Alder, ash, basswood, maple – these are just some of the woods used to craft the body of guitars. Malaysian Jeffrey Yong, though, has always preferred to use the tonewoods, as the cuts are known, from trees found in the region, and over the course of his career has crafted his instruments from the rain tree, rambutan tree, mango tree, rosewood, and cengal amongst others.
Now he’s hoping to try his hand at using Musang King, the wood of a type of durian tree.
Yong, 58, is one of the very few luthiers in the region. He has received various international awards and is often invited to exhibit his instruments overseas.
His career as a luthier started in the mid-1980s, the day, he laughs, when he realised he would never become the No 1 guitarist in the world. In 1985 he bought a set of equipment and started making musical instruments, travelling abroad to refine his skills and place orders for his materials.
“On one occasion when I was buying wood overseas to make guitars, the locals asked me why I was buying wood overseas when Malaysia is famous for exporting wood,” he recalls. “That really woke me up.
“At first my instruments made with non-traditional wood were treated with suspicion,” he says. “But as long as the sound produced is good, the process and raw materials are not important and musicians quickly came to understand that.”
The highest point of his 31-year career came when he won the top prize for a guitar made with rain tree wood in a contest organised by The Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) in 2006.
“It was like an athlete taking part in Olympics. Competing with so many others, I felt extremely small and never thought I had a chance to win.”
Yet Yong remains sad that despite receiving international recognition and fame, the majority of Malaysians do not know him. His Malaysian students make up only one per cent of his total students.
“A university lecturer told me that would-be luthiers are take to Japan to visit a factory manufacturing musical instruments,” he laments.
Yong describes making a musical instrument as similar to painting. “You need time and or inspiration. It might take two to three months perhaps even one year,” he says, adding that his classes do however enable students to make a guitar in two weeks.
In addition to guitar, he also makes the ukulele, sape and sundatang, traditional musical instruments from Sarawak.
One problem he faces is requests from people wanting tailor-made musical instruments. “They usually want a smaller musical instrument or one that fits their physical size. I always say no.
“Take a piano for example. A small child can play a standard size piano. He or she doesn’t need one made to scale.”
Yong is also the founder of Institute Guitar Malaysia and is often called upon to give lessons.
He tells parents not to just sign up their kids for classes for the sake of it nor impose their own interest in music on their children.
“The starting point for learning music is important. Let the children understand and like music. Don’t push them into sitting exam after exam. They play without knowing their mistakes. They can play difficult music pieces but they play without soul.”
He advises parents who feel their kids do have a talent for music not to rush them. “Don’t push them into attending music school. That will kill a child’s interest in music. Instead let them decide when they are ready.
“People tend to buy a guitar, learn how to play a couple of songs then complain that they are unable to make a living with music. They have never explored music in a professional manner. But you can make a career out of music. Music teachers, for example, have a good income.”
Yong is now planning to start classes in China, hoping to pass down his luthier skills to the new generation of Chinese.