Takahiro Shimo, Ukulele Master Builder from Japan

It was a privilege to meet up with Shimo for a delightful hour or so over coffee in Tokyo this July, (fortunately the day before a typhoon hit the city,) and he was kind enough to agree to this interview. This is the third time I have met him in Tokyo and he is always a fascinating person to talk to and as with all master instrument builders he has a very definite point of view on how best to build great musical instruments. Here he talks about what makes for a great instruments, his love of Ry Cooder and his unique philosophy when making a wide range of different instruments.
shimo ukulele
NC When did you first start to make ukuleles?
TS I graduated from luthier school
NC This was in in America?
TS Yes, at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix Arizona 1980. I opened Shimo guitars in 1982 and I bought 20 sets of guitar materials from the United States Do you know the luthier Macintyre?
NC Yes
TS Yes in Los Angeles, I bought woods from there. The most interesting thing I bought was 2 sets of Koa. At that time nobody was making Koa guitars. This is strange but interesting, because when I graduated from luthier school in 1980, and during when I was student, I had a chance to play an old Martin Koa guitar, which was maybe 100 years old, from the 1800s or something, so I had experience of Koa guitars. So when I was going to buy materials for guitars I decided to get Koa too.  So in 1992 I got an order for a ukulele, it was ordered by a ukulele player from a Hawaiian band in Japan. This band had been going from the 1970s.At that time I already had the Koa wood. So it was something strange and something interesting for me. So now I feel I have to make a ukulele, maybe this is my destiny. I feel so, because at that time nobody was buying Koa wood for guitars or even at that time for ukulele!
In Japan in 1980 it was very hard to get a ukulele at any stores because nobody played them. Maybe a few music stores had them in stock, Kamaka or something similar.
shimo comet 3NC I’ve played a number of your instruments and they all sound fantastic, so- What makes for a great sounding/playing instrument?
Of course the right materials are an important thing, this is in no doubt for everybody, including myself!
But I also have another answer, during the making of the ukulele, the luthier must love music, and must love the instrument, and make the instrument with joy. This is for me most important. And for me background music is also important, so sometimes when I am making a ukulele I have as background music the music of the future owner. If I am making your ukulele I will play your Small Change Diaries cd. This is important for me, because listening to your music and sometimes dancing, during the making of the ukulele, the ukulele is already listening to your music, so when she was born she already knows your music, like a baby, like mothers sing for their babies!
NC How long does it take from beginning to finish to create a custom ukulele?
TS Well a simple ukulele with no inlay, no binding, no decoration or anything maybe one month.
NC So for a custom build instrument that’s going to be longer?
TS 0h yes, 2 months or more, not so long-60-70 days like this.
NC Do you make one at a time or more than one-
TS Yes always, I make 4 or 5 ukuleles at once-
NC Is that just you or do you have help as well?
TS Just me, this is my “Way”- If I have my clone I don’t like him maybe!
NC I remember you saying last time we met it was like the Morgan cars philosophy you had in mind when you build instruments
TS Yes-I think so very much, now even more because I watched a video on the making of Morgan cars so I think more and more about the similarity in production philosophy.
NC That’s a great example of everything being about quality, just make the best! No Compromise!
TS Yes this is my life, my “Way”(Smiles)
NC Who have you made instruments for in terms of artists?
TS Many Japanese artists including Boo Takagi, IWAO(Yamaguchi Iwao), Yuki ‘Alani’ Yamauchi, Kazuyuki Sekiguchi, Koichi Fujii, Katsuhisa ‘Katz’ Nagao as well as Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton. Those two did not pay me but I gave them each an instrument as gifts!
NC Ry Cooder is great
TS I met him in 1988 in Tokyo He is my idol. Yes. I can sing all his songs! So when I heard he was coming to play I had to make a guitar for him. Eric Clapton was a fan of Japanese wrestling, so when he came here I met him and gave him an electric arch top guitar. A few years ago he sold some of his guitars for a donation to a hospital for alcoholics, and I saw that guitar was in this auction.
NC Why do you think the ukulele is so popular in Japan, and indeed round the world including the U.K. right now?
TS Yeah. This is very popular in Japan. Yes
NC There are some great stores just for ukuleles here
TS Ukulele is a very special instrument, lovely, cute, easy to play easy to carry. Everybody likes the sound of a ukulele.
NC Especially your ukuleles!
TS Thank you very much
NC Musicians I know Martin Simpson a friend of mine I showed him the comet 3 and the comet 7 and he said it was the best sounding ukulele he had heard.
TS I am very honored.
And I think the feeling of friendship from the ukulele is strong. I don’t know why, but everybody says the same thing.
NC I agree I never intended to play ukuleles but I really like this tiny little instrument and it went from there. The comet 7 and the comet 3, because they sound so good it inspires one to play more. I do think your instruments are in a league of their own. It was completely obvious to us when we were recording that they were the instruments to use.
TS I think I forgot something with question 2.I think the thickness of material and type of lacquer is also relevant for me , but the figures obtained from measurements and any kinds of number are for me garbage. The important thing for me is how much I love and how much I enjoy making the instrument. I think the creator of the piece and the piece are similar. If you make a teddy bear this bear is like you
So I think if I want to make a wonderful instrument I have to be a wonderful person So this is the most important thing for me So maybe I have a friend who is a funny guy and the guy makes everybody happy. With me I want to be, so maybe my creations will be the same
NC Some of the designs are definitely not traditional designs. When I saw your website there are some big variations in design, is that driven by you or by clients?
TS Always mine. Not only mine, some of them came in my dreams. From somewhere.
NC Another plane!
TS (Laugh)Yeah
I believe there are things we can’t explain, that is the simple answer. Something different from another luthier from another planet.
NC Do you insist on a certain type of string for your instruments or do you like different strings for different models? I have scoured the planet for Hilo strings since you mentioned them
TS I only think about the intonation, not sound, this is very important, because musical instruments have to make a connection, so strings are important for this. Ukulele strings are made from nylon or carbon. Not all strings are good, sometimes you know if you have 10 sets maybe one of them is not good. I have felt this many times that maybe the intonation is wrong and maybe if I change it, a new one  is correct. This is always with nylon strings, but some makes of strings are good. Now we can’t buy hilo any more, GHS is good, Worth strings are from carbon too so they are good. Carbon is more reliable than nylon, but the sound of nylon is warm, carbon is a little cooler .
NC How many of your ukuleles end up overseas?
TS I heard that some music store are selling them second hand world-wide They said they have sold them a few times to Europe Some for Germany some for Italy ,France ,Spain, maybe a few, so let’s say maybe about 5 percent internationally. So almost all for domestic
NC Well I am glad we came to Japan. We have a lot to thank Dean from Ukulele Mania for when he said “Try one of these!”
TS Yeah! He understands my style. Thank you very much
shimo
Online Resources
Shimo’s Homepage – www.shimoguitars.com
Ukulele Mania in Tokyo  – www.ukulelemania.net
Ukulele Comet photos by Karen Turner
All other photos by Susan Elton
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