Guitarist Shun Ng has started to make a name for himself in the music industry. In his brief career (he started playing at 14) he has earned a scholarship to Berklee, played for legendary producer Quincy Jones, teamed up with J. Geils harmonica master Magic Dick for a tour, got the attention of Brian May from Queen and now he is on tour opening up for Garry Tallent from the E Street Band.
Shun Ng and Garry Tallent will be making a stop at The Kent Stage on April 28th. NEO Music Scene chatted with Shun to talk about his career and his upcoming appearance in Kent.
Greg Drugan: Hi Shun, thanks for taking some time with me today; sounds like you were working on some new music.
Shun Ng: (laughs) Yes I was! Thanks so much for doing this interview.
GD: No problem! So you were born in Chicago while your father was a student at Northwestern; when did you move to Singapore?
SN: I moved back to Singapore when I was four.
GD: As a youngster you were a gymnast, did you have any aspirations to be an Olympian?
SN: Yeah! That’s the ultimate for a gymnast. But personally, I hated gymnastics. It was always competitive and I had very strict coaches from China. I had a dislocated shoulder and they had to pop it back in. So I really didn’t like it. But it was through gymnastics that I discovered music so I’m grateful for that. It was fun when I was younger. The reason I started gymnastics was because I wanted to jump into the sponge pit! After that, it got serious.
GD: Is it true that you turned your attention towards music after a teammate brought a guitar to gymnastics practice?
SN: Yeah, my friend Will had a guitar, I think it was a Yamaha. I didn’t grow up in a musical family. In Singapore at that time, at least my family really didn’t listen to music. They were very strong Christians and they were very worried of the whole drug scene. I didn’t grow up with music and my parents didn’t know anything about music except maybe a hymn book.
When Will brought his guitar to practice and started playing it, I was blown away by that! I didn’t know my friend could make music. I didn’t know it was a thing, I thought only people like Mozart could do that. Then he showed me a G chord and it was so cool. Then he taught me other chords and they all sounded different. Then I would make up chords and they sounded horrible. Well, they sounded horrible to other people but not to me. Then I started to play chords together and it sounded nice. Then I began to understand it like a language. I was struggling with dyslexia at the time so this was like a language to understand things. I thought to myself “If I can get really good at this, I wouldn’t have to worry about other area’s that I was inadequate in.” It really made me grow as a person.
When I first heard Live at the Regal, the B.B. King record, I was blown away! There was so much emotion and it was only a couple of notes, but I could hear this guy’s soul. Music to me is a form of communication. It was through music that I really discovered the world.
GD: So are you basically self-taught or have you taken lessons?
SN: I’m mostly self-taught. I had a great mentor who was one of the finest classical composers in Singapore and he took me under his wing. He doesn’t play the guitar but he exposed me to all different kinds of music. From traditional Indian music to traditional Chinese music to Hendrix! I love all of these different styles of music and finding a format to put them together is what I’m about. He (my mentor) calls it a “global gumbo.”
GD: How did you develop your style of playing; you have a very unique finger picking style.
SN: I watched the virtuoso’s like Steve Vai in interviews and he would talk about Hendrix so I had to check him out. Then I heard “Voodoo Child” and I was like “What is that?” Then I heard that Hendrix said that “To be in heaven is to sit at the feet of Buddy Guy and watch him play guitar.” So I had to check Buddy Guy out. Then I went all the way back to Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker. Then I went into jazz like Miles Davis and Coltrane. On the other end I was listening to a lot of Motown and I love James Jamerson and his bass playing. I wanted to learn the bass lines and I realized that I could use my thumb to create these bass lines. That would free up my other fingers to create other melodies or horn lines so that’s kinda how it developed.
GD: You also do some scat-style of singing. Does that go back to your jazz influences?
SN: I love Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Magic Dick was the one who introduced me to them. I also love Al Jarreau and he also did a bit of scatting and vocal percussion. I think I scatted before I sang.
GD: Do you remember the first person you saw in concert?
SN: It’s either Buddy Guy or Tower of Power. I think it was Buddy Guy in Singapore. He played in a beautiful theater and he walked out into the audience. For me it was great because I read about these (blues) guys and they were sort of mythical creatures. But there he is, right in front of me! A real blues guy! I mean, he played with Muddy (Waters)!
GD: You earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, how was that experience?
SN: That was really cool. I dreamed of going to Berklee when I became serious with music. Steve Vai was from there and Quincy Jones was from there. It was like a dream come true.
It’s funny because initially I got rejected from Berklee. I had a great audition and the guy said I was great and made it sound like I already got in. When I didn’t get in, I called Berklee and I wanted to talk to that guy to find out what I did wrong. The looked through my tape and found out that the whole email (rejection) was a mistake. If I didn’t call them, I would have just slipped through the cracks. I had to wait another year to get in but I still have that rejection email!
GD: While you were in Boston, you got the attention of Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band, what was it like working and touring with him?
SN: Great! It was so much fun. He’s such a humble man and kind person and a beast of a harp player! We have so much in common. I was introduced to him by my manager and he came in with this suitcase or briefcase and he opened it and it was all laid out with all of these harps all lined up and shining. It was so cool. We ended up talking for four hours and connected on so many things. I asked him if he could play “Whammer Jammer” and he did. Then I jumped in because I wanted to leave an impression. I started re-harmonizing the melody and he looked at me with his eyebrow raised. I didn’t know if he liked it but it definitely got his attention.
Touring with him was great and it was so much fun! I love that format of guitar and harmonica. We can take things to another level. I love being around him, it’s real fun.
GD: You are on tour opening for the legendary E Street Band bassist, Garry Tallent this spring. How did that come about?
SN: I think my agent set that up.
GD: What can fans expect from this show? Are you going to be playing with Garry at all?
SN: I think I’m just going to be opening but we haven’t gone over the details yet. But I’m up for anything and I’m going to prepare my set.
GD: Shun, I look forward to seeing you at the end of April when you play The Kent Stage. I wish you nothing but success!
SN: Thank you so much! I loved answering your questions.
Check out guitarist Shun Ng and the legendary E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent at The Kent Stage on Friday April 28th. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 the day of the show.
Tickets are available at The Kent Stage Box Office or www.thekentstage.com