Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Ordering A Tokai SG118 From Ishibashi's U-Box

 I've always said that to call oneself a serious electric guitar player one had to own the Big 5 of guitars, namely a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, a Les Paul, an ES335 and an SG. 

And owning a Gibson SG has been on my wishlist for a number of years now. As a teen who listened to Cream with Eric Clapton, my ideal SG had to be a '61-style with the small pickguard instead of the larger 'bat wing' version. Maybe I saw too many of those with rusting screws given the owners' penchant for sweating like Angus Young while banging out Back In Black in front of their bedroom mirrors. You know who you are..

In all seriousness, I've always felt that in the case of the bat wing, where the pickups are mounted directly to the plastic pickguard, the tone of the instrument is softened and tamed down somewhat. The whole guitar just seems to resonate differently.

For maximum wail you need the pickups on mounting rings. There's an immediacy to the response with the pickups mounted Les Paul-style, standing tall and proud. Although Angus sounds absolutely fine with either configuration.

Tokai SG-118

Shot Down In Flames

I had actually ordered a '61 Reissue Gibson SG from Ishibashi back in 2017. Having paid in full I was informed that since the guitar had rosewood as one of its wood components there was a need to obtain a certificate stating that the rosewood was harvested pre-2017 when CITES was enforced. Utter madness if you ask me.

Imagine making it compulsory for musicians to apply for CITES permits, a process that took months, just because of a skinny slab of rosewood for the fingerboard or else they wouldn't be able to travel with their instruments. Thank goodness common sense prevailed -- eventually -- and the restriction on musical instruments was lifted in 2019.

And that SG? I never saw it.

According to Ishibashi they could not prove with certainty that the guitar had been made before 1st January 2017, the cutoff CITES date for export certificate approval.  And never mind that this was a 2011 model. Apparently Gibson's serial numbering system and date stamp on the back of the headstock holds no weight with Japan's CITES office.

Anyway, all was good, I got my refund and I put it down to experience despite the 2-month wait.

Since 2017, Ishibashi's used prices of '61 Reissue Gibson SG's have risen dramatically to regular Les Paul Standard levels. Any notion of having an SG to round off that part of the collection seemed to fade -- as I distracted myself with other guitars. Until the other day.

Tokai SG-118 African Mahogany

Shot In The Dark

Browsing Ishibashi's U-Box I came across this rather mint looking Tokai SG118 from 2006. Having purchased a Tokai LS173 gold-top Les Paul copy a while back and being thoroughly impressed with the workmanship and faithfulness to the original Gibson specs I decided to spring for the Tokai SG. And it was just a little more than a third of the price of a new Gibson '61 Reissue SG.

Doing a little research, I found that Tokai derived it's model numbers from the prevailing Japanese yen price of that instrument at the time it was manufactured. The Tokai SG118 would therefore have retailed for ¥118,000 in 2006. The same guitar with the same specs today is listed as the SG124 due to its current price.

Imagine if Gibson had adopted this scheme for its ES175 or ES335 guitars. What an interestingly phenomenal mess it would have been.

Shoot To Thrill

The Tokai SG118 is part of their Japanese-made Vintage series and features the following specifications:

One-piece mahogany set-neck with 18 degree headstock angle
Rosewood fingerboard
Two-piece African mahogany body
Tokai PAF vintage-voiced Mk II humbuckers
Kluson-style tuners with green tulip buttons
Tune-o-matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece

Tokai SG118 headstock

Big Gun

The guitar was well-packed and shipped in Ishibashi's new carton with guitar graphic which basically made the contents known to postal workers to Handle With Care. At any rate it's always a bit of a crap shoot shipping guitars by regular mail.

The guitar arrived with strings slack -- always a good idea when shipping or travelling with a guitar -- in a decent quality non-original soft case. And of course I had to do the obligatory taps on the back of the neck to check for a rattling truss rod which could indicate a break. There was a rattle but I traced it to the front pickup being adjusted a little too low and there not being enough torque on the pickup mounting springs. A little quarter turn of those flathead screws, just like how you would find on an actual vintage SG from the '60s, fixed the rattle.

Ishibashi inspects, sets up and does a string change for every guitar that ships out from their U-Box, and this one played like butter when I tuned it up. The neck relief was set up just how I like it -- almost straight -- although I will admit to lowering the action just a tad at the bridge. The intonation was dialed in perfectly.

