I must say first of all that I am not qualified to tell who possibly are “the best” luthiers (the concept of “the best” itself is somewhat dubious, isn’t it?) here, but I thought I could at least introduce some Japanese luthiers who are considered by many to be great, within my limited knowledge.
Please be advised beforehand that I am not endorsed by any of these craftsmen in any way. The author of this post is just a Jazz guitar aficionado living in Tokyo, Japan. I happen to own some of their guitars, but this post is written only for informative purposes.
Yamaoka Guitars may be one of the best known high-end handcrafted archtop Japanesese guitars, crafted by Mr. Norimasa Yamaoka, who resides in Kurashiki-City, Okayama prefecture. The guitars he makes are branded as “Strings Art” and famous for its unique resonance material known as “King Post”, which lies between the end of the neck and the bottom of the lower bout of the body. It does not touch the archtop surface, and said to function for the sake of better sustain like those center blocks do found in traditional semi-hollow body archtop guitars.
Many first-rate Japanese guitarists such as Shunji Takenaka, Toshiki Nunokawa, Mitsukuni Tanabe, to name a few, use the guitars by Mr. Yamaoka. You can see several demonstrations of Yamaoka guitars at YouTube – for your convenience, I place the link here.
If you come to Japan to buy one of his guitars, I think there is a high chance you can see it in a shop like Guitar Planet (in Ochanomizu, Tokyo) or Miki Gakki (in Umeda, Osaka). However in order to make sure you can try one of those, I highly recommend to get in touch with the craftsman himself.
Behind “Style-N Nishgaki Guitars” is this young talented luthier, Mr. Yuki Nishgaki, who is said to have been influenced by the greats such as Abe Rivera, Stephen Marchione and John Monteleone. He lives in Miki-city in Kobe prefecture, and gathering more and more attention since the great players such as Yosuke Onuma (known for his collaboration with Tony Monaco & Gene Jackson, and musicians from French Guadeloupe for his “Jam Ka” project) , started to use his guitar. I have listened to those guitars played by Mr. Onuma himself for many times, and was simply astonished by their wide range of dynamics (one of the guitars Mr. Onuma owns is a fretless, which sounds incredibly great) and smoothness all across the neck.
It looks like “Style-N Nishgaki Guitars” consists of two basic models, called “Arcus” and “Cirrus” each. The former looks like traditonal archtop guitars that you can have either as a full hollow or a semi hollow. The latter seems to be semi hollows. But it’s like everything is made-to-order thus no pre-defined structures. I have no knowledge if you can reach them in English or not, but anyway this link or Mr. Yuki Nishgaki’s Facebook link will help. Please search for his name on Facebook and maybe you will get there. Good luck !
The man behind Kigoshi Guitars, the luthier Mr. Takayuki Kigoshi, is also one of the young popular luthiers in Japan. So far what he makes are originally structured tele-shaped semi-hollow body guitars, and that is gathering a lot of attention among Japanese Jazz guitarists.
I think it is very much worth while to show you how his guitars sound like here : those two players are very famous Japanese guitarists, Koichi Yabori and Yoshifumi Matsubara. Mr. Matsubara (to the right), is one of those young Japanese guitarists who are expected a lot.
Although I haven’t yet had the chance to try his guitars so far, I can tell that it definitely has its own characters that are not found elsewhere. If you are interested in one of those guitars, I think you’d better get in touch with the luthier himself (who happens to be a great guitar player himself by the way !), or drop by at a Jazz live restaurant called “Virtuoso“, located in Akasaka, Tokyo.
I guess many of you who are interested in MIJ high quality guitars know the brand. Yes, it is the brand that Kurt Rosenwinkel love to play the guitars from lately. Behind the Westville Guitars is a gentleman known as Mr. Nishimura – who runs a very famous archtop guitar shop called “Walkin’” located in Tokyo, Shibuya. Many of us Japanese Jazz-oriented guitar players love and respect Mr. Nishimura for his long-years’ support for Japanese Jazz guitarists. Westville Guitars looks like to be conceived and designed by the hand of Mr. Nishimura himself, and the actual production seems to be taking place in Terada Gakki, located in Aichi Prefectures.
It’s somewhere between one-off luthier made guitars and mass-made guitars. Westville Guitars are supported also by Japanese great Jazz-originated guitarists such as Motohiko Ichino, Yosuke Onuma, Kazumi Watanabe and Takayoshi Baba, to name a few. Needless to say, they are all great guitar players. First-rates. By the way, I own a few guitars by Walkin’ myself and they all sound great – especially when I think of the prices I bought those guitars at. “Shibuya Walkin'” is the one of the places you need to drop by when you come to Tokyo, as well as that famous “Shibuya Crossing”, that is not far from the shop.
If you have further inquiries about MIJ guitars, drop me a line at info at jazzguitarspot.com, I will try and find time to reply.