A Strat By Any Other Name: The Tokai Springy Sound

Founded in 1947, Tokai Gakki Company, Ltd. – Tokai Guitars – began as an obscure Japanese musical instrument manufacturer. But they started to gain notoriety in the 1970s and ‘80s with their production of high-quality Fender and Gibson replicas that captured the old school vibes of the original instruments at a fraction of the cost.

By the early 1980s, Tokai’s Stratocaster replicas – known as Springy Sound, Goldstar Sound, and Silverstar Sound – were surpassing Fender’s American-made Strats in popularity. Stevie Ray Vaughan posed with a Tokai Springy Sound on the cover of his 1983 album Texas Flood, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was spotted with his Tokai Strat replica on the road.

Collectors often lump these models together with other Japanese replicas as “lawsuit guitars.” However, Fender never actually sued Tokai. In fact, the two companies made a deal in 1997: Tokai could continue to produce some of its replicas with subtle changes to their branding and headstock shapes if they would agree to supply Fender with guitars. From 1997 until 2015, Tokai produced Fender “Made In Japan” models, which are also collector instruments today.

While the popularity of Tokai’s replicas remained strong in the Japanese market, the introduction of Fender’s Japanese-made models (made by FujiGen Gakki from 1982-1997) into America and Europe largely forced Tokai out of these markets by the late 1980s.

The Very First Attempt at a Vintage Reissue

1980 Tokai Springy Sound

1980 Tokai Springy Sound

At a time when Fender was struggling to find a viable direction for its own product line, Tokai and other Japanese manufacturers were already seeing the value in producing vintage reissues of these brands’ most popular guitars.

Tokai began planning a product line of Stratocaster replicas in the mid-’70s that would be built to the original vintage specifications. To this effect, the company’s engineers got ahold of genuine vintage Strats, took them apart, and took measurements and photographs – a technique that Fender and Gibson would later adopt for their own vintage reissues.

From 1977 to 1983, Tokai’s pre-CBS era Stratocaster replicas were called Springy Sound. In late 1983, the pre-CBS replicas changed their name from Springy Sound to Goldstar Sound. The quality of these guitars remained consistent through the branding change, though this is a lively forum debate on the topic.

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Tokai’s Model Numbers

The Springy Sound guitars that Tokai built between 1977 and 1983 can be broken down according to their model number, which was a reference to the guitar’s expected retail value.

For example, an ST-42 would have cost 42,000 yen at the time (roughly $480 USD in today's money). Tokai would add 5,000 yen (roughly $57 dollars in today's money) to left-handed or custom painted guitars, such as the ones with colored headstocks. These changes would be reflected in the model number. It’s possible to find a ST-55s, for example.

Since the model numbers were based on a vague appraisal of the guitar’s expected retail value as opposed to their technical specifications, two Tokais of the same model number may have entirely different features. And to further complicate matters, many Tokais have been heavily modified as they’ve changed hands over the years, so there are many examples of guitars with mismatched necks and bodies.

Springy Sound model numbers – which are usually engraved on the last fret or on the neck heel – generally break down as follows:

  • ST-42 (1977 - 1979) – U-shaped neck, chrome hardware, non-Kluson type tuners, ceramic pickups, 3- or 4-piece sen ash body with poly finish
  • ST-45 (1980 - 1981) – U-shaped neck, chrome hardware, non-Kluson type tuners, ceramic pickups, 3- or 4-piece alder body with poly finish
  • ST-50 (1977 - 1984) – U-shaped neck, nickel hardware, Kluson-type tuners, alnico “E,” “U,” “V” or “VI” pickups, 3-piece alder or sen ash body with poly finish
  • ST-60 (1977 - 1984) – V shaped neck, nickel hardware, Kluson-type tuners, alnico “E,” “U,” “V” or “VI” pickups, 2-piece sen ash or alder body with poly finish
  • ST-70 (1982 - 1983) – U-shaped neck, nickel hardware, Kluson-type tuners, DiMarzio VS-1 alnico pickups, 2-piece sen ash or alder body with poly finish
  • ST-80 (1979 - 1983) – V-shaped neck, nickel or gold hardware, Kluson-type tuners, DiMarzio VS-1 alnico pickups, 2-piece sen ash or alder body with nitro finish
  • ST-100 (1979 - 1983) – V-shaped neck, gold hardware, Kluson-type tuners, DiMarzio VS1 alnico pickups, 1- or 2-piece sen ash body with nitro finish
  • ST-120 (1982) – V-shaped neck, gold hardware, Kluson-type tuners, DiMarzio VS-1 alnico pickups, 1-piece ash body with nitro finish

All of the above models were available with a rosewood fingerboard, but this feature is very rare on ST-80 and higher models. Tokais can also be identified through their serial numbers, but there are some instances of departures from this system.