Tokai SG-118 fingerboard acrylic inlays

True to '61 specs, the necks on the Vintage series Tokai SGs are a little on the chunkier side and the frets are medium low. There are no fret nibs on the 118 and the frets extend to the end of the fingerboard. Fret nibs on the binding are reserved for Tokai's Premium series guitars. One niggle I have with mid-priced Japanese guitars though are their glaringly white acrylic inlays. This one is no exception. Again, like fret nibs, the yellowed acrylic inlays are found on the higher end instruments such as the Tokai LS173.

For Those About To Rock

So what is it about SG-style guitars that makes them unique. For one, the thin slab of mahogany that makes up the body has a lot to do with its tone. There's an organic quality to the sound as the wood vibrates a lot more than, say a Les Paul with a certain spank and 'wiry-ness' that translate into a petulant snarl when plugged into an overdriven amp. Want to sound like an absolute vandal on guitar? The SG is it.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Ordering a Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond from Ikebe-Gakki Japan

Browsing Ikebe-Gakki's site the other day, I happened to pull up a search for Zemaitis guitars and came across this particularly spectacular piece. And as luck would have it, Ikebe-Gakki just happened to be having a closeout sale on Zemaitis Series 2 guitars to make way for the forthcoming Series 3's.

I knew I just had to pull the trigger on this one.

Ikebe-Gakki's email response time has always been quick and efficient and I was able to confirm my order the following day.

And so began the anxious wait.

Most Japanese online guitar shops ship by EMS, the very reliable Japanese postal service. It's SingPost in Singapore that has always caused me some concern which you can read about extensively on my Tokai LS173 article.

With the tracking number provided, the guitar shipped out via EMS Japan last Friday January 31st, and arrived in Singapore on Sunday night, February 2nd. Determined not to miss the postman this time around and face having to deal with the SingPost office yet again, I took a day's leave from work in anticipation of its delivery on Tuesday 4th February.

But it was not to be.

To top it off, the automated reply to a call to SingPost on Wednesday startlingly said that an attempted delivery was made on 4th February!  I immediately searched for an attempted delivery slip but it was nowhere to be found, not under my door or in the mailbox. "More SingPost shenanigans!", I thought to myself.

I was about to trek down to the post office and bang on a few tables (just kidding!) when I told myself,  "Relax, it's only a guitar".

I decided to call the SingPost hotline to reach out to an actual human being on the status of the shipment.  After being put on hold accompanied by some jarring, slightly distorted piano music I was politely informed that the package was in the queue for delivery the following day.

I was now even more determined not to miss the delivery, so I put up a sign on my gate, indicating my phone number. The package was delivered at precisely 9am by a very cheery postman who called me on my mobile number when he was at my front door.

Wait a minute Mr Postman..

In all, the guitar was with SingPost from Sunday February 2nd til the morning of February 6th -- four working days. Not too bad SingPost, not too bad.

And just like my previous order from Ikebe-Gakki, the guitar came very well packed, literally a box within another box, containing the guitar in its hardcase.

ikebe gakki carton
Ikebe-Gakki outer carton box

Inlays for Days

The first all-white Zemaitis guitar debuted at NAMM 2015. Part of the Japanese-made Zemaitis Superior series, this model featured abalone inlays encircling the rim of the guitar body but didn't yet include the large abalone diamond inlays next to the tailpiece.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond
Sheer wow factor and bling!

And it was all that abalone that initially caught my eye. On close inspection, I could see every little square inlay was separate and individually inlaid by hand. A CNC machine can cut the slots for the inlays, but there are some things that machines can't do just yet.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond inlays
Stunning inlay work

The Zemaitis A24SU Superior White Pearl Diamond features:

  • A mahogany top with abalone inlays
  • African mahogany neck and body
  • Set-neck construction
  • 42.5mm nut width
  • Rosewood fingerboard with 24 medium frets
  • Bone nut
  • 25" scale length
  • Dragon Classic pickups
  • Duralumin bridge, tailpiece, pickup mounting rings and control knobs
  • Gotoh SG381 1:16 ratio tuners
  • 12 1/32" fingerboard radius
  • Les Paul-style controls with two volume and two tone controls with  3-way selector switch
  • Polyurethane finish

What Is African Mahogany?

Traditional mahogany from Honduras is known for its strength and beauty and is still the wood of choice for guitar building.  Old growth Honduran mahogany stockpiles have long since dwindled and have become exceedingly expensive. Almost all the Honduran mahogany available these days is new growth from plantations but still commands top dollar. Naturally, alternatives to Honduran mahogany were sought out, one of which was Khaya from West Africa, one of five known species of mahogany.

