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Making musical instrument with non-traditional wood

  • "If I were to follow the norm and dismiss the use of non-traditional wood to make musical instruments, I would never become a leader and would never be a top guitar maker in the world." Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily
  • Malaysian singer Melody Tan who shot to fame in the Voice of China also learns to make guitars from Jeffrey Yong. Photo courtesy: Sin Chew Daily

PETALING JAYA, Jan 5 (Sin Chew Daily) -- After numerous experiments, 58-year-old Jeffrey Yong shot to fame by using non-traditional wood to make guitars.

Yong has tried different kinds of wood since then, and has hoped to try his hand on the wood of a durian variety Musang King.

Yong is among the few luthiers in the region. He uses local wood such as rain tree, rambutan tree, mango tree, rosewood, cengal and others to make musical instruments.

His craftsmanship has since gained international recognition and he has been invited to exhibit his instruments overseas on several occasions.

When he was young, Yong was well aware that he wouldn't be the top guitarist in the world. As his enthusiasm was on handicraft, he hoped to carve his name as a celebrated luthier one day.

He bought a set of equipment in 1985, and started to make musical instruments with it.

He traveled abroad to further improve his guitar-making skills. However, he was reluctant to remain just another guitar-maker, and had continued to innovate to find his niche.

Why buy overseas?

"One day when I was purchasing wood overseas to make the guitar, the local people asked me why I had to go all the way there to buy wood whereby Malaysia itself was exporting good quality wood."

The conversation inspired him to look into non-traditional wood species for musical instruments.

"If I were to follow the norm and dismiss the use of non-traditional wood to make musical instruments, I would never become a leader and would never be a top guitar-maker in the world."

Yong recalled that when he first started using non-traditional wood for guitar, he was greeted with skepticism.

Nevertheless, so long as the sound produced is good, the manufacturing process and the choice of raw materials would become immaterial.

Yong has managed to prove to the world that there are more ways than one to produce guitars with wonderful sound.

Yong's moment of glory finally came when he won the championship in a contest organized by the Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) in 2006 with an instrument crafted out of the rain tree

"It was like an athlete taking part in the Olympics. I never thought I would stand a chance to win."

He nevertheless laments that despite international recognition of his craftsmanship, he was hardly known among his fellow Malaysians, and only about 1% of his students are Malaysians.

Grooming young talents

Yong doesn't just make guitars but also ukulele, Sape and Sundatang, the traditional instruments from the state of Sarawak. He is also the founder of Guitar Institute Malaysia and is giving lessons as a guitar teacher.

He said parents should not just sign up their children without understanding the prospects of a music career, or simply passing on their interest in music to their offsprings.

"The starting point of learning music is important. Let the children understand music, like music and never let them sit for one exam after another exam. They play without knowing their mistakes. They can play complicated music pieces but they are without souls."

He advised parents intending to uncover the musical talent of their children not to send them to music school on the spur of the moment, as this would kill their interest in music.

"People will just buy a guitar. So long as one can play a song, that will be fine. But they complain that they are unable to make a living with music. They have never explored music in a professional manner."

He said music was a good industry. A music teacher would have good income. The question does not lie with music offering no future but how a person makes use of music to create his or her own career.

Yong revealed that he would be starting classes soon in China in hope of passing down his instrument-making skills to more people.



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