It is a trend that might not yet be a major movement but definitely it is a hobby enjoying a growing popularity in Malaysia: young people take up the acoustic guitar and become fine fingerstyle players, inspired by Tommy Emmanuel, Sungha Jung and other world-renowned artists.
Playing guitar with a technique called fingerstyle is not the usual three chords you would strum and sing to. It is a much more sophisticated way of playing and hence very difficult to master. In short, a fingerstyle guitar player is able to incorporate basslines, chords, rhythms and the melody all at once. These guys don’t need to find other people to form bands, all they need is a guitar and endless hours of practise.
They are the next generation following the example of Malaysia’s renowned finger-style master guitarists such as Az Samad, Hady Afro and Roger Wang. In KL, young artists like Lai Ze Ren and Hoc Weng are already familiar names in the local music scene and beyond. Same is true for Victor Ng and Sheila Julis in Penang.
Especially Penang has become a sort of hub for fingerstyle guitarists. Since 2009, when the first Penang Guitar Festival was held, further concerts, workshops and competitions took place, helping to flourish the scene. Brian Gan is the key person in Penang who puts a lot of effort into developing the fingerstyle guitar culture. “Just because no one else is doing it. If someone else wants to do it, I’d support him”, he says with a smile.
In December 2015, Brian organised the second fingerstyle guitar competition and concert, in collaboration with the Penang state government and several other sponsors. “It is a healthy activity for youth and teenagers to pick up as a hobby and to participate in”, says Brian. “The concert also helps to promote an appreciation for fingerstyle guitar music, playing and performing and lastly, to inspire the new generation of young guitarists to showcase their talent.” During the competition, 6 finalists from each category (category 1 for 17 years old and above, category 2 for younger kids) performed 2 songs each, live in front of the judges and the public. Eventually Lai Ze Ren emerged as the winner for Category 1, while Jarred Dev-Ooi was judged the winner for Category 2. The winners as well as the runner-ups received guitars and equipment sponsored by local music dealers.
Sheila Julis, a versatile guitarist in her own right, was in the audience to encourage the musicians. “I feel that the competition is a good concept to inspire others to keep on playing”, she says, adding “Although the players came to compete I think it also helped them to connect with other guitarists across Malaysia. To me, that’s the most important thing to take home with”.