“To embody Jimmy Page, I need the tone, the guitar performance and the emotions to come together”: Akio Sakurai aka Mr. Jimmy has spent 30 years honing the perfect Led Zeppelin guitar sound. As he explains, “tone is the most important thing”

Akio Sakurai
(Image credit: Abramorama)

Mr. Jimmy, the new music biopic from Peter Michael Dowd, tells the remarkable rock ’n’ roll story of Akio Sakurai and his 30-year-long obsession with Led Zeppelin, resulting in a lifelong mission to replicate Jimmy Page’s electric guitar tone, playing style – and look.

And today, GW brings you an exclusive clip that, in just over two minutes and change, tells any guitar player that they are in the presence of a seriously driven player. 

Generations of players have nursed a serious Jimmy Page obsession. They’ve bought the gear. They’ve bought the tube amps. They’ve swapped out the pickups and spent late nights hunting down vintage fuzz pedals on the back end of Reverb. 

But this isn’t a hobby for Sakurai. In Tokyo, he would sell kimonos by day then perform classic Led Zeppelin setlists by night, until a chance encounter with – who else? – Jimmy Page inspired him to move to Los Angeles, joining Led Zepagain, and later getting the ultimate offer for a Led Zep obsessive: to tour with Jason Bonham. 

The story is one of dedication and sacrifice – and also talent – and this clip finds Sakurai on the frontier with one of his most crucial collaborators on his search for authentic Jimmy Page tone, Shinji Kishimoto.

Kishimoto is the man behind Grinning Dog Pickups, whose grinning dog, Uni, also joins him in the workshop. As Muddy Waters’ I Feel Like Going Home plays in the background, Kishimoto explains how the electric guitar pickup design is fundamental to rock ’n’ roll. “Without it, you can’t get a big sound,” he explains. You can’t rock ’n’ roll.”

Amen to that. And Sakurai and Kishimito are more than aware that not all electric guitar pickups are created equally, nor do they make them like they used to. 

Kishimito is not the first and won’t be the last to try to replicate the magic of an original Gibson 'Patent Applied For' humbucker. Sakurai is not the first, not will he be the last in recognising the PAF’s capability for holding output and articulation in perfect equilibrium is key to nailing the dynamics in Page’s playing style.

Akio 'Mr Jimmy' Sakurai

Akio 'Mr. Jimmy' Sakurai onstage in Tokyo. (Image credit: Abramorama)

He tells us his pickup search is guided by the pursuit of the “ability to play the subtleties and nuances”, and newer designs just don’t cut it.

“Newer pickups have more power, so it’s easier to play and feels nice, but it’s also harder to express the nuances and subtleties,” says Sakurai. “When you study Jimmy Page’s sound, you see that he likes using ‘50s original PAF. I prefer to be able to express the subtleties in order to play like he does.”

Sakurai’s first choice instrument is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, ownership of which is either a sign that a) You have done well for yourself, and b) That you take guitar playing deadly seriously. Sakurai is in the latter category. Tone, he says, is key to becoming Jimmy Page.

I can only trust my senses to figure out what’s right and closest to Jimmy Page. Just like sea turtles intuitively know where they were born and return there when grown

“Tone is the most important thing,” he says. “Jimmy Page is well known for his improvisation at each show. Depending on the mood and genre of the song, he might lower the volume, when he plays a blues song for example. When you play more sensitive songs, it’s really important to control the volume and tone. To embody Jimmy Page, I need the tone, the actual guitar performance and the emotions to come together.”

Those dynamics ask big questions of a player and their gear. Kishimito makes pickups of various styles but they are all for discerning players. Sakurai, however, takes discerning to its logical conclusion. He is a perfectionist. He sees that same perfectionism in Kishimoto.

Together they’re searching for a PAF recipe that can be cooked up and wound in the 21st-century; as many others have learned, that’s like trying to catch time and make it stand still.

Akio 'Mr Jimmy' Sakurai

(Image credit: Abramorama)

As Sakurai tests a new set of PAF-alikes in Kishimoto’s crowded workshop – Uni watching and listening on – maybe, just maybe, they got a little closer. How will Sakurai know? Instinct will guide him. But there’s a sense that he knows deep down that this is a story without end. 

“I can only trust my senses to figure out what’s right and closest to Jimmy Page,” he says. “Just like sea turtles intuitively know where they were born and return there when grown. It’s like sensing things out although there are no right answers. 

“Within his performance, there are things Jimmy Page would do spontaneously, and there are other things he would do habitually or intentionally. To figure this out, I will listen to the same bootleg record over and over again. My studies continue and my Jimmy Page journey never ends.”

Mr. Jimmy is out now and distributed worldwide via Abramorama. Visit Mr. Jimmy for screening details. 

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.