The guitar man
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.theguitarstore.com.my.
Midas touch: Jonathan Lee performing at the launch of his handcrafted guitar brand Lee Guitars in Malaysia.