At this moment in time, I’ve got just 4 guitars, these are two of them! Yes, two Stratocasters. I’ve owned the Tokai Goldstar Stratocaster since new when I bought it in 1985. There were lots of them for sale at that time, I went round 3 guitar shops in Leeds City Centre. I must have chose from about 25 or 30, with all the different combinations of neck and body colour. I came home with this cream coloured maple neck model, said to be a 1958 Fender Stratocaster clone. Whereas Fender re-issues are of the 1957 and 1962 years Tokai used to describe theirs as 1958 and 1964 for very similar combinations of necks and finishes.
The Fender Stratocaster HSS Made in Mexico is a recent addition to my wall, it’s a 2009 made and is known by people in the know as the 2009 upgrade model. This is an upgrade to an upgrade because there already was, at least, one previous upgrade – the 2006 upgrade model, so I’m glad to get this version. This Mexican Stratocaster replaced an American Stratocaster from 2006 that I had, which was a rosewood necked 3 tone sunburst model. The American Strat had special bypass circuitry on the tone controls that would click to signify the circuit has been bypassed. Also the contemporary bridge was nicer than these vintage bridges. However I didn’t get on well with the American Stratocaster and sold it, it never felt right to me and it was honestly a bit of a disappointment. I’ve often thought about getting an HSS Strat and when I saw this Mexican black one for sale including hard case for less than half the price I sold the USA Stratocaster for I bought it. I am very happy with this purchase and think it’s a really great guitar. I’m left thinking why I didn’t like the USA Strat, all I can think is that I am used to maple necked models and it just felt weird with no feel or sonic benefits to the Tokai (or this MIM one I have now).
This is a more of a comparison than a review of these guitars as most people will know what a Stratocaster is and sounds like. In play the most obvious difference between the Tokai SSS and Fender HSS is the sound of the pickups and the feel of the neck. In general I think I prefer the 2009 Fender Mexican Stratocaster neck with it’s flatter radius (see table below) and the silk finish. The radius isn’t very flat on the MIM but the Tokai 1958 clone is quite a rounded profile. The Mexican neck is a good compromise between this roundness (good for chording work) and the flat profiles like Jackson/Ibanez etc. The silk finish is a newish thing (for me) and it’s great because it never seems to drag on the hand. Slightly larger but not huge frets make the neck overall excellent to play.
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Moving on to the sounds. The Tokai Goldstar Stratocaster is quieter overall, the Alnico pickups are, some say, under-wound compared to most modern pickups. They have great clean tones, great funky tones and are extremely “stratty” in my opinion, giving all those typical stratocaster tones you know and love. The out of phase sounds are a lot more ‘quacky’ than any other Strat I’ve tried. I love this guitar for clean and low gain playing. When pushing this guitar to heavy rock, it can do it, but it seems to take quite a lot of fiddling to get a good sustaining overdrive sound that doesn’t muddy up, also you’ve got to watch the usual single coil problems with hum etc. Yes, best to stick to clean and low to medium gain settings, they can really show off this guitars’ beautiful tones and picking response.
Fender Mexican Stratocaster 2009 & Tokai GoldStar Sound 1985 comparison chart
|Fender Mexico 2009
|Tokai Japan 1985
|Thick headstock joint
|Vintage headstock joint
|Adjust at headstock
|Adjust when removed
|70s Style Fender
|Tokai Gold script
|Fender ‘Ping’ tuners
|Vintage ‘Kluson’ replicas
|3 ply parchment
|Vintage single ply
|H/S/S ceramic magnets, centre pickup reverse polarity, hum cancelling when 2 selected
|S/S/S vintage alnico magnets, standard vintage wiring
|When bridge/ middle selected bridge acts as a single coil
|Standard 5 position switch
|Vintage style, with sharp allen screws, high mass bridge block
|Vintage, now rusting, shorter allen screws on outside saddles
|Polyester, 3 to 5 piece Alder
|Polyester, ‘Swamp Ash’ 2 or 3 piece body
I’d say the sound from the Mexican Stratocaster might be called less refined but it’s still great to these ears! Using the same amp presets you get a bit more bite on the cleans and more focus and bite on mid-gain sounds. It’s overall a more raunchy guitar than the Tokai GoldStar, with less effort involved in driving it that way. It’s still got that Strat sound and character though. The Mexican Stratocaster uses single coil pickups with ceramic magnets to give it slightly more abrasiveness. It’s clever how when you choose the middle and bridge pickup together the guitar just uses one of the humbucker coils. I wondered about how it sounded so similar to the Tokai in that setting when it’s humbucker equipped! I just learned about that last night 🙂 Getting to the sound using the humbucker on the MIM Stratocaster – it’s great to have it there, simple as that. I’ve used a mini humbucker at the bridge in a Strat and it didn’t really cut it for me, so this is great (I’d also tried a single humbucker equipped Strat once looking like the Tom Delonge or Hello Kitty model). The balance in this HSS config is better than just swapping out one of your stratocaster pickups for a humbucker too. Seems like someone has done some planning and thinking about the sound! The more powerful ceramic single coils on the Mexican do not feel too different to the humbucker, it’s not like a huge jump, it’s not like someone has just flipped a big red switch saying ‘power’ or anything like that.
Other differences I think are worth commenting on are the neck bump, where the neck meets the headstock. After playing the vintage style neck, I find this bump, strengthening area, a bit weird. Do Stratocaster necks break there often? Is it something to do with sustain properties of the guitar? A moan I have about the Mexican is the vintage bridge. Is there any difference at all in price for Fender to put a contemporary bridge on it, as it’s not a vintage re-issue model!? I think it’s done for business reasons, that’s all, differentiate the cheaper Mexican guitars easily. Also talking about the bridge I must get round to changing the bridge Allen screws on the MIM bridge low and high ‘E’ bridge saddles. On the vintage Tokai they are shorter, so they don’t uncomfortably dig into my hand. A modification, again, that would cost Fender zero effort/expenditure IMO.
It seems like it’s common practice, if you read message/chat boards that people buy these Fender Stratocaster MIM guitars and change all the pickups pretty soonish. However people who write on message boards are perhaps 5% or less of the guitar playing population I’d guesstimate! Give them a fair go before you start swapping things around, and be careful of balance of tone and volume between them if you are changing/upgrading.
I hope this was a useful comparison for some of you, both these guitars have a similar lowish value second hand and are regularly available too. If I didn’t have one of them I’d grab one now. If I could have only one, I’d probably get the Fender Mexican HSS Stratocaster for it’s sonic versatility and great neck, it’s probably more widely available and a little bit cheaper too. If you can always try them out before you buy, even machine built guitars have variances we can feel.