Learning how to play a guitar well is difficult enough, but being able to make them is a in different league entirely.
In Malaysia, Jeffrey Yong of Jeffrey Yong Guitars is at the top of that league.
Even so, businesses that sell local guitar brands or handmade guitars in particular, are a niche trade; none of which is celebrated much in the local music scene.
A self-taught guitarist and luthier (the name of a person who makes string instruments), Yong made his first guitar from scratch in 1985.
“It was not intended as a business in the beginning. Guitar making is my life’s passion,” said the former guitar instructor and examiner.
His use of Malaysian natural wood as the material for his guitars made starting the business more cost efficient.
Cost aside, the complexity lies in knowing what type of wood to use and how to use it properly.
The business relies heavily on passion.
Yong’s keen interest in local wood led him to a type of tree called blackwood in Malaysia. He is also known for using the wood of the monkeypod (rain tree) and angsana trees for his instruments.
He has also made guitars out of the wood from rambutan and mango trees, which most people consider impractical.
“I use non-traditional wood for my guitars, some are not even listed by the Forestry Department,” Yong says.
His choices in wood are not often though of by others as tonewood (wood with acoustic properties) for making musical instruments.
Yet, he has wontwo blind-listening-test awards, including one from the Guild of American Luthiers Convention, for an acoustic guitar he made with monkeypod wood.
He is also said to be the only luthier who has ever sold a full mango wood guitar, which went for US$10,000 (about RM32,100).
As mango wood guitars gain popularity, other luthiers are starting to follow his lead in the use of unconventional wood.
Today, Yong has sold hundreds of his handmade guitars.
However, the attention he receives for his creations is rarely from within the country.
Yong says that many local guitar players are not ready to embrace the his guitars and that appreciation for locally crafted guitars is very low.
For that reason, Yong does not focus on the local market at all.
“More than 90% of my custom orders come from abroad, mostly from the US and Japan,” stated Yong.
“I channel my products through dealers in Japan and US who sell the best brands,” he said, adding that there is also growing demand for his guitars in Singapore.
The prices for his instruments start from US$6,000.
His most prized creation to date is a harp guitar called the “Old Rugged Cross” priced at US$25,000.
“I know my guitars are not exactly affordable for locals, but one can’t really put a price on art,” Yong says.
He finds that many local musicians have no trouble paying for guitars from famous foreign brands, even though the prices and quality are similar to his instruments.
“Essentially, people should be serious about what they want in a guitar they play — quality,” professed Yong.
“This is why I only reserve my craft for people who can really cherish the art, sound and workmanship of a quality guitar.”
Yong’s commitment to the quality of his instruments has resulted in another revenue stream for his business as people from around the world beseech him for guitar-making lessons.
His students pay US$3,000 for a two-week course and leave as a novice luthier with their very own handmade guitar.
Nevertheless, teaching only makes up a small part of what he does.
Yong continues to work on bringing more attention to his craft by actively participating in guitar festivals. He is, in fact, the organiser of the Malaysian International Guitar Festival that will take place from Sept 26 to Sept 28.
Elsewhere, Adwin Lai, the founder of the L. Luthier guitar shop, taught guitar lessons for more than 20 years before he found his true calling in selling guitars.
“Throughout my years of teaching, I’ve come to understand that a quality guitar will help mould an even better player,” said Lai.
“It’s not that you can’t learn with an ordinary guitar, but you can’t expect to reach performance-standard without a quality one.”
Although Lai does not make his own guitars, he knows the mechanics of making, storing and protecting guitars through experience and research.
“I learnt to make them too, because only then will I be able to gauge what makes a good guitar.
He goes through every step of the manufacturing process for his guitars and scrutinises every detail in each completed instrument.
“My concept is very clear-cut. Every L. Luthier guitar created is suitable for the person playing them,” explained Lai.
The brand emphasises three qualities for its guitars — the right feel as one holds it, the sound, and the aesthetic value; in that order.
“If you feel a guitar doesn’t suit you and you use it anyway, it’ll hinder your learning process and keep you from reaching your best potential,” said Lai.
In 2008, a chance visit to some manufacturers of guitar parts and accessories in China prompted Lai to start L. Luthier. In order to have all his requirements met, Lai went through deals with six manufacturers.
“I’m glad to say that we are able to produce guitars of a high standard now,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a RM299 guitar, we unbox every unit that is delivered and examine every inch to make sure it matches our L. Luthier standards before we sell it.”
Lai identified one of the challenges to his business as the scepticism that consumers have about China-made goods.
“The key is whether or not the product adheres to stringent quality control measures and L. Luthier is all about this,” remarked Lai, adding that China has been producing guitars for more than 50 years .
By utilising a cost efficient manufacturing source, Lai is able to provide guitars at competitive prices for consumers.
“If we compare an imported guitar from Spain for instance, my guitar has greater value for 30% to 40% less,” he said.
Not unlike Jeffrey Yong Guitars, L. Luthier also faces the same plight when it comes to brand recognition and local appreciation.
“Most locals prefer imported brands, but all brands take time to build. I don’t expect to compare my own brand of guitars to those of a company with a 50-year history.
“What we can assure customers bout is reasonably-priced quality,” said Lai.
L. Luthier guitars are priced from RM299. The most expensive is RM15,000. The brand sells about 300 to 400 guitars a month from its own shop and through several dealers. Lai admits that ukuleles are more popular and the shop sells about 900 to 1,000 a month.
“Even in the weakest month of sales we sold about 700 ukuleles,” he said.
Lai also dabbled in the guitar market in China, but has found it not fruitful.
“Although the market is sizable there, competition is stiff and complex too. I market guitars priced from 2,000 yuan (about RM1,000) and above there. Demand drops when prices are slightly above average,” he explained.
“But if I only offer entry-level guitars, I will hit many snags in terms of mass production and quality control. It is extremely tiring,” added Lai. Although he continues to provide entry-level guitars in Malaysia, he is starting to shift his business.
“I am looking to expand the brand to other regions, specifically to the west,” said Lai.
He says he has received encouraging feedback from foreign customers about his pricier products.
“They understand and appreciate quality and the attributes they seek in a guitar is exactly what we provide, which is the feel, the sound and the look.
As a result, Lai sees the potential for mid- to higher-range guitars.
“Only when you make guitars like these can you let your brand be heard internationally,” he said.
L. Luthier’s expansion plans include promotion of its brand of guitars at music and guitar festivals in countries like Indonesia, Russia and Malaysia.