The guitar has been subject to all kinds of innovative playing. Before Jimi Hendrix, blues legends T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim played with their teeth. Taking it a step further, rock star Steve Vai played with his tongue. Throwing all rules out the window (sometimes literally), all-around axe magician Buddy Guy played while chucking and catching his guitar. Anvil’s Steve “Lips” Kudlow played with a dildo.
But have you ever seen someone play “Walk This Way” in an extreme frontbend?
What about “Killing in the Name” with their legs behind their head?
Meet Sapphire Ng, subject of the above videos, as well as the brains and bendable brawn behind a creative new sort of playing she calls Contortion Guitar. We recently discussed what Contortion Guitar is all about, why playing with your foot on your head is “a million times harder” and what such flexible shredding means for the future of performing.
Contortion and guitar is a surprising mix. Where’d that combination come from?
I first became interested in guitar and picked it up around age 15, my primary motivator being the need to rehabilitate from a crippling lower back overstretch injury. I participated in Chinese dance as a co-curricular activity in high school, and we unfortunately lacked adequate teacher supervision for our stretching. I made incorrect stretching movements that resulted in a nasty lower back injury that quickly worsened from bad to debilitating, as I ignored the injury and continued to participate in extremely demanding and strenuous rehearsals and performance. I was eventually forced to concede to the severity of the injury. I was unable to walk or stand from sitting, or vice versa, and I suffered the sharpest pain from the most infinitesimal movements of my torso. I needed a new sedentary pastime, so I chose music and the guitar, and dedicated all of myself to mastering it.
How’d you end up bringing the two together?
After around a decade passed since my debilitating lower back injury, I finally mustered up the courage to refocus on flexibility training. I was adamant on discovering, given proper dedicated training, the potential heights to which I can attain with my flexibility. I’ve since embarked upon the most fulfilling journey of self-discovery.
And all that bending while playing the guitar?
It all started from a joke! I was consistently posting content on social media relating to my guitar and contortion practice. I will always remember the fateful day where I posted a picture of me achieving a new milestone in contortion bridge backbending, and a musician friend commented jokingly, asking if I could play guitar in that position.
I took him seriously. I brainstormed the simplest flexibility pose I could play guitar in — the front oversplits — and I created my first ever Contortion Guitar video. By then, I couldn’t stop at a single video: My mind furiously churned with new poses to perform guitar in. Each video led to the next. My appetite was whet.
How do you choose which poses to play in?
It’s all a matter of trial and error, and experimentation. Most of the time I just go for it and wish for the best.
I consider factors, such as the complexity and duration of the solo or riff, the difficulty and type of pose and any particular requirements of the pose due to, for example, possible obstruction of the left hand in playing the higher frets, or of the right hand in playing at the pickup section of the guitar.
Upside-down poses are the hardest, and almost impossible, to play in. My right hand is always forced to pick the strings along the guitar neck, and that makes it exceptionally difficult to play more complex guitar lines.
Each pose must be pretty hard to play in, though, right?
Hands down, it’s a million times harder to perform Contortion Guitar than to just play guitar conventionally. Solos and riffs that I could play effortlessly and even mindlessly on autopilot in regular standing or sitting positions suddenly require active focus and concentration when played Contortion Guitar style. Contortion Guitar is the most difficult discipline I’ve ever embarked upon in my life.
What’s been the general reaction to Contortion Guitar from your virtual crowds?
Followers on my social platforms have been unbelievably supportive and encouraging toward this new art form I’ve pioneered. On the other hand, negativity and vitriolic hate almost always prevails when my videos go viral or get shared, be it on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube. One of the most common responses to Contortion Guitar since the beginning is, “Why?” It amuses me to no end that others have since replied to these questions of “why” with “why not” and “because she can.”
So, what’s next for Contortion Guitar?
I think we can consider two potentialities: Fun-loving and unselfconscious guitarists mimicking for the purposes of comedy, with the self-knowledge and awareness that they don’t possess a background in contortion or any related discipline that facilitates flexibility training; and guitarists earnestly attempting Contortion Guitar, where they themselves are serious practitioners of contortion or any related discipline.
I’ve since come across videos of the first typology, be it created by my followers or by YouTube music commentators. Contortion might be unmistakably and correctly understood as being a challenging and formidable discipline. Flexibility is very difficult to achieve. For guitarists attempting Contortion Guitar, it’s almost necessary for them to be a rigorous practitioner of contortion or any other discipline, be it martial arts, acrobatics, dance or even yoga, such that flexibility training would’ve been a norm subsumed in their lifestyle and routine. This would perhaps necessitate also the unification of one’s passions in both music performance and that of physical sport.
That aside, in my mission to continue building the Contortion Guitar brand, in the future, I’d love to brainstorm strategies to encourage guitarists or any instrumentalists to try Contortion Guitar, even if just for the sake of merriment, fun and laughter.