I'm a big fan of Japanese heavy metal and a collector of Japanese metal and rock music. I also enjoy documenting the scene's history.
At the very core of a good heavy metal band, especially in sub-genres such as power, speed or thrash metal, is a guitarist who can set the tone, leading the way for their respective bands with creative riffs and exciting solos. This holds true especially when it comes to heavy metal from Japan, a country whose metal scene boasts bands with highly capable axemen at every turn, a trait which is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when someone describes heavy metal from Japan—well, that, and some dicey English at times.
With a bustling metal scene as expansive and long-running as any other country's and with the second largest music industry on the planet, it is to be expected that several talented shredders have risen over the years, men like Akira Takasaki, Syu, Hide, Kyoji Yamamoto, Fumihiko Kitsutaka, Akira Kajiyama or Hizaki among others.
Below (in no particular order) are ten Japanese guitarists who, despite massive amounts of skill as well as pretty successful careers in their home country in some instances, don't get a whole lot of recognition online. I hope to introduce you to a few of them with this list.
Yuji "You" Adachi
Once considered by locals as the most skilled metal guitarist in the entire Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) region not named Akira Takasaki, it's really amazing that he's not talked about more. While yes, he's extremely famous as the guitarist for the band Dead End, I think it tends to get understated just how talented this man really is, as he seems to actually stay quite reserved with them, opting for more subtle flashes of brilliance.
In his earlier days with bands like Jesus and Terra Rosa, he played with more flash and for longer stretches, which better serves as an example for the purpose of this article, though I highly recommend checking out his vast career with Dead End, who he has played since the mid-1980s.
Kuni Takeuchi has long been regarded as an important and influential figure in Japanese metal, and with a solo career spanning over 30 years, it's for good reason. Playing a style that's highly melodic, slightly commercial, yet still metal through-and-through, Kuni has always thrived when writing structured, complete songs, rather than just mindlessly shredding as so many guitarists do on solo albums, though Kuni's immense talent is still very evident, even in just the small details.
Kuni has had ongoing friendships with numerous western musicians, Neil Turbin, Kal Swan, Jeff Scott Soto, John Purdell and the core guys of Quiet Riot among numerous others, all of whom have featured on Kuni's albums throughout the years, making his band an excellent entry-level option for newcomers to Japanese metal, removing any kind of language barrier other bands might present. Though he's not quite as well known as some other Japanese metal guitarists, make no mistake, he's one of the best.
Guitarist of Hellen since 1981, as well as Babylon during the early 1990s, there are few guitarists in Japan with the technical prowess of Yasumitsu Shimizu. One of the main attractions and standout musicians of the popular metal label Mandrake Root records from the 80s through mid-2000s, Shimizu just recently started a solo career and has also begun teaching guitar to aspiring musicians in recent years. His name isn't as well-known as many other Japanese guitarists, mainly because none of his bands ever released anything more than an extended play, but he possesses the skill to hang with the very best.
Quickly becoming one of the most prominent female guitarists in Japanese metal, Rie's career has only just begun, at least in comparison to most of the others on this list. Having started her solo career in 2008 and with a deadly combination of technicality and diversity, you'll find Rie is just as capable of playing a seven-string guitar as she is with 6, utilizing both about equally when playing her upbeat brand of power/heavy/prog metal. She has already toured with big names such as Sex Machineguns and Wild Flag and is certainly an act to watch out for as her career progresses.
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Takayoshi Ohmura is probably the most famous guy on this list, as he's a member of several successful groups, including Liv Moon, Marty Friedman and, yes, Babymetal. Before you run away at the sight of the last one, though, hear me out. Takayoshi, despite his ample talent, is generally not at the forefront of the bands he's in and can tend to not always be noticed.
With symphonic metal act Liv Moon, the band is centralized in large part around the stunning vocal performances of Akane Liv. With Babymetal, Takayoshi is tucked away at the back of the stage with the rest of the Kami band (they're all incredibly talented musicians with great backgrounds).
Finally, with Marty Friedman, obviously, the star of the show is Marty, with Takayoshi only playing in support of him. With Takayoshi's solo project, however, it's very much his own spotlight, and he's able to show off his ability to the fullest, and honestly, he's an incredible guitarist. There might not be a better Malmsteen-influenced guitarist in the country, in fact.
Known as the guitarist of the melodic heavy metal bands Excuriver and Ebony Eyes with whom he played with from the mid-'80s through early '90s, Yukihisa Kanatani has also led a fantastic solo project, active since approximately 1995, playing an elegant melodic heavy/power metal, with an obvious extra emphasis on his guitar playing. He's much like Kuni in the sense that he excels with written, structured songs, rather than straight-up shred-fests, however, Kanatani's music is heavier, more dramatic and faster-paced, and he employs several Japanese musician friends and members from former bands to guest on his albums rather than western musicians.
Hisashi "Jun" Takai
You ever heard of a little old band called X Japan? Hisashi Takai was their guitarist at one point, but due to varying circumstances, he parted from the band. He was quickly replaced with Hide before the band exploded in popularity to become the legends they are today, unfortunately for Jun.
