How to Mimic the Melancholy Sound of the Japanese Koto

A dose of focused music appreciation and careful examination of how the koto is played in traditional Japanese music will sharpen your skills immensely.
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The koto has been used in traditional
 Japanese folk music for centuries.

The koto has been used in traditional  Japanese folk music for centuries.

In their quest for fresh approaches to the instrument, guitarists throughout history have found creative ways to mimic the sounds and phrasing characteristics of other instruments. This includes valiant attempts at copying the musical methodology, tonal qualities and sonic blueprint of the violin, saxophone, harmonica, banjo, pedal steel, piano and even the human voice. 

The practice of emulating other instruments is nothing new to many adventurous guitarists, and it is a rewarding approach that often spawns fresh musical ideas and interesting licks. If you’re searching for an untapped realm of musical inspiration with an interesting vibe, one good source can be found in the traditional music and unusual instruments from Japan. This includes the koto, a very old, stringed Japanese instrument, which could be viewed as a distant relative of the guitar. The koto has appeared in traditional Japanese folk music for centuries, and you can emulate its distinct sound using any electric or acoustic guitar, as we’ll demonstrate in this lesson.



To emulate the koto’s clear, bell-like timbre on an electric guitar, begin by dialing in a clean or lightly overdriven tone. The next step is to pick the strings very close to the bridge using downstrokes exclusively, as shown in Photo A. Doing so will produce a bright attack and thin-but rich-sounding timbre that’s full of harmonics. You can experiment with this targeted picking location and technique, and refine your bridge-picking skills as we go.

The strings of the koto are normally plucked using metal fingerpicks, so when emulating the instrument, be sure to pick firmly and strongly. This bridge-focused, accented picking technique will effectively emulate the koto’s characteristic tonal quality, especially if you employ heavy-handed downstrokes.

The next step is to get to know the Hirajoshi scale, which is an old, pentatonic (five-tone) scale originating from Japan, spelled, intervallically, 1 2 b3 5 b6. Hirajoshi literally means even tuning, and if you’re looking for ear-catching phrases and licks that you’ve never played before, this is a great scale to use for that. 

Hirajoshi is known as a modal Japanese In scale, which refers to a minor key and tonality in traditional Japanese music, and it has a distinctly somber and melancholy musical quality. While there are several other modal spellings and variations on this scale in Japanese music, we’re going to focus on a common fingering and arrangement, which, by the way, has on rare occasions been employed in rock, metal, jazz and other styles of Western music. For reference, you can distinctly hear this scale used in the adventurous lead guitar work of such virtuoso rock guitarists as Steve Vai, Marty Friedman and Jason Becker, to name a few.


Ex. 1 provides a reference point and scale comparison between a one-octave E Aeolian mode (E F# G A B C D, intervallically spelled 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7) and the E Hirajoshi scale (E F# G B C) in the same position. As you compare the two scales, notice that Hirajoshi includes five of the same scale degrees and notes as Aeolian, but it’s missing the 4 and the b7, which in this case are A and D, respectively. These two absent notes give the scale an unusual structure, due to the wide gaps of a major 3rd interval that occur between the b3 and 5 (G and B) and between the b6 and octave root (C and E). This lends the scale its distinct, instantly recognizable sound.

Now that you’ve learned how to emulate the tonal characteristics of the koto and have a fascinating scale under your fingers, it’s time to check out a few melodic phrases that combine the two elements. Traditional Japanese music that features the koto is a great place to find inspiration to craft your own original, authentic-sounding ideas and will provide an appropriate model of what you’re attempting to emulate in this lesson. A dose of focused music appreciation and careful examination of how the koto is played in traditional Japanese music will sharpen your skills immensely. With a little research, you’ll discover that traditional folk music from Japan typically features quirky changes in pitch as well as basic rhythms and expressive melodies.


Once you’re acquainted with the sound and performance style of this instrument, you’ll be able to authentically emulate koto-like phrases such as those presented in Ex. 2. Once you’ve become comfortable performing the compact, one-octave fingering of the Hirajoshi scale previously shown, it’s time to extend it across two octaves. 

Ex. 3 illustrates a useful two-octave fretboard pattern that incorporates a couple of fret-hand position shifts (between the notes C and E in each octave) to smoothly and seamlessly connect the extended sequence of notes. Be sure to practice playing this pattern both ascending and descending to memorize both it and the required position shifts. 

This expanded fretboard path will enable you to shift into higher positions with ease and create melodies that encompass an extended pitch range, and this expansion will help you build extended-range, exotic-sounding phrases, such as that demonstrated in Ex. 4.


Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with these fretboard patterns for the Hirajoshi scale and gotten the hang of using the bridge-picking technique to mimic the koto’s “twangy” timbral quality, let’s employ the scale in a modern hard-rock/metal context by turning up the distortion, picking the strings as you normally would and using it in conjunction with string bends. To help you get started, Ex. 5 features a wailing lead phrase idea inspired by the playing of metal legend Marty Friedman. Marty’s an admirer of this scale and reportedly introduced it to his close friend, and former Cacophony co-guitarist, Jason Becker.


Ex. 6 illustrates another useful pattern for the E Hirajoshi scale, located lower down the fretboard. This pattern will give your fingers an additional challenge and set of options for phrasing. 

Ex. 7 is a melodic phrase that demonstrates some of the possibilities it offers. Notice the abundance of finger slides, string bends and legato articulations (hammer-ons and pull-offs) occurring throughout. As you experiment with the Hirajoshi scale and koto-style picking and emulation, try combining these elements with other guitar techniques and see what discoveries you can make.


Our final example demonstrates another cool way to emulate the sound of the koto and features an unusual, quirky-sounding phrase inspired by Eric Johnson’s brilliant lead playing. Played in the key of A minor and based on the A Hirajoshi scale (A B C E F), Ex. 8 incorporates fretboard tapping and string bends, which together present a technically challenging but interesting way to mimic the sound of the koto with an adventurous twist. 

You can hear Johnson performing a similar koto tapping phrase in his song “Bristol Shore,” featured on his breakthrough album, Tones (1986). As you practice this phrase, be sure to perform the bend-and-release maneuvers in bar 1 using a stiff and erratic motion, by releasing the tapped notes abruptly on each string. This phrasing approach will help achieve the desired authentic koto-like sound.

Now that you’ve been exposed to the unusual sounds and techniques associated with the koto, explore other styles and the vast assortment of instruments originating from various countries and cultures. By attempting to emulate these instruments by ear, you’ll greatly improve your musical imagination, ingenuity and creative spirit. 

This avenue of study will reveal new licks and original ideas that you probably might never discover using your typical Western listening, performance and practice habits. The combination of traditional techniques combined with unusual sounds and approaches like these will boost your creativity and move your musicality into fresh new directions.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with additional approaches, scales, keys or techniques as you move forward with this material and overall concept. Ganbatte kudasai! (Good luck!)