How Guitar Virtuoso Hiroya Tsukamoto Arrived at His Unique Acoustic Style

Each step of his musical journey has shaped his approach as a composer and performer.
Hiroya Tsukamoto playing acoustic guitar and singing onstage

Hiroya Tsukamoto may play the guitar with the skill of a virtuoso, and he may write compelling music that draws from many different cultures and genres, but if I had to choose one word to describe him it would be orchestrator. 

But not in a typical sense. His orchestration is as much about texture and tone as it is about harmony and structure.

Originally from Kyoto, Japan, and now based in New York, Tsukamoto began composing long before he even picked up a stringed instrument. And when he did, it was the five-string banjo, not guitar, that first captured his imagination. But finding Kyoto a barren landscape for the banjo, the then teenager switched first to acoustic and then electric guitar, eventually coming to the United States on a Berklee scholarship.

Each step of his journey—from composing on the recorder as a grammar school kid to learning banjo rolls to playing electric guitar to studying in of the world’s most progressive music programs—has shaped his approach as a composer and performer, as heard on his latest album, Little River Canyon

In his live performances, Tsukamoto moves seamlessly through traditional guitar techniques and tonalities but is just as fluent with unusual and surprising textures and voicings. This is especially true when he uses his looping pedal, where fluid melody will sit atop shimmering arpeggios punctuated by notes so staccato that they produce an effect like pitched percussion.

If his music were a canvas, there would be lots of color, but also plenty of white space. 

We recently spoke on the phone from his tour stop in Michigan. 

Two words that come to mind to describe your playing are orchestral and textural. How did you develop your voice on the instrument?

I started playing guitar when I was about 15 years old. But my first instrument was a five-string banjo. I practiced a lot of banjo rolls—different patterns and different variations for my right hand. So that stayed with me when I played guitar. I still use a lot of, as you mentioned, texture, and a lot of fast arpeggio patterns.

Do you play with bare fingers, or do you use fingerpicks?

On the banjo, I use fingerpicks, but on the guitar, not that much—usually just bare fingers.

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How long did you play the banjo, and why did you switch?

I played for a couple of years. But I came from a small town back in Japan, so there was no way to find an instructor or other players. And then my friends were playing guitar, so I started, too. I still play banjo a little bit, but not so much.

Hiroya Tsukamoto playing guitar and singing
Hiroya Tsukamoto. Photo: Elizabeth McKenzie

What was your first guitar?

My mother was a schoolteacher, and she bought a—I don’t even remember the brand, but it was a Japanese copy of a Martin dreadnought. It was hard to play [laughs]!

Were you taking lessons at that point?

I was all self-taught through CDs or records, or sharing ideas with my friends.

Did your personal style develop early on?

I think so. I was a teenager. But I had been composing music since when I was in elementary school. I was more interested in writing than simply playing guitar. I was composing with the recorder in the beginning of my elementary school. I really enjoyed creating something original, even though I was not a good player. I was trying to create or produce different sounds or songs as a teenager.

What was your next big step as a player?

I got an electric guitar when I was in high school. I was more into rock. But at the same time, I was playing acoustic music, so my music was expanding to different genres. I played both solo and in bands with friends.

Who are your main benchmarks as a guitarist and as a composer?

Some of my favorite guitar players who have influenced me are Pat Metheny, Wayne Krantz, Kelly Joe Phelps, Ralph Towner, and Atahualpa Yupanqui. I love Pat Metheny, as he is constantly creating something new as a composer and never stops. I studied with Wayne Krantz, and when I played chords that I thought were cool, he often said to me, “There are so many guitarists who already play those same chords. Think of alternative ways.” I learned how to be unique from him. 

But I don’t particularly listen to guitar music much. I like early ECM records, especially [those by vibraphonist and composer] Gary Burton, saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and a lot of South American folk music from Argentina and Brazil. I also like banjo players such as Noam Pikelny and John Hartford, and some of my other influences include classical composers like Aaron Copland and Gerald Finzi.

Did the electric influence your approach to acoustic guitar?

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I think a little bit, because I was used to playing in a group for a long time. And when I was playing electric guitar, I was playing melody, like lead. So when I went back to the solo acoustic, I tried to play the melody in a way that it would stand out more. 

