As an acclaimed guitarist, global educator, and seasoned performer, Tomo Fujita’s musical resume is pretty impressive. He has shared stages with the likes of Phil Collins, Kenwood Dennard, Darryl Jones, Susan Tedeschi, Ronnie Earl, and many more legendary musicians.
You may know him as a masterful Berklee professor, but there’s much more to Tomo Fujita than his role at Berklee. We sat down with Tomo to learn his story— from connecting with an unlikely musical mentor in Japan to his unique approach to music education in Boston.
Karate & Kenny Burrell
As a teenager, Tomo studied karate and guitar. Musically, he looked up to Char, a prolific Japanese rock guitarist, and as a student of karate, he found a hero in Bruce Lee. Tomo’s karate teacher was strict and intimidating to his students. One day after class, however, he inquired about Tomo’s life outside of karate.
“I told him I played guitar,” Tomo explained.
All of the sudden, this daunting martial arts master was smiling at Tomo.
“My teacher asked me who I listened to, and I said Char. He said, don’t listen to Char, listen to Kenny Burrell.”
‘Who the hell is Kenny Burrell?’, Tomo thought.
As it turns out, karate was a family business for Tomo’s teacher, but he was clearly passionate about guitar. He quickly took interest in Tomo’s musical progress and started inviting him to his home for impromptu lessons.
“My karate teacher was fascinated and wanted to help me,” said Tomo, “he made his own backing track and asked me to play a solo over it. When I did, he immediately stopped me and said ‘too many notes, put down your guitar’—so we listened to records. He showed me how to play. Then he asked me to play. Then he asked me to stop and listen to music.”
They repeated this routine often. Tomo’s teacher would also assign him extensive listening homework. He made three 60 minute cassette tapes for Tomo to study: one for ballads, one for medium tempo standards, and one for the blues played by famous jazz guitarists.
“It was amazing,” Tomo recalls, “He taught me how to learn jazz without theory. He didn’t know music theory and couldn’t really explain. Everything he taught me about jazz was based on listening and getting the feel.”
A career in music? Really?
Unless you’re a child prodigy, few people will tell you that music is a safe career choice. When Tomo was 17, everyone he knew told him that pursuing music professionally wasn’t a good idea. He believed them and soon enrolled at the University of Kyoto to study Russian. However, he soon found that he was unhappy.
“I kept playing guitar, but during my first year at college, I felt a little depressed,” he said, “I didn’t want to study. I wanted to play, but I didn’t have much confidence. But I kept my chops up. I studied jazz guitar and kept doing my own thing without too much expectation.”
Then, one day, someone told Tomo that, Koichi Osamu, a well-known local bass player received a full scholarship to a renowned music school in the United States called Berklee College of Music. Inspired and excited by the news, Tomo approached Koichi.
“I started asking him questions, and he turned away. He didn’t want to talk to me, he wanted to practice, and I was basically bothering him,” Tomo said, “Eventually I asked him so many questions that he gave up and said okay, you’re serious, I’m going to help you.”
Koichi helped Tomo figure out how to get a scholarship from both Japan and Berklee, and Tomo got right down to business. He made a demo tape, took English lessons, and penned his admissions essay. The hard work paid off, and at the age of 19, he received nearly a full scholarship to study at Berklee.
After he received the scholarship, Tomo dropped out of college and started working multiple jobs to save up for the move to America. He spent two more years in Japan before coming to Boston, and he doesn’t regret waiting as long as he did.
“When someone asks me about studying at Berklee—people who want to go when they’re 18 or 19 years old—I sometimes tell them that they should consider waiting a little bit,” he said, “Do something else first and go back. Waiting gives you a better work ethic. A lot of parents don’t understand that. They want their kids to go to college right after high school. I tell young people: Believe in yourself. No one can tell you when to start or when to finish.”
Making a name in Boston
Tomo settled into life at Berklee for what he described as a life-changing experience—playing with talented musicians, touring New England with a pop rock band, and generally enjoying the fulfillment of finally pursuing his passion.
By his second year at Berklee, Tomo was teaching at a local music shop. During his time teaching lessons there, someone told him about Boston’s Best Guitarist competition.
