Vintage spec hardware, traditional type alnico V staggered-pole pickups, good, sturdy pots and switch… This was a professional quality guitar at a price, in some outlets, as little as £180 in 1984. A new standard Fender Strat would cost more than double that at the time, and it wasn’t anywhere near as ‘sexy’ a guitar. In fact, the Tokai TST-50 is still available brand new, priced at £699 as I write, but it's the model's 1980s heyday I want to look back at here...
There’s so much about the emergence of the Japanese vintage Strat replica in other Strat-focused articles on this site, that I’m going to steer clear of all that in this piece, and pitch in from the end of 1983, when Tokai unleashed their Goldstar Sound Strat copies upon the UK.
Previously, Tokai’s eminently accurate vintage Strat replica had been called the Springy Sound. After threats from Fender over Tokai’s too-close-for-comfort ‘spaghetti logo’ headstock markings in 1982, Tokai had been shipping ’83 Springy Sounds to the UK with plain, black, block capital TOKAI logos. Without mincing words, this ad hoc logo looked utterly crap, and given the importance placed on branding and logos by guitarists, it probably created a minor commercial disaster. Even from within the audience at a fair sized gig, you could see the block capital logo Springy Sounds were copies, and that contradicted Tokai’s entire business model.
Apart from the replacement nitrate scratchplate and aged plastic parts, this is how the ’64 rosewood board variant of the '80s TST-50 looks. The original 3-ply scratchplate, the pickup covers and the knobs were straightforward white plastic. This type of 3-tone sunburst finish had the colour code YSOR, I believe. Even if the Tokai logo was removed from one of these (and that happened A LOT), it could be instantly distinguished from a Fender ’62 reissue on account of the ‘veneer’-type fretboard (as opposed to the ’62 reissue’s much thicker ‘slab’ board), and the pearloid dot position markers (as opposed to the ’62 reissue’s fake ‘clay’ dots). There were numerous other differences between the Tokai and Fender early ’60s Strat replicas, but they differed in the main because they were replicating Strats from different years – not because one or the other was physically less accurate.
But as 1983 came to a close, Tokai’s vintage Strat replica was reborn in the shape of the Goldstar Sound. It had a new model name, a nice new logo, and if consensus was to be believed, the best quality in Tokai’s history. Through 1984, Tokai literally spammed the UK shops with their ‘reborn’ Goldstar Sound Strat copies – most commonly TST-50 and TST-60 models. At sub-£200 prices in many areas, these aggressive competitors to Fender’s typically more expensive JV Series Squier Vintage Strat Reissue sold like no one’s biz back in the days of the miners’ strike. Driving sales even harder, some guitar shops had high visibility, ongoing promotions for the Tokai brand. At a big and very busy music shop near to me, staff memorably wore T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Tokai is Rock and Roll”.
The TST designations, incidentally, related to the spec of the guitars. The higher the number, the higher the budget, and the higher the designated selling price. The practice of matching a model number to a price in thousands of Yen (i.e. a TST-50 cost Y50,000; a TST-60 cost Y60,000) was standard in Japan, and also applied to Fender’s Japanese Vintage Reissue range of the early ‘80s.
Higher spec models, such as the TST-80, had cellulose finshes as opposed to the thin polyester of the TST-50s and TST-60s, along with superior body spec, etc. But the higher spec Tokais didn’t greatly impact upon the UK market – almost certainly because they exceeded the budget of the typical guitarist in the market for a copy. If the price of a Tokai rose too high, the customer would just buy a real Fender – even if the Tokai was better. Most of the youngsters buying Tokais just wanted a Strat that was good, and which they could afford. They weren’t really fussed about issues like the type of finish or (provided the guitar looked and sounded good) the precise wood spec of the body. The logo was much more important. If they could afford Fenders, they’d get Fenders, because above all they wanted Strats with Fender logos on them.
IN THE MARKET
The sub £200 prices on Tokai TST-50s and TST-60s seemed to persist until Fender revamped their range going into 1985. At that point, Fender Japan began exporting accurate vintage reissues with full Fender branding, and the Squier reissues which had formerly kept Tokai Goldstar prices so low, were re-budgeted. That is, they were re-budgeted in terms of their spec – they didn’t actually drop in price on the retailers’ shelves. This set the Tokai Strat replicas into new space.
Whereas the accurate Squier vintage Strat replicas had typically cost between £200 and £240, the Japanese Fender-branded versions (essentially the same product) came in at around £350. This took Fender’s own vintage replicas way out of rockbottom budget territory, and potentially gave Tokai room to increase their prices. Provided customers recognised that Squier were no longer making accurate vintage reissues, and they cared enough to insist on vintage accuracy, then the Tokai (and the other replica rival Fernandes) ‘Strats’ would withstand a significant price hike.