For more information on Tokai serial numbers, you can refer to this guide.

Silverstar Sound and Tokai’s American Line

Along with the Springy and Goldstar Sound Strats, Tokai had also been producing a replica of the CBS-era Fender Stratocaster since 1978 called the Silverstar Sound. This product line was discontinued in 1985, but the Goldstar line has remained in production through to today – albeit with an altered headstock shape to distinguish it from a genuine Fender.

1981 Tokai Silverstar Sound

1981 Tokai Silverstar Sound

Many collectors view Goldstar and Silverstar guitars as inferior to Springy Sound guitars, but an argument can be made that there are no real differences in quality between like models. A Goldstar ST-60, a Silverstar SS-60, and a Springy Sound ST-60, for example, would all have been sold for 60,000 yen (rougly $690 USD in today's money), so the assumption is that they all share similar components and levels of craftsmanship.

The only advantage of the Springy Sound is that some models, like the ST-80, were offered in higher price brackets with no equivalent Silverstar or Goldstar models. Since Goldstar and Silverstar models were only offered up to the 60,000 yen price point, none of them had nitrocellulose finishes or one-piece bodies.

In 1984, Tokai began marketing two Strat models specifically in the US – the AST-56 and the AST-62 – that were of comparable quality to an ST-60. Both American models featured a modified headstock shape that could no longer be confused with a genuine Fender. Although they were marketed specifically in the US, these guitars were also sold as the TST-56 and TST-62 – the "Tokyo Strats" – in Japan.

The model numbers of these Tokais were based on the production year of the Strats they seeked to emulate. The AST-56 was a 1956-spec Strat with a maple fretboard, a V-shaped neck, and an alder body. The AST-62 was a 1962 model with a rosewood fingerboard, a U-shaped neck, and an alder body.

Resonant Bodies, Vintage Neck Profiles, and Curved Fingerboards

Tokai Strats were never perfect reproductions of vintage Fenders, and it’s debatable whether that was ever even the goal. All of these guitars included 5-way pickup selection, and only a handful of Tokais were made of genuine alder or swamp ash like early Fender Stratocasters.

Instead, most Tokai Strat replicas were constructed of sen ash, which is an Asian tonewood that is unrelated to American ash in all but appearance. A highly grained wood, sen ash is more like alder in tone, producing a strong bass and an accentuated midrange as opposed to ash’s twangier sound.

The bodies of Tokai Strat replicas were generally made of two or three beautifully grained pieces of sen ash, although one piece bodies are common with higher-range models such as the ST-80 and 100. These premium models also had a nitrocellulose finish as opposed to the ST-60 and under, which were finished with a thin layer of polyester.

These finishes were prone to cracking, so it’s rare to find a Tokai with an immaculate finish. But isn’t that part of the appeal of vintage instruments?

Tokai faithfully reproduced the V- and U-shaped necks and rounded fingerboard profiles that characterized vintage Fender Stratocasters. The rounded profile may take some time to get used to because most guitars these days – including modern US Fender Stratocasters – have relatively flat fingerboards.

In another departure with historical accuracy, all Tokais were available either with a one piece maple neck or a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. With the exception of the rare ST-70 that featured a thicker slab of rosewood, Tokais had thin rosewood veneers.

Forgivably Underwhelming Pickups

Tokai used a wide range of pickups in its Strat replicas. It employed DiMarzio VS-1 pickups in its more expensive models and a variety of in-house pickups in the rest of the product range.

The least expensive models usually featured unstamped ceramic pickups. Midrange Tokai Strats had “E” or “U” stamped alnico pickups. “E” stamped pickups have a slightly higher output and thicker midrange than the “U” pickups. In the later Goldstar models, Tokai used “V’ or “VI” stamped pickups, which are similar to the “E” and “U” pickups, respectively.

Although opinions vary, most players believe that Tokai’s pickups lack warmth and may sound a little thin when compared to Fender or other upscale pickups.

When I play my Fender American Strat (a relatively good-sounding one, to be fair) and a Goldstar Sound side-by-side through the same amp on a clean setting, my Fender is louder with a more harmonically rich, bell-like tone. The Tokai, on the other hand, produces a smoother overdriven sound than my Fender.

Most people buy Tokais for the quality of the wood and the craftsmanship – not for the pickups. The pickups are an easy swap if that’s your thing, but be sure to keep the originals if you intend to sell your Tokai some day.

While my modern Fender may outclass the Tokai in terms of electric hardware, I’m envious of the replica’s vintage neck shape and resonant body.

If your priority is to find authentic vintage vibe in a Strat for an affordable price, a Tokai may just be your best bet.

[Editors' Note: This article has been revised since its original publication.]

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