While the Brio has been in the Tokai catalogue for about seven years, this is the first time this model has been made widely available to players in the UK. Tokai has a pedigree going right back to 1947; indeed, the Tokai Gakki factory has manufactured many well-known East Asian brands, but the UK distributor is keen to stress that, despite Tokai’s forays into Korean manufacturing, the Brio is an all-Japanese built guitar.
The Brio has a quirky, angular double-cut body reminiscent of an earlier era of Japanese guitar making. There’s a fun quality about its slightly ugly-duckling looks that would look fine in a line-up with a vintage Yamaha or Teisco, and for us, anything that strays from the ubiquitous pattern of the US classics deserves a round of applause.
See-through black is a conservative but functional colour, and a side-on inspection of the body reveals something a bit unusual: an ‘SEB’ body structure that features a cross-grained alder centre core between two more traditional horizontal layers for top and back.
The argument is that sound waves are reflected up to four times faster through this core as they travel through the guitar, and Tokai suggests this leads to a improved sustain and note clarity. While we can’t confirm the science, an unplugged strum reveals that it has an unusually bright and lively character.
The Brio has a relatively small body (and it’s light at just 7lbs) so it feels extremely comfortable – and though it’s angular, it’s chamfered in all the right places. The neck is a surprise; wide with a fairly flat rosewood fingerboard but with a chunky profile… quite a handful. However, the medium-gauge fretwire, 22-fret format and conventional vibrato (currently set for forward bends only) gives the guitar a more conservative edge.
It’s easy to get used to; it’s fast-playing, and the access up past 12th fret is excellent thanks to the slim, cutaway four-bolt heel joint. The contemporary polyurethane matt finish seems to hermetically seal the neck timber under a silky sheen, but it’s good quality maple and the neck and headstock are cut from a single piece.
In terms of electrics the Brio is pretty straightforward: a humbucker at the bridge, middle and neck single coils, plus a five-way selector, a master tone and a master volume control.
The Brio has one or two tonal surprises. The bridge humbucker loves distortion; you can pile it on without losing clarity, and the Brio wails like its tail’s on fire. Equally, you can get lots of big power chord voices for hard rock or metal.
There’s no stand-out blues tone from the bridge pickup, but its boosted midrange frequency character gives you an excellent jazz comping sound if you clean things right up. It’s even better if you pull back the tone control – one of the best circuits I’ve heard on this type of instrument, and capable of making very fine incremental changes. Sweet-voiced melodic parts work well here.
The next notch up the selector mixes the bridge and middle together for blissfully quacky out-of-phase sounds… great for both clean and distorted playing. The middle pickup offers the most conventional all-round sound, though it’s bright as opposed to rounded, so you might find it taking over on parts you’d normally play using a single coil bridge pickup.
It’s good for clean pop and country picking, or even precise blues riffs if you wind your amp up to the point of crunch. Position 4 blends the middle and neck single coils in another out-of-phase cocktail, ideal for late-night Knopfler moments. Finally, the neck pickup offers a deeper character that’s woodier and richer but still has more clarity than you’d expect.
How much of the Brio’s sound is created by the composite body structure is hard to tell, but the range and articulation of the voices and exceptional clarity across the board suggests that it plays a significant part.
You can get pretty liberal with effects, and distortion won’t simply reduce all the pickup voicing to the same wall-of-death tone. Sonic cosmonauts can cheerfully delve into the pedal bag and pull out a pitch shifter or a ring modulator in the knowledge that the guitar at the eye of the storm won’t completely disappear when you start whooshing the controls.
We like the Brio: it’s an all-rounder that can cope with almost any repertoire and achieves many shades of colour along the way. With quality single coils plus a humbucker for quirky out-of-phase or even monster rock when you need it, it’s a bit like having two guitars in one, and this makes the Brio a flexible one-stop gig tool.
It also makes it an ideal studio guitar for anyone who likes to create textures with multiple layers and blended characters – and it’s especially pleasing to find a truly functional tone control on a guitar in this price bracket. The body styling is different enough to give the Brio a healthy dose of individual character, too.