These are the greatest axe-men that ever came out of Japan. Period. This foolproof list will kill yours. Every eyeball that scans these names will praise the definite fact that their favorite J-pop artist was included. Your tastes will be validated and thank god reflected. If not, then blame the young over-caffeinated Millennial that compiled this work of wonder. The excluded Japanese rock gods are a potential cage fight for some fans, but the chosen guitarists are from different genres. They’re rulers of their own thrones, fret-masters of the night. This is just an ode to some incredible Japanese guitarists who play with unabashed passion and amazing craftsmanship.
Virtuoso guitarist, songwriter and actor Miyavi has been making major strides since the early 2000s, but internationally, he’s a new blood. With six world tours in 30 countries, he’s the spearhead of Japan’s leading young artists. He’s nicknamed the “Samurai Guitarist” because he can cut. Miyavi’s string-slapping hands and hard-plucking fingers straddle the lines of blues, funk, rock and pop. While his craftsmanship can’t be overstated, his emotional nuances and unmasked declarations give his sound a definite pulse. Making his acting debut in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014) introduced him to an American audience and it’s given him a new creative outlet.
When Miles Davis and his company of future all-star players (Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to name a few) invented jazz fusion, they took all of their contemporary musicians on a collective DMT trip. And guitarist Ryo Kawasaki was down for the journey. Translating psychedelic wormholes into guitar solos became his specialty. He’s played alongside Gil Evans, Chico Hamilton, Elvin Jones and more. In the ’70s he helped to develop the guitar synthesizer, which pushed the fusion movement to outward and unforeseen places. His explorations with the guitar synthesizer influenced the expanding electronic landscape of the ’70s. Eventually Kawasaki invented his own guitar synthesizer and in the late ’80s, he started producing electric boogie.
He graduated beauty school and became a beloved rock god. Guitarist Hideto Matsumoto, or hide, was known as Pink Spider for his long signature hair. He’s one of the first to embody Japan’s famous kei styles (similar to glam rock). After joining the Japanese metal band X Japan in 1987, hide’s songwriting was one of the main forces behind X’s surging popularity. hide would go on to have a wildly successful solo career. Some ardent fans compare him to Jimi Hendrix, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong or Jimmy Page. hide spoke for Japanese angst and teenage rebellion. He was like Japan’s Kurt Cobain. On May 2, 1998, hide committed suicide, ending a beloved era that was adored by thousands of inspired like-minds.
In America, the deep historical significance of New Orleans (the birth place of jazz) and black culture is of a shamanistic nature. Mie City’s June Yamagishi is a musical fixture within New Orleans and it may seem highly doubtful, until you hear him getting funked up on guitar. His watery vibrato effortlessly commands crowds to dance. The Japanese musician has been living in New Orleans for over 20 years. Playing guitar for funk bands Papa Grows Funk, The Wild Magnolias and Funk on Da Table have been like his series of dedicated sandboxes. They are a refuge. In 2011 he made a cameo on the acclaimed HBO show, Treme. June has also collaborated with music luminaries Bobby Womack, Dr. John, Shuggie Otis and B.B. King.
He’s comparable to Dave Mustaine of Megadeth or Eddie Van Halen. Akira Takasaki is a balls-to-wall shredder. Technically flawless, his rapid chord changes, grimy riffs and melodies are woefully overlooked by the West. For decades, he’s been cranking out pretty constant well-crafted arrangements. Under the influence of English guitarist Richard Hugh Blackmore from UK’s legendary rock band Deep Purple, Takasaki’s style evolved out of his obsession over Purple’s lead guitarist. Takasaki and his metal band Loudness were one of Japan’s first rock bands to receive global recognition. In 1981 they were the first Japanese heavy metal band to be signed to a major American label. With 30 album releases, Loudness continues to tour the world.
Feature image: Akira Takasaki