When it comes to historical hotspots along the timeline of guitar history, few other places boast as many creators and trendsetters as California. Leo Fender, Bernie Rico, Sr., Wayne Charvel, Karl Sandoval, Steve Klein and Rick Turner are just a few of the names that come to mind.
Building on this tradition of West Coast ingenuity, a notable group of luthiers is drawing on much more than their common geography. Their guitars are beautiful and innovative, yet seemingly from another world in terms of craftsmanship and design—an old world in which beauty is appreciated for its simplicity, design efficiency and congruence with nature. They each have their own individual style, but for these common characteristics to emerge is no surprise—these builders share a Japanese heritage that celebrates the concept of high art in woodworking craftsmanship. In fact, there is a Japanese word for such an artisan: shokunin. (Pronounced sho’-koo-neen)
Much of the Western world’s first exposure to this tradition dates back to 1852, when Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japan to submit to American trade demands. With an equal emphasis on form and function, shokunin artisans prided themselves on their skill and their ability to waste as little material as possible. Today, what might be considered the continuation of the discipline’s celebrated approach to design is as identifiable with modern guitars as it is with garden gates and ancient temple architecture.
Japan has had its share of well-regarded guitar makers. The work of Kazuo Yairi, Nobuaki Hayashi, Yas Kamiya, Taku Sakashta and T. “Terry” Haruo are worthy of exploration if you aren’t already familiar with them. The topic of Japanese luthiers also deserves a nod to the contributions of the Hoshino family (Ibanez), Shiro Aria and Company (Aria), Kanda Shokai (Greco / Zemaitis), and the Nippon Gakki Company, Limited, better known as Yamaha.
In this article, we’re shining the spotlight on a few of the shokunin who are carrying on this tradition in California today: Toru Nittono, Tsuneyki “Tony” Yamamoto, Michihiro Matsuda and Hiro Miura, but we begin with Hideo Kamimoto—who literally wrote the book on guitar repair.
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