Wednesday February 20, 2013
A lifetime of playing music, fixing guitars
By N. RAMA LOHAN
Three sexagenarians share their passion for the guitar, and how they make a living out of it.
THE aged often find themselves categorised as either loving, doting grandparents or unfriendly, disgruntled old quacks with chips on their shoulders. And, their interests seem to be relegated to gardening, going for morning/evening walks, watching television and reading the papers ... oh, the perils of stereotyping.
However, there is a clutch of like-minded senior citizens who have the honour of being unique in their respective fields – they all repair and restore guitar and guitar-related equipment for a living, and still do so into their 60s.
Meet Seow Sow Feng, Greg Tan and Richard Lee – men who indulge in a lifetime of playing music and appreciation of the arts.
“I have always been interested in electronics,” Seow, 61, admits. Even though he may have been tempted to fiddle about with the equipment available to him at that time, he decided to educate himself first on the intricacies and dangers involved. The then 18-year-old lad from Tanjung Malim, Perak, enrolled at the Kota Institute of Electronics in Jalan Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. The institute has long folded, but his interest in electronics remains as strong as it was the day he studied the subject back in 1970.
Tan, 61, also tinkers with guitars and electronics. Sit down and have a chat with him, and you’re likely to learn a lot more than just guitars. Calling him a guitar “professor” wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Tan’s first brush with the electric guitar came in the mid-1950s, when his dad dragged him (as alibi) to a party where a band was playing.
“I was stunned and amazed by the electric guitar, with its shiny body and buttons, and that’s when my life-long love affair with the instrument began,” the Penang-born musician concedes.
According to him, the party had a mix of rock n’ roll and twist songs ... all the party tunes of the time.
“My dad looked at the girls while I was riveted to the guitar,” he says, laughing.
Music culture of the 60s
Lee was simply swept away by the music culture of the 1960s, when most young boys harboured hopes of playing in bands.
“It was a cool thing to be in a band then. In fact, my band Skylarks, played Stadium Negara a couple of times, and we even took part in RTM’s Radio Talent Time competition,” Lee, 65, shares.
Like most bands that plied the band route in the 1960s, Skylarks played instrumental music from the repertoire of The Shadows and The Ventures, until The Beatles and The Rolling Stones came along.
Seow concurs with Lee, but his experience takes in some regional acts, too. “We used to play songs by The Saints (Kluang, Johor), The Quests (Singapore), The Stylers and Chinese pops songs by Wang Ching Yuen (Hong Kong),” Seow says.
Lee remembers his first guitar fondly. “It was a German-made Hofner which I later converted to a bass guitar, making the instrument’s neck myself,” he reveals, suggesting how his interest in repairing and customising began.
Tan recalls how he ogled one for the longest time during his school days: “While walking to my school, St Xavier’s Institution, I would pass by this store, Cheng Lee Sports & Music, and stare at a Fender Stratocaster (electric guitar) and Fender Showman amp in the display window. Then I began drawing that guitar while in class.” His first guitar though, was an Excelsior acoustic from Europe which his father gave him.
More than a few curious eyebrows are raised when people learn of these sexagenarians’ passion and indulgence, taking their age into consideration. “People are surprised that I specialise in this field, especially at my age. But I’ve been getting customers from as far north as Alor Setar and Johor Baru, so that must say something about my work,” Seow contests.
Tan, who is also an inventor of great repute (he designed a guitar bridge in the mid-1970s and had it accepted by the Gibson Musical Instruments company in the United States, also serving as a consultant for the company for a while), has stunned his audience into submission. “I suppose it must be surprising for a lot of people that I’ve invested my life in this, but what is often overlooked is that it takes many lifetimes to make something,” he says.
Tan theorises that as an inventor, he is part of many generations of research and knowledge, tipping his hat to the works of his predecessors.
Lee, on the other hand, has reputation to back him up: “People know me for my work and by word-of-mouth.”
