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Friday, December 20, 2013

From Bench to Guitar

Chengal wood in Telecaster Shape

Life is like a box of chocolate; haven’t we heard this infamous line before, right? Indeed I was given a unique opportunity to pick a piece of chocolate that I considered it the least expected one. In April this year (2013), I received a phone call from a friend. He was one whom I didn't expected to get into conversation about guitars. He requested to have a custom guitar to be made by me. While I aspire to be like Jeffrey Yong in guitar making, I must stressed it was rather unbelievable. While making a guitar isn’t easy, most regular guitar-making projects are doable. However this project was all but usual.

At the onset, I was presented with a set of woods that were once outdoor benches, of 50 years in excess. He asked me if I could build a guitar out from these chengal woods. At that point I have no idea how these chengal benches was like, especially their structural conditions. To make guitars, it is important to start with suitable materials. Imagine to entertain the thoughts of making guitars from woods that were weather beaten for 50 over years and with uncountable number of cracks. I think it would be nerve wrecking for any luthiers to take on this challenge. As I visually inspected the woods, I began to evaluate the varying dimensions, the structural conditions and surface appearances. My aims were to evaluate all conceivable information and factors before proposing the appropriate build to my friend, also my client.

I spent some time to study on it. Eventually I have decided to propose an actual copy of the famous Fender Telecaster. The chengal woods were heavily weathered and there were lots of surface cracks. Some were up 3 to 5mm deep and that pretty much ruled out an acoustic guitar build because acoustic guitar wood thickness is typically 3mm or less. Moreover bending crack wood was as good as throwing the wood into the bin directly. A golden rule for making acoustic guitar is when the wood can’t be bent, it will not make.

Telecaster Outlined
Arguable Fender’s Telecaster was the best choice because the body design was primarily flat. The flatness will help to retain the weathered surface cracked lines which was the essence in turning these chengal benches into guitar. Any bevel or slop-off features on the guitar body will take away the surface cracks. Armed with all these considerations and facts, I proposed to build a Fender Telecaster copy. The body will be made from chengal wood, hand selected the recovered stash. All electronics parts will be from Fender or Hosco and the neck will be from quilted maple. This project meant a lot to my friend and it was imperative for my proposal to work. I could understand his apprehension initially. Nevertheless, he has agreed to a Fender Telecaster copy.

Hand Selection

With my study on the design of Fender’s Telecaster also considering the well-weathered wood, I have in mind several factors to help in this process. Firstly, it was explicitly expressed to retain the well-weathered appearances of the chengal woods as much as possible. While there are many well-weathered pieces I saw from the pile, I didn’t think random picking will do it. Careful visual examinations were necessary in selecting suitable pieces. During the selection process, I kept the body shape of Telecaster in my mind throughout. With the absence of clear guidelines, applying experience-based judgment became imperative. It was not like I can make references with other similar products because this project was probably first of its kind.

After the initial excitement of the design processes, it was time to get my hands dirty. The next step was to transfer these selected woods to Jeffrey Yong’s workshop in Kuala Lumpur.

The Building Process

Chengal wood is heavy and dense. It is one of the rare woods that sinks when submerged into water. It is commonly used in outdoor settings like the decking of pontoon, floor deck of patios and the sleepers for railway. From the batch of chengal wood I have handpicked, it was time to refine the selection to a few blocks that would be shaped into a Telecaster body. Taking into the necessary factors and considerations, I have handpicked six blocks. Without delay, I carried them to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia so that I can work on them in Jeffrey’s workshop.
Mocking Up

The building processes for the body was as followings,

1. Wood drying
2. Wood joining (Gluing) to make the top and back
3. Rough cutting into Telecaster shape
4. Chamber the back
5. Join the top and back
6. Cut and sand to Telecaster shape
7. Route out neck joint, pickup cavities and control plate openings

Rengas Neck
At the onset, I have selected a maple blank fro Jeffrey’s shop for neck making. Jeffrey has suggested not using maple as it wouldn’t best match the chengal body. He suggested Rengas instead. Rengas can be found in Borneo and Indonesia region. Its heartwood is deep red with darker streaks, while the sapwood is a lighter pinkish-brown to almost white. It has fine to medium texture with typically straight or slightly irregular grain. It is a sub-species to the dalbergia family a.k.a. Rosewood. As it turned out, Rengas was an excellent choice to match the deep dark tan tone of chengal. Jeffrey has great foresight indeed.

