The gui­tar man

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC -

Be­sides com­pos­ing mu­sic, Jonathan Lee en­joys mak­ing gui­tars too.

THERE are many rea­sons for a teenager to pick up a gui­tar. Some are in­spired by a rock band, many love the sounds and there are those who do it to im­press the girls.

Tai­wanese mu­sic mae­stro Jonathan Lee be­longs to the last cat­e­gory.

“I did not do very well in my stud­ies and did not have a col­lege de­gree. Just like any other young mis­er­able teenager, I saw no fu­ture in my­self and I couldn’t find a girl­friend. When­ever I tried to talk to young ladies, they didn’t want to lis­ten to me. Then I found out that when I sang, they would pay at­ten­tion to me. That was part of the rea­son that en­cour­aged me to learn to play the gui­tar and write songs,” said Lee, 52, with a smile, when he was in Kuala Lumpur to launch Lee Gui­tars, his very own brand of hand­crafted gui­tars.

He could still re­mem­ber vividly the very first gui­tar that he strummed on when he was 14 years old.

“It was a ny­lon string gui­tar. It was in poor con­di­tion, but I found that when you are re­ally in the mood, it does not mat­ter what gui­tar you are us­ing.

“As long as you feel like writ­ing some­thing and it comes from your heart, the qual­ity of the gui­tar is not im­por­tant; it would still sound good,” he said in flu­ent English.

In the many years that fol­lowed, that teenager who played mu­sic to get girls would go on to change the Man­darin mu­sic land­scape with his sleek songs and mov­ing lyrics, be­com­ing one of the most sought af­ter hit­mak­ers, with many singers – among them his ex-wife Sandy Lam – clam­our­ing for his Mi­das touch.

More than 20 years and count­less hits later, Lee de­cided to go back to the ba­sics of mu­sic – by be­com­ing a luthier.

He founded Lee Gui­tars in 2002 and from there, be­gan the sec­ond phase of his ca­reer, mak­ing 30 to 40 gui­tars a year, cre­at­ing a col­lec­tion that in­cludes two sig­na­ture mod­els: one for Tai­wanese al­ter­na­tive rock band May­day and an­other for sneak­ers brand Con­verse.

Why the switch from mu­sic to the in­stru­ment?

The tran­si­tion was mostly driven by the need to spot new tal­ents and nur­ture them – some­thing that has be­come his mis­sion.

“The hap­pi­est thing for me right now is dis­cov­er­ing new tal­ent. Ev­ery­where I go, when I see a kid play­ing a gui­tar, I am touched and it re­minds me of my youth. For me, mu­sic, es­pe­cially mod­ern and pop mu­sic, it’s all here and now. There’s al­ways some­one who is more tal­ented than you com­ing out. If I can pass on my gui­tars to the young gen­er­a­tion, that would make me very happy,” said Lee.

Clad in a white T-shirt and jeans, he speaks fondly of the lat­est craft he is mas­ter­ing.

“Mak­ing gui­tar is not rocket sci­ence. As long as you are fo­cused, have the pas­sion and are will­ing to learn, you will get it right. Hon­estly, I don’t con­sider my­self an ac­com­plished luthier. Mak­ing gui­tar is an art and the pur­suit is end­less. No­body can claim him­self to be a mas­ter luthier.

“In ad­di­tion, a gui­tar can’t pro­duce great sounds un­less it is in the hands of a tal­ented mu­si­cian. Or else it’s just four pieces of wood and six strings,” he said.

Maybe that’s why he has a habit of giv­ing his gui­tars to fel­low singer-song­writ­ers. The Malaysian mu­si­cians who are for­tu­nate to be in pos­ses­sion of a Lee Gui­tar in­clude Penny Tai, Vic­tor Wong, Yi Jet Qi and Ah-bin.

The gifts come with no strings at­tached (par­don the pun).