Tokai’s RRPs in fact followed Fender’s – sharply rising in the mid 1980s. By 1986, the TST-50 had an RRP of £357 – not that much less than that of the Japanese Fender-branded vintage reissue Strats at the time, and double what the TST-50 could be bought for just two years earlier. However, in practice at the point of sale, the TST-50 couldn’t command anything close to its RRP, and the musicians’ paper Making Music cited a typical selling price of £245. Perhaps predictably (bearing in mind the likely ignorance of the core customers), the TST-50 was still competing with the now inferior Squier Strat, and not the Fender MIJ reissues it was really a match for. The good reputation built by Squier between ’82 and ’84 was now supporting a compromised product, and the Fender logo alone was allowing Fender to charge £100 more for an MIJ ’62 Strat, than Tokai could get for a product which was, on paper, at least its equal. Subsequently, Tokai acknowledged that the TST-50’s RRP was unrealistic, and lowered it.
As the 1980s drew along, the TST-60 dropped out of the retailers’ listings in musicians’ mags, and the TST-50 would usually be seen as the sole representative of Tokai’s vintage Strat replica. Due to the influx of Korean instruments and their extraordinarily cheap prices, the lower-priced TST-40 found favour with some dealers around 1988. By that time, however, the majority of advertisers would list Tokai ‘Strats’ as £POA rather than quoting price figures. It looked like Tokai’s phenomenal UK sales stats were finally starting to wane, and duly, in the course of ’88 the TST-50 slid down the dealer-feedback popularity rankings. Tokai was no longer the upstart, kicking down big brands with unbeatable deals. It was now the establishment, getting an all-round hammering from the new, Korean manufacturers who were joyfully hitting Tokai where Tokai had hit Fender around a decade earlier. By mid 1989, the once overwhelmingly prominent brand of Tokai had a much lower profile in the guitar mags. The manufacturer still made great products, but the glory days were over.
THE TST-50 IN USE
It’s tempting to come over all nostalgic about this and wax about the wonder of the TST-50 in spectacularly reverent terms. But if you’ve read my reviews and retros before, you’ll know I’m far too fond of nitpicking to let that happen...
I'd already bought a TST-60 brand new in August '84, but taking advantage of the Tokai’s first real ‘slump’, I bought a 3-tone sunburst TST-50 '64 replica secondhand in 1989. I replaced the white scratchplate and plastic parts with an ‘aged’ set for that early-’60s-Fender-in-the-’80s look, and substituted a set of Seymour Duncan SSL-1 Vintage Staggered Strat pickups for the original Tokai units. The Tokais are technically very good pickups, but they’re more clean and ‘clanky’ than the pickups you’d expect in a pre-CBS Strat.
It’s all personal preference though, and these days that ‘clankier’, rather scooped sound seems to be very popular. I didn't gig the TST-50 much (although, conversely, my TST-60 is my most gigged guitar), but I did use the 50 at one very memorable gig in winter 1990, which was reviewed on the radio in glowing terms. It's the only review I think I've ever had in which the word "brilliant" was used, so the TST-50 definitely didn't let me down on stage.
Tokai were obsessive about accuracy, and that meant a true retro neck profile for the TST-50. The fingerboards on these have a pronounced vintage radius – more so than the Fender reissues of the ‘80s. With ‘80s guitars in general adopting a very flat fingerboard, the obvious early ‘60s curve of the TST-50’s board could wrongfoot (wrongfinger?) or slightly disorientate some buyers. If the TST-50 was your first guitar, it was fine, but if it wasn’t, you’d probably have to spend a good couple of weeks getting used to it. If you use a flat fingerboard for months and then pick up one of these, you’re literally thinking: “Where have the E strings gone???”.
The thin polyester finishes were nicely applied, but they’d quickly break out into cracks if you didn’t keep the guitars at conducive temperatures, or at least let the guitar case acclimatise when moving from one temperature zone to another. The original finish on my ’84 TST-60 ended up looking pretty unsightly for that reason and one or two others. I refinished it with nitro-cellulose in the end, and learned to be more temperature-aware with other guitars. A thinner finish does seem less intrusive when it comes to the tone and the ageing process of the wood though, and ‘thick skin’ finishes really aren’t very enticing, so provided you were prepared to treat your TST-50 like some sort of six-stringed diva, the thin finish was, as far as I’m concerned, a benefit.
Other than that, the 1980s Tokai Goldstar Sound TST-50 was exactly what you’d expect in a first class vintage Strat replica. They weren’t the best Strats ever made, but their constant subordination by post ’84 Squiers was totally unjust, and they remain in history as one of the very best value guitars of the 1980s, as well as one of the best selling. I rarely think back to the year 1984 without a cursory reminiscence about Tokai's TST-50 and TST-60 guitars. It looked that summer as if they'd really got Fender beaten on the UK market - especially with the Fender Fullerton plant closing down and USA production at a halt. But by the following year, Fender Japan were hitting back with new branding tactics and some subtle cost-cutting where the kids couldn't really see it. The rest is history, but in '84, Fender were on the ropes good and proper, and this guiitar was the main protagonist.
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