Your technique is so fluid. Do you have a specific practice routine?

I practice a lot of fundamentals, always. My goal is to make my fingers as flexible as I can, because onstage, I improvise, too. 

What was your first good guitar?

I got an Ibanez semi-hollow electric guitar when I was 18 years old. Actually, I had a Telecaster before that with the regular single-coil pickups. 

When did you start to gravitate towards the acoustic guitar as your main instrument?

I’ve been playing acoustic throughout my life. But when I came to the United States, I was playing jazz most of the time. So I kind of stayed away from that. I came back to acoustic about 15 years ago. That was a time when I decided to do a whole show with just one single instrument, an acoustic guitar.

What is your main guitar now?

I mostly play a Martin OM-42 with a Fishman pickup system. I have other similar guitars, too. Today, I flew from New York to Michigan, so I just brought one guitar and it’s the Martin OM-42.

This particular instrument has a little story. I had a friend in Atlanta, a Japanese guy. He kept coming to my shows whenever I played in Georgia. He was a very good player, but he got Parkinson’s, so he couldn’t press the strings anymore. He was thinking about selling his guitar, but he didn’t want to sell it to a store. And he was like, if you want to use it, please do. It was about ten years ago that I got this guitar from him. So this instrument has a little legacy. 

Hiroya Tsukamoto playing guitar
Hiroya Tsukamoto. Photo: Hear and There Photography

What year is it?

It’s a 2000, I think. Today I’m in Lansing, Michigan, and there’s a great guitar store here, Elderly Instruments. My friend got this guitar at Elderly 23 years ago. Today, I went there and one of the guys adjusted his guitar. It was nice—it came full circle.

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What are some of your other acoustics?

I have a Martin HD-28 dreadnought and a Huss and Dalton FS. I also have a Larrivée LV-10 and a guitar from Japan by Michita Hongoh—they’re handmade guitars. If I fly to shows, I just use the OM-42, but if I drive, I sometimes bring a second guitar.

Do you use standard or alternate tunings?

I don’t use standard tuning in shows. Most of the time I play in DADGAD, because I prefer its open sound. When I was in high school, I was just playing prewar, bottleneck guitar, Robert Johnson kind of stuff—mostly in open G. But I discovered DADGAD myself about 15 years ago. I didn’t know anyone else was using it [laughs]. It just came to me naturally, so I decided to keep it.

Your ability to bring out different timbres and tones is almost orchestral, especially when you use your looping pedal. 

Thank you. Personally, I’m not a big fan of looping the way it’s typically used. [See the November/December 2021 issue for a lesson on Tsukamoto’s idiosyncratic use of loopers.] Because I had an eight-piece band before, and I was doing all the arrangements for different instrumentation, I wanted to create something like that and then play solo. So I tried to use a looping pedal—not for the entire song, but for parts and different sounds, because looping can be boring if overused or doing the same thing over and over. I use it more like an orchestra kind of sound—that’s what I’m aiming for.

What kind of looping pedal and other accessories do you use?

I’m using the Boss RC-20. It’s one of the oldest looping pedals, but it’s still working fine. And I have a mixer that I put next to me. I put a vocal mic into the mixer and feed the guitar into the mixer. And I use the mixer almost like a footpedal sometimes, to change the sound; sometimes I adjust EQ during the song. I also use a K&K Pure Mini preamp and a Strymon Cloudburst ambient reverb pedal. My strings are D’Addario XT Phosphor Bronze light gauge [.012–.053].

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What is your approach to composing? Do you sit and write every day or wait for inspiration?

It varies. Sometimes I try to sit, and sometimes nothing comes. I spend a lot of time on the road traveling to different places, and sometimes music comes to me while traveling. But I need a guitar or the piano to compose. I need to hear myself.

Do you record at home?

Sometimes, but I have kids aged six and nine, so it’s kind of hard to do. I try to practice and compose on the road [laughs].

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Emile Menasché
Emile Menasché

Guitarist, composer, writer.

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  1. It was my pleasure to hear Hiroya again recently after no contact or concert here during covid. He is a unique and special presence and his spiritual vibrations fan out from him when he is playing. We feel lucky to know him and his music. Thank you for this article.

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