Tan apart, the others had held regular jobs, though none of them miss it today. Seow worked in maintenance at the music faculty of a government-run institute of higher education till he retired at 55. Lee quit his sales job when he hit 38, citing the endless travelling as his reason to call time on that career. “I had started another business by then, making customised trophies while supplementing income with the guitar repair business,” Lee informs.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Seow, Tan and Lee all got into their trade simply because there weren’t skilled people around who did repair jobs like they’ve come to undertake.
“I used to feel frustrated that I couldn’t get a better sound, so I embarked on getting the perfect sound from my equipment,” Tan explains. He would spend hours on end, tinkering away and has gone as far as pouring cement into his guitar to make it ring longer. After discovering what he wanted, it was a challenge to maintain his desired sound, and thus began a newer quest.
“I studied all the different elements in a guitar’s construction and dissected it,” he adds.
Having a father who was into hi-fi amps and a brother who built guitar amps with a friend, helped a young Tan understand the sciences involved.
“I’m a slow but sure learner. I asked myself many questions. I only became intelligent when I got older,” surmised the self-taught Tan with a smile, intimating that he began inventing things at 25.
“For me, it was a case of finances, as well. I couldn’t afford the repair costs, so I went the DIY route,” says the self-trained Lee. His interest fuelled his desire to learn, and having worked with guitars and studied their construction closely, Lee applied some form of reverse engineering and learned the ins and outs himself.
So, what is it that keeps the three of them enthralled with this life-long love of theirs?
“I just love the sound of old guitar amplifiers. There’s a certain charm about them ... something simply intangible about the look, sound and feel of these pieces of electronics,” Seow enthuses.
For Lee, it is a case of customer satisfaction, and he undertakes some of his jobs almost like the TV programme Kings Of Restoration: “I’ve had to do jobs where the price of the repair outweighed the cost of the instrument, but some people commission these repair and refurbishment jobs because of sentimental value. Nothing beats the feeling of seeing a satisfied customer reliving his past when I’ve restored a part of his history.”
Tan is philosophical about life and his surroundings. It is hard to put a finger on the meaning of life, but Tan is not far off discovering the truth.
“We have a purpose in life, which is to leave something meaningful behind for future generations. It’s about leaving a legacy behind, so that people can pick up where you left off and continue with it,” insists the meditation practitioner.
His interest in String theory (the building blocks of the world and how they function) and the resonance of the universe has enabled him to be at peace with himself and better understand the world he lives in.
Age does not deter these repairmen from doing what they love best.
“The biggest problem at this point in life for me is eyesight. It is getting harder to see things clearly, but I’m still managing,” Seow owns up.
Lee echoes his sentiment: “I have to wear glasses when I work now, which is a hassle. But I’ve been fortunate, I guess, because I can still do what I like.”
“If you live a simple and relatively stress-free life, and just go with the flow of things, the human body is capable of sustaining itself. Whatever happens, happens for a reason. So there’s no use fighting it, just do what is necessary to get by. When things are difficult, it may actually be a blessing in disguise,” Tan philosophises.
While it is never a pleasant thought, the three men are aware that they are approaching their twilight years and may need to pass on their knowledge for tradition to continue. For musicians who have sought their services, it is a scary thought not having these guys around.
Seow hopes his son, Li Tian, 26, will carry on the legacy. “I’ve been teaching him all I know, sharing the tricks of the trade. So, I hope there is a future in this,” he shares.
Lee’s son, Eugene, 31, is already knee-deep in the trade. While his father specialises in guitar repair, Eugene specialises in electronics – everything from the repair of amps to mixers and what not.
Tan is content to see his expertise passed on to individuals with the same level of interest and passion in the art. “The person has to have the same attitude as me. We must use intelligence to sustain this knowledge,” he insists.
Passion has brought Seow, Lee and Tan to where they are today. Judging from the gusto the three men display for their trade, it is not surprising that they are all looking at doing what they love best for years to come. Should their services be required, Seow can be contacted at 012-369 2077; Lee, 019-332 9011; and Tan, 013-706 0431.