Sakashta''s friends and contemporaries remember one of the most exciting and original guitar builders of his time.

Rohnert Park, CA (February 26, 2010) – The February 13th edition of the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat made a shocking announcement that a body was discovered in neighboring Rohnert Park. Word quickly spread through the guitar community as it was announced that the body belonged to famed guitar maker Taku Sakashta. Friends, musicians and fellow guitar makers were stunned by the news of the loss of one of the most exciting and original guitar builders of his time.

As of press time, an arrest had been made in this seemingly random act of violence, and a suspect was in police custody.

Taku’s Craft
Taku became interested in guitars at the age of ten in his hometown of Kobe, Japan. He attended engineering and design school in Japan and then spent five years developing a curriculum for teaching guitar making at the school. Over the next eight years, he worked for major guitar companies, designing, developing, and producing custom professional guitars. He came to the US in 1991 and started his own business. In 1996, he moved to Sonoma, California, designing and building all types of guitars.

According to fellow luthier Denis Merrill, Taku’s goal was “to achieve perfection in sound, construction, decoration and finish. His primary focus was the archtop guitar, although he could build anything and did so for many of the world's best guitarists. The world has lost a gentle man. I will miss his sense of humor.”

Taku’s creative designs and reputation for astonishing-sounding instruments soon attracted interest from the likes of Tony Darren, Robben Ford, Tony Marcus, Boz Scaggs, and Martin Simpson. At the time of his death, Taku’s website mentioned that he was in the process of designing a guitar for both Tuck Andress and Pat Martino.

Former Taku Sakashta student and renowned bicycle-frame maker Ross Shafer, talked about the death of his friend and former teacher. “Now that Taku has left us, I realize that the real gift I got from him was the high level of confidence it takes to dive into a completely new craft. Thanks so much for the beauty you created, for helping me to learn skills I never thought myself capable of. Most of all, thank you for raising the bar of my confidence so much higher than it ever was before we worked together. R.I.P. Taku ... artist, craftsman, teacher, friend, and dream maker!”

Noted archtop builder Tom Ribbecke commented on his friend’s achievements, saying, “Taku managed to come to the U.S. and achieve not only acceptance but admiration from his peers. He was truly one of our unique, tight-knit luthiery community ... he continuously innovated and created new designs, and was an incredible guitar-making talent and force, but he was a better person. This is how I will always remember him.”

Benefits in Taku’s Memory
Friends in the lutherie community have moved to set up a memorial trust fund for Taku’s next of kin. For information on making a donation to the trust, contact California luthier (and mentor to Taku) Ervin Somogyi at

In addition to cash donations, members of the gear community are planning an auction of materials, tools, and instruments. Anyone wishing to contribute nonmonetary items can send them to Tom Ribbecke, who will store them until they can be sold at auction together with Taku’s tools and woods, which will happen as soon as the family and close friends can organize such an effort.

These donations can be sent to either Ribbecke Guitars or Two Rock Amplification:
Sakashta Memorial Fund
c/o Ribbecke Guitars
498-D Moore Lane
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 431-0125

Taku Donation
c/o Two Rock Amplifiers
619 Martin Ave. Ste.6
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
(707) 584-8663

A look into the work of 5 Japanese-American builders: Toru Nittono, Tsuneyki “Tony” Yamamoto, Michihiro Matsuda and Hiro Miura, but we begin with Hideo Kamimoto

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.

Hideo Kamimoto
Throughout the course of researching this article, one name kept coming up as the founding father of California’s shokunin luthiers: Hideo Kamimoto. After working at a guitar shop in Berkeley and apprenticing under Stan and John Aschow at J.N. Aschow Violins, he opened Kamimoto String Instruments in Oakland in 1967. He later moved his shop to San Jose. Drawing on his years of building and repairing guitars, he eventually penned two well-regarded books on guitar repair, Complete Guitar Repair, and Electric Guitar Setups. Kamimoto is now retired, but his shop, which now specializes in orchestral stringed instruments, is still going strong. Hideo Kamimoto has studied under world class luthiers, including Hans Nebel, a man known for repairing Stradivarius violins.

Tsuneyuki “Tony” Yamamoto
Dublin-based Tony Yamamoto specializes in one-of-a-kind custom acoustics with double and triple-reinforced truss rods, a unique headstock heel, and tone bars that suppress unnecessary high resonance. Customers work with Yamamoto to specialize three base models: his OMY, which features a cutaway and a 15” lower bout; his OM-sized Talus, which features a unique cutaway shape and an angled neck joint; and his sonorous Baritone, which has a 17” lower bout and a 27” or 28.6” scale length. Yamamoto also makes a version of his Talus with an off-center soundhole that brings the sound of the guitar closer to the player.

