Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ordering A Tokai LS173 From Ishibashi's U-Box

I recently ordered a pre-owned Tokai LS173 from Ishibashi in Japan and received it in the mail a few days ago. That is, if you could call going personally to Singapore Post's headquarters not once, but twice, 'receiving it in the mail'.

It all started when the guitar was delivered at 5pm on a Friday evening, with no one home to receive it.

I hate when this happens. I immediately start imagining a disgruntled postal worker schlepping a bulky cardboard box containing a delicate guitar and hurling it unceremoniously into the back of the van after a failed delivery, prominent 'fragile' stickers notwithstanding.

After a couple of fruitless calls to customer care that same Friday night -- both of which promised a call back which I never received -- I decided to try my luck and go to Singapore Post's headquarters on Saturday morning to collect the guitar.

At SingPost, I gave them the tracking number and waited for 20 minutes while they tried to locate the carton. They finally came back and told me that the guitar was in the 'holding area'. And the clincher was that the staff member on duty who had the key to the holding area was nowwhere to be found, and neither was this person answering their cell phone.

Well done, SingPost. Looks like you have a disciplinary problem on your hands.

I was told I could collect the guitar 'probably' on Monday or Tuesday, with more promises of a call back. So off I went home, guitar-less and slightly agitated.

Make that very agitated.

I was up bright and early on Monday morning and back at the post office -- call backs be damned -- reminding myself not to lose it if they gave me another 'holding area' story. The cheerful girl at the counter, who seemed to be harbouring a nasty cold, took note of my tracking number and went around back.

I felt like Mel Gibson in the final climactic scene in the movie 'Signs' -- "his lungs were closed, his lungs were closed, no poison got in, his lungs were closed.."

Except my chant was "the holding area is open, the holding area is open, someone has the key -- and that person is there -- the holding area is open.."

Sure, we laugh about it now, but those were some intense moments.

Tokai LS173
The Ishibashi carton at the post office -- finally!
Thankfully, this time they located the carton with my guitar in it.  I decided it would be prudent to check the guitar there and then for any possible shipping damage.

The guitar, snug in its case, was well packed in an Ishibashi carton with lots of bubble wrap. Opening the Tokai hardcase I found more bubble wrap around the headstock and the strings completely loosened.

It's always wise to loosen a guitar's strings for shipping, especially on Gibson-style instruments with angled headstocks. If a guitar at full string tension is accidentally dropped during shipping, the delicate headstock and neck joint is more likely to crack from the impact because of the strings pulling at it.
Tokai LS173
Safe and sound

After a few light taps on the back of the neck to check for a rattling or broken truss rod, I looked the guitar over and was surprised at the extremely new condition it was in, especially for a used instrument. These Japanese guitar players either baby their guitars or hardly play them at all!

Put it this way, I was expecting a guitar in a far more used condition based on the description Ishibashi sent me:

=Used TOKAI / LS-173 GT /03-315959009 

Some light used appearance as light scratches and some tiny dents could be seen on whole item

On the top, there are scratches and some tiny dents

On the back, there are some buckle wear scratches and dents

Edge and side body, there are scratches and dents

Neck condition is good

Fretwear could be seen, approx 80-90% remains

Working condition is good

Serial number : 1433041
WEIGHT : 4.4kg

It comes with original hard case

Tokai LS173
The guitar as listed on the Ishibashi website
I literally cannot spot any of the scratches and tiny dents described, which I think is something very telling about Japanese retail culture. They would rather err on the side of extreme caution than to send out a used guitar to a customer as 'near mint', no matter how microscopic the imperfections.

But why a Tokai Les Paul-copy you might ask?

Tokai LS173
Amber celluloid inlays

If you remember my series of articles on Sherman's Les Paul Quest, my good buddy Sherman's  most recent acquisition was a Tokai Pacifix Exclusive, based on a 1956 Gibson Les Paul goldtop. Pacifix is a high-end music retailer in Yokohama, Japan that collaborates frequently with Tokai guitars to produce limited run models built to their exact specifications.

Tokai LS173
Meticulous fretjob

Sherman has been through so many Les Pauls and Les Paul-type guitars of late that I've lost count. But his newly aquired Tokai was unique. It had a vibe and tone that rivalled the best and most expensive of Gibson's custom shop Les Pauls. And at about a third the price.

I'd always thought Tokai guitars were cheap Japanese knock-offs. I had no idea that they also made very high-end models priced at what Gibson was charging for some of their custom shop Les Paul Standards.

Needless to say, my curiousity about Tokai guitars was piqued.

A Little Tokai History

Tokai Gakki started out in 1947 manufacturing harmonicas. Based in Hamamatsu prefecture, Shizuoka, the original factory is still where Tokai is based. A family-run business, the current president, Shohei Adachi is the grandson of Tokai founder Tadayouki Adachi.

Tokai started making guitars in 1967. Its sole model, the Hummingbird -- not to be confused with Gibson's steel-string acoustic of the same name -- was Tokai's take on Semie Moseley's Mosrite line of guitars.

By the early 1970's, Tokai's quality had improved to the point where they had begun to take on sub-contract work from other larger Japanese companies. Tokai was even commissioned by the iconic American acoustic guitar company C.F. Martin to produce guitar parts and to manufacture their budget-priced Sigma line.

When the contract with Martin guitars ended, Tokai continued to produce acoustic guitars under their own Cat's Eye brand which were excellent copies of various Martin models. Interestingly, the Cat's Eye series is still being made -- by a single craftsman who builds every Cat's Eye from scratch! Pun slightly intended.

