The guitar is simply one of the most important instruments in the last one hundred or so years of musical history. It may still carry strong associations with rock n’ roll in particular, but the guitar is an impressively versatile instrument that can be integrated into just about any musical genre in the world.
A guitarist doesn’t need to be highly skilled to find success, but a highly skilled guitarist has the potential to reach a level of success that few ever experience. Our interview guest for today has realized this potential.
Bingfan Ji, who performs as Jason Ji, grew up in Australia, where he received classical guitar lessons, but even then he was eager and ready to push his own boundaries.
Ji is considered an expert player, but even for him, the process of exploring and sharing music with others never really ends.
During the course of his high-caliber career, Ji has performed on television (China’s Got Talent), for invite-only shows (Sofar Sounds, Concert for One), and in some impressive venues (Agganis Arena, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Perth Concert Hall). He also played as the lead guitarist for a film score and was the only soloist at 2019 Guitar Night: Pop and Rock.
We were lucky enough to interview Ji, and we used the opportunity to ask about his influences, the early days of playing, and what he’s working on at the moment.
Thank you for joining us. Let’s start at the very beginning. Do you remember precisely when you started playing the guitar? Were you receiving lessons from the start?
I started playing guitar around the age of 11. I started by taking private lessons from Christine Yeong. Although we played classical guitar, she pushed me to expand my repertoire and stylistic variety. I then enrolled in John Forrest Secondary College’s music program and started studying classical guitar in school, but I continued to seek out and practice other styles of guitar online.
I then transferred to Rossmoyne Senior High School for their classical music program and proceeded on as a scholarship recipient at Berklee College of Music, where I studied a range of contemporary styles and learned to be a holistic musician.
What were some of your first public performances like?
One of my first solo public performances was during a tour of Italy where I performed across five cities. I remember the first gig we did, it was outdoors, and I was supposed to play a Tommy Emmanuel arrangement of “Classical Gas.” However, the drummer could not find his cymbal at all. The music director told me to perform solo without the orchestra so the audience wouldn’t be waiting.
I’m glad that I had an extensive solo repertoire memorized back then, and I quickly whipped out a couple of pieces. The audience absolutely loved it! From then on, for every performance we did in Italy, I would be the opener, starting the performance off with a couple of fingerstyle solo pieces. Looking back, I’m definitely glad I was prepared for such an opportunity.
Do you prefer playing solo? Is there more room for experimentation when playing solo?
I definitely enjoy them both! I try to separate playing solo and playing with a band as two different mindsets. For a solo, I would have to do the melody, the rhythm section, and add bells and whistles to make it into a full fingerstyle arrangement worth listening to on one single instrument.
When playing with a band, the guitar is only one part of the bigger picture, so it’s about blending in the fabric of sound and supplying what the band needs, and it’s usually not as crazy and technically demanding as a fingerstyle arrangement.
However, one thing I like about playing with a band is not having to worry about incorporating the other aspects of the band. So playing single-line solo stuff with all the backing can be incredibly fun.
You were chosen to perform for China’s Got Talent, how did you respond to your results?
I was very pleased to receive four yes votes from the judges. It was a significant competition because of the caliber of the judges, which included the director of the Chinese Musicians Association, the executive director of the China Pop Music Association, and a judge who was ranked 6th by Forbes China’s Celebrity 100 list.
I was the only person selected from the Queen’s Theatre audition in New York and was sent to China for the televised national competition. The music director of the show wanted me to showcase some singing as well, where I played parts of the percussive fingerstyle piece “Fight!” then I started to clip off all of the strings one by one until only the low E string remained, and I accompanied myself singing an original tune onstage with the one-string guitar.
I was very glad the judges enjoyed this performance with a creative flair, and it was broadcast on one of the largest provincial TV stations in China, Dragon TV, which is broadcast to millions of households. The judges even said I just might be the treasure that they were looking for. I’m glad to have had the experience.
Do you consciously incorporate your influences, or is this something that happens automatically?
Influences definitely come out automatically nowadays, alongside my own style of percussive playing. From Tommy Emmanuel to Chet Atkins to Kotaro Oshio to Emil Ernebro, they have made me who I am today, and although I definitely try to come up with the best arrangements with my own style, there are some influences that you cannot shake.
The fingerstyle genre began with ragtime and blues guitar folks like Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed mastered the “boom-chick” style that I still adore and take influence from. I think it’s important to pay homage to those who inspired you, but also important to never stop the pursuit of your own sound.
How did it feel to receive an endorsement from Godin & Seagull Guitars?
I was extremely happy. Godin Guitars, the parent company that was founded 50 years ago, has grown to be one of the largest and most dynamic guitar manufacturers in North America. I picked up Seagull guitars by Godin when I was in Australia, and my first impression was how comfortable it is to play these instruments, from the action to how the neck feels. I was quite excited about their endorsement for me to be an ambassador for the guitar, and they sent me their Artist Mosaic Bourbon Burst model for a special artist price.
The guitar played like a dream, and the LR Baggs Anthem pickup installed inside made it sound incredible live. The guitar arrived a couple of days before a major performance at the Agganis Arena, which was significant because the arena has a capacity of 7,200, and has hosted world-class acts such as Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan, Disney On Ice, and was sponsored by major corporations such as Xfinity, Pepsi, and Geico. I received countless compliments on how the guitar sounded over the months I played it.
Before we let you go, are there any projects you’re working on currently that you can tell us about?
Currently, I am working on a five-song EP with four vocal tunes and one instrumental fingerstyle tune, and I’m very excited to put them out. Other than music creation, I have to continue preparing for my recurring and upcoming gigs such as Tuscan Kitchen, gigs with Cover Story Entertainment, Speechless Music, and at the Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.
I will be performing at Fenway Park again, this time in one of their ballrooms with Emi Mcswain, the Music Director for the Fenway Park performance, and I also look forward to continuing my performances with Sofar Sounds over the coming months. Lastly, I’m hugely excited to perform at Soulfest this August as the guitarist for the band Renee & the Renegades, which when we’ll have 5,000 to 10,000 sets of ears listening.