Kenji Okumura is a Japanese luthier living and working in London. Now becoming firmly established as a designer and builder of unique and wonderful guitars, he has reached reached this point of his career through sheer hard work and determination. It’s fair to say that lesser spirits may have simply given up at any of the various hurdles Kenji has had to overcome, but it is a tribute to his work ethic, and determination, that he has finally arrived – carrying out his chosen profession and steadily building his reputation.
But that is now – and Kenji’s story started when he was 21-years-old, living in Japan. A chance sight of a magazine article about the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona, started Kenji on his guitar-making path. ‘When I read the article, and saw the pictures of guitars being built, I decided right then that I wanted to make guitars, I loved American music, and I wanted to learn English but I had no one to support me while I went to college. I saved up for six years to pay for my travel and my course,’ he begins.
‘The course lasted four months and covered learning building and repair. During the course you have to build an electric and an acoustic guitar. I think the course is longer now, five or six months. The actual course days are very short, and you learn basic building, but it is afterwards, when you are on your own that you really start to learn properly. I made a lot of mistakes but it was through those mistakes I learned more. It’s a good school to learn the basics of building, and then you move on and really start to develop when you work on your own. Most luthiery students start as apprentices and learn that way. I moved to Phoenix to study – it had been my dream since I was a child to live and work in America. I saved up a lot of money, and after the college course, I moved to the Bay Area in northern California. I had no tools to work on guitar building, so I did a lot of jobs, carpentry, working with a stained glass maker, and other various jobs for about three years until I had enough money to get the tools and machines I needed to build guitars, and then I opened my own small workshop.’
‘I got my first couple of build commissions, and work was getting better, but I wasn’t able to get a green card to enable to me to work legally in the States and, obviously, I didn’t want to work illegally. So after four years I decided to go back to Japan. I couldn’t take all my machines and tools back with me, just some of them, so when I got to Japan, I concentrated on repair work, and did that for four more years. During that time, I met my English girlfriend, and we decided to move to London, and once again I couldn’t bring everything with me, so I started from scratch again to establish my own workshop here in London.’
So far so tenacious. ‘I did make a lot of mistakes in the early days. In the late 80s, when I started, there were no videos about guitar building, so I had to learn everything from books – I bought a lot. When I first went to America, I wanted to get a job as an apprentice with the Hungarian luthier Ervin Somogyi. I went to his workshop and he showed me around, and how to do little bits and pieces. I was going to ask him if I could join him as his apprentice, and just as I was going to ask, he showed me a poster advertising his teaching – he had half a dozen students and offered me a chance to join a class, so I never actually asked him about an apprenticeship. I did plan to go back, but not long after, there was a fire in the Bay Area, and his workshop was destroyed, and I lost contact with him. Not long after that was when I returned to Japan. Maybe if I had become an apprentice, my guitar-making would be very different to what it is now, but I have no regrets, I really love what I do. Because I never worked as an apprentice, or for a manufacturing company, my guitar building style is entirely my own.’
Right behind learning the actual craft of guitar-building comes the need to establish an identity. Any player who wants a standard design of guitar can walk into an instrument shop and buy a factory-made model over the counter. Luthiers put something of themselves into their guitars, and each one is unique – Kenji is no exception. ‘When I first started, because I was keen to become established, I did what ever I was asked. Now that I have developed my own style, I build traditional designs, rather than contemporary designs because that’s what I love to do. I do like modern designs, a lot of fingerstyle guitars have contemporary styles, but that is not for me. I see a guitar as an instrument and a tool to make music, and as a piece of art as well. It is a tool first of all, and that is how I approach making a guitar because otherwise it is not going to function properly in its main role.
I do work in a very traditional style and that applies to my building also. I don’t use any plastic bindings, only wood bindings. Due to my heritage, I am very fond of Japanese art, and obviously woodworking, so I make my guitars to reflect those interests. My designs are very simple with clean lines. If I want to put some art into the guitar, I do that in the inlay, which is heavily influenced by Japanese art. I heard that the Tree Of Life inlay on the Martin models is based on a Japanese design. A lot of other builders use Japanese designs too, like dragons and carp fish designs.’
Before the first cut is made to build a new guitar, the wood has to be chosen, and most luthiers will have their favourite woods to work with, as Kenji explains. ‘For the tops, I like to use European and Alpine spruce, but my favourite is Sitka spruce because it is very stiff and great to work with. I also love the colour, it has a hint of pink which I really like. I haven’t tried Adirondack spruce yet, but I will. For the back and sides, Indian rosewood is easy to get so I use that, and I like Brazilian rosewood, of course. I like koa, as well as mahogany, but it is becoming harder to find.’
It is the dream of every luthier to see a guitar he or she has built, in the hands of an exceptionally talented musician. For Kenji, that dream has come true. An Okumura guitar sits in the home studio of James Taylor. ‘I met James’ son in London in 2006. My girlfriend was an instructor in gyrotonics; it’s similar to pilates. James’ son, Ben, is very keen on gyrotonics, and he was over in London recording, and wanted to have a gyrotonics session, he found my girlfriend’s details on the internet, and went to her for a session. In the course of taking his details, Ben said he was a musician. She asked him what guitar he played, and he told her it was an Olson that his dad had given him, not thinking she would have heard of it, because Olson is not that well-known. Of course, my girlfriend does know about guitars. She told Ben about me, and that I was a guitar builder. They had another session booked, and my girlfriend asked Ben if he would like to check out one of my guitars, and he said he would, for sure.
At the time, I had two guitars on display at a local guitar shop, so I picked them up and put a new set of strings on each one, and took them along to meet Ben. He played them both, and really liked one, and bought it on the spot. Since then, he has used it as his main on-stage guitar. Ben got in touch and asked me to make him another guitar, which I did. Then I got a message from Ben on my answering machine, saying that over the years, his dad had given him lots of guitars, and he wanted to give one back as a gift. I was so delighted. James Taylor has a contract with James Olson, he plays Olson guitars in public, but there is a YouTube clip of James playing in his home studio, and on a stand next to him is the guitar I made for Ben that he later gave to him. I am honoured just to know that he has it there. That is just a really wonderful feeling.’
‘When I first started, I was never sure if what I was doing was any good, but over time, I have developed a level of consistency in my guitar building that means I am extremely happy with them when they are finished. I am never one hundred per cent satisfied, but that is probably the same for any luthier, no one is perfect.’