Justin Liew is a teaching and performing guitarist. He started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old and was being exposed to different music genres. Despite being self-taught, he has a firm grasp on both music theory and guitar technique. Justin plays jazz, rock, classical and fingerstyle guitar and ultimately blends these different styles to form his unique sound.
(and very long, first person view below)
I’m Justin Liew and I’m from Malaysia. I started playing the guitar when I was 12. I remember back then I really didn’t want to learn any more musical instruments after I stopped piano when I was 9. My older brothers loved rock guitar music but I didn’t find the music attractive at all. They were listening to Metallica, Megadeth, Dream Theater, Steve Vai etc. All the stuff with lots of electric guitars going on. One day, I suddenly had the urge to listen to Megadeth so I asked my brother to play the ‘Capitol Punishment’ album (back then we were using cassettes). The album started with ‘Kill The King’ and I was hooked. I thought, ‘I need to start shredding!’ That wasn’t my first time listening to the album but it was at that time I was very impressed! It was a magical feeling. From that day onwards, I would pick up the classical guitar at home (it’s my mom’s which she bought many many years ago to learn but…) and started chugging all the riffs (occasionally ‘shredding’ on my brothers’ electric guitar). Megadeth’s music was (and still is!) challenging to play and it was super fun! I tried to play all their songs note to note and that was how I worked on my chops. Marty Friedman and Al Pitrelli are my favorite guitarists who played for Megadeth. I love how melodic they played their solos and they are big influences in my playing.
Over the years I worked on my technique and listened to more variety of music by different artists like Joe Satriani, Symphony X, Angra and so on. I bought a Joe Satriani song book and learned a lot of new stuff from there like legato playing and melodic phrasing. Angra was another big discovery. I think I was around 16 then. Angra’s music was very different from most other metal music I was listening to. Angra’s guitarist, Kiko Loureiro had his first solo album released around that time and I was amazed how he incorporated different styles together to form a whole new sound! I also noticed how he has a lot of steady 16th note runs in his solos which got me thinking of jazz. It was then I discovered this thing called fusion.
All that jazz
Fusion to me, means having multiple music styles blended together. One essential voice in fusion is jazz. I thought, ‘If I want to play fusion, I NEED to know jazz!’ So I bought a few jazz lesson books and started practicing and making sense of them. I was already in university then. I joined the university’s jazz club and played with many like-minded people. I was introduced to many more awesome musicians and learned many new things in the process. Jazz is wonderful. It is free and has so much to discover. Me being a relatively newcomer in jazz get excited everytime I play because the possibility is endless! By using and abusing jazz theory, there are so many sounds waiting to be made it’s crazy! Then there came Hiromi Uehara, Brett Garsed, Allan Holdsworth etc. 2 names I would like to mention here are Shawn Lane and Guthrie Govan. I rediscovered Shawn Lane when I was in my first year of university. I used to know that he was a very fast player and that was all I know. I had the urge to search him up one day and I was greeted with some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. ‘Gray Pianos Flying’ was the first song I heard. I was very moved by his music and started learning his music. His technique was some of the best and I tried (struggled) to learn some of it and of course, I still played as bad as I was before! As for Guthrie Govan, I stumbled upon a video of him playing with Ron Thal and I thought this guy must be crazy! Looked up for more of his videos and boy, he has some of the best improvising skills out there. He got me wondering how to do those kind of phrasing and of course, it all led to jazz. His first solo album, ‘Erotic Cakes’ is and enormous album. Everytime I listen to it I get to hear new things I want to steal. Guthrie Govan is just that good!
Girls and peace
When I was in university struggling, I got addicted to music that I thought I would never be attracted to – Girls’ Generation. It was my 2nd year in university and I was a little bit depressed back then because I thought I was smart yet didn’t get good enough grades. I was introduced to Girls’ Generation. I listened to their super hit song, ‘Gee’. I wasn’t impressed at first but the 2nd time I listened, it changed my life. I became a fan. Sure they are pretty ladies but I am much more concerned of their music. Some of the unpredictable chord changes in many of their songs just catch me all the time! And that, reminds me of jazz. I like their music so much I started collecting their albums. Everytime they had a new song released, I would expect to be surprised but at the same time was scared to be disappointed because it’s after all, pop where there are many bad compositions floating around. That’s not the case for Girls’ Generation. Most songs (I’ve got to admit some of their songs don’t impress me that much!) had surprised me. I would listen to their songs and go, ‘Come on I know you will have this chord up next!’ and boom! I was wrong. It is such small things that make a big difference in my way of listening to music. I don’t know what they are singing most of the time because I don’t know Korean. It’s really the sound that matters to me.
As I started teaching in a music school, I was exposed to classical guitar. Seeing my colleagues ripping their guitars with technique I could only wish for was another eye-opening experience for me. Sor, Tarrega, Barrios etc. became names I look up for. And then came acoustic fingerstyle as I got to witness many talented contestants for the Sungha Jung guitar competition. I tried doing it and eventually got to arrange many songs on the spot without rehearsing beforehand.
Fragrance from Japan
I thought, since I know quite some Kpop already I need to listen to some Jpop as well. I would need to follow a group and there came Perfume. I knew of Perfume from a Marty Friedman interview some years ago but didn’t follow up until now. Looked up for their Youtube channel, opened their playlist and I was hooked. It has a totally different vibe compared from what I was used to listening. It’s no wonder Perfume is said to be one of the groups that shaped Jpop in a whole in recent years! And the harmonies going on in many of their songs are really something.
Journey to the shred
I could’ve written a lot more now but those would be small details. Up until now, I think I can say that during my young metal days, I had most of my technique developed. Exposure to fusion and jazz was like setting a new musical base for me. As for Girls’ Generation and Perfume, it shows me how applying some advanced musical knowledge in a pop setting can change many things for good (and still have lots of people listening to it!). Then of course there’s classical and fingerstyle as well which exposed me to solo guitar arranging. I’m still looking for my own voice, composing and playing with musicians far better than me. It is a never-ending journey but isn’t that the fun part?