“The owner of the school where I was teaching helped me make a demo for the competition,” he said, “You could win music equipment in the competition, and I thought, I can sell that to pay my rent.”
Tomo entered the competition and took a risk by playing with a clean tone—a stark contrast to the overdriven rock tones that were popular in Boston at the time. In preparation for the competition, Tomo wrote a riff that ended up being the intro of his most popular song, Just Funky.
“Back then, there was no backing track. All you could do is play by yourself for two minutes. If you went beyond the time, you failed,” Tomo said, “There were three categories: performance, musicality, and style. I knew I had more style, so I just played funk, the blues, jazz, everything. I came in third, and it gave me confidence. I thought, wow they gave me third place, they must really like me.”
One year later, he entered the competition again and won first place.
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and listen to Just Funky. It’s a great representation of Tomo. The song takes you on a journey—from funky, rhythm-as-lead playing, to a flurry of jazzy blues leads, to subtle pocket grooves so his band can shine. At 4:45, Tomo brings the song to an emotional climax by squeezing insane wailing tones out of one single note on his guitar. It’s brilliant.
Finding a musical identity
While he was in Kyoto prepping for the rigors of Berklee, Tomo studied jazz guitar and played funk & the blues for fun.
“I wanted to play funky, but my dream was to be more like a Larry Carlton-type studio guy,” he said, “I studied Larry’s notes and realized I didn’t understand harmony. I could play his exact notes, but I had no idea about chords, which is why everyone told me to study jazz. It was great preparation for Berklee.”
Tomo would later go on to intentionally distance himself from Carlton’s playing.
“I bought tickets to see Larry Carlton in 1989, but I didn’t go,” he explained, “I wanted to go, but if I went, I knew I would’ve fallen in love with his playing again. I would’ve lost my identity and taken his sound, so I tried to figure out his influences and decided that I needed to study Joe Pass. His solo guitar is improvised, which you don’t see with a lot of solo guitarists. Joe Pass always plays something different. He’s not perfect—sometimes he stops—but I think that’s more human.”
When Joe Pass came to Boston, Tomo was dead set on learning from the jazz legend and bugged him until he agreed to a one-on-one lesson.
For many students, education comes to a screeching halt when they graduate from college. However, it’s no surprise that Tomo was disciplined enough to continue studying full force after graduation. It wasn’t until he left Berklee that he became a true student of the blues.
“I was really into Stevie Ray Vaughan and got a SRV Strat. That’s when I didn’t really care so much about jazz anymore. I only wanted a hint of Jazz. When I graduated from Berklee, I felt that I wasn’t a blues player. I had to study.”
Tomo tells me he was drawn to the simplicity of the blues. He dove into the genre, and adopted it into his own style.
Student becomes teacher
Around a year after he graduated, Tomo got the opportunity to teach a Berklee summer guitar session. He did an outstanding job and was quickly offered a faculty teaching position at the college in 1993. It was during one of these summer guitar sessions that Tomo had young John Mayer as a student.
“I had gone to Berklee’s summer session and learned a lot from Tomo,” said Mayer, in an interview with Berklee Today, “I had watched him play and saw how he did his funky right-hand slapping stuff like bass players do. I went home and worked on that and incorporated some of it into my style.”
In addition to teaching at Berklee, Tomo is a savvy digital educator (which, let’s be honest, at 53 years old is pretty damn impressive). He interacts with people on Instagram live, has released educational DVD’s, and regularly uploads free lessons to his YouTube channel.
he crazy part about his YouTube channel? His weekly lessons are available in English and Japanese. I’m not just talking about closed captioning, either. He records the same lesson twice so that he can better explain the nuances of the lesson to each audience. The man’s work ethic is nothing short of admirable.
Given Tomo’s acclaim as a funk and blues guitarist, you’d think that he would primarily teach in those genres at Berklee. For the most part however, he focuses on foundational techniques.
“The most important part is the foundation, the tiny techniques—picking, fingering, concept, decision, being patient, those aspects. When students come, we talk, and I let them play,” he said, “then I explain what’s going on with their playing. If we need to work on picking, fingering, or groove with a metronome, that’s what we do. Most people are really surprised how much I don’t teach funk or blues.”
Tomo says that he sees a lot of students overcompensating with effects and is a staunch advocate of the clean tone.