The Wedge Jumbo features a multi-scale of 27” to 25.5”

Yamamoto has a specially adjusted X-bracing pattern for a version of his Talus with an offset soundhole. His standard models feature AAA Honduran or Indian Rosewood backs and sides and AA Adirondack or AAA solid spruce tops.

Michihiro “Michi” Matsuda
Michi Matsuda splits his time between his own workshop in Oakland and Frank Ford’s fabled Gryphon Stringed Instruments repair shop in Palo Alto. He builds about a dozen custom guitars a year based on his own signature shapes: modified OM and OO shapes for steel string guitars and two “crossover” shapes for nylon guitars, all carefully designed for their characteristic sonic properties as well as their graceful lines. Matsuda also makes electric/acoustic hybrids and harp guitars.

The Matsuda M-1 (pictured with optional cutaway) is based on an OM shape.

Matsuda base models begin with an Indian rosewood back and sides and a Sitka spruce top.

Hiro Miura
Hiro Miura, who works under the Xotic Guitars, Basses & Effects label in San Fernando, first gained recognition by making basses that fused his exquisite design aesthetic with advanced electronics. Today his Jazz and Precision-style XJ and XP basses as well as his Strat and Tele-style XS and XT guitars add sophisticated refinements to instruments inspired by classics. Miura has a thing for Hovland capacitors and Kent Armstrong pickups. Miura also uses Raw Vintage pickups, Pure Steel Saddles and Raw Vintage Tremolos. His guitars have attracted the attention of players like Chris Duarte, Allen Hinds, Chris Juergensen, and June Yamagishi.

XT-2 Tobacco Burst

XS-3 Olympic White

XS-1 Lake Placid Blue

This XT-2 has a smooth sound due to its ash hollow body (with no hole) and Xotic XP-HB1 and XP-TE1 pickups. Miura’s website features a video of Allen Hinds demoing this guitar.

Every Xotic guitar is custom made per order.

Toru Nittono
For the last 28 years, Toru Nittono has worked with a venerable list of heavyweights. He does repairs and makes guitars under his own name at his Van Nuys workshop. Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, John Pisano, Ted Greene, Robben Ford, Coco Montoya, John Sykes and Carlos Santana have all either owned one of Nittono’s custom-made creations, or relied upon his repair skills. Nittono’s Model T offers a nice spin on classic T-style guitars; his Jazz Electric Nylon Model incorporates the same classic styling with elegant archtop appointments.

Model-T Jazz Nylon semi-hollowbody with spruce top, mahogany body, Nittono’s custom preamp and custom neck shape requested by Santana.

Model-T Jazz semi-hollowbody, with T-Brown Sunburst, two piece spruce top, two piece mahogany back and a Gibson Burstbucker.

The Fritz Rat Bastard employs mini-humbuckers for a nice variety of sounds

Roger Fritz is a busy man: new guitars, session work with Sheryl Crow, helping to relaunch Kay Guitars, building new Watkins-based amplifiers, fronting his own band, Rogerwood, and let’s not forget hosting his own web-based reality show, He’s also built guitars for members of The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.

Roger originally started Fritz Brothers Guitars with his brother, but due to health and financial issues the two dissolved their partnership, and Roger moved to Nashville to work for Gibson. Years later back in Mendocino County, CA, Roger started again in earnest. Although the Rat Bastard was introduced in 2006, it is the newest guitar in the Fritz Brothers lineup.

Write Me a Few of Your Lines
The expertly carved arched top is bookmatched curly maple, bound with alder, with an expertly laid triple purfling. The bolt-on neck is rock maple capped with a thick slab of African ebony, with medium-gauge frets—and finished off with understated abalone position markers. Overall, the look of the Rat Bastard is vintage-meets-modern. The lines of the body are similar to a ‘50s Gretsch Jet, only more refined, with a rounded Florentine cutaway. But there are also nods to modernity, like GraphTech saddles and locking tuners. This very playable guitar is made with as many American-made parts as possible. To that end Roger Fritz decked out the Rat Bastard with Seymour Duncan Mini Humbuckers, Graph Tech String Saver saddles, Sperzel Locking Tuners, and a stainless steel nut and bridge pickup wound by Roger himself. Another nice touch is the high, side-mounted output jack, which doesn’t stab you in the leg when you play seated. Controls are smartly laid out, with a five-position toggle, master volume and a master tone with a push/pull feature that enables the user to select seven different pickup configurations. Each control is topped with a small dot of mother of pearl. While this may sound a little excessive, the overall look is surprisingly understated. The headstock is a simple in-line six with Sperzel locking tuners, and Roger’s own patented Big Daddy stainless steel nut system, which was developed with the help of the late Roy Buchanan (Roy’s signature model has the same stainless steel nut). The nut can be modified for different string gauges, but because of its unique design, that’s a customization Roger would prefer to do himself.