By the early 80's, Tokai was making about 100 different models, almost all being direct copies of Fender and Gibson guitars and basses. And they had begun exporting to Europe and the United States.

Tokai Les Paul Reborn, Reborn Old And Love Rock

In the beginning, Tokai unabashedly named its Les Paul copies 'Les Paul Reborn' -- emblazoned in large script in gold letters on the headstock, no less -- which naturally caused Gibson to threaten legal action.

'Reborn Old', and subsequently, 'Love Rock' replaced the 'Les Paul Reborn' script.

The 'Reborn Old' model designation was used for a short time and are the rarest of the vintage Tokai models, making them quite sought after by collectors. 'Love Rock' remains Tokai's model designation for all their Les Paul clones.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
'Love Rock'
These days, Tokai makes guitars almost exclusively for the Japanese domestic market with only a handful of small companies handling their distribution in the UK, Australia and Europe. And because they are meant for the Japanese market and produced in relatively small quantities, they are able to copy Gibson's headstock design exactly without fear of legal repercussions. Or, more likely, fly under the radar just enough for Gibson not to bother.

Tokai LS173 Premium Series Specifications

In 2014, the Tokai LS173 model designation replaced the previous LS160 model.

Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Quartersawn mahogany neck
The LS173 features a one-piece mahogany back, two-piece maple top, long tenon '59-profile  mahogany neck with 18 degree headstock angle, amber celluloid inlays and a nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Hardware includes an ABR-style bridge with brass saddles, aluminum tailpiece and Gotoh tulip peg tuners.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Beautifully figured one-piece mahogany back
The LS173's electronics feature US-made CTS potentiometers, Sprague orange drop capacitors, a Switchcraft outout jack and Switchcraft 3-way selector switch. The pickups are Japanese-made PAF-Vintage Mk II's.
Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Sprague orange drop capacitors and CTS pots

What I found particularly conspicuous about the LS173 were the yellow brass saddles.  I was familiar with nickel plated cast metal saddles, graphite saddles, and even nylon saddles -- but brass?

Tokai LS173 Love Rock
Brass saddles
A quick consult with the oracle of all things Gibson (my good buddy Sherman) revealed that original Gibson '59 Les Pauls featured brass saddles which Gibson chose to nickel plate to match the rest of the hardware.

Looks like Tokai was trying to make a statement by showing off their brass saddles au naturel.

Setup And Tweaking The Action

The guitar came with .010 - .046 nickel plated strings, and was intonated perfectly by the setup guys at Ishibashi before shipping. The neck was adjusted with a tad more relief than I liked -- I like my necks almost straight -- so I popped the truss rod cover and gave the nut a quarter turn. There seemed to be almost no tension on the truss rod nut and it turned with minimal effort.

Tokai LS173 Love Rock

Straightening out the relief brought the action extremely low, perfect for checking for potential uneven fretwork. Applying the ubiquitous 1-2-3-4 fingering exercise along the whole range of the instrument revealed no overly buzzy frets or fretted out notes. A sign of a good and very even fretjob!

Raising the action out of ultra-low Allan Holdworth territory to a more playable height, I could almost feel the guitar chomping at the bit to start wailing at its first gig that very night.

How It Sounds

Not exactly a featherweight at 9.7 lbs, the LS173 is nevertheless very lively when played acoustically. Even unplugged, chords jangle loud and clear and single notes ring true with no dead spots.

But I was a little concerned about the pickups. And I'll be honest, outside of the Ibanez Super 58's -- which I think are really fine --  I have never been a fan of Japanese-made pickups.

The general consensus on the various Les Paul forums was that the pickups the Tokais came with should be immediately removed, quarantined and destroyed, lest the hapless Tokai owner develop a life-threatening case of Horridtoneitis causing him to be shunned by band members, past, present and future. They were supposedly that bad.

The pickups, not the band members.

Plugging in the guitar at home for the first time instantly allayed any doubts I had about the PAF-Vintage Mk II's that come stock on the LS173's.

The neck pickup was warm without being wooly or dark. And the Sweet Child O' Mine intro lick -- don't laugh, its my go-to lick for testing neck humbuckers -- sounded throaty and absolutely convincing with the tone control backed off.

The bridge pickup, meanwhile was sweet sounding, with that elusive cry that Les Paul players crave and sell their first-born for.

But seriously, that cry, that sweet top-harmonic that adds a lilting tail to the high notes, is why people throw big bucks at boutique pickup makers. Unbeknownst to many, the quest for this ghost harmonic is a walk to the edge of a very slippery slope, leading to an endless loop of buying, selling and replacing of pickups. It's a descent into gear acquisition madness.

You know you're in trouble when your pickup soldering chops have superceded your ability to play the A minor pentatonic scale in 8th notes at 120 bpm in the fifth position.

But yep, that tone -- that cry -- is right here, folks  Go get your pair of Vintage-PAF Mk II's if you can find them.

Using the Tokai LS173 at my regular Monday blues-rock club gig that night confirmed my opinion further. These pickups sound as good or better than any pickup on any top-end Gibson Les Paul  I've played.  And frankly, Emperor's New Clothes aside, don't you think that some of those pickups on those custom shop signature Gibson Les Pauls are downright anemic sounding?

So there it is. You might say that I'm a total Tokai convert.

And why I wasn't hip decades earlier to this dark horse of Japanese guitar manufacturers I'll never know.


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