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The Rare Tokai Early Les Paul and Strat Replica Guitars

By Larry Meiners ( flyingvintage.com)

Today the guitar marketplace is full reissue models, most of which were originally designed in the 1950s. The Gibson and Fender reissue models started showing up in the USA by the early-1980s. Yes, Gibson began making the Les Paul guitars again in 1968 and Fender made the Anniversary Stratocaster in 1979, but these were not so much reissues as updated versions of their earlier models. Well before these two American guitar manufacturer began remaking their classic reissue models, several American luthiers and one Japanese maker, Tokai, began making close-to-exact copies of the late 1950s Les Paul and Strat. They saw the market demand and were infusing the supply. Tokai paid attention to the little details and even studied the pickup waveforms to build in the proper sound characteristics. Here is a little history detailing their Les Paul Reborn and Springy Sound Stratocaster replica models.

It is no secret that guitar buyers want a look-alike instrument to the one played by their favorite artists. Unfortunately, most of these artists play very expensive and rare vintage guitars that are beyond the financial resources of most players. Thus, the American guitar reissue mania was born and has captured a significant percentage of new guitar sales dollars over the last decade. Players such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Joe Perry and many others have signature models that consumers purchase.

Les Paul Reborn

Tokai produced a Les Paul replica guitar in Japan starting around 1976. These guitars were intended to be high-end instruments, not low-priced copies targeted at consumers in their home market. Tokai wanted the look and feel to be correct and these early replicas have wonderful fit and finish detailing. Wanting the headstock to look the same from ten feet away and desiring a designation that was appropriate, Tokai named this copy guitar 'Les Paul Reborn'.

The 'Les Paul Reborn' was constructed using a one-piece mahogany body and two-piece, full-depth maple top. On the headstock, 'Tokai' is inlaid where 'Gibson' would normally be located. Instead of 'Les Paul' in script with 'MODEL' underneath, Tokai's silk-screen logo is 'Les Paul' in a similar looking Gibson script type, with 'REBORN' underneath. Also, Tokai's best instruments have a model designation inscribed into the fingerboard at the last fret. The LS-100 model has a "100" etched into the fingerboard and was their high-end model built with a plain maple top. The LS-200 model was made with a flame maple top. Most of the LS-200 models do not have a three-alarm fire flame top. Most likely, this is due to the fact so few of the original Gibson Les Paul models had them and Tokai made them look like the vintage originals.

Several construction and parts features of these guitars include: single-line Kluson-like plastic tulip tuners, darker 50's style knobs, browned-out pick-up selector knob, thin binding in the cutaway, zebra or double-cream humbucker pickups, small style headstock, a truss rod cover that has 'Standard' engraved in script and a brown case (pink lining) or black case (green lining) with a gold metal plate displaying a star and the Tokai name (similar to 1950s Gibson brown cases).

Shortly after the initial production runs, under pressure from Gibson, Tokai changed the name from 'Les Paul Reborn' to the 'Love Rock Model' and began to sell these replica guitars for a short time in the United States, Europe and Japan. They achieved their desire to have the headstock look like a Gibson from ten feet away and they wanted to avoid a problem using the name Les Paul. As cool as these guitars are, Gibson considered them a rip-off and enlisted the help of their lawyers to stem the tide of imitation instruments. Gibson stated that these guitars violated their trademarks. Since these legal actions were taken, most early replica guitars are generically referred to within the vintage guitar community as "lawsuit" models.

The early Love Rock models have a typical Gibson mustache headstock. Wanting to avoid problems with Gibson's trademarks for the Les Paul guitar and headstock, later production guitars have a dimple in the middle of the mustache at the top of the headstock. Tokai also changed the construction by using a two-piece mahogany body as opposed to a single-piece on the early production guitars. Recently, Tokai began making the Love Rock models in Korea with some important construction changes.

These Tokai instruments are a part of solid-body guitar history and helped propel vintage reissue demand in the USA. A small, but growing contingent of guitar enthusiasts and dealers seek to acquire these early 'Les Paul Reborn' instruments when they become available… which is not very often as they are considered rare.

Springy Sound Stratocaster

During the mid-1970s, Tokai helped satisfy demand in guitar market for look-alike old Les Paul and Stratocaster guitars. Tokai's Strat-clones were available in Japan beginning in 1976 and were intended to be high-end guitars, not low-cost copies. These early attempts by Tokai to meet the markets demand for replica Stratocasters pre-date Fender's own reissue models by several years.

