Nobuki Takamen Interview

By T. Wesley

I encountered Nobuki Takamen at the 2009 Montreal Jazz Festival. Not being a jazz aficianado, one of my goals was to listen critically to some jazz music. Nobuki played solo and combo sets, and I was able to take in one of each. For his solo set, it was just him, an ES-335 and a small amp. His ability to comp together cohesive bass lines while maintaining intricate melodies made me boggle just a little and reminded me of how much trouble I had with this kind of playing back when I studied classical guitar.

I enjoyed his playing so much that I bought a copy of his album From Now On; I listen to it quite a bit and have to say it’s quite an enjoyable album. It spans the gamut from tender to vicious, and Nobuki’s skill is quite obvious. However, one of the things I truly enjoy about his music is that he doesn’t stay front-and-center throughout the entire tune, like a Joe Satriani or Steve Vai might do. Granted, Satch and Vai play in a different genre where the guitar is king, but it’s refreshing to hear talented piano and sax players get some room to blaze as well.

Nobuki and I chatted after listening to another concert – Japanese sax player Sadao Watanabe – and I had the chance to learn a little about him. He is based in New York now, and about to embark on a short tour of Japan.

Nobuki’s album Live at the Iridium is out now, as is his first disc, Bull’s Blues. I highly recommend them. Check out his website at www.nobukitakamen.com! His albums are available on iTunes, CDBaby, in both physical and digital format from Amazon – and most importantly, at all of his gigs.

I had the chance to ask Nobuki some questions about his music, his process and – of course – his gear.

TGP: First, you know my readers are total gearheads, so tell me a little about your equipment. When I saw you play in Montreal last summer, you were playing a stock Gibson ES-335 into an Acoustic Image amp with a Raezer's Edge 1x12 cabinet. Is this still your current setup? How long have you been using this rig - and more importantly, what led you to choose these particular pieces?

NT: My Gibson ES-335, Acoustic Image Clarus SL-R and Raezer's Edge are still my current setup. It's been my setup since 2006 and you can see a picture of my gears on Gallery of my website at www.nobukitakamen.com.

I bought my Gibson new at a music store in Shinjuku, Tokyo in 1999 so this has been my primary axe for more than 10 years. Though I told this was made in 1999, this is actually '63 reissue model made in 1998. All the parts are original. Although I'm always curious about changing pick-ups and tuning pegs, it's never happened.

As for speaker, I actually have 4 different Raezer's Edge speakers now and chose one depending on where I play and how loud I can play. I usually use my Stealth 10 or NY 8 for most of the gigs. I use my Stealth 12 for bigger venues or recording sessions. I recently received Twin 8 from Raezer's Edge. This is an amazing speaker!! This one gives me a nice bass tone without being too boomy. I'll start using this more!!

I really like my Acoustic Image, which is an older version of Clarus. This is a small but powerful amp and fits perfectly in the pocket of my gig bag. I have another Stealth 12 in Japan so all I have to do is to bring this one when I go on tour in Japan. This does really make it easy to travel.

The other reason why I'm using Acoustic Image and Raezer's Edge – besides the sound quality – is because they’re separate units. I go to venues mostly by train and it's actually easier and more convenient especially in a big city like New York. Carrying all the gear on a cart can easily damage them, so I carry my speaker on my cart and the amp in a small bag. Speaker cabs are tougher than an amp and being able to carry them separately can protect my amp. Needless to say, I'm really careful when I carry them though.

TGP: One of the things we discuss at The Gear Page a lot is "GAS" - or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Are there any guitars, amps or pedals on the market that you find yourself really wanting to get hold of? What about them attracts you?

NT: I got a chance to play Benedetto guitar and BC Kingston guitar at the Montreal Jazz/Guitar Show last year. Those are really expensive guitars but really great. I would like to get one of those! I also would like to get McCurdy guitar by Ric McCurdy who is a good friend of mine. Since I seriously started practicing classical guitar, I would like to play a classical guitar by Buscarino though I have a great Taylor nylon string guitar.

I love using delay pedal to get reverb effect. I have Boss DM-2, DM-3 and Empress Super delay. I mostly use Empress Super delay now and this is an amazing pedal. I'm always looking for new options. I'm looking for other delay pedals that have this feature of being able to control feedback, wet/dry and etc with an expression pedal without changing the pitch. I know Line 6 Delay does that but it is kind of heavy and has a little grainy sound.

