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FEATURE: The return of Tokai

Gary Cooper
FEATURE: The return of Tokai

Fresh impetus behind seventies copy brand Tokai could mean it once again making an impact in UK retailers.

Last month’s MI Pro news story about a planned resurgence of Tokai Guitars may not have caused sleepless nights in Nashville or Scottsdale, but it will have raised a nostalgic smile among more than a few UK retailers.

Tokai, back in the early 1980s, was the talk of the guitar trade and the bête noire of Fender and Gibson.

For a few brief years, Tokai was rampant in the UK, offering superbly made Japanese copies which (as no lesser authorities than Fender's Bill Mendello and Dan Smith have acknowledged) were better than anything coming out of the US at that time.
Unfortunately, they were also direct copies, which, understandably, enraged the owners of the designs infringed. Where earlier copies had often been distinctly average – Tokais of that era were widely regarded as being better than the real thing.

And that hurt.

Matters weren’t helped by the UK distributor’s style. Blue Suede Music didn’t have the Jolly Roger as its logo but Tokai’s buccaneering attitude to other people’s guitar designs was well matched by Blue Suede’s hand-rubbing enjoyment of the situation. True, Blue Suede was headed by Eric Dixon, not Jack Sparrow – but, well, comparisons were made.
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What went wrong for Tokai isn’t as simple as the received wisdom suggests. It wasn’t just that Fender began making guitars in Japan, thus damaging Tokai’s home and export markets. There were also various shenanigans with distributors and, as the brand ran into the inevitable lawsuits, it also floundered while looking for a new UK distributor, simultaneously fighting-off lawyers, hugely rising costs in Japan and a barrage from Fender, in particular, which was aggressively fighting back with clones of its own vintage models.

But all was not, quite, lost. Tokai could always produce a mean guitar and it responded with a wave of pointy headstock superstrats and the idiosyncratic Talbo – an aluminium bodied guitar which found some acceptance – most notably from Rory Gallagher.

But the pressure was eventually too much for the Japanese guitar brand, which contracted to the point that it had almost no presence in the UK until it was picked up, quite to the surprise of Tokai UK’s Bob Murdoch, some 20 years ago. The surprise was because one of Murdoch’s employees had secured the deal on a trip to Japan – leaving him in charge of this highly regarded brand name with, one gathers, not much he could do with it at the time.

The problem was – and is, Murdoch freely admits – the high cost of making guitars in Japan today and the reduced production quantities available from its Hamamatsu factory, which currently employs just 55 people.

What changes the game, Murdoch believes, is that there are now top quality Chinese manufactured Tokais and while a Japanese guitar maker manufacturing in China is hardly news, Tokai, which built its name not on cheap guitars but on great ones, has had to be careful. Indeed, it has tried in the past and ended up rejecting what it had been offered, Bob Murdoch says, recalling an incident where an entire consignment of Chinese Tokais was simply scrapped.

“The difference now is that Tokai’s Chinese production is overseen by Shinji, who is a Japanese luthier who now spends 80 per cent of his time in China, making sure everything is right,” Murdoch says. “He works closely with Mr Xu, who is the MD of the Chinese factory, and who is happy to have him there.

“The Chinese Tokais come with American strings, Korean hardware and Japanese frets and are excellent guitars. And just to make sure, after everything has been completed at their end, I fly over to China and inspect the guitars, personally.
“Making guitars the way Tokai is doing it there is the only way. China is a still a minefield for guitar makers. Unless you are hands-on, it just doesn’t work. I know people who are using agents in China to do that for them but it’s hopeless. You have to be there in person to make sure the quality is good enough.”

This is all well and good, but with online retailers currently selling genuine Fender Bullet Strats for as little as £89, and an Epiphone Les Paul for the same, why would anyone want to buy (or sell) a Tokai?

“You’ve got to make the right comparison. You can sell a Strat for £100 or £1,000 and there are many in between. If you take the £299 Chinese-made Tokai equivalent, it sits between the Squier and the Mexican Fenders. The Japanese-made Tokais are more expensive than Fender’s Mexican Strats – but they actually stand comparison with the US-made ones and that’s what retailers need to get across. They don’t compete at the entry level – they compete on quality, higher up.”
He goes on to make an important point, too – that Tokai has a definite following of its own. It is by no means safe to assume that buying a Tokai is seen as buying a less prestigious instrument. Tokais now have their own collectors who will pay serious money for an old one,  he says.

“I’ve had numerous people call me who have a Tokai from the old days and which they’d put a Fender decal on the headstock of. Now, the Tokais have become so collectable and valuable that they are wanting to take the Fender logo off and replace it with a Tokai one – re-badging Tokais as Tokais.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the Japanese Tokais. People say the old ones from the ‘80s were fantastic and they're right – they were fantastic and they are now. They are still using the same machines to produce them from the same original drawings and in some cases some of the people who built those guitars are still working on them today. Most dealers remember Tokai and obviously we know we need to get the message across to younger kids, but we are working on the website and starting to get that point across.

“The big thing for a retailer who hasn’t seen Tokai recently is the quality of the Chinese guitars,” Murdoch says. “These are really well made guitars and they more stand on their own two feet.”

Tokai UK distributes the brand to Norway and Holland and a few other areas, Murdoch says, which means the demand for Japanese-made guitars almost always outstrips supply. He is currently looking for around 25 dealers in the UK who will get behind the brand.

“We’d like them to take a dozen guitars, six Japanese and six Chinese. The retail prices range from about £300 to £1,200-£1,300 with the Japanese ones starting at around £899.”

Murdoch says that the days of legal fights are behind the company now, with careful attention having been paid to what can and cannot be done, so what remains is an intriguing prospect.

Does enough of the Tokai reputation survive and are the guitars good enough and priced right to take on the products of the US giants one again? One obvious target is Epiphone, which has chosen to restrict itself to retailers willing to take part in Gibson’s exclusive dealership scheme. A £300 Tokai won’t replace a £100 Epiphone – but it could well plug a significant gap on the wall – and (perhaps most importantly of all) offer a decent margin in the process to a retailer who cannot commit to the packages demanded by some rivals.

At the time of writing, Murdoch was still unable to reveal the identity of the rep he is in the process of hiring to look after the South of England, but he confirmed that it is a region he has particularly high hopes for.

The UK is unlikely ever to see again the guitar brand wars of the early 1980s. But for independent retailers unhappy at the hegemony of the big brands, having the likes of Tokai offering them an alternative seems quite likely to be well received.

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