It Don’t Hurt
The Rat Bastard is a stunning piece of craftsmanship, but it’s also a great-playing guitar that’s light and comfortable to hold. It has a tilt-back neck design, which isn’t unheard of on a solidbody guitar, but is a little unusual for a bolt-on neck. While the tilt-back design’s main aim may be to aid player comfort, it also helps aid downward string pressure and enhances the body’s resonance and sustain. Overtones arise quickly but pleasantly and don’t threaten to overwhelm the guitar with unwanted buildup.

I decided to plug into my Princeton Reverb for the first round of sound and playability tests. Moving through pickup positions, I found a wide variety of textures and tones, from woody to jazzy, with good definition and resonance. Nicely equipped with a housewound Tele-style bridge pickup and two Seymour Duncan mini-humbuckers, the Rat Bastard offers a satisfying vintage bark—although with a more polite diction than perhaps a solid alder guitar and brass saddles would produce. For a brighter attack just pull your hand back a bit and dig in; it’ll twang all right.

Switching to the second position, with both the bridge and first mini-humbucker activated, the Rat Bastard sounded like one of the fattest Strat-style guitars you’ll likely hear. Things changed up a bit with just the mid-position pickup on. While it didn’t exactly sound like a Strat’s mid pickup, it didn’t sound like a bridge-position humbucker, either—but it did exhibit a nice woody texture and was very usable. By itself the neck position mini-humbucker is fat but clear with a nice, jazzy tone, only with more definition than a standard full-sized humbucker. Running both the bridge and neck together produced a very good Thinline Tele tone, but with more resonance than your off-the-shelf variety.

It was time to get dirty, so I plugged into my Mesa Reverb Rocket. Even while being subjected to high levels of distortion, the bridge pickup maintained its Tele-like bark without becoming shrill or unpleasant, and the individual mini-humbuckers remained distinct and produced a very Mick Ronson-like snarl. To be fair, the in-between settings did lose some of their Strat flavor, but I’ve had problems even with Strats maintaining that sound whenever they were pummeled by the Mesa Boogie. Roger points out that not every one digs mini-humbuckers so other pickup configurations are available on request.

The Final Mojo
This guitar could have easily been a nonstarter. Let’s face it, a semi-hollow, alder-body guitar that sports a bolt-on neck, a dual set of mini-humbuckers, a stainless steel nut, Sprezel locking tuners and GraphTech saddles could have been, in the hands of a less-skilled luthier, a misadventure. Roger Fritz pulled it off. The Rat Bastard is an extremely playable guitar that allows you to relax and enjoy the ride. Sure, it can get raunchy, especially when played through my quick-tempered Mesa Boogie, but even with a cleaner amp, the guitar performs admirably. The Rat Bastard is smart, functional, and elegant—if there’s a fault to be found, I can’t find it.

Buy if...
you want a guitar that can go from uptown semi-hollowbody sounds to countrified twang with a flick of a switch.
Skip if...
your ideal set up includes a single volume knob and a trem system.

MSRP $3600 - Fritz Brothers Guitars -

PCB Construction keeps this EL84-based 18-watter under $1000 without sacrificing tone

Ugly Amps Ugly 18
Hey, are you Brit curious? Leave the radio on long enough and it’s just a matter of time before the characteristic “brang” and “snarl” of classic EL84-based Brit amps comes crashing through the speakers. Of course, the plexi is best known for a decidedly Brit brand of rock, but the Ugly 18 is far from being a “one-trick pony.” Owner Steve O’Boyle is quick to point out that “these amps are not ‘clones’ of anything; they are ‘inspired’ perhaps in the nature of the topology, but the circuits have evolved over time and through the requests of some of my better clients.” For starters, Ugly Amps makes two versions of the Ugly 18 head, one using PCB (list $799), and a handwired version ($1099), which can be custom voiced at no additional cost. Like a lot of plexi-derived amps, the Ugly 18 is a non-master volume amp that uses a dual 12AX7 and EL84 format, two input options and, like other plexi-inspired amps, it also lacks a reverb tank and effects loop. That said, the addition of a standby switch came as a welcome surprise.

