A pioneer from a place where guitars were banned

By Paul Rigg

One of the world’s top classical guitarists, Xuefei Yang (Beijing, 15 March 1977) was the first guitarist in China to enter a music school, the first Chinese guitarist to study in the UK, and the first internationally recognised Chinese guitarist on the global stage.  

Lauded as a prodigious talent by Joaquín Rodrigo and John Williams, she has since played in over 50 countries and with many of the world’s leading orchestras.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution pop songs were prohibited and replaced by chants like “Ode to the Motherland”.  As the country has no established guitar repertoire of its own, Xuefei Yang has had to largely invent it herself by re-arranging traditional Chinese pieces and adapting new compositions.

All this makes her an extraordinary pioneer in the history of guitar music.  

Guitars Exchange
catches up with her one cold February morning in London…

GE: Hi Xuefei, what are you up to today in London?

XY: I am preparing for my next tour in the US and Canada, which will pass through cities like Toronto, Seattle and Portland. I have been rehearsing at home; in general I practise four hours each day. When I was younger I might practise all day or not at all, but now I try to stabilise the amount of hours per day. We all get older and I have to be careful not to get injured. Also I like to learn new repertoire, so I find four hours is ideal.  

GE: Going back to your childhood, I read that your mother initially wanted you to learn an instrument to “calm you down” – did it work?

XY: (laughs) Yes, maybe, it might have played a part. But we have a saying in China, which is: ‘you are what you are’, and in my case I am a bubbly and lively person, and that is how I have always been.  

GE: More seriously, during the Chinese cultural revolution nobody was allowed to learn any ‘western instruments’, like guitar, – what was it like growing up in that context?

XY: I was born after that period but, yes, it was horrible. At that time you couldn’t even go to college, and western music could not be played.  You would be in trouble if you tried to play guitar; the few who did so had to hide their instrument at home and not let people know.  They would think you were mad and they might come and hit you. The first instruments revived after 1976 were the piano and the violin, but not the guitar as it didn’t have any tradition in China.

GE: What made you choose to start playing guitar at seven?

XY: Actually I always say that the guitar chose me. My parents wanted me to play accordion or piano, because those were the popular instruments at that time. I didn’t even know what a guitar was.  

GE: What make of guitar was your first?

XY: It was a children’s guitar, factory made. It cost three US dollars. Nowadays I look at it, and it is like a toy!  

GE: What was your next guitar?

XY: When I was 10 I went to a guitar factory in China and I got a Spanish guitar. Then later I got the Kohno guitar made of cedar and jacaranda from the luthier Masaru Kohno, when I went to Japan. He saw I could play it, and so he gave me one. It was quite an honour; it was my first foreign-made guitar.  

GE: What were the biggest barriers you faced to progress?

XY: The biggest challenge was the environment in China at the time because nobody knew about classical guitar. There were no acoustic or electric guitars. It wasn’t seen as a serious instrument. The barriers had nothing to do with me being a woman, it was more the environment. For example, I didn’t have many opportunities to perform. I didn’t really think about it as a kid but when I got to 16, 17, 18, I started to feel very confused. At that time it was hard to find material. In China if you were good and you wanted to play in an orchestra they would allocate you a job, but what could they do for me? That was a difficult time.  

GE: Do you recall a particular moment of self-doubt?

XY: Yes, at 17 or 18. I was thinking about my future. In the Conservatoire there were great pianists and string quartets playing together - but I was on my own. So I thought my future would be limited. My teachers wanted me to go abroad but I wasn’t sure. So, yes, all of this…  

GE: If you could pick three highlights from your career which would you choose?

XY: Firstly, when, at 14, I met the composer Joaquín Rodrigo. That was quite a moment as it was my first concert in Madrid. He was 92 at that time. My teacher knew he was going to be in the audience, but she didn’t want to tell me so as to not make me more nervous. But later I met him and shook hands with him. I remember that his hands were very soft. It was a special moment; I was very honoured.  

Then later, in 1995, I met John Williams. When I first started learning, he was always my hero. I had a lot of doubt at that time but he encouraged me. He was so impressed that he loaned two of his own Greg Smallman guitars to my Conservatoire.

The third highlight might be in 2003. I was a graduate and being signed by the big London agency Askonas Holt was a breakthrough moment that started my professional career.

GE: What guitar do you play now and what do you most like about it?

XY: I play Greg Smallman guitars from Australia. My first encounter with that guitar was through John Williams. I am a performer and I play big venues, and this guitar has extra body and resonance, it is really, really, beautiful. The tone is very important of course, but the guitar needs to have a big sound. I would add that you need a big sound when you perform live, but not for recording. The tone is more important than volume for recording. On all my recordings looking back I have used more than one guitar - I choose instruments whose sound fits with a particular repertoire - but in my live performances I usually use my Greg Smallman guitar.  The Smallman doesn’t have a traditional sound, but in my opinion it’s more suited to the modern need of playing in larger venues, and performing with orchestral instruments. 

GE: Do you use any specific gear?

XY: I have my own amp (AER) but it is quite heavy and it is not practical to travel overseas with it. 

GE: What advice would you give to a guitarist who is starting out today?

XY: I would say that the guitar is a media to express your feelings - so don’t focus too much on the instrument or you are going to lose the meaning of the music in the process. Keep the big picture in mind.  

GE: You said once that you were ‘shocked by the possibilities of the guitar in modern music’ – what did you mean by that?

XY: I think perhaps ‘stunned’ is a better word. The guitar has so many possibilities. You just have to think about the amount and the variety of music it can make. It is so portable. Sometimes I listen to other players and I think ‘wow! I have never made that sound before; perhaps I can do it on my instrument’. So that’s what I mean.

GE: Who are your favourite contemporary guitarists?

XY: There are many people I admire. I like listening to other genres like flamenco, Paco de Lucía stands out, for example. Some people say you have to be French to play French music or you have to be Spanish to play Spanish style, but I don’t think that’s true. It is all music at the end of the day and if I feel like I want to play it, I do.


GE: What are your plans for the rest of 2018?

XY: I am going to make a record with a violinist, probably in August. It will be a duet, with guitar and violin, and we will record it somewhere in England - but one thing I am sure about is that it won’t be in London as it is too expensive!  

GE: Thank you, Xuefei. Best of luck with your tour! 

(Xuefei Yang Official Website: