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Jung Sung-ha, a 13-year-old fingerstyle guitarist, is preparing to release his debut album and hold performances in Korea and abroad in the next few months.

/ Korea Times File

By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Staff Reporter

At first glance, Jung Sung-ha looks like any ordinary middle school student in jeans and sneakers, on a Saturday afternoon, at a shopping mall in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul.

But when the lanky 13-year-old boy climbed on stage in the middle of the mall, Jung transformed into a guitar prodigy ― his lean fingers flying all over the guitar strings, creating music that captivated the crowd.

``Playing the guitar makes me happy. I can express whatever I'm feeling when I'm playing the guitar,'' a slightly bashful Jung told The Korea Times, after his performance.

Jung is a certified YouTube star _ videos of him playing acoustic versions of songs by U2, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, The Eagles and Extreme have been viewed more than 110 million times.

As proof of his popularity, the precocious fingerstyle guitarist has already performed in Thailand, Germany, Finland and the United States, where he toured five cities with fellow fingerstyle guitarist Trace Bundy.

Last week, Jung performed at a high-profile charity concert, alongside Brian McKnight and Patti LaBelle, at the historic Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. Famous producer David Foster, who has produced songs for Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand, personally invited him to perform at the event, which will be broadcast on national TV.

``This was my first time to meet such big names in the music industry. The whole thing was pretty exciting. It was a huge experience... David Foster gave me some advice: get a good education and a musical education, improve my English and develop my personality so I can express myself more on stage. But he said I was on the right track,'' Jung said.

In early 2006, at nine years old, Jung started playing the guitar, after watching his father play. His talent became apparent when Jung would watch videos online and be able to play the music without the original tabs. He adopted the fingerstyle technique, wherein the guitar strings are plucked directly with the fingertips or picks attached to the fingers.

``I've only been playing for four years. I watched my father play for a long time. ... I mastered the songs one by one,'' Jung said.

His father started uploading videos of his son playing on YouTube, where the number of views skyrocketed, and people were buzzing: Who is this kid?

``It's been really awesome. It's been great being able to communicate with many musicians I've admired, and for me to be admired by so many people,'' Jung said.

Jung, who uses a custom Lakewood guitar (the German acoustic guitar manufacturer has been his sponsor since January 2009), obviously enjoys playing music a lot. He gets advice from his father on what songs to play, which are mostly rock or guitar standards.

Jung still tries to lead the life of a normal boy. During the week, he lives at Cheongshim International Academy, a boarding school in Chungju. He receives private guitar lessons and practices two or three hours a day. On weekends, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally plays some gigs. And like any teenager, Jung can't live without his iPod, and admires Big Bang's G-Dragon.

Next month, he will be releasing his debut album, ``Perfect Blue,'' featuring 14 songs, including two of his own compositions. The album was recorded in Germany with the help of another famous fingerstyle guitarist, Ulli Boegershausen, earlier this year.

Boegershausen was impressed by Jung's talent, after seeing the boy play his composition ``Tango'' on YouTube. Jung cites Boegershausen as a mentor and one of his musical inspirations.

The next few months are shaping up to be busy for Jung. He will be performing at the Asia Society's second anniversary event on April 29, and the Privy Seoul Event, organized by The XStream Productions, in July.

Next month, Jung will share the stage with legendary Latin musician Sergio Mendes on May 15, as part of Latin Jazz Day at the Seoul Jazz Festival.

Asked about his dream, Jung said: ``I want to be a professional guitarist who plays music and tours around the world. I want to meet many musicians and play with them.''

He might only be 13, but he is already getting closer to achieving his dream.
cathy@koreatimes.co.kr