A Luthier’s Song

18 July 2016

One of the world’s finest luthiers can be found in our own backyard. Meet Jeffrey Yong.

Up in the hills in Hulu Langat, an hour away from Kuala Lumpur, there lives (occasionally) a man and his workshop filled with guitars. But this is no ordinary man for he is Jeffery Yong, builder of some of the finest handcrafted guitars in the world. The only luthier in the world that builds guitars out of local non-traditional wood like Monkeypod wood (Samanea saman or Rain Tree), Jeffrey’s is as vibrant and interesting as the guitars he builds.

A self-taught guitarist and luthier, equipped with a basic knowledge of woodworking from childhood, Jeffrey’s first foray into lutherie started when he built his first guitar in 1985 after a trip to Japan and Korea. “I like arts, crafting. So when I visited some factories in Japan and Korea and saw how they made guitars … so easy you know? That’s why I came back and started doing my thing,” says Jeffery. “I always liked making things. We were brought up in such a way, our families were not rich. Everything you want, you do it yourself. In those days, we made kites, gasing … we had to make all our own toys.”

As one of the finest artisans in the business, Jeffery has built hundreds in his career, each commanding a price up to USD$12,000 for a custom-made piece. One guitar in particular will cost even more. “This year, I’m going to make a guitar that’s USD15,000 [in price], but I cannot put a price tag here. It doesn’t work for me. I don’t sell in Malaysian Ringgit!” says Jeffery with a chuckle. “I’m the only one in the world who makes guitars out of non-traditional materials. Not just making, but achieving international standards and quality. A lot of people can make anything. So, I’ve proven to the industry that we have materials here, and that it can be used to do that.” Jeffrey has also used other local non-traditional woods such as Mango and Rambutan wood to name a few.

When he’s not busy building guitars in his workshop, Jeffrey also holds two-week long guitar making courses where one can learn how to build their very own acoustic, classical, electric or bass guitar, and leave with a certificate. “It’s much better to make something you like than just buying it. Buy, no meaning, and of course, this is a kind of a hobby which I find very rewarding. You build something and it’s there. You buy and you throw. Like golf, change golf set, always spending money, no return.”  

People from all over the world have come to learn from the Master Luthier at his previous workshop in Pandan Indah; now they get to visit Malaysia and learn the basics of guitar making at his vast Hulu Langat space. Jeffrey adds, “Basically guitar making is woodworking. You work with wood means you acquire a skill. When you do a guitar shape, you can expand to other small gifts, boxes or souvenirs. It’s the same skill. That’s after that, but a lot of people just come to make a guitar only.”

In his three decades in the business, Jeffery has won a few prestigious awards in lutherie, most notably the Blind Listening Test at the Guild of American Luthiers in 2006 where his use of the non-conventional Monkeypod wood gave his guitars a beautiful appearance as well as a unique tonal characteristic that stood out among the rest. “When they [do] demos during competitions, they demo the sound. The high pitch, low bass. It’s all to show you the quality of the sound, not the song,” says Jeffrey. He then continues, ”I was in Russia for a competition and they played the same song with eight different guitars and I couldn’t differentiate which one was my guitar. The guy played so well. After the session, everyone came up to me to tell me I was guitar number six. I asked, ‘How did you know? I didn’t!’” he laughs. He adds, “The player was so good, you know? It turned out, my guitar was the best sounding one. So I won one competition in Russia and then one in the USA.”

Even with all the awards, it is sad to discover that Jeffery Yong isn’t celebrated for his achievements and skill in Malaysia. He has even tried to support the scene by organising guitar festivals every year for nine years, only to end it a year or two ago when he had to fork out his own pocket money to organise it. “I’m promoting Malaysia, also helping out the industry with my own money. For what? I am working out of my experience and contacts, and I have to come up with my own money,” Jeffery comments with resignation. For now, Jeffrey will continue to build guitar, content at working and teaching in his picturesque, countryside workshop. “I’m living my childhood dream now. In a kampong. All my friends came, they were all very envious and went, ‘Wah!’ Sometimes life is like this.” 

                      

Words & Photos by Miranda Yeoh

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