The tricky thing about using Rengas was retrieving the Rengas blank in Jeffrey’s workshop. He has stashed his Rengas blanks on a platform that was roughly 3m in vertical height. There was no need to guess who did the climb and retrieval. It reminded me of my sports rock climbing days. We went on to cut the required portions from the blank. I undertook all the rough cut and shaping. The finishing touch was left to Jeff’s mastery work.

Tele Pickup
The neck and body was done within days. Their fittings were also tested and it passed with flying colors. It was lacquer spraying for the next few days. High gloss finish was not suitable weird because there were very limited flat surfaces on its body. We opted for a satin coat and the outcome was beyond our expectation, it was splendid.

Jeffrey went on to complete the setting up and electronics of this special guitar. Within weeks the entire guitar was completed. Jeffrey’s contributions have been invaluable in this special guitar project.


Finally this one of a kind chengal wood guitar was built. It wouldn’t be meaningful unless it has someone who will deeply appreciate it. My friend was updated of the completion status and he threw another surprise. He wanted me to present this chengal Telecaster his younger brother as his birthday present. We decided to organize a dinner gathering to make this precious moment happen. It was a cozy gathering attended by a few close friends.

Chambered Body
With the chengal guitar, I made my way to the venue. All these were kept from his younger brother and he finally stepped in, I plugged in the guitar and started playing tunes on it. That attracted their attention. So I went to play for them. His younger brother plays guitar regularly was intrigued by the unusual appearance of the chengal Telecaster guitar. There were some questions regarding the guitar and I wasn’t going to spill the beans right away. So evading certain questions and I narrated the entire building process of this special guitar with the help of photo slides projected on a flat screen. It took only a few pictures for his younger brother to connect the dots. He realized that the body of this guitar was made from that outdoor benches immediately. He was in awe and amazement. He went to ask me all kinds of questions from wood selection, building, designing, etc.
Initial Coat
The party wouldn’t be complete without his younger brother giving a go at this chengal guitar. I handed the guitar to him and it was second nature, he started playing a chord progression of a tune. And his wife simply jumped into the rhythm and started singing. It was spontaneous, it was great, it was meaningful. My work was done at last.

I must thank my friend for his vote of confidence in commissioning me to design and build this special guitar for his brother. Not forgetting Jeffrey, my mentor who has contributed greatly to the completion of this meaningful project.

More detail pictures of the completed guitar below!





-end of article-

Thursday, November 7, 2013

CD Shops… Still There?

Mr. Ho, Memphis Music

What is CD abbreviated from? While I am well aware of the answer but I bet no everyone knows what it stands for. For example, do you know what MP3 means? (Scroll to the end of the article) Anyway this blog post is about recorded and published music and the theme is CD, a.k.a. Compact Disc.

For the post internet generations, the recorded music you are most likely associated with is MP3. Needless to say that those who born before the internet era must have experienced CDs as well as vinyl records. Those were the days, isn’t it? Let me walk you through the timeline of this fast forgotten technology that has served every music lovers on this planet for decades.

The above weblink is where the information I would be sharing below is extracted from.

In 1978 September was Sony’s inaugural public demonstration of an optical digital audio disc with 150 minutes of playing time. 2 years on in 1980 Philips and Sony laid down the CD-DA data storage format and that sets things in motion. In 1982 the researchers of Sony and Philips manufactured the first “CD”. Shortly after this technology advancement, the CD player was created in 1983. Incidentally it was known as the Big Bang of digital audio revolution. The CD technology was pushed a step ahead. The CD-ROM was introduced in 1984 to enable users to store and retrieve data from it. Meantime the recorded and published music industry was going into high gear as vinyl records made antiques by CDs.

In 1985, a British Rock Band Dire Straits sold the very first million album in CD. The album was titled “Brothers in Arms”. In the same year, computer readable CD-ROM was brought into the market. The next few years until 1990, we saw the dawn of VCDs and CD-R. At its peak, CD was the career of choice in music in 1991. After a gap of 6 years, CD-RW was introduced in 1987. Sony and Philips continued to push the quality of digital recorded music by introducing the Super Audio CD a.k.a. SACD in 1997. While CDs are advancing in its technology, MP3 was discreetly being developed in the background. Personal computers weren’t widely available in the early 1990s however the tipping point came in 1998 when two university students, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev ported AMP to Windows and created Winamp. This software player became a free MP3 music player boosting the success of MP3. No licensing fees are required to use an MP3 player. Coupled with the ease of online sales transactions, buying anything online was only getting easier. Thus CD was relegated to relic status in no time. It was down hill henceforth.