“I’m not a busi­ness­man. I’m just giv­ing back what I have learned to the mu­sic in­dus­try. I’m shar­ing my dreams and pas­sion. When I give away a gui­tar, it’s not a con­tract. The mu­si­cian does not have any obli­ga­tion to use it on stage. The idea is that a mu­si­cian usu­ally has many gui­tars. I’m just one of the luthiers and I would love them to try mine,” he ex­plained.

His new ven­ture sees him en­coun­ter­ing a plethora of promis­ing new­com­ers along the way.

One of them is lo­cal mu­si­cian Yuna, whose unique vo­cals caught Lee’s ears in­stantly. A self-taught gui­tarist, this year’s AIM mul­ti­win­ner re­turned home from re­hearsal one night to find a white gui­tar case on her doorstep – cour­tesy of Lee.

“I opened it and saw a red gui­tar that looked ex­actly like the first gui­tar I owned, which was my favourite. I in­stantly fell in love with it. It’s like how you meet a guy for the first time and go ‘Wow!’” re­called Yuna.

Could Lee’s ges­ture be in­ter­preted as a sign of fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the pair? There’s no def­i­nite an­swer from him on that but if his words were any­thing to go by, it is very likely to hap­pen in the fu­ture.

“I envy Malaysians for the multi-racial and multi-cul­tural so­ci­ety as well as the rich mu­si­cal land­scape they have. I re­ally hope to in­tro­duce the Malaysian mu­sic and cul­ture to the Chi­nese lis­ten­ers (be­yond),” said Lee, who has been com­ing to Malaysia reg­u­larly for the past two decades.

It might seem that mu­sic-mak­ing has taken a back­seat in Lee’s ca­reer in re­cent years, what with Su­per­band – the group he formed with vet­eran singers Lo Ta-yu, Wakin Chau and Chang Chen-yue in 2008 – be­ing dis­banded early this year.

How­ever, fret not as Lee is not leav­ing his stu­dio empty.

The renowned record pro­ducer is run­ning a project called “Seven Days with Jonathan Lee in Bei­jing” where he re­cruits as­pir­ing mu­si­cians to spend a week record­ing at his stu­dio in the city for free.

“When I in­stalled the record­ing equip­ments, I de­cided not to run the place com­mer­cially. I want to keep the stu­dio free for the artistes I ad­mire. So I came up with this project.

“Any­one who is in­ter­ested can send me an e-mail and I will lis­ten to his or her mu­sic. I will in­ter­view the mu­si­cian, shoot a video clip and broad­cast it via satel­lite TV to the en­tire China.

“Ev­ery­thing is free. Just come to Bei­jing and be my guest. Your only obli­ga­tion is to do a one-hour gig on the sev­enth day. I will in­vite my friends from the in­dus­try to lis­ten to your per­for­mance,” he said.

This sounds like a good deal for bud­ding mu­si­cians who can’t af­ford record­ing time at a pro­fes­sional stu­dio.

“That’s my idea. I’m not rich, but I have enough money to sup­port my dreams. So far a band from Le­banon has con­tacted us. There are also mu­si­cians from Viet­nam and Ja­pan. Some peo­ple might think ‘Here’s a stupid guy do­ing this for free!’” he said with a laugh.

“It’s still tak­ing shape. Right now we have only two bands. I am look­ing for a foun­da­tion that can spon­sor the air tick­ets for the mu­si­cians. That would be great,” he added.

Who knows? It could be “Seven Days with Jonathan Lee in Malaysia” in the fu­ture.

“I hope that the project can also ma­te­ri­alise here. Mak­ing mu­sic is more than just mak­ing money. It is a fun thing where you make new friends and ap­pre­ci­ate the cul­tures of dif­fer­ent coun­tries,” Lee con­cluded. n Lee Gui­tars is avail­able in Malaysia via The Gui­tar Store, which has branches in Kuala Lumpur and Se­lan­gor. For more in­for­ma­ton, go to www.the­gui­tar­

Mi­das touch: Jonathan Lee per­form­ing at the launch of his hand­crafted gui­tar brand Lee Gui­tars in Malaysia.

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