The Beat: Interview With Guitar Virtuoso Matt Wong
In this inaugural edition of The Beat, a series of interviews with musicians, I speak with Matt Wong, a 17-year-old virtuoso guitar player and teacher from New Jersey.
To get a sense of his character and musical tastes, I asked Matt to open his digital music library, shuffle the tunes, and tell me the first three songs that appear. The results: “Jean Pierre” by Miles Davis, “What You Want,” from the musical Legally Blonde, and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
And on that note...
LAURA SCHERIAU: When did you start playing the guitar?
MATT WONG: I started playing guitar when I was six-years-old. My fascination with the guitar came from watching TV as a kid, and, curious as I was, I begged my parents for guitar lessons. I started out studying classical guitar, and began studying Jazz when I was 11. Around the same time, I saw Australian guitar player Tommy Emmanuel on YouTube playing a tune called "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams. I was so intrigued by the way he was playing contemporary songs on one guitar with fingerstyle technique, which is the guitar playing method I used to write my first two albums. Basically, it means that I play all the parts of a band (the melody, bass, rhythm guitar, and a little bit of percussion) all on one instrument. Playing solo is the most exposed performance setting, but it's a ton of fun to play, and you really connect with your audience, since you're the only one there!
I've been focused on this fingerstyle thing in terms of writing, recording, and performing for the past four years. My current project, however, is more of a contemporary jazz thing, where I'm playing electric guitar with my own band.
How many hours do you practice a day?
It depends. Since I'm still in high school, I don't have as much time as I do on the weekends to practice. I'd say on average I practice around three-to-four hours each day, although sometimes more when I'm working on something new.
Did you get cramps in the beginning? And bleeding fingers?
It was definitely tough to play when I got started. I don't remember any bleeding fingers though.
How much time are you dedicating to music, and what is it that defines your music?
This is a tough question to answer because I feel like I'm always doing something musical. I'm always gigging (not so much right now, since I'm putting together my new band), playing with other musicians, listening to all kinds of music, writing, and playing in other ensembles. Music is a language to me. It's a different way to express myself. Instead of telling someone a story, I can do it through my guitar. Also, I'm not much of a singer, so the way I tell a story musically is much different from the way vocalists do it, since I don't usually write lyrics.
I tell people that I'm primarily a jazz musician. However, I listen to all kinds of music, and I've had experience playing classical music, rock, and even a little bit of funk. All of that gets mixed into my style.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the near future?
Up until now, I've been a solo acoustic guitar performer. I've released two CDs of music written and arranged in this jazzy style, and I've been performing all over the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania areas. Most of my day is spent at school, obviously, but after school I have activities, such as jazz band and pit orchestra. I also maintain a private teaching studio and give guitar lessons there or via Skype.
Recently, I've started my own band, and I've been writing for a more contemporary jazz kind of sound. Right now we have one gig scheduled in April in Princeton, New Jersey, and I hope we can continue growing as a band.
I also attended the Five-Week Summer Performance Program at Berklee College of Music in Boston this past summer and was awarded a scholarship to attend full time next fall.
What is the biggest crowd you’ve played for?
I don't know the exact number of people in the audience, but the biggest crowd I've ever played for was at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. It was in August 2013 and I sat in with GRAMMY Award winning guitarist Earl Klugh, who was celebrating the release of his latest record Handpicked. Earl contacted me a couple weeks before the show to see if I was interested in playing. I was totally honored that Earl asked me to play with him. We played “Blue Moon” [one of the tunes on the Handpicked album], and then he had me play “Classical Gas” by myself.
Do you prefer to play for yourself, alone, or on a stage with a crowd watching/listening?
I love performing for people! The energy of an audience really motivates me. However, I am always playing for myself, regardless if I'm at a gig or I'm practicing in my bedroom. I think it's important for musicians to remember to play for themselves and enjoy their own art.
How much of your success do you think is achieved through social media?
I think social media is a great way to connect with current fans and find new fans. YouTube is probably the best way to get your music listened to, in my opinion. As a teenager, I'm on social media a lot (too much if you ask my parents…) and I've gotten a chance to communicate with some of my favorite players on Facebook and Twitter. However, I feel nothing beats performing a live gig and then meeting with your fans afterwards. Before and after a gig, I walk around the room, and I try to talk to everyone that came to listen. I think besides the music, a personal connection with an artist is what fans look for.
The bulk of my fan base is in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, since I'm from Jersey and I play in both areas quite a lot. As I said before, I try to meet with everyone who comes to a gig. I also always respond to all Facebook and Twitter posts, and emails from my list subscribers.
Who is your favorite artist and who else are you influenced by?
My favorite artist is Tommy Emmanuel. Although I'm not playing too much fingerstyle right now, I still love his music, and I'll probably always be listening to him.
I'm listening to a lot of great players right now. My main influence is the amazing Mike Stern. I was so fortunate to be able to get a lesson from Mike last month. He's such a great player, teacher, and person. I also listen to guys like Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, Michael Brecker, and Joe Pass.
What is your favorite song of all time?
The Beatles were the first band I ever listened to when I was little and my favorite song of all time is “Yesterday.”