It's been a long time since I played a brand new Tokai, but this one is very interesting because of its solid body shape and construction. It looks like a mixture of a Les Paul and an ES semi-acoustic with two rounded cutaways that enable easy access to the highest frets. From the picture you would think that it's bigger than a Les Paul, but actually it isn't except for the slightly wider waist (~2cm, so it won't fit into an usual Love Rock case). The binding around the flamed maple top (veneer with two or more pieces of solid maple underneath) also resembles the Gibson guitars, but overall it's not a copy of e.g. the ES 336 (smaller Gibson version of an ES 335) or a Les Paul Standard Double Cutaway and rather an own design which probably appeals to classic rock and blues guitarists. This is also true for the headstock that suits the rest of the guitar well in my opinion. The neck is a typical Love Rock version, in between my 1984 LS 60 (fat '58 version) and my 1981 LS 120 (thinner '60 version), so I guess calling it the '59 type with a rounded D shape is correct. It's built the usual Japanese way, i.e. one vibrating piece of mahogany in perfect Tokai quality that you get used to so quickly (even without fret binding).
Up to this point this isn't entirely new, because the Love Rock II was introduced at the 2002 Frankfurt music fair in Germany and was available e.g. from Tokai UK in the same violin finish (VF, others also possible) and the usual headstock. But the main difference now is the Sound Stream body ("SEB", applied for patent) which was first developed on aluminum body Talbos and then used in other original Tokai guitars made of wood. Here's a related quote from their homepage (see also for more pictures):
"The string vibrations of wooden instruments travel faster at the center of the body than they do at the top and back. By placing a cross-grained piece of wood at this center position of the body, sound is reflected back towards the top and back of the instrument four times faster than on a standard guitar. This groundbreaking new body construction offers dramatically increased sustain and note clarity that can actually be felt "streaming" through your body as you play. In addition, the multi-directional grains offer a stunning visual appearance unmatched by standard instruments."
Does it work? Yes. The Love Rock II SEB rings like a bell with chords and sustains very well on single notes throughout the different neck positions. Its acoustic sound is very loud and quite similar to my two-piece mahogany back LS 60 with great clarity and rich harmonic overtones providing the warmth and life of the notes combined with very good dynamics. So in a way it's also a mix of a Les Paul and an ES sound-wise, even when played dry without an amp. But you shouldn't expect miracles like a free body massage from the "streaming-through-your-body" part if you are used to playing a good Love Rock or other electric guitars, because then you already know that feeling. In fact this quote might mislead you to think that the Love Rock II would produce a lot of low punchy bass sounds which it doesn't, e.g. when compared to my one-piece mahogany back LS 120. It also doesn't have the nasal "honk" tone of the 1981 Love Rock, but still enough of that personality to place itself in the neighborhood of those sounds. So is this a drawback? Not really in my opinion, because if you want that sound, buy it. An advantage of the Love Rock II SEB can be that it's perfect for difficult amp and speaker setups, i.e. producing lots of bass (some call it mud, e.g. wannabe sound engineers). So if you always find yourself dialing the bass and mid knobs on your #1 amp to zero and still wish it would go down to -11, the Love Rock II is for you, because it doesn't sound thin (please don't get me wrong on that), but clear and alive and warm, too. Another option would be to turn the bass up a little bit...
Aside from the new technology being a tonal improvement over usual layered sandwich bodies my guess is that it also saves costs for Tokai, because they can use several smaller pieces of mahogany for the Sound Stream body then (at least 4, probably 5 or more). This is a clever method in my opinion, especially if it works out like that. The body is also thinner than a usual Les Paul model, i.e. 3cm for the middle part (not counting the maple top and two-piece mahogany bottom) versus 4.5cm which also helps to reduce the wood costs. I should also add that this body feels very comfortable with its contoured shaping on the back, and the light weight (3.5-4kg) makes it easy to play for a long time without hurting your shoulder and/or back.
OK, what else... the pickups sound fine and transport the acoustic sound quite well, the highlight being the middle position with both pickups on, because that's your "Stairway to Led Zep Heaven" then. The neck version (7.6 kOhm) is a winner, too, since the basic sound of the Love Rock II SEB is so clear and rich that you've probably hardly ever heard a standard neck humbucker sounding that way. The bridge pickup has a quite high resistance of 11.6 kOhm which is not the usual spec for a Gotoh/Tokai vintage PAF model, as far as I know. Anyhow, it works well in this guitar, because usually more windings also mean less highs. After adjusting their height and the string action (was too low for my playing style) both pickups balanced fine and produced a lot of useful sounds, sometimes using the tone knob for fattening the bridge pickup a bit with more gain from the amp.
The volume knob works well, too, turning it down doesn't produce mud due to the SEB characteristics. I had to unscrew it though, because it was attached with the screw hole directed away from me, so there was no visible mark where I had adjusted the volume. Maybe it came off pulling the push/pull knob earlier, and someone attached it the wrong way. Both knobs are switchable that way for split coil sounds from the neck and bridge pickup, but I hardly ever used them because of the exceptional clarity in the humbucker sound. It can be an advantage on stage if you need several output options very quickly. I would rather use the volume knob then (see above), so for my taste these switches might rather be used for an additional smaller tone capacitor (e.g. 4.7nF) and out-of-phase wiring. A disadvantage in my opinion is the placement of the volume knob near the bridge and directly in the way of the pickup switch, because I couldn't see or feel where that switch was when playing with my band. My suggestion is to simply swap the pickup switch with the volume knob, then you would also have your hand in the usual position for fiddling with the volume and wouldn't have to look and search for it. By the way, the control cavity does not have a circuit board and is painted with the usual isolation lacquer.
More room for improvement:
- * The tailpiece is the normal heavyweight version, a lightweight aluminum tailpiece would probably complement the SEB sound better.
* Kluson style tuners instead of the Gotoh/Grover/Schaller version would look better on a Les Paul/ES mixture in my opinion, but this isn't really important, because they work perfectly.
* The potentiometer shafts are a tiny little bit "shaky" which is enhanced due to the heavy chrome knobs. Maybe other knobs like the vintage Les Paul ones with numbers would also solve the problem with the non-visible marks when adjusting them.
* The neck pickup surface isn't parallel to the pickup ring and top, maybe because the cavity is not deep enough.
* Also offering different pickups with several versions would be nice, but not really necessary, only for notorious swappers...
* A Tokai tight-fit case for this body shape, or does it exist already?