TGP: Tell me a little about your musical background - when did you start playing guitar, do you play any other instruments, are you more schooled or more self-taught?

NT: I started playing the guitar at the age of 14 so I've been playing the guitar for almost 20 years. Since nobody in my family played any instruments and I grew up in a small town – Hiroshima – in which there were not so many places where I could take lessons, I taught myself how to play. Everyone in my family was really supportive. My sister would bring me to see one guitarist who had monster chops. My parents would buy me CDs and also tickets to see great musicians like Steve Vai and Nokie Edwards of the Ventures when they toured Japan and played in Hiroshima. I saw Steve Vai when he released his Sex & Religion album. His guitar playing was totally different and couldn't get what he was doing and how he could do it. But just being able to see him playing and knowing we could do that on guitar were precious lessons. Although I didn't get a chance to take any lessons in Hiroshima, I learned so many things from playing with CDs and going to see these gigs.

I moved to Tokyo after I graduated from high school. Tokyo is the biggest city in Japan and I met so many people playing music there. I liked playing and listening to blues, rock and heavy metal back then; those things led me to music I’d never heard before, like R&B, soul, funk, fusion and jazz. I really loved playing and jamming with the people I met and I learned so much from them. Playing with them was great for me.

I actually started taking lessons after I had been playing by myself for almost 10 years. I studied with Nobuyuki Oka. He is a great player performing in the Yokohama area. After studying with him for a while, I moved to Boston to study music at Berklee College of Music where I met great teachers and players including Sheryl Bailey, Jon Wheatley and Steve Rochinski. Soon after graduating from Berklee, I moved to New York, where I learned many things by playing with great musicians and I'm still learning. I was fortunate enough to have 2 lessons from the great Gene Bertoncini, who told me at the end of the lesson that playing guitar is like a journey that never ends. He also said, "Keep playing and you'll be good!!”

By the way, guitar is the only instrument I can play.

TGP: Who are your musical heroes? Tell me about how they color your playing or inspire you.

NT: It's hard to name all of them but Jimi Hendrix, Akira Takasaki, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Pat Martino are big influences. I would transcribe and practice playing tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Loudness. By playing their music, I got the chance to learn basic guitar techniques, and I learned jazz guitar vocabulary from Wes, Grant and Pat.

I also have to mention another guitarist, George Van Eps. He is one of my favorite guitarists and his album Soliloquy always inspires me. I've been practicing exercises from his books called “Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar”. There are three volumes. Every time I open the books, I always find something new. There are also so many great lines of his. It's just fun to read.

TGP: What made you decide to make the leap from Japan to the US? I understand you play mostly around the New York City area - tell me about the jazz scene there.

NT: I first came to New York in the course of my travel when I was 21 and was already into jazz. In a bookstore somewhere in the midtown, I found an interesting book called "The Jazz Style of Tal Farlow" by Steve Rochinski. I was really into Tal Farlow at that time and immediately purchased the book. When I started seriously thinking about studying music and was looking for a good place to go, I learned that Steve was teaching at Berklee and I thought it would be great to study with the guy who wrote my favorite book. There were so many great musicians teaching there.

As for the jazz scene here, there are so many great musicians and opportunities for seeing them live and actually playing with them. This is also a place where everyone moves in and out quickly. Meeting new friends is fun but seeing them leave is sad. By the way, you should check out Peter Bernstein, Ben Monder, Jack Wilkins, Sheryl Bailey, Steve Cardenas, Adam Rodgers, Mike Moreno, Randy Napoleon and Jonathan Kreisberg when you come to NYC. And don't forget to catch Gene Bertoncini at Le Madeleine on Monday night!!

TGP: What's the jazz scene like in Japan? Many (if not most) of my readers have never been to Japan; I know in my younger days my only impressions of Japanese music were taiko drum groups, samisen players, and the metal band Loudness.

NT: There are many great Japanese jazz guitarists such as Sadanori Nakamure, Yoshiaki Okayasu, Satoshi Inoue, Yoshiaki Masuo, Masa Nakagawa, Yosuke Onuma just to name a few.

