Sia's Vintage Guitars
Springy Sound ST-42
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.
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...
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.
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-42. It is my first Tokai, and I was very curious to learn more about its history. So, I did a bunch of research and here is my synthesis of information from all the catalogues and websites I could access...
My ST-42 was made in July 1978, the second year of Springy Sound production. Very few 1977 models have been spotted, so 1978 is often considered the first year of full-on commercial production for the model. How do I know it was made in 1978? The original invoice and guitar neck are stamped with a serial number starting with "8" which means it was made in 1978. It’s not often one finds a vintage guitar with the original paperwork, and this was one of the reasons I was so interested in this particular piece. I’m a sucker for historical documents and other paraphernalia related to vintage items that I own. The serial number is a stamp on the neck pocket instead of being engraved on the neck plate - a characteristic of the earliest production guitars. Further, the stamp of “7=40” on the next and pick-up cavity means it was made in July (7 denotes the 7th month). I believe the “40” was just a lot number as part of an inventory management.
1979 catalouge, offering the ST-42 at the price of ¥ 42,000.
Pic Credit: yokochou.com
The “42” in the model name indicates that it was priced at 42000 Yen in 1978, or around USD $200 at the time. It was the cheapest model. That’s almost 1/3rd to the cost of the 1978 model US Strat priced at more than USD $600. Also, just for reference, 42,000 Yen in 1978 translates to about 65,000 Yen in 2021 (about USD $600) after considering inflation. Today, in 2021, an all-original, near-mint condition, ST-42 with original papers and case will probably sell for a little more than double that amount.
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.”
The body 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. 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 - you can see the seams on the back of my guitar. The higher models were made of only one piece. Does this affect tone? I believe not. Even the vintage sunburst Strats were 3-piece constructions. Same for high-end modern sunburst Strats. The number of pieces has little to do with sound and more to do with aesthetics. Finally, my guitar weighs about 3.278 kg (7.22 lb), similar to the vintage Strats.
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”.
My ST-42 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 were 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.
The ST-42 has the‘54 vintage-style tuners, but not the Kluson style which were on the ‘54 and reserved only for the ST-50 and higher models. The catalogue very audaciously claims that Tokai’s Kluson-type tuners were even better than that of the original Kluson! With regard to the string tree, my ST-42 has the round shape like the ‘54 strat, instead of the later butterfly design.
The neck shape on my ST-42 is similar to the 1958 Strat's rounded "U" shape, while the higher models (ST-80 and above) had the 1954 Strat's "V" shape. All maple necks for Springy Sound are 1-piece with no laminated fingerboard. The ST-42 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.”
The ST-42’s fretboard is made of maple, one piece with the neck. Just like the ‘54 Strat. The frets are vintage style, thin and short. 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.” Finally, the fretboard radius is 7.25, just like ‘54 Strat. It takes some getting used to. Further, the black dots on the fretboard are like the ‘54, and as Tokai explained, “smaller than current (modern) guitars”.
The ST-42 matches traditional Fender specs with a 25.5“ scale length. Expert luthiers suggest that scale length is the most Influential factor in tone, and so it makes sense that Tokai maintained the Strat’s 25.5” scale.
The truss rod on my ST-42 Truss rod 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 ST-42 has the skunk stripe at the back of the neck (like the early ‘54) along with the dark brown teardrop truss rod plug on the headstock. The rod is adjusted from the back of the fretboard.
The 1978 Tokai catalogue tells us the ST-42 came in 3 colours - OW (olympic white), BB (Black) and YS (yellow sunburst). Mine is YS - a three-tone sunburst with the in-between red hue, like the ‘58 and later Strats, but unlike the two-tone sunburst on the ‘54 Strat that my guitar was attempting to replicate. Maybe Tokai considered the three tone superior, and didn’t have problems being period-incorrect in this case since they have repeatedly mentioned in their catalogue that the intent with the Springy Sound was to transcend the original. The finish on the ST-42 is poly, with nitro being reserved for only the higher ST models. But, I must say that it is far nicer to play on than the modern Fender Strat reissues made in poly that really make my hand slow down because of the sticky plastic-ky finish. Maybe the ST-42's finish has just worn out over time, I don't know. But, it's way better to play on. The original ‘54 was painted in nitro, of course, as are the highest-end Fenders today.
My ST-42 has Alnico V magnet pickups that were called “Type B” in Tokai catalogues. They have grey underplates with “U” stamps and produce around 5.8-5.9k ohms each (which I understand is very similar to the original ‘54 Strat). There was also a “Type A” pick-up used in higher-end Spring Sound models with the "E" stamp and slightly lower output than the "U" stamped pickups. 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. B type ... The oldie sound of a '54 Strat at a low cost. However, it is no different from the top class of other Japanese companies. Both types have Alnico (an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt) pole pieces. 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. My ST-42 has similarly staggered pole pieces.
Control Knobs & Switch
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 my guitar must have been a stark white back in the day, but it now has a much more desirable yellowing that shows its age!
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.”
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-42. 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.” 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.”
The nut, like the ‘54, is made of bone. A Tokai catalogue says “the knot 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.”
Yokochou.com 1979 Tokai catalogue (link)
Vintagejapanguitars.com.br 1978 Tokai catalogue (link)
Vintaxe.com vintage Tokai catalogues (link)
Guitar-compare.com Fender catalogues (link)
Tokaiforum.com thread on vintage Tokais older than 1985 (link)
Reverb.com article on Tokai guitars (link)
Hunter, D. (2020), Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster: The Story of the World's Most Iconic Guitars (link)