Though it's a shame he never became hugely famous with X Japan, he was every bit worthy as the lead guitarist of the band, with the skill to equal and perhaps even surpass Hide. He's still had a long career of notability, playing with several thrash and speed metal acts throughout the years, and is a respected name in Japanese metal, but one has to wonder what could have been if he had remained X Japan's guitarist longer than just a couple early releases, what musical direction would they have gone in? Unfortunately, we'll never know.
One of the most experienced guitarists in Japanese metal, Hideaki Nakama's career has been going steady since the early '80s. Making a name for himself with the relatively short-lived band Hurry Scuary, he was able to launch a reasonably successful solo career in which he has collaborated with numerous musicians, both within Japan and abroad.
A respected name in Japanese metal, though not exactly a household name in Japan, Nakama was also hired as the replacement guitarist in Anthem on the back of his reputation as one of the best guitarists in Japanese metal at the time when Hiroya Fukuda left, though Nakama only played with Anthem for a short time.
Masanori "Burny" Kusakabe
Masanori Kusakabe and his band Sniper were one of the standout metal bands in Japan during the 80s, playing a high-octane, heavily NWOBHM inspired brand of heavy metal, though they never quite achieved the lofty heights of bands like Earthshaker or Bow Wow, partially due to being based in a city other than the major metal hotspots at the time, Osaka, and Tokyo. Sniper did get to take part in some pretty great gigs throughout the years, and their reputation was uplifted largely due to the guitar work of Burny, whose talent was just a slight cut below the likes of fellow traditional heavy metal shredders Akira Takasaki and Kyoji Yamamoto.
(The attached song features a second guitarist, Raven Otani from Marino backing Burny and joining in for part of his guitar solo.)
Masahiko Kuroki is underrated only due to the fact that he and his band Wolf showed up to the Japanese metal party a few years too late to leave the impact that they potentially could have. Having only released their first demo and EP in 1987 as well as their debut album in 1990, they appeared right towards the end of the height of heavy metal and while their releases were received well and the band itself garnered a decent following, they would end up parting ways in 1991. While Wolf is still regarded as a pretty legendary metal act in Japan, they, unfortunately, weren't around long enough for Kuroki to become as well known as he deserved to be, even though he was easily one of the most capable guitarists in the Kansai region.
Thank you for taking the time to check out this article; I hope I was able to introduce you to a few guitarists today that you never knew before. In addition to other articles I have in the works, I may even make a sequel to this article in the future, depending on how this is received.
If you are interested in learning more about Japanese heavy metal, you may find it worth your time dropping by a website I help run, Japanese Metal Forum, which features information and discussion on these bands and many others.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can you recommend any instrumental guitarists?
Answer: As for Japanese metal, Hizaki of Versailles/Jupiter and Syu of Galneryus would be the really obvious one's present day who have instrumental solo works. A few other fairly popular and long-running solo acts with a bunch of instrumental stuff would be Atsushi Yokozeki, Fumihiko Kitsutaka, Hideaki Nakama. Other bigger name guitarists like Norifumi Shima from Concerto Moon dotted that band's discography with quality instrumentals too.
JR Rosalez on October 24, 2019:
I loved EZO especially Fire, Fire. Those guys rocked, not sure who played guitar but they were excellent!!
Tadakatsu (author) from Canada on October 21, 2019:
@Aionism Izumi's one of the most famous guitarists in Japanese metal history. :P At the time of this list's making, I was just trying to bring attention to a few that are less talked about than Takasaki, Yamamoto, Hide, Matsukawa, Izumi, and so on.
Aionism on October 20, 2019:
How about Izumi from Aion???
Tadakatsu (author) from Canada on June 07, 2017:
@Kevin Shara definitely is. Incredibly talented dude.
Kevin on June 07, 2017:
I love Shara from Earthshaker. He doesn't show off as much, but he's technically fantastic as well as a joy to listen to.
Tadakatsu (author) from Canada on March 26, 2017:
@Eirun De Virot I left this series open to a second part in the future, as there's many more guitarists where these folks came from. Also, by no means is this ranking any of the guitarists above any other, it's just showcasing a handful of them neutrally. I love Pata too, keep an eye out, he may very well be in a future one of these. Thanks for the comment!
Tadakatsu (author) from Canada on March 26, 2017:
Thank you so much Marcin!
Eirun De Virot on March 25, 2017:
You forgot mention Tomoaki "PATA" Ishizuka.
He's one from best guitarist I ever knew.
I am convinced, Pata is number one. Certainly.
Marcin Szymkowiak on March 24, 2017:
I just created an account here to thank you for your atricle.
I dig Japanese heavy metal very much as well. I love acts like Seikima II, Gargoyle, Sex Machineguns or Dead End.
Thanks for showing me some artists I never heard of like Kuni or Yasumitsu Shimizu. Now I need to search for them even more.