Like vinyl, CD resisted the fate of extinction. There are still a number of music lovers who prefer to listen to CD recorded music over MP3. These people usually appreciate the artwork of CD albums as well. While I don’t have any sales figures to substantiate, my best guess is the surviving CD shops in Singapore are primarily supported by these “CD lovers”.

Through my online research, several huge CD shops are in operations. They are,

2. Gramaphone
3. HMV

It is tough running a business and it is imperative to sell what sells. A visit to these CD shops quickly impressed upon me that they were trying very hard to get their stuff off the racks and shelves. So where can I find a CD shop that find balance between real music and tunes that sell?

For me, at Memphis Music of course! This very underrated CD shop is located at the basement of Excelsior Shopping Centre. Mr. Ho who is the proprietor of this CD shop is one who is passionate for music. While he is passionate, he recognizes the reality of running a business as well. I have visited his shops many times and the genres of music offered by his shop are indeed different from the big shops. Suffice to say that if you are looking for top 40s, it will be hard to find them in Mr. Ho’s shop. If you are hunting for some serious classics by artistes like Joe Pass, Barney Kassel, Herb Ellis, Ella Fitzgerald, Ronnie James Dio, Wishbone Ash, WHO, Ramones, Richie Kotzen, Jason Becker, etc. you will find them in Memphis.

It is known to many guitar players that Excelsior and Peninsular Shopping Centers have the highest concentration of guitar shops at its basement. Memphis Music is located right in the middle of it. It comes without surprise to see many guitar related publications in his shop. They range from periodicals, music sheets, score and instructional materials. Memphis Music is surely a treat for guitar lovers to pay visit to. Even the most obscure music liked by those hardcore guitar lovers can be found at Mr. Ho’s shop. What if you can’t? As long as you want them, Mr. Ho will order them for you.

It was easy to strike a conversation with Mr. Ho whenever the topic was about music. Of course I have engaged lengthy discussions about the changes in the music industry from one generation to the next. I took the opportunity to find out about Mr. Ho’s aspirations, thoughts and vision for recorded music. So it was an interview and here it is.

1. When did you start Memphis?
(Memphis was) started in August 1991 as in a suburban shopping mall called Coronation Shopping Plaza. I have relocated to a few places, like from IKEA at Alexandra and to Jelita Shopping Centre at Holland. Currently I am operating in Excelsior Shopping Centre.

2. Why sells recorded music?
Then music remains as a popular and affordable hobby and lifestyle, even for now.

3. Is this a business or passion?
Definitely as a business, ideally it is one whereby the commitment and interest remain strong.

4. Do you sell what people like or what you like?
As a business that provides services, it must cater to the customers’ interest and needs. If interest and business coincides, that makes the business enjoyable.

5. Sum up your sentiments on retail music industry.
The music business has undergone many changes both in format (cassette/LP/CD and downloads) and musical preferences. The way music was distributed to the consumer has since changed tremendously. Consumers can enjoy a variety of choices from online shopping, downloads or browsing in shops. Competition is not only between shops but also with those alternatives sources. Shops have to work harder to get the music lovers to spend on recorded music. It is by this trend, shops must stay relevant to the customers’ interest.

6. Share the ups and downs in selling recorded music.
Recorded music enjoyed a larger audience in the past because there was less competition from other recreation hobbies. Music was still affordable and people are spending on it. The demand was demonstrated by the sprouting of mega music stores and chain stores in those days. Small operators have to face the twin threats of bigger players and the ever-increasing rental. Today the large store is no longer a factor but most retailers will still have to reckon with the constant high rent.

7. What is next?
The internet has transformed the music business totally. Distributors have merged or downsized. Correspondingly the obsoleted and lesser popular titles were being phased out. The music labels are still releasing so much music out there and with the convenience of the internet the buyer has a lot of knowledge of what is available. The radio station is no longer the main source of new music. The real challenge for the retailer is to be alert to the ever-changing music preferences. Stay relevant in the business by knowing what the customers are looking for. Despite the gloomy outlook there is still business in recorded music. There will be that someone who will look for a Mozart tune or a Beatle classic.