On a solidbody instrument, African mahogany is as resonant and lightweight as its Honduran counterpart.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond in case
Zemaitis A24SU in plush hardcase

Zemaitis Set-Neck Construction

Upon examing the neck joint, the first thing I noticed was the unique neck pocket design, true to the original guitars built by Tony Zemaitis. The body is routed at the neck joint to form a pocket which encloses the neck heel on three sides when it is inserted and glued. Instead of a Les Paul-type tenon joint, the entire width of the neck heel fits into the pocket forming a very solid connection.  I noticed a similar neck pocket design on my Aria Pro II Cardinal, albeit in a bolt-on configuration.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond neck joint
Zemaitis unique neck pocket joint

Fingerboard and Frets

The A24SU comes with 24 immaculately dressed and polished medium frets on a 12" radius rosewood fingerboard. Attention to detail here is extraordinarily high for what is still basically a production instrument. The crowns of each fret are perfectly rounded with no sign of levelling -- flattened crowns are a sure sign of cost-cutting -- and the fret ends are nicely chamfered for a perfectly smooth feel up and down the edge of the fingerboard.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond frets
Impeccably polished medium frets 

And thank goodness for the lifting of the CITES control of import and export of musical instruments with rosewood in November 2019.  Having to get CITES certification for every guitar with a rosewood fingerboard was ridiculous from the get-go.

One little niggle I have is that I wish they hadn't used the cheap white plastic pearloid inlays for the fingerboard. Real mother-of-pearl would have added to the overall look and stun factor and frankly it's not expensive. The Generation 1 Zemaitis guitars built by Greco, from what I've seen, had genuine MOP inlays.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond 12th fret inlay
12th fret inlay

But I'm glad that Zemaitis Japan considered going with a 42.5mm width bone nut for the Superior series instead of plastic. One interesting fact is that many of the hand-built original Zemaitis guitars had very narrow nut widths in the region of 37.5mm.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond headstock logo
Zemaitis headstock logo and engraved trussrod cover

25" Scale Length

Somewhere between the Fender's scale length of 25 1/2" and Gibson's 24 3/4" is what I've long thought to be the domain of Paul Reed Smith at 25".  As it turns out, Tony Zemaitis was using a 25" scale on his guitars since 1957!

A 25" scale length on a mahogany body, in my opinion, yields more resonance and a different feel to the instrument overall. Coupled with the scale length, the lack of a maple top on the Zemaitis A24SU also makes the body resonate more freely -- you feel the vibration very distinctly under your fretting hand when you strum an open chord.

Here's an earlier article on scale lengths that may be of interest.

Duralumin Bridge, Tailpiece and Pickup Mounting Rings 

One distinct feature of Zemaitis guitars is their art-deco style bridge and tailpiece design. Tony Zemaitis used to fashion his bridges by hand out of aluminum billets and the originals had an abundance of tooling marks, imperfections and a definite homemade quality.

Zemaitis Japan has chosen to go with Duralumin, a hard aircraft aluminum alloy for all their bridges, tailpieces, mounting rings, control knobs and, depending on the model, the metal tops.  Exceptionally detailed acid-etched engravings on the tailpiece, pickup mounting rings and headstock badge and truss-rod cover raise the bling factor of the Zemaitis A24SU by a factor of 100. At least.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond Dragon Classic pickups
Dragon Classic pickups with engraved mounting rings

The original Zemaitis design bridge is wide and rounded and very comfortable for the picking hand to rest on when playing.  On close inspection you'll notice the string saddles to be larger than usual and there are slots on the back of the bridge where the strings can pass through to the tailpiece. The tailpiece is bolted flush to the body and the slots on the bridge are so that the strings contact only the saddles and not the edge of the bridge. It's an extremely well thought-out design, both in function and aesthetics.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond bridge and tailpiece
Zemaitis Duralumin Bridge and Tailpiece

Dragon Classic Pickups and Electronics

The proprietary Dragon Classic pickups are modelled after the old vintage Gibson PAF humbuckers. Not particularly high in output, they are warm but with a smooth top-end that cuts through nicely, especially on the bridge pickup. Overdriven tones are very reminiscent of a vintage Les Paul with that elusive crying overtone. With the amp set to clean, the neck pickup yields an almost acoustic tone, but that is definitely also due to the combination of the guitar's construction, aluminum bridge and tailpiece, and all-mahogany body.

I also like that Zemaitis has chosen to steel-wool the chrome pickup covers, dulling the shine down a bit to more closely resemble the rest of the hardware.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond electronics
Under the hood

The Zemaitis AS24SU Superior White Pearl comes in a faux suede, dark 'British green' plush hardcase.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond hardcase
A hardshell case befitting a Zemaitis guitar

Read about my earlier Ikebe-Gakki order:

EVH Striped Series Guitar Review

Friday, August 17, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 2

In Part 1 of our DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan strat build series, we detailed budding blues guitarist Shuen's choice of a quartersawn flamed maple guitar neck. After the first few coats of nitrocellulose lacquer were applied, the gorgeous figure of the flamed maple is finally starting to really show through.

