pickguard with all the electronics attached to it, just like the Tokai ST-100. Tokai catalogues claimed, “the electrical reliability has been completely improved; the stable shielding effect and the wiring part with excellent maintenance are specifications that exceed the original.” A 1979 catalogue explains that a brass shield plate is used on the pickguard which is much better than the aluminium foil used by other companies. Further, the catalogue says, “the oldie sound of the '54 Strat was also greatly influenced by the pickguard; the current Strat has a 3-ply, 11-point pickguard, which is tightly attached to the body and destroys the subtle sound of the old Strat.” Detailing was even to the level of screws being exact replicas because the Tokai team claimed that even this affected the sound!

Nut

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The nut, like the ‘54, is handmade of bone. I had the nut replaced to be a better fit with the new frets but, it's still bone and in the same dimensions as the original would have been. A Tokai catalogue says “the nut on this piece is made from cow bone. Tokai's craftsmen pay the utmost attention to the machining of this part, so it goes without saying that the finish is superb! This is a very important part of the guitar, so a lot of time was spent on it.”

Case

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My Tokai came with this beautiful original hardshell case. The 1981 catalogue shows that the special vintage hardshell case in “tea” colour (like mine) was sold separately, for 14,000 Yen and was called the ST-140.

 

There was also a “special” hard case in black which was ST-120 for 12000 Yen. Very confusing names, I know!

Bibliography 

 

  1. Yokochou.com Tokai catalogues (link)

  2. Vintagejapanguitars.com.br Tokai catalogues (link)

  3. Vintaxe.com vintage Tokai catalogues (link)

  4. Guitar-compare.com Fender catalogues (link)

  5. Tokaiforum.com thread on vintage Tokais older than 1985 (link)

  6. Reverb.com article on Tokai guitars (link)

  7. Tokairegistry.com (link)

  8. Hunter, D. (2020), Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster: The Story of the World's Most Iconic Guitars (link)