That was the short interview with Mr. Ho. I hope you have gotten some depth of comprehension in recorded music especially on CDs. Guitar lovers or music lovers, come on and show our appreciation to those hardworking musicians who work tirelessly in giving us their best compositions of music.

If you have not been to Memphis Music, wait no farther! Go to Excelsior Shopping Centre, #B1-35 to check it out!

MP3 stands for MPEG Audio Layer III and MPEG is Moving Picture Experts Group

Monday, October 7, 2013

My First Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013

Here I come!

For those who wish see lots of pictures, go here: FB Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013

About the show

I have attended the winter NAMM 2013 in Anaheim and a few visits to Music China in Shanghai. These were the big shows I have been. However when it comes to comparisons, setting the right context can make it meaningful. NAMM and Music China covers the world market in the music industry. It surely comes with no surprise that these two shows must be huge in magnitude to encapsulate the world market. While it was almost impossible to visit all booths in NAMM and Music China, the show didn’t provide the level of excitement I received from the Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013. This show was catered for Luthiers producing fully handcrafted guitars and there were 100 over exhibiting tables, two exhibition halls, 2 workshops room, 1 demo concert room and 1 outdoor performance arena. For such niche exhibitions, I will call it a big show. See festival floor map on right.

Biennially, the festival was held. This year it stretched from 9 to 11 August within the lovely Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel, located in Santa Rosa, California, USA. The key organizer and sponsor was Luthiers Mercantile International (LMI), Inc. that specializes in developing and retailing tools and equipment for string instruments makers internationally. (

Jeff and I
Adam & Adam
The show predominantly comprised of luthiers a.k.a. guitar makers and the remaining groups were the vendors and sponsors. From my observations, I think that this show has provided one of the widest ranges of guitars in terms of genres and designs. You can find the most traditional built dreadnought design, rigid rim (Micheletti Guitars) over regular binding, modular guitar bodies (Mervyn Davis Guitars), space edge materials with radical neck-to-body mounting (Ken Parker Guitars), unimaginable archtop body shape (Saul Koll Guitars), most artistic inlays (Laskin Guitars, Pederson Guitars), finest craftsmanship (Erwin Somogyi Guitars, Kevin Ryan Guitars, Bruce Petros), most experimental (David Anthony Reid), trend setters (Matsuda Guitars), alternative and exotic woods (Jeffrey Yong Guitars), offset soundholes (Schwartz Guitars, Martin Keith Guitars) etc. There were more…

Kinloch Nelson and I
Karl, Liz and I
The standard of craftsmanship exhibited by these luthiers was unparalleled. No matter what may be the differences in experiences and craftsmanship, the underlying engine that powered the show was invariably the good old passion.

Once again, I was privileged to attend this show with Jeffrey Yong. He was very encouraging throughout as he told me to move about to make acquaintances and sample as many guitars as I could. Having the chance to stand behind Jeffrey’s exhibition table, I have met many guitar lovers and luthiers in this show. The exchanges of perspectives and knowledge were very useful to me indeed. However nothing beats making friends with the guitar lovers I have met.

Larry Robinson and I
The Goodall Family 
Tom Doerr and I
Kevin Ryan and I 
It was probably a dream for many acoustic guitar lovers; I met many great luthiers and acoustic fingerstyle guitarists, like Kinloch Nelson, Michael Chapdelaine, Thomas Leeb, Erwin Somogyi, Michihiro Matsuda, Grit Laskin, Larry Robinson, Kevin Ryan, Gerald Sheppard, Tom Doerr, Al Petteway, James Goodall, Larry Robinson and so many more all in the three days!

My friend, Bob!
Having fun with Erwin
Talking about meeting new friends, an ex-student of Jeffrey came to help us in the show. Incidentally he is also Adam. Of course his last name was not like mine, he is a Garcia. We had such great time chatting and jaming. I think Adam will surely remember a TV program we have watched.

I have great regards for Michael Chapdelaine. He was trained in classical guitar playing but he has ventured in acoustic guitar fingerstyle as well. Very few guitarists can do well in both genres and Michael made it look easy. On the last day, I met him and summed up my courage to approach him cold. As it turned out, he was very approachable. I got him to visit Jeffrey’s table and sampled his guitars. Michael was very impressed with Jeff’s guitars and he has requested to privately play them in his hotel after the show. Jeffrey and I brought a few guitars for him to try out. He played live before us and I was in awed to see this guitar master in action. Without squandering the precious moments, I video recorded his playing. That was another precious moment to me.

