Notes From The Rising Sun

May 17, 2024 5 min read

Notes From The Rising Sun

When thinking of Japanese culture, the first things that come to mind may be the architecture, artwork, Anime, food culture, and several fantastic guitar players.

You didn’t think about guitar players? Fret not, dear reader! We hope to make sure that it quickly comes to mind from now on and maybe introduce you to your new favourite players!

From blues to jazz to metal, Japanese guitarists are leaving their distinct mark on the instrument, bringing excitement and innovation. Let’s look at some of these fantastic players. 

Tomo Fujita

If you’ve been following guitar content online over the past few years, you’ve certainly come across Tomo Fujita. He'd be very hard to miss with his infectious attitude, stellar playing, and love of guitar education.

Born in Japan, where he started his journey on the instrument, Fujita’s move to the United States eventually led him to the Berkley College of Music In Boston, Massachusetts, first as a student, then a faculty member, where he has been teaching for the last 30+ years and counts players like John Mayer (yes, THAT John Mayer) as his former students. Fujita has also created Guitar Wisdom, a subscription service offering courses on various aspects of guitar playing for those unable to study with him at Berkley.

To listen to Fujita is to hear someone deeply versed in the language of blues, jazz, and fusion. He can hang with the heaviest players while playing with a sound and feel reminiscent of Larry Carleton, Joe Pass, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. If that wasn’t enough, he also plays a mean slap guitar!

Char

I first came across Char and his playing while watching various Playing For Change videos, in which he injects some of his trademark bluesy licks into the arrangements. While appearing so unassuming, it would be hard to think that this man’s career was legendary in stature.

Already working as a session musician at 17, Char has had nothing short of a prolific career. He has released several albums under his name, working with musicians such as Steve Lukather, Jeff Pocaro, Tim Boggart, and Carmine Appice, among other notable players. He has also been a member of several bands and supergroups, including Smokey Medicine, Pink Cloud, BAHO, and Psychedelix.

Much like Tomo Fujita, his guitar playing is marked by incredible blues-rock stylings, Hendrix-inspired rhythm playing and a harmonic sensibility among the session greats. It’s easy to see how Char influenced a young Fujita at the start of his guitar-playing days. It’s also no wonder he is found at the top of several lists that rank Japan’s best guitarists and artists. His playing was further honoured when Fender produced a signature “Charizma” Stratocaster and Mustang guitars for the Japanese market in the early 2010s. If you’re a fan of classic 1970s guitar, this is one artist to add to your playlist, and fast!


Ryo Kawasaki

In the jazz and fusion guitar world, the late Ryo Kawasaki was a man of many talents and a force of nature when exploring new sounds and technologies.

Already a seasoned guitarist at an early age, he played jazz guitar in different settings and groups, built primitive synthesizers, studied physics, taught guitar, and worked as an engineer for RCA Victor—and all this while still in his early 20s!

Kawasaki spent the better part of the 1970s playing jazz guitar as a leader and sideman, first in Japan and later in New York. His move to the United States allowed him to perform with Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Teo Macero and other jazz greats. Like the great jazz guitarists, Kawasaki had a beautiful grasp of harmony, chord melody and fantastic tone for straight-ahead jazz and fusion styles.

Always keeping up with the latest technologies, Kawasaki created his guitar synthesizer to further his music, using it as the main instrument or the basis for different compositions. He also dabbled in computer programming, eventually releasing a line of software-based music tools for the Commodore 64.

Though he also dabbled in other genres, including having some high-charting dance singles in the late 1980s, Kawasaki always returned to jazz until he died in 2020.


Kotaro Oshio

When it comes to age, Kotaro Oshio proves that it’s never too late to get a start in your music career. Born in 1968 in Osaka, Oshio is one of the great fingerstyle guitarists, melding different techniques such as tapping, harmonics, traditional fingerstyle and open tunings to create and perform his intricate compositions and choice covers.

He is also a late bloomer in the industry, releasing his self-titled debut in 1999 at age 31 and prolifically releasing music since then. His music can be highly energetic or quiet and tender, with a mastery of all ranges in between. Oshio’s albums would feel at home in your collection next to the works of Andy McKee, Don Ross, and Michael Hedges. He's someone to check out if you’re a fan of acoustic fingerstyle!


Kanami Tōno and Miku Kobato

OK, now for something heavy! For that, we turn to Kanami Tōno and Miku Kobato of Band-Maid.

Formed in 2013, Band-Maid is a band of contrasts. Kobato had a vision of musicians in maid cafe outfits performing rock music. The recruitment of Tōno also brought her friends, drummer Akane Hirose and bassist Misa, into the fold. After a round of auditions, Saiki Atsumi was selected as lead vocalist, and the rest is history.

While the members take the stage in maid cafe outfits, their music doesn’t sound prim and proper, thanks to the heavy riffs and blistering leads courtesy of Tōno, who can shred with the best of them. Also, let’s not discount Miku Kobato's rhythm work, which provides a solid foundation for the band to build on.

While the music might be heavy, it’s also catchy and fun. Band-Maid’s songs combine fantastic hooks, memorable melodies, and a sound that can compete with any modern rock act.


These players merely scratch the surface of the number of fantastic Japanese guitarists making music today. Do you have a favourite one that we missed on our list? If so, please leave their name in the comments.  We’re always up to discovering new music!

By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr

Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.



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