Tomo Fujita is full of guitar wisdom — which you might already know from his YouTube videos — but his knowledge expands well beyond the fretboard. As a professor at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music, Fujita works one-on-one with countless students aiming to master the guitar. He's got a great grasp on the next generation of guitarists, with contemporary and timeless advice alike.
Some of that advice is on the t-shirt he's wearing during our chat. It says, "Don't Worry. Don't Compare. Don't Expect Too Fast. Be Kind To Yourself." According to him, those words are all about balance; read on to learn the other advice Tomo shared with us, from the most important lesson he learned from his student, John Mayer, to how he finds the balance in his own life.
- Hey Tomo! How's Berklee this time of year?
We're doing really well now. We teach everyone in person again, and we're doing great.
- You're a teacher. It's a big part of what you do. What's your favorite part about teaching guitar to up-and-coming musicians?
- Wow. Teaching guitar isn't just about teaching how to play guitar, but also how to deal with personality. I teach a little bit more about life. When students understand that a big part of music is communication with other people, they are very happy because they can be better. So that's the part that is a really great feeling for me. Once I teach them something they didn't notice before, they go up to the next level. That's an amazing experience.
- How do you maintain that balance between life and guitar? What's the balance look like for you?
I was originally a workaholic. It was always about work. But as I get older, obviously, you have to maintain your health, your family, work, and playing guitar! I have to play. This is my key: a little notebook. I have three of them right now running. Basically, I keep track of everything — what I do, what I need to do. So this way, I'm not wondering, I just write and I push myself to do it.
But your question is great: how do you find a balance? Certain things I don't pay attention to too much. For example, with YouTube, I have 470,000 followers, which is really nice. Of course, I want to get one million followers! But just that's just numbers. Right? Well, I used to worry about, "I gotta get that." I try not to do that any more, because that's not the point.
The point is making better content for other people. So instead of worrying about having 1 million followers, I care about the 10 people I make happy every day. With this concept, there is just a little less pressure. This is my balance in my head, you know?
- I think that applies to everyone, even beyond guitar.
- I want the younger generation to listen to this. This generation has it great, because any information you want, you can get. But also, sometimes these sites are run by a company to sell something — it's not so much about the information, so you have to filter things. It's easy to get hooked on it, so you have to be careful. Like TikTok, it's almost extra. It's not the main thing. But, some people let it become the main thing.
- I love your shirt, it sums it up well.
It's interesting because some people think, "Those are Tomo's words." But here's what happened: on my birthday, one of my students, Owen. He gave me this note a long time ago. I would ask, can you play the homework? He would get very nervous. I said, "I'm the only one here, why are you nervous?" He'd say, "Because, I think..." Oh, okay. You are thinking something and that makes you nervous. So why don't you just think of something else?
When you go on the stage, if you see everybody looking at you, think of them as potatoes. Once I make it funny, I don't worry about it. You know, just like that's my mind, you know? So, this is Tomo’s advice:
Don't expect. Don't compare. Don't worry. Be kind to yourself. Be thankful for what you have – thankful to pick up guitar every day. I thought that advice might be helpful for other students, so then I made this shirt.
You've got it all right there on the shirt!
- Right here, first, don't worry. I'm just a guy. Nothing really different from other guys, I just play guitar a little bit well, that's about it. Don't compare, you know, especially on Instagram to somebody who plays fast. Yeah, let the guy play fast. You play slow, something nice, that's what's different. Don't forget the respect — admire people, but don't overdo it.
How do you help your students find their individual style?
I ask them these questions: Who is your favorite guitar player? What are five albums of songs you love? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What gear do you use? What do you want to work on?
You would think everybody would write really good, but no. Some people write too little, and some write too much — they write without saying anything specifically. It’s almost like saying, “I want to be rich.” You laugh, because you can’t get rich without a plan, right? I work with them to narrow things down, to figure out how to communicate. I help the student identify where they want to improve. My goal is to understand each student’s personality.
After that, what do you teach your students?
- People expect me and that person to play together, but actually, I put my guitar down and say, “Show me what you can do with your guitar. Just play.” Some guitarists say, “I don’t know what to play.” So then I ask them, “Why? You’ve been playing for five years.” It’s not a serious question or answer; I make everything fun. So, say they play a little bit. I’ll say, “That’s all you learned in five years?” I make a little joke, we laugh. Most students know how to play — they just don’t know how to present themselves.
“Some people ask, 'Should I learn how to read music?' I’ve told people, 'Don’t worry about it.' But, only if you have a great ear or great feeling. That’s a different story than 'Don’t worry about it.'”
- What do you think is a common misconception that your students have about becoming a professional guitarist?
- It’s typical. Some people believe, “Oh, if I know the theory, if I know the 12 different keys of the pentatonic scale, I can be a really great guitar player.” Just because the internet teaches us, “This system is the secret to the blues.” I don’t teach scales visually, because if you think of the fretboard that way, the imagination is gone. I always talk about Ray Charles, or Stevie wonder — how they have so much feeling and imagination and they cannot see anything. They just do it.