Tokai's goal was to make an old-style Strat-style guitar available to local (Japanese) buyers at an affordable price point. Also, Tokai built these cool reproductions as a tribute to the one of the most sought after vintage guitars and certainly the most copied body style in the history of solid-body electric guitars. Tokai initially introduced both a 1954 (maple-neck) and a 1959 (slab-board) style Strat copy. Tokai designed these guitars to be similar versions and not exact, carbon copies of the originals.

With most Tokai 1954 Stratocaster-replica guitars, you notice a highly figured, light ash body finished in a 50s style two-tone sunburst with a deep rear-body contour. The hard rock maple V-shaped neck has a button string-retainer and single-line, Kluson-like tuners. A single-ply, eight-screw pickguard holds the staggered-pole single-coil pickups. Tokai made two obvious changes to this guitar when compared to a true vintage 1954 model and were made to accommodate function over form. First, these instruments were equipped with a five-way pickup selector switch and second, the adjustment end of the truss rod is not a screw type, but a metric Allen wrench socket. These guitars came with a 1950s Fender-style tweed case.

A most interesting feature of these guitars is their headstock logo decal. Looking from several feet away, the decal appears as though it is an old Fender 'spaghetti' logo. Upon closer inspection, 'Tokai' script is placed where the word 'Fender' would be located on a Stratocaster headstock. Tokai replaced the backward F with a T (without a line through the letter). The words 'S P R I N G Y S O U N D' were used in place of 'S T R A T O C A S T E R' in block letters. An original Stratocaster decal reads 'WITH SYNCHRONIZED TREMOLO', the Tokai has 'THIS IS THE EXACT REPLICA OF THE GOOD OLD STRAT.'. Finally, at the knob end of the headstock the decal says, 'Oldies BUT Goldies' which substitutes for 'ORIGINAL Contour Body'. Maybe the guitar wasn't an exact replica, but it has a cool vibe.


Several well known guitarists have played these Tokai replica Strats, the most famous being the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stevie appears on the cover of Tokai's 1985-1986 Edition of their Electric Guitars catalog. Also, an interesting piece of trivia concerns Stevie's Texas Flood (Epic 1983) album cover photo. It was taken while Stevie was playing a Tokai replica Strat. On the cover, the Tokai logo was removed, however, many music shops sell a poster of that album cover and "Tokai Springy Sound" is clearly visible on the headstock.

Tokai wanted to sell solid-body electric guitars in the USA and began selling altered versions of these early copy Strats that didn't violate any existing manufacturers trademarks. By 1982, Tokai introduced the TST-56 and TST-62 models. The TST-56 emulated the '56 Strat with a maple neck and the TST-62 likewise resembled the '62 Strat with a rosewood fingerboard. A January 1983 Tokai USA Price List indicates either guitar was offered at a retail list price of $570.00 with a tweed case. These guitars deviated significantly from the earlier Tokai guitars. Most apparent was the headstock's logo and outline changes to avoid looking like the pre-CBS Fender headstock and decal. Tokai added a flat side to the normally rounded knob at the end of the headstock and the logo was changed with 'Tokai' in fatter script with a regular 'T', not a backward 'F'-style letter. Overall, they were still an excellent value in 1983.

Fender noticed Tokai's superb workmanship and high quality during the company's efforts to find a partner to build instruments in Japan. According to The Fender Book, written by Tony Bacon and Paul Day, they spoke with Tokai and others regarding possible manufacturing partnerships. Fuji Gen-Gakki Corporation was eventually chosen to build Fender's guitars in Japan (Fuji is the maker of Ibanez brand guitars).

Check out the early Tokai replica guitars and decide for yourself if they have the right 'vibe', sound and playability. The early Tokai Strat replica guitars are considered rare and it seems a small but growing group of guitar enthusiasts are always on the lookout for them.

Thanks to Ned at the Tokai Registry for providing the opportunity to share this information with you. If you are interested in articles and information regarding vintage and collectible guitars, please visit the FLYINGVINTAGE.COM website.

About Larry Meiners
Larry is a book author, songwriter, and painter. He is currently recording his first solo CD of original rock songs due out this fall on Flying Vintage Records. Larry played a Tokai Les Paul on several of the tracks. Watch the FLYINGVINTAGE.COM website for details.

Larry is the author of the Flying V and Gibson Shipment Totals books released this year. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top wrote the foreword for his Flying V book. Billy also provided a cover photo of his vintage 1958 Flying V guitar used on the Fandango Tour. Larry's articles have been published over the last decade in guitar magazines and are currently published in the Guitar Collector Magazine web-zine (found at FLYINGVINTAGE.COM).

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