Tokai Guitars have a well-earned reputation for making high-quality electric guitars and basses, often ”inspired” by vintage designs. This time we got three semis from the very top of Tokai’s Japanese model range for review.
The Tokai ES-138 (current price in Finland: 1,368 €, incl. hard case) is the company’s version of a 1958 Gibson ES-335, available in either see-through red or piano black.
Tokai’s ES-145G (current price in Finland: 1,431 €, incl. hard case) is a lightly updated variation on the theme, which comes equipped with gold-coloured hardware and a black finish.
The Tokai ES-162 (current price in Finland: 1,628 €, incl. hard case) is the most expensive model of the three on review. The ES-162 comes with post-1962 style small block markers, brass bridge saddles, and a light aluminium stopbar. The icing on the cake is this model’s vintage-style nitrocellulose finish – you can choose between a tri-burst and red.
Tokai use top-drawer Gotoh tuners on the three tested models.
The ES-138 and ES-162 come equipped with vintage-style Kluson-copies.
For the ES-145G Tokai have chosen a set of modern enclosed Gotohs.
These Tokai Japan -instruments all come with a one-piece mahogany neck, complete with a vintage-correct, steep headstock angle (17 degrees).
The bound rosewood fretboards on the ES-138 and ES-145G models sport dot markers.
As the ES-162 is Tokai’s version of a 1962-’64 ”Block Marker” ES-335, this guitar comes with small rectangular inlays made of pearloid.
All three instruments come fitted with medium-size frets.
Tokai’s ES-guitars come with Gotoh Tune-o-matic-bridges and stopbar tailpieces.
On the ES-138 and the ES-145G we find Gotoh’s LS-series hardware – die-cast (Zamac) parts with steel bridge saddles.
The ES-162 goes one step more ”vintage” by using a Gotoh HLS -set, comprising an ultra-light aluminium stopbar tailpiece and chrome-plated brass saddles on the bridge.
This guitar trio is equipped with the same pickups – a pair of Tokai PAF-Vintage Mark II -humbuckers.
All the electronic components are top quality Japanese parts.
Certain Tokai Japan -models are now sold in Finland complete with Tokai’s cool hard cases.
The cherry red semi-acoustic is one of guitardom’s most iconic electric models. For many this curvy and well-rounded body, made from heat-pressed maple plywood, is the most beautiful body style ever.
Tokai’s ES-138 recreates this classic guitar in its earliest guise (c. 1958), complete with dot markers and a long pickguard, which extends past the bridge.
Even though an ES-335-type body is comparatively large (but thin), many of the best semi-acoustics are surprisingly lightweight. The Tokai ES-138 is very comfortable to play – both seated and strapped on – and balances superbly.
This model’s neck profile is a medium-thick ”D”, which feels great (at least in my hand). The fret job on the test sample was excellent, the set-up spot-on, and the action very light (with a set of 010s). The ES-138’s acoustic tone is typical of this type of guitar – very hollow and nasal with a clicking attack.
Tokai’s own rendition of the classic PAF-humbucker is superb, there’s no two ways about this! The output signal is moderate, and the basic sound is very open and dynamic. The neck pickup has a warm, round tone, but doesn’t mush up. The middle position on the selector switch gives you a very balanced and open sound. The bridge humbucker on its own sounds fresh and crispy, with not even a hint of annoying mid-range ”nagging”.
The black-and-gold ES-145G sure looks very stylish – this is the distinguished gentleman in Tokai’s ES-range, who keeps his cool and looks dapper, no matter what.
Our test sample was the heaviest guitar of this trio, but still much, much lighter than may lesser contenders.
The ES-145G’s neck profile is also the chunkiest. This D-profile is a real palm-filler, giving you a real taste of late-Fifties goodness, and managing to stay just on the right side of ”fat”.
The workmanship displayed, and playability offered by the ES-145G are simply superb. Played acoustically there’s not a lot of difference between the ES-145G and the ES-138.
Through an amp, the ES-145G sounds just like a quality semi-acoustic should – humbucker power, balanced by a clean mid-range.
Our review sample of the Tokai ES-162 is a real featherweight!
The ES-162’s Block Marker -personality is completed by an authentic early-Sixties style neck profile. It’s an oval ”C” that is less of a handful than the ES-138’s neck.
Top marks for the ES-162’s workmanship, finish and playability – this is a first-rate instrument.
This model’s thin nitro lacquer, its lightweight tailpiece, as well as the brass saddles on the Tune-o-matic combine into a very open-sounding and dynamic acoustic performance.
Standing in the same room with your amp, it is easy to notice an added degree of 3D-depth and scope in the guitar’s amplified tone. Interestingly – as is so often the case – recording the sound doesn’t seem to fully convey this added tonal dimension. You have to experience the ES-168 ”in the flesh” to get the full picture; the recordings sound remarkably similar to the other two models’ performances.
The reputation of Tokai Japan -instruments has been legendary among players and collectors ever since the 1970s. This trio of ES-semis makes it crystal-clear that Tokai actually deserves this reputation thanks to the superb quality of it’s Made-in-Japan guitars.
Tokai’s ES-138, ES-145G and ES-162 offer you genuine Japanese quality at very fair prices.
Tokai Japan semi-acoustic electrics
Tokai ES-138 – 1,368 € (hard case included)
Tokai ES-145G – 1,431 € (hard case included)
Tokai ES-162 – 1,628 € (hard case included)
Finnish distributor: Musamaailma
+ Japanese workmanship
+ one-piece neck
+ superb finish and set-up
+ authentic tone