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This article was originally published in issue #8
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The model we were sent for review was a handmade Tokai 'Love Rock LSS-195'. It is obvious where the influence for this guitar comes from, so before the lawyers start getting excited, let's gloss over that and judge this instrument on its own merits.
The body and neck are built from beautiful Honduras mahogany, both being one piece constructions, finished with lacquer. It's a very clean and traditional look and the deep set-neck joint is flawless. The guitar has a rosewood fretboard with 22 vintage sized frets, a bone nut and amber cell inlays. Hardware is very high quality, comprising Switchcraft jack and pots, with P90 style pickups in the form of a pair of LP-OLD MK1's, made in Japan. Vintage tuners and an aluminium LPT-8N tailpiece complete the traditional look.
Construction is of a supremely high level throughout with no obvious flaws anywhere on the instrument and a general level of quality and tightness in the hands. Even the included hard case feels well constructed. The only issue I could find with the guitar was the set-up. The action on our sample was set insanely low, with a set of 9s, and things were fretting out on even moderate bends. This is not the fault of the instrument though and a quick set-up and a more manly set of strings would improve things immensely!
Putting the set-up issues to one side, the guitar plays very well. The shorter scale length and slimmer than average neck, combined with a traditional radius, allow for very easy playability. Chords feel great, even with wider stretches and lead work is fast and without the fatigue problems associated with larger, fatter neck shapes.
Soundwise, the first thing that struck me about the LSS-195 was the resonance of the whole guitar. A single strum of the open strings caused a level of vibration usually associated with a wood such as korina. There were no dead spots across the neck and you can feel the whole instrument singing in your hands. Plugged in to our studio amp I started by checking out the clean tones on offer from the P90's and the three-way switch. The neck pickup was broad and fat sounding without being boomy and had the lovely cutting edge and bloom that you can only get from P90's. In the middle position, things took on a pleasing nasal quality, again remaining clear as a bell and very musical. The bridge position never became harsh and inspired clean Blues licks with the singing, natural resonance of the guitar allowing for lots of sustain even at lower volume levels.
As good as the clean tones were, overdriven tones are where this guitar really came to life with the bridge position P90 giving a biting and throaty crunch sound and sustain for days with a higher gain tone. Bridge position tones gave instant creamy Blues tones that were thick and punchy but with superb dynamic response. The volume and tone controls worked as expected, with a very musical taper and no learning curve due to the traditional layout.
Judging the LSS-195 as a guitar in its own right, there is no escaping that this is a handmade instrument, built from the finest quality materials by people who know exactly what they are doing. It's not cheap and you might ask whether you would be crazy to pay more for a Tokai than for some of the Gibsons you see in the stores, though searching around will yield some very good deals for the LSS-195, we discovered.
I think the consideration here is whether you plan to purchase a guitar that you will keep and treasure for a long time, or one that is a stop gap for another guitar later down the line and so will be needed to keep its value upon resale. In my opinion the Tokai fits into the former category. It may be more expensive than Gibson's similar offerings but I feel that you're getting a guitar that has superb quality Honduran woods, great hardware and more importantly has been built with a supreme eye for quality and detail. I can see owners of the LSS-195 building an emotional connection with this guitar and that may be something that is hard to find with a mass produced alternative. And, who knows, if past precedent is anything to go by, it, too, could become a collector's item one day?