U-G-L-Y You Ain’t Got No Alibi
O’Boyle says that the name Ugly “started as a joke, but now it has become fun to keep it anyway; it’s easy to remember with so many people using last names…” While the name might be a joke, the amp isn’t. Steve has a degree in electronics, and his ten years of amp work has paid off in one cool little amp. Despite its size (15-1/2” x 9-3/4” x 11”) and its low-watt rating, the Ugly 18 packs quite a punch. Don’t let the minimalist controls put you off, because there’s more than meets the eye. The Ugly 18 sports two inputs on the front, “normal” and “bright,” one Volume knob for each input jack, and a single Tone knob. Spinning the Ugly 18 around reveals both a 4- and 8-ohm output jack. It should be noted, too, that off the speaker jack there is a voltage divider, so you can capture the amp’s sound for recording or to send to a board. O’Boyle also provides a quick word of caution: “you still have to have the speaker connected with this type; it is not a preamp out, it is the whole amp... just as with an L-Pad.”

Although the Ugly 18 uses a PCB construction, Steve O’Boyle says that there is a big misconception concerning PCB-based amps: “I would say there’s a tone myth, there are pros and cons to every method of construction; if well designed with good components PCB amps can sound great. There are issues with service work, but it depends who does the work.”

Into the Fire
In order to give the Ugly 18 Head a thorough testing, I press-ganged several of my workhorse guitars into service: a Michael Dolan Esquire, a late-nineties Guild Bluesbird, and then later I called in the reserves, a MIJ Strat with Bill Lawrence pickups, a late-fifties Danelectro U1 and Gibson ES-125. Setting the Ugly 18 volume and tone both at 12 o’clock, I plugged in the Dolan Esquire and let it rip. Fans of Brit rock will completely dig the Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds or early Led Zep tones that radiated out of the Tone Tubby 1x12 deep cabinet. Chimey but punchy, ballsy yet articulate, the Ugly 18 is a great example of why low-watt EL84 based amps have developed a cult following.

Ugly Amps Ugly 18

Next, I plugged the Guild Bluesbird into the slightly misleadingly named “bright” channel. Unlike the “normal” channel, the “bright” input bypasses the single tone knob. Not to say this option doesn’t have its uses, but it has a decidedly darker voicing than the “normal” channel. Perhaps the best way to describe the difference is to consider the “bright” channel a smokier, more vintage vibe—and perhaps it kicks out the jams just a bit more than the “normal” option. If you’re scratching your head at the Danelectro and ES-125 selections, I maintain that both Marshalls and Marshall-inspired amps’ clean tones have been criminally overlooked. Also, if an amp is well built, it won’t hum or buzz excessively when you play unpotted single coils through it.

While the Ugly 18 may not even be on the radar as far as jazz heads are concerned, it won’t lead you astray either. Both the Daneletro and the ES-125 displayed a remarkable amount of woody overtones and acoustic timber to their sound. Historically, I’ve had noise and feedback problems with both of these guitars, especially the ES-125; I’m happy to say that even with the volume dimed, any amp noise was kept to a minimum. O’Boyle put it best, saying, “I hate to admit the the PCB amps, if well designed, are quiet because you don’t have to run ground wires or make a grounding scheme happen; it’s baked into the bread.”

Playing my MIJ, Bill Lawrence-equipped Strat, I was struck by how the bottom remained tight and punchy, remarkable for a low watt-amp with limited EQ options. Kicking things up a notch with an Xotic AC Boost, the Strat sounded phenomenal. Because the Ugly 18 lacks a reverb unit, I doubt it’s going to be anyone’s “go to” amp for Dick Dale-inspired mayhem, or Buck Owens-like twang, but don’t rule this one out as a western swing partner. Last but not least, I just had to crank up the Ugly 18 and plug in a BC Rich Gunslinger Retro with a single Dimarzio Super Distortion. Dime the volume knob, stomp on a Boss DD-6 Digital Delay—you’re in hair metal heaven.

The Final Mojo

The Ugly 18 Head is a very cool package. Even with medium-output humbuckers, the Ugly 18 will break up at a reasonable volume level. If you want a little more crunch, the Ugly 18 responds well to OD pedals. The real surprise, however, was with both the Strat and hollowbodied single-coil guitars. I think in order to get the most out of the amp, you should consider an A/B/Y box, and loop junkies might consider an Xotic X-Blender or similar device. An external reverb or delay may also help round things out a bit, too. Some may be put off by the somewhat limited EQ options, but the Ugly 18 never sounded murky, ill-defined, shrill or unpleasant. I don’t hesitate to recommend the Ugly 18 for anyone looking for a low-watt, British-voiced amp; it should work well for recording, practice, or small club gigs.
Buy if...
You’re looking for a better-than-average, low-watt, Brit-voiced amp.
Skip if...
You absolutely, positively can’t live without reverb and an effects loop.

List (as tested) $799 - Ugly Amps -