Sadanori Nakamure and Yoshiaki Okayasu released an album from What’s New Records, which was my label for my 1st and 2nd albums. The instrumentation is two guitars, bass and drums. There are not many jazz acts with this kind of instrumentation. This one is worth checking and their guitar sounds are amazing. Satoshi Inoue had been playing in the NY area but recently relocated to Japan. I saw Satoshi playing with Jim Hall at the Village Vanguard and that was one of the best guitar duo concerts I’ve ever seen. He has three albums released from What’s New Records and these are my favorite albums. Yoshiaki Masuo had been the member of Sonny Rollins’ band for a long time. I really like his latest album, Are You Happy Now? with Larry Goldings on organ and Lenny White on drums. I met Masa Nakagawa and Yosuke Onuma in NY when they came here to record. Masa has released several albums. He's got a great tone. I actually got a chance to hang out with Yosuke and to see him playing. He doesn’t use a pick and plays beautifully.

Needless to say, there are so many wonderful jazz musicians besides guitarists. I like to play Hitoshi Kanda (P) and Toshiyuki Tanahashi (B) who participated in the recording sessions for my 1st and 2nd albums. They used to live in NYC and we would play a lot. Now that they are in Japan, when I go on tour in Japan is when I can play with them. I also like to play Akihito Yoshikawa (Dr), Junichi Sunayama (B) and Yosuke Kurita (Sax). There are also great musicians whom I met at Berklee. I got some recordings they've done and these are really creative musicians.

There is lots of exciting stuff happening there and I hope more people will have open ear for Japanese jazz musicians.

TGP: I know you're a fan of Akira Takasaki (of Loudness), and I remember seeing you throw in a sweep-picked arpeggio or two in Montreal. What other types of techniques that aren't generally thought of as traditional jazz techniques do you like to use?

NT: In the history of jazz guitar, it's not too much to say all the techniques have been used. Tal Farlow and Russell Malone do right hand harmonics beautifully. Joe Cohn amazingly uses his right hand to play wide harmony. Stanley Jordan has his unbelievable two-hand technique. George Benson's picking technique is just beyond my imagination!! I personally would like to use the techniques that make my guitar tone beautiful just like the way those guitarists do.

TGP: Tell me about how you chose your band. I really enjoy the intermix of piano, bass, and sax and that you give the other players room to stretch out. Guitarists tend to get reputations as prima donnas, but you don't suffer from that problem - your entire band takes center stage from time to time. Is that a conscious choice on your part (as band leader) or is that just how the process works itself out?

NT: I had the same pianist, bassist and drummer on both my 1st and 2nd albums and had different sax players. I've been playing with them for a long time. They all are great musicians. Playing jazz can be described as having a conversation. They all know when to talk, listen and respond and most importantly they know how to make a conversation interesting. As for taking center stage from time to time, I decide who would take the first solo, the second solo and something like that. Other than that, that just happened and worked itself out.

TGP: Speaking of process, if you can, tell me about your songwriting process. Coming from a rock background, my songwriting process tends to focus around the chorus, the lyrics, the melody and figuring out how to squeeze an 8- or 16-bar solo into a 4-minute pop song. How does the jazz writing process differ from that?

NT: I usually come up with a rough idea of how many measures or sections and something like that. I always change it later on but I think I need a canvas to start off with. Then I always compose a melody and sometimes a bass line. I try not to start from chords or chord progressions because they often limit my choices of notes. If it sounds good with only melody or with melody and bass line, it's much better when I add chords to it. But I'm not saying I compose melody without chords. Top note and bottom note usually give me a chord that roughly fits. I keep this process until I think I'm done. It's always hard to know when I'm done but this is when my canvas comes in handy and helps me know when I'm done. This is the first thing I do.

The next things I do are adding other sections, coming up with different chords, changing the key and anything makes it interesting. I don't change an original melody in this process because this process is arranging. The thing that confuses me as a composer and an arranger is being an arranger when I'm being a composer or vice versa. Being an arranger when I'm being a composer gives me too many choices. This is something I realized through my experience and that's why I always try to separate them.

Other than some differences like harmony, rhythm and form, jazz writing and pop/rock writing are all the same to me.

TGP: What kind of acoustic guitar did you use to record "Nebergall Loop" off From Now On? Do you remember how it was miked up in the studio?

NT: I used my Taylor 714. This model usually has the electrics but I asked Taylor to send one without the electrics. I asked about miking to Akihiro Nishimura who is a great engineer and good friend of mine. He told me that he used Neumann U67 and Neumann KM86 around the 12th fret of the guitar toward the body and both mics went via Shep (NEVE) 31102 into ProTools. He also told me that he used no EQ or compression in the recording. I think he captured the natural sound. He did it right!!