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Looking back at the Shun Ng’s (pronounced Shoon Ing’s) formative years in Singapore, no one could have predicted he’d grow up to become the almost virtuoso guitarist he is today. Ng didn’t come from a very musical family, he struggled with classes and dyslexia from very early on and his gymnastic talent became evident long before his musical talent did (he was competing nationally by age ten). Then one day someone brought a guitar to his gymnastics team’s gym, and he’s been mesmerized by the instrument ever since.
“It was just cool,” explained Ng when he stopped by the WERS studios, “I saw someone playing it and…I wanted to learn it. It was more like the deeper I got into it the more I loved it… once things could be musical I felt like I could finally understand the world.” The guitar inspired Ng so much that he’s spent nearly everyday since then perfecting his acoustic fingerstyle guitar playing as much as he possibly could. His devotion to the guitar even earned him an Associates Degree in Music & Audio Technology at Singapore Polytechnic, a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music, and the admiration of many renowned Blues and Jazz musicians including Quincy Jones. When listeners spend even a single minute listening to the kind of performance Ng gave at the WERS studios, it’s very easy to hear why.
Shun Ng began his set with “Slam” off his debut album, Funky Thumb Stuff. Rather than using a pick that would only allow him to strum one string at a time, Ng uses all of his fingers and the entire stretch of his arm to accomplish the kinds of riffs that would make guitarists twice his age jealous. He runs the gamut of timbres from soft plucking and slow delta blues to powerful and hard-hitting strums and chords that span across all six strings, although the strings aren’t the only thing he plays with. Ng also pounds the body of the guitar to provide bass rhythms to the song. Plus his vocals help carry the track and give it direction. The entire display pushes the limits of a guitar’s versatility and embodies the intense level of respect Ng has for the instrument.
In fact, Shun Ng’s performance of “Slam” was so impressive it may leave listeners wondering how the 23-year-old could possibly take his guitar playing any further. Yet even Ng himself feels he has plenty more to learn. Ng responded to this inquiry by saying, “in my music and my guitar playing, I’m always learning.” “I’m still trying to tame this beast,” he says as he slides his hand down the neck of his guitar. “I work at it every day and it’s like I’m pursuing perfection. But achieving perfection is impossible, you know? I think the pursuit of perfection is where excellence is birthed… that’s the journey and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Ng then ends his On the Verge performance with a cover of a song from a famed figure who might have related to Ng’s strong work ethic and perfectionist level of dedication: “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. It’s a very unlikely song choice for an acoustic guitar player, as the original features so many different elements (i.e. synths, drum machines, violins, etc.) that the challenge of recreating the song note for note on a single instrument would seem daunting even to the most experienced musicians. It was actually a challenge Ng first met while he was still attending Singapore Polytechnic, and one that helped him realize how far he could push the limits of acoustic guitar playing. All five of his fingers were plucking and pounding at his guitar with perfect timing, hitting so many notes at once that you’d be forgiven if you heard the performance and thought multiple other players had suddenly joined in. Ng’s vocal delivery also added a blues-spin to the cover and helped turn the legendary MJ track into an original-sounding interpretation.
The “Billie Jean” cover shows how Shun Ng is able to pay tribute to the musicians who came before him. Like Isaac Newton, Shun Ng is proud of the giants he stands on the shoulders of, and has used his respect for both them and the guitar to build the innovative foundations of what has already shaped up to be a promising musical career.