The gayageum, a fifth-century Korean zither, probably wasn’t conceived to play high-voltage rock and roll. But in the hands of Seoul-based Luna Lee, the instrument is as lethal as a cranked-up Gibson Les Paul guitar.
Lee has built up a sizable following on YouTube and Facebook for her cover versions of tracks like Metallica’s Enter Sandman and Prince’s Purple Rain. Not only does she nail the fiddly guitar riffs and solos note-for-note, she infuses them with a passion which signifies a true love of the music.
So how on earth did she get the idea to play classic rock numbers on a gayageum? “I listened to many genres of music when I was young, and it became a hobby to play the music that I liked on the gayageum,” she says.
“I noticed that guitar music sounded really good when I played it, so I studied guitar playing so I could apply some of the techniques to my gayageum. While I was doing this, I fell completely in love with rock music.”
Classic rock guitar styles – like those of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Angus Young of AC/DC – translate especially well, she says. “Classic rock guitar suits the gayageum. I covered a lot of songs and I realized that in each different decade, the guitar styles were different. Rock from the 1960s and 1970s suits the gayageum best. But I find the music from the 1980s and 1990s beautiful, so I cover tracks from those decades as well.”
Purple Rain Courtesy of Lunaxmusic
A big David Bowie fan, Lee recorded a version of Space Oddity as a tribute when the singer died last year. She also recorded a stirring version of Prince’s Purple Rain to honor him when he passed away.
“Purple Rain is my favorite Prince tune,” she says. “It’s really beautiful. I wanted to say goodbye to him in the first verse, so I arranged the music to reflect that feeling. Then I imagined that the sound of my gayageum is the sound of Prince’s voice, for the chorus. I was very sad when I recorded this tune. Even now, I feel sad when I hear it.”
Space Oddity Courtesy of Lunaxmusic
Lee says that she works out the arrangements by ear – she doesn’t use sheet music. She mainly focuses on learning the guitar riffs and solos. “First I listen to the track a lot of times,” she explains, “and that gives me some ideas about how to arrange it for the gayageum.
“I think about how I can say something original with it, too. Then I write down the chords and practice the melody. I think listening and playing are the best ways to get to the essence of the music. Sheet music disturbs the process.”
Enter Sandman Courtesy of Lunaxmusic
Lee says she has adapted the way she plays the gayageum so she can better play rock music – she uses her left hand to bend the notes like a blues guitar player, for instance. Lee also uses effects pedals on the instrument – something that its 5th century creators could not possibly have envisaged.
“I’ve studied how rock guitar players get their guitars to sound the way they do,” she says. “I use delay pedals, chorus effects, phasers – whatever suits the song. But all the effects are made for the guitar.
“Sadly, there are no effects pedals made specifically for the gayageum. I hope that someone will make gayageum effects pedals and a nice electric gayageum someday.”
Although Lee has become known mainly through streaming sites like YouTube, she also plays live concerts with a backing band. Lee also writes her own original songs. The kind of music she writes should come as no surprise.
“It’s rock music, and it probably will be for a long time,” she says.