“Resources are good, but too many effects make people forget about a pure clean tone,” he said, “So now, I just plug into my amp, often with no reverb.”
When Tomo does teach the blues, he uses a listening-based approach similar to how his karate teacher taught him. He takes a custom list of 40 important blues players and uses it to handcraft listening homework for his students.
“I give my students research,” he said, “They come back with music, and I ask them to only listen to it for three months. Nothing else. I ban Spotify.”
To study the blues with Tomo is to remove yourself completely from the hyperactive state of music streaming. It’s a workout for the modern fractured attention span.
“If you have an album of eight songs. Listen to the first four songs and nothing else for a week. That way, you really listen and feel it. With Spotify you don’t appreciate anything. For young people who want to make their own sound—the less material the better.”
An artist, first and foremost
While Tomo is renowned for teaching at Berklee, his job at the school only takes up two days of his week. He’s an active performer, plays sessions, and tours internationally—sometimes up to four tours in a year.
“I play live music, and I play with an audience, so I learn and gain more, and give back to my students in return. It’s important for a teacher to go out, play, learn, and teach, not just teaching.”
With fans in the United States and Japan, I asked Tomo about the cultural differences between performing for an American audience and a Japanese one.
“Something about playing in Japan is magical. America is a good place to perform, but if you go to a bar, a lot of people talk,” he said, “In Japan though, everyone is there for the music. When Will Lee is ready to play bass, no one makes a sound. When we play ballads, we can really dig in and perform because of everyone’s expectations and kindness.”
The one time Tomo did encounter a loud, drunken crowd in the Japanese countryside, he took a unique approach to deal with the situation.
“I almost said, ‘this is a concert, you have to talk quietly’, but I knew they were drunk, so I played as soft as I could so that the rest of the audience would shush the loud people. Because of that, I played a really great performance. I learned from that gig because it taught me to play with dynamics.”
Tomo’s practice routine
What’s fascinating about Tomo is that he approaches guitar playing with undying curiosity, always looking for a new approach to improve his craft. For instance, as a student at Berklee, he maintained a disciplined practice routine, but when he dedicated himself to learning the blues, he stopped practicing.
“Blues is very authentic, with a laid back feel—it’s not perfect. I felt that if I kept practicing, I’d play a little too perfectly for that style. I decided to not practice and just play songs.”
Now though, Tomo is back to a disciplined routine. He has to keep his chops up with a daily finger workout since he now primarily tours as a solo guitarist.
“First thing in the morning, I practice acoustic guitar—simple patterns, like the chromatic scale. Going from the 1st fret to the 9th fret on one string takes about 90 seconds. Then I go to the next string,” he said, “The reason I recommend the chromatic scale is because my fingers are then ready to play anything. So I practice that and use a metronome to practice groove. I set it to 40 and do the backbeat to practice swing.”
According to Tomo, if you can’t groove at 40 bpm or feel inclined to go faster, there’s something missing. Another unique aspect of his routine is that he practices playing only one chord. Again, it’s all about the foundation.
“You don’t need to play the next chord if the first one doesn’t sound good. I play Bb, and if that sounds great, we’re grooving,” he explained, “I do that for five minutes, then sometimes I move to 45, 50, and 55 bpm. I play three different grooves for three different tunes. That’s where I play chord progressions, almost like you’re listening to a backing track.”
“Sometimes, I only play the blues. I play in difficult keys and avoid anything easy. That’s my personality. That way, when I’m on stage, I feel free,” he said, “Some people play a song right away with a more musical idea, and that’s good too. I spend about a half hour on foundation every day. It feels good because at night when I’m playing songs, everything is easier. I encourage all my students to try and do a half hour of boring stuff when they practice.”
I incorporated Tomo’s practice routine into my own for few weeks after our chat. The 40 bpm one chord groove warmup is a great exercise and deceptively challenging—especially when trying to play around with different grooves.
If enrolling in Berklee isn’t in the cards, do the next best thing, and check out Tomo’s youtube lessons. From foundational techniques to advanced concepts, they’re full of insight and will make you a better player.
Kyle Sparkman is a musician and writer based in Philadelphia. He writes about music and other things that are interesting to humans. If the music is funky, he probably likes it.