The musical traditions of Korea have been balanced with Western-influenced pop music by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Kim Soo-chul. While his greatest commercial success has come with his hard-edged dance music, Soo-chul has continued to explore his musical roots. A master of the piri (Korean flute), changgo (hourglass-shaped drum), and ajaeng (eight stringed wooden zither), Soo-chul has collected nearly two-million dollars worth of traditional Korean instruments since the early '90s. While his best-known compositions have sparked comparisons to Pink Floyd and the Who, Soo-chul has increasingly written pieces for Western instruments, including synthesizers and electric guitars, and traditional Korean instruments, including taegum (transverse flute), kayagum (12-stringed zither), and taepyongso (metal-belled oboe). In a 1998 interview with the Korean Herald, Soo-chul said, "(My goal is) to bring traditional Korean instrumental music closer to everyday life and to the world's pop music scene."
Learning to play his brother's acoustic guitar as a junior high school student, Soo-chul soon switched to an electric model. Practicing ten hours a day, he soon mastered the instrument. Performing with the trio Fire Fox while in high school, he formed a band, Guitar & the Song, during his freshman year at Kwangwoon University in 1977.
Soo-chul's first break came the following year when he joined with fellow students Kim Keung-Sung (keyboards), Jang Won-mo (bass), and Choir Soo-ill (drums) to form the quartet Little Big Man. Attracting attention with their high-energy fusion of rock, jazz, folk, and soul music, the group's self-titled debut album yielded a hit single with "Seven Colored Rainbow." A follow-up album, II, was released in 1981.
While working on the soundtrack for the film The Mask during his senior year, Soo-chul became interested in traditional Korean music. Although he convinced professor Park Bumhoon to teach him to play traditional instruments, he continued to focus on Western-influenced hard rock. When Little Big Man disbanded following their graduation, Soo-chul continued to perform as a soloist. His debut solo album, Little Giant, released in August 1983, included the chart-topping hits "The One Flower That Could Not Bloom" and "I Will Not Fall in Love Again."
Although he honored his father's deathbed request that he continue his education and enrolled in business courses at Kon-Kuk University, Soo-chul's main focus remained on his music. In 1984, the Korean Broadcasting System named him Best Singer of the Year. For the next few years, he alternated between solo rock albums and film soundtracks.
In 1987, Soo-chul composed the traditional dance piece "The World of Spirits." Performed by dance troupe Kim Kun Hee, the piece won the grand prize at the ninth annual Korean Dance Festival and inspired him to record his first album of traditional music. The album was a major flop, however, and Soo-chul 's label Seoul Records pulled it from distribution after it failed to sell more than 200 copies. While he recorded several additional traditional albums, none have come close to the success of Soo-chul more commercial albums.
Soo-chul has yet to be deterred from his interests in traditional Korean music. During 1990, he toured with a stage show, Guitar Sanjo, that combined his electric guitar playing with a traditional group.