When guitarists tell you it’s all in the hands, few mean to the extent of Japanese virtuoso Miyavi.
After moving from Osaka to Tokyo as a 17 year-old, he found early fame in visual kei rock band Dué Le Quartz before forming his own Japanese cultural export brand and starting supergroups in his new hometown of Los Angeles.
But it’s the ‘Samurai’ guitarist’s accomplishments as an individual that have remained at the forefront of his story - from the genre-bending solo records that find him attacking his instrument more like a slap bassist to the acting and charity work that’s seen him paired with Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie.
This year, the guitarist returns to UK shores as part of his Day2 World tour, where he’ll be undoubtedly showcasing his two-handed technique on tracks coinciding with last year’s 15th anniversary best-of…
“The setlist is still a bit of a secret,” teases the axeman.
“But it will be very different to my last visit. I feel responsible to take our audience to the next level so they can experience new sounds and a new vision. I’ve been playing with a drummer as a two-piece for a long time, but now we’ve added a DJ and two singers. It’s a bigger production to share the music and have good times with the audience. That’s our approach this time round.
“As for gear, it’s in my nature to slap any strings I find! Right now, I’ve been mainly using Fender for my electrics and Taylor for acoustics.”
The new-look solo band has allowed the guitarist more freedom to explore himself creatively. Previously he was covering both low and high end - à la Royal Blood - as the sole melodic contributor against his drummer’s rhythmic backbone, which naturally brings its own limitations.
While he hasn’t abandoned such methods entirely, he now has the option to do more, as and when he sees fit…
“I’m doing less of the guitar and bass together stuff than before,” he reveals.
“With a DJ on stage, I don’t really need to. I can focus on creating something distinct with my guitar. I want to find new ground, I want to make new guitar music. It’s important to experiment with newer formats like I have been. So I’m using the bass amp less than before.
“Whatever style you play - jazz, hip-hop, rock… all people want to do is sing and dance. And the same goes for me, I’m making guitar music to make the world dance.”
Here, the guitarist gives his five tips to guitar godliness…
1. Close the distance
“First of all, I’m sure there are many guitarists reading this that will be even better than me! There are tons of skilful guitar players in the whole world, but in my eyes, only a few good players… and that’s what I want to be.
“I aim to be a good player that moves people’s hearts and minds. It’s not just a skill or technique; it’s more emotion, passion and feeling. Ultimately, that’s what the audience will feel from your performance.
“The most important thing is the distance between you and the guitar - you need to overcome that. The guitar should be like an extension of your hand, or like your eye or your skin. It’s not just an instrument… and the closer you can get to it, the more sensitive you can be. That’s what is most important. It only comes through the time you spend with the guitar - if you don’t do that, you won’t be able to express yourself fully.
“The distance between the strings is also very important. On the bass strings, the distances are narrower and smaller. You need to know the distance without seeing it, without even looking at it.
“When I play live, I’m looking at the audience - I don’t really look at the instrument. It’s a bit like a language, like right now in English, if I need to think about the grammar or more technical sides of the language, I cannot talk to you. I cannot fully put my emotions into the conversation. It’s the same when you perform on stage, you need to be free and flexible. You need to know the distances between the strings, along with the frets, that is crucial.”
2. Learn to control your techniques
“If you want to learn how to play slap guitar… just go ahead and slap it! Again, it comes down to the distance between you and your guitar. The more you use your thumb, the quicker that will come - eventually to the point of not even needing to think about it. Even my daughters can slap the guitar; it’s a natural movement like walking or breathing. Slapping is very natural!
“But you need to control it with your left hand. I find it’s the right hand that’s more instinctive. You just go ahead and hit, but the coordination and placement of your left hand is more important.
“Say you hit the sixth string, you need to mute the fifth string using your left - that’s crucial. If it makes some noise, fine; the main thing is getting to grips with the passion and the physical movement so it comes as one.”
3. You don’t always need a band
“It might sound strange, but don’t make friends… just be alone! You don’t necessarily need a bass player; you just need practice playing without one. I was using the drop-tune pedal mainly for that stuff. My guitar signal goes into a switcher, signal A will go to a Marshall and a Fender Twin Reverb, signal B will get dropped before the bass amp.
“The switcher is really important: it allows you to keep your tone when you are not using certain pedals. It’s hard to create harmony with a bass amp; you can’t really play chords. Bass is a chaotic universe in that sense… so when I’m doing both, I try to stay low and keep to the simpler single-note phrases.
“On top of that, I use a Pete Cornish fuzz pedal that sounds amazing - a lot of British stuff blows my mind. I’ve also been using a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory for a while… it creates a crazy tone, which is sometimes actually quite hard to handle and control. But once you know how, you can do some really unusual things. I love going way beyond, finding those crazy tones…”
4. Learn from your own experiences
“I would say my work in music and outside of music affect each other a lot. Every guitar player will phrase differently; it comes from your heart and your experiences as a human being.
“That’s why you can never truly play and think 100% like anybody else. Experience is crucial - it affects a lot. How you deliver your own emotions is always going to be unique.
“To be a good player, it’s important to experience many things - that’s what inspires you. So along with the music, I act, I work as a fashion model, I work for humanitarian agencies.
“I became an ambassador for UNHCR and went to a refugee camp… that experience affected me a lot. I could see so many people struggling in life. It stays inside you and becomes something you almost deliver through music.
“It’s all about the message. I’m not playing guitar simply because I like music. I’m living it… that’s why I play. There’s a message. I chose the guitar and learned the guitar in order to deliver that message to as many people as possible. It’s important to focus on what you want to deliver to that audience.”
5. Find your own California roll
“Last time I spoke to MusicRadar, I said I was trying to make the perfect California roll - something crucial to spreading that culture in a new environment. And I still am! I have the soy sauce, rice and fish but I’m still looking for my avocado… I went to the States to find my avocado!
“After a jam session with Robert Randolph and The Family Band in Nashville, I started looking for more solid electric tones… which is how I ended up playing Telecasters.
“I never really think about scales or overanalyse myself. I just open myself - I play my scale. I wait for the phrase to come to me and I just accept it. The answer is always there; it’s up to us to find it and recognise it enough. That’s the secret to what I do.
“The more I play outside of Japan, the more opportunities I have to play Oriental or Japanese-sounding music to new audiences. While I want it to sound unique, I don’t want to make it too difficult to listen to. And, actually, some of the Oriental scales sound quite similar to blues pentatonic runs. For me, it’s the mixture that’s interesting - it’s all about finding that perfect roll.”
Miyavi plays London’s ULU Live on 21 April - tickets are available now (opens in new tab).