Michael Chapdelaine
The most expecting event and also it was most amazing to me was the Sunday worship group I have joined at the show. It was a small gathering of luthiers and visitors who were believers. We sang and shared all the good things God’s has blessed us. Worshipping with James Goodall, Tim McKnight, Kevin Ryan, etc. it was absolutely wonderful!

In essence it was a big show to me in many ways.

Quality of Guitars

The closest to such experience I had was at the GAL Convention in 2011. I have seen many guitars in that show and the quality varied widely. One may ask, what is in qualities of guitars? It should be the embodiment of creativity, intricacies, accuracies, alignment, details, selection of woods, playability (set-up), tonal characteristics, visual identity, craftsmanship and above all passion.

The guitars in the Healdsburg Guitar Festival indeed carried the mentioned qualities. They may not have embodied by one guitar but the overall quality was top-notched. I have tried to detect faults in some guitars in the show but it was difficult to spot. The great attention to details, aided by precise manufacturing processes has ensured near perfection quality. The bottom line is; when a guitar was not well made, it wouldn’t have made it there.

Program and Activities Flow

The 6-figure Ryan Guitar
Matsuda's Deconstructed Guitar
From all the guitar shows I have attended thus far, this one certainly packed the three days with non-stop activities. There were guitar demonstration shows that went on the whole day. Learning workshops one after another. Outdoor performances that never stopped. You will not find a dull moment in this show.

Click to see the program for the festival:

Post Festival Road Trip

I could not thank Jeffrey enough. Again, he has planned a road trip for me visit a few cool places that guitar lovers would love to go. We visited LMI to start the ball rolling. This place retails just about anything guitar makers would yearn for. From tonewoods to guitar picks, as long as you have can think of it, you can find it at LMI. As I entered the main office, I could sense the hectic mood because it was a regular weekday. To my surprise, they allowed me into the warehouse. I was immediately surrounded by cool guitar merchandizes in huge quantities. It was unlike walking into a shopping mall, this was way cooler! I took the opportunity to get a few useful items to add onto my collection of guitar repair tools.

At LMI's store house
At Allied Lutherie
The next stop was to Allied Lutherie. They are specialist in tonewood retailing. Jeffrey introduced me to the founder of Allied Lutherie who was Todd Taggart. It was cool to see many huge machines designed for wood handling at Todd’s workshop. It was my first encountered with white ebony in timber form. I could imagine the beauty it would give when made into guitars. While the visit was brief, I had great time listening to Todd and Jeffrey.

Bruce Sexauer's Workshop

Bruce, Jeff's Family and I

The next stop was Bruce Sexauer’s workshop. When we arrived, Bruce greeted us with warmth. He was an cool guy and was helpful too. He showed us around his workshop and we talked about the challenges for guitar makers. From the stuff in his workshop, it was obvious that Bruce could build and repair other instruments as well. I saw a bundle of disc shaped wood hanging from the ceiling. As I looked closer, they were the cuts from the soundhole and there were many of them. This simply meant that Bruce has built many guitars. When we left Bruce’s workshop, we tried to make it to Erwin Somogyi’s workshop within the same day but we didn’t.

Erwin's apprenctices
Leo, Chris and I
Jeff, Leo and I
Erwin Somogyi and I
The visit to Erwin’s workshop was postponed to the following day. We received great hospitality from Erwin. He greeted us and took us to his kitchen for tea. I have heard so much about Erwin’s great emphasis in craftsmanship in building guitar and I must admit that I was nervous at first. It turned that he has such good sense of humor. Unexpectedly, Erwin cracked most of the jokes. He was on a hectic schedule as such he bided farewell after our chat. He has graciously allowed us to remain in his workshop so that I could tour it. Erwin’s apprentices were around to guide us around his workshop. I was very impressed by the cleanliness and orderliness of his workshop. We had a great chat about guitar building and left Erwin’s workshop before lunch. It was a great experience.

Mammoth Tusk… heavy

The Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013 was another wonderful trip to me in many ways. Jeffrey has been making things accessible and easy for me and I feel blessed by his mentorship. Also I would like to thank the National Arts Council for their invaluable support as well. Above all, praise God for His unending blessings.

For those who wish see lots of pictures, go here: FB Healdsburg Guitar Festival 2013