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Japanese, Koto-Style Guitar Techniques

There is something to be said for a sound of an instrument that can instantly bestow a certain feeling upon you. The Japanese 13-stringed koto is one of those unique instruments. Upon hearing its mysterious droning, you’re transported to an ancient Japenese temple in Kyoto, whether you’ve ever been there or not. The distinctive sound of the hypnotizing vibrations certainly has a special power.

Understanding this feeling is what will help you achieve a similar one on your guitar. The technique in this lesson, which is taken from my brand new course 5 Exotic Guitar Scales and How to Use Them Effectively, is one that can be applied to either electric or acoustic guitar. Each instrument will yield a different tambour, of course, but the atmosphere you produce will emulate that of a koto.

The technique has multiple points of focus, as your fretting hand will need to be holding down the appropriate strings with slight vibrato (to manufacture a wavering koto sound) while your picking hand hovers 12 frets above the pressed strings.

The breakdown of responsibilities of your picking hand is like this:

  • 1) Make a pistol shape with your thumb and finger
  • 2) Hover your index finger over the actual fret, touching the string slightly
  • 3) Pluck the string with your picking hand’s thumb while your index finger rests on the string, hovering over the fret as mentioned in step 2

With your fretting hand in proper position and your picking hand keeping the appropriate 12 fret distance between notes, you’ll create an ethereal, artificial harmonic. Once you have perfected the technique, you can begin to experiment with patterns. The most effective koto styling’s will be cyclical motifs, as shown in the example below.

Be sure to watch the video for a visual aid in using this extremely cool technique, and check out 5 Exotic Guitar Scales and How to Use Them Effectively if you’d like to add a new dimension to your guitar playing.

Tyler Larson is the founder of the guitar-centric brand Music is Win. His insightful, uncomplicated guitar lessons and gear demonstrations along with entertaining, satirical content about life as a musician receive tens of millions of video views per month across social media. Tyler is also the creator of the extremely popular online guitar learning platform, Guitar Super System. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Tyler has been teaching guitar for over a decade and operates a production studio in Nashville, TN.