Nitrocellulose lacquer takes several days to dry between coats, and longer if humidity is high. While she waits for the neck to receive its final coats of lacquer, she could now turn her attention towards purchasing a guitar body.

Your (SRV) Body Is A Wonderland 

I don't know if she was being serious but Shuen initially indicated to me that she wanted to go with a cheap Squier body. Which went against the grain -- pun intended -- of her original intent of getting the best possible after-market parts for her DIY SRV strat build. My reaction to that of course was why would she want to couple a beautiful 450 dollar quartersawn flamed maple neck with a glued-together-from-5-or-more-pieces-of-wood, el cheapo Squire Statocaster body?

No offence meant to any Squire guitar owners out there. Your guitars rock. But only if it was made in Japan in the 1980s.

After trawling eBay for a good fifteen minutes in between sets at my regular Saturday night gig, I suggested that she look into getting an actual Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature model guitar body . EBay seller The Stratosphere had a few nice ones on sale, loaded with Stevie Ray-approved lefty gold Fender bridge, neckplate, neck screws and backplate. After a few messages back and forth the next day, we both agreed on the one that had the nicest wood grain of the four, made from two pieces of alder and joined right down the middle.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst
Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst

The good thing about guitars with finishes like the Fender 3-tone sunburst is that the grain of the wood is plainly visible and for this reason, guitar companies also typically save their better-looking woods for their guitars with transparent finishes. No ugly knots or unsightly grain -- those are reserved for solid colors.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone sunburst
Dig that mellow 3-tone sunburst!

Ebay seller The Stratosphere has an interesting business model. They seem to routinely take apart various models of Fender guitars -- even the Custom Shop ones --  and list the necks, bodies and hardware separately.  Perhaps they move stock more quickly this way, rather than selling complete guitars.

Wherefore Art Thou UPS?

The Stratosphere shipped the SRV body via UPS.

Now I don't know about the quality of service of UPS anywhere else in the world, but the service of their Singapore division leaves much to be desired. They seem to require more than one delivery attempt, which makes me wonder if the first delivery attempt was even made at all.

Case in point, my own recent experience with UPS prompted me to advise Shuen to leave a clear notice outside her office door. In spite of the sign, she received an SMS message from UPS that a delivery was attempted but was unsuccessful since no one was there to sign off on the package. And since they had her cellphone number which was stated clearly on her door sign and the package, they could at least have called when attempting to deliver.


UPS Sign
The now famous UPS sign that UPS missed

At any rate, after a phone call to UPS customer service in which she made her dissatisfaction clear, she received the package with the SRV body the next day.  The phrase 'Hell hath no fury..' comes to mind.

Pickup The Pieces

Shuen and I entered into a heated debate on the merits of purchasing a loaded pickguard versus obtaining the pickups, potentiometers, capacitor and 5-way switch separately and doing the soldering of the electronics ourselves. And by 'ourselves' I meant bringing it to a professional who could do it properly.

Loaded pickguards, on the other hand, are off-the-shelf units that come complete with pickups and soldered electronics. The only soldering that needs to be done is the connection of the ground wire and the output jack. She decided, wisely I think, to go the loaded pickguard route.

After another round of debates about pickup choices -- this one more testy than the first -- Shuen decided that the Fender Custom 69 pickups were the most pleasing to her musical sensibilities. And lo and behold, there was another seller on eBay, Twilight Guitars, offering a loaded pickguard with this very pickup configuration.

Pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Tortoiseshell pickguard loaded with Fender Custom 69 pickups

On her initial enquiry email, I suggested that she ask if they could do a simple wiring modification where the second tone knob controlled the bridge pickup. The conventional 3-knob Stratocaster wiring is master volume and two tone controls, one for the neck pickup and one for the middle.

The shrill beast that is the bridge pickup is untamed by the tone controls and, in the wrong hands, has been known to blow audience's minds but not in a good way.  She checked with the seller and they replied that they already include this mod as a standard feature on all their loaded pickguards. Awesome.

Loaded pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Loaded pickguard wired by Twilight Guitars

Shuen chose a tortoiseshell pickguard and white parchment pickup covers, knobs and switch tip which look stunning against the sunburst of the SRV body. Yep, it's all coming together very nicely.

Fender SRV body with Custom 69 pickups

(Photo credits: Shuen Ong)

Stay tuned for Part 3 of Shuen's DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...