FEATURE: 9-year-old Japanese guitar whiz dazzles U.S. crowds
by Akito Yoshikane
NEW YORK, Aug. 24 KYODO
(EDS: ACCOMPANIED BY ONE PHOTO, ALONG WITH PHOTO CAPTION, FROM KYODO PHOTO DATABASE TREASURE, NUMBERED2009082400214)
It is not every day that you see the frontman of a rock group flanked by band mates who are twice his height and age.
At a recent concert at the Highline Ballroom in New York City , lead singer Yuto Miyazawa is busy tuning his guitar. His drummer, Steve Grossman, taps his drumsticks for the next song, but Yuto turns and waves at him to stop, drawing a laugh from the audience and band mates who wait for him to get ready.
''The command he has at 9 years old is scary,'' said band member Randy McStine to the matinee crowd.
It is a summer vacation to remember for Yuto, the Guinness Book of World Record's youngest professional guitarist. The fourth grader has been performing in the United States and appearing on TV shows since gaining an online following for his rock videos. His rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's ''Freebird'' was viewed over 1.5 million times on YouTube and mentioned on message boards and blogs as he became the latest meme in an era of instant Internet celebrities.
The interest attracted the attention of U.S. media and promoters. Yuto has spent his summer learning about America by touring the country playing classic American rocks songs and sharing the stage with some of rock music's biggest legends.
''My friends are like, 'Oh really?' They think I'm just boasting,'' Yuto said in an interview with Kyodo News.
Steve Bernstein, president of Zenbu Media, discovered the young rocker in Japan at the Bau Haus, a popular live concert venue in Tokyo . It was Bernstein who suggested Yuto learn the oft-requested ''Freebird'' and uploaded the performance online.
''When I saw Yuto play so effortlessly at 8 years old and so smooth, I felt he had to be shared on a much bigger stage with the world,'' said Bernstein. ''I believe he will be one of the best guitarists in the world some day and the number one Asia rock star. He might already be that.''
Originally from Tokyo , Yuto started playing when he was 3 years old, taking after his father, Tsuneo, who also plays the guitar and is an avid rock fan. But Yuto, who has a penchant for guitar solos, quickly surpassed his father's talents.
''My dad doesn't play that much anymore,'' he said. ''He can't keep up with me. He has different interests now.''
Yuto cites his influences as Randy Rhoads, Eric Clapton and Metallica. He has already shared the stage with legendary guitarists like G.E. Smith and Les Paul, who passed away recently. But his favorite so far is Ozzy Osbourne, whom he met for the first time this year on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
''I was surprised. I didn't really talk to him much, but I asked him to come to Japan ,'' he said.
Nowadays he only practices guitar for less than an hour a day and takes half-hour lessons once a week. He polishes his singing by taking weekly English lessons, making it easier for him to converse with fans asking for his autograph and pictures.
Despite minimal preparation and sharing the stage with band mates who are much older, Yuto said he does not have any pre-performance jitters. He effortlessly performs Black Sabbath's ''Crazy Train,'' Jimi Hendrix's ''Purple Haze'' and of course, ''Freebird.'' He also debuted an original song with English lyrics titled ''Ikimashou'' (Let's Go), though currently he said there are no plans for an album.
For his encore, Yuto played ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' in a manner similar to Jimi Hendrix's famous performance at Woodstock in 1969.
For the rocker, who has an interest in history, his performance at a New York Mets game on Aug. 18 could not have been more fitting as he played the U.S. national anthem in front of the home crowd at Citi Field.
''I know a little about American history now,'' he said.