Professional musicians can play not because they know the five pentatonic positions, but because they have experience. They have the knowledge, but they don’t know the best way to tell people what’s going on in their mind. Their talent is performing, not teaching. On the other hand, teachers who don’t play are too much in their head. They might tell you, “Just learn these five positions,” but it doesn’t help if you’re just stuck with that information. Again, the balance comes up — very important.
“Once you have a balance, it's comfortable, but the balance is very difficult to maintain consistently. Because we're human. We move by feeling. We get upset. We get happy, we get mad. You have to remind yourself to find the balance.”
What’s the most valuable lesson you ever learned from one of your students?
I have to listen really carefully to what my students say. Sometimes, what they are saying is an excuse. “I don’t want to read because I’m not really into jazz,” like that. But sometimes people say, “I really, really, really want to do this.”
For example, John Mayer — he enrolled in my funk clinic in the summer and then requested me as his teacher. That was in 1998. My name wasn’t really known at the time, other than among the students. Now, people come from all over the world, and they wait a whole year to take my lessons. But John took my class — every Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. He played really well — Stevie Ray Vaughan style: choppy and hard. I told him, “That’s great. But you have to play a little cleaner. And also, never imitate someone 100%.”
At first, he wanted to be the greatest guitarist, but then, he found that songwriting was very comfortable for him. He felt that writing songs was his true talent, so I recommended he quit college. That was a very difficult decision, but it was the right one. Although, he was a U.S. student… I would never give that advice to an international student.
- How do you think that growing up in Japan has influenced your melodies and rhythms?
I lived in Japan until I was 21. Since I was 12, I was listening to The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery — American music. At that point, all of my musical ideas were American. When I arrived in America, I didn’t remember anything about Japanese music. I was disconnected for a while.
Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating Japanese pop music because it has really face paced, interesting melodies. The chord changes are kind of like jazz. J-pop can have a simple, catchy melody, but the chords are sophisticated.
American pop music uses I-V-vi-IV. Over there, it’s always II-V, or II-V-IV modulation stuff. The reason is, because back in the ‘70s, the arrangers were all jazz pianists, and when they were on pop songs, they added jazz into it. Japanese pop music is really helpful in getting American students to understand jazz music.
My song, “Kyoto,” uses several Japanese ideas because I was imagining being back in Japan during this time of year. That’s why the melody is simple but a little bit jazzy.
You’ve talked about Char — Japanese guitar pioneer — being one of your biggest influences. What are some lessons you’ve learned from listening to his guitar playing?
In several of his songs, he starts with a guitar intro. In one of his songs, “Togyuushi (闘牛士)," it goes like this.That’s already really funky — Fmaj7, Emin7, Amin7. That’s sophisticated. It reminds me of some American music — Earth, Wind & Fire, and Motown music.
His main guitar has a short scale length, and the reason he chose that guitar is because he’s not a very tall guy. It makes him look tall. An interviewer asked him, “How do you choose a guitar?” and he said, “Look in the mirror.” He’s an amazing performer, so he has to look good.
- Who are some other guitar heroes that you look up to?
Larry Carlton. He played with the Crusaders and has a famous song called “Room 335.” I transcribed that song note for note when I was 14. I learned how to play every note, but I didn’t know any of the chords — that was a big lesson for me. He also bends notes so smoothly. When I came to the United States, mastering bends was one of my goals. Carlton studied with Joe Pass when he was 16, and that was my dream.
In 1991, I had a chance to study with Joe Pass, too. After a concert in Boston, I went to him and asked him to teach me. He told me no, and that he doesn’t teach anymore. But I went back and asked him again. That’s my personality — very persistent. He said no again, but he didn’t tell me to go home, so I had one more chance. I asked him, “How much do you charge?” He said, “I don’t know. Bring me to a cigar store and buy me a box of cigars.” So, I drove him to a cigar store.
- What’s your current gear setup?
My main electric guitar is a Kanji Guitar, they are friends of mine. I have lots of different guitars to make sure that I can play different styles and keep a nice balance. For acoustic guitar, I have an Orangewood guitar in my room, and an Orangewood in the other room, too.
On my floor setup, I have one reverb control, Boss EQ, Vemuram Jan Ray for TF, TS-10, my friend’s handmade overdrive, and a TC tuner. That’s it. I don’t need to use too many effects.
I have several acoustic guitars, but I like the Ava Mahogany Live. That was actually my first Orangewood guitar. It’s quite amazing. The setup is really, really great and it feels good: neck setup, bridge height, everything was top end. Anything I put on it, that guitar can handle. I play it the same as electric — funky stuff, jazz, blues — I just don’t bend that much.
- Do you have any advice for the next generation of guitarists?
- Please use your ear to learn. This generation usually Google songs and learn from PDF or videos. It’s nice, but it’s too revealing of the result. It doesn’t show the process. If you can play it visually? Yes, great. But can you play it in a different key? No? Then that’s not music — it’s acrobatics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.