GORDON PAN is from Tanjung Aru. He’s semi-retired now, and has a hobby. He modifies guitars.
“The cream coloured one is basically a Les Paul Junior with custom specifications using high-end quality parts. The wood coloured one is quite the opposite, as it was an entry into a builders’ competition hosted by a U.S. forum challenging guitar builders to come out with a playable instrument limited to a budget of US$99.00 only. My entry came in 2nd.” Gordon Pan.
I make guitars from an accumulation of parts from different guitars, different brands, to accomodate the sound that the musician wants, the playing style they want. To me, building guitars is purely for fun and passion. I never expect to make money from it. Gordon Pan.
Working musicians in Malaysia have a different take on it.
“He’s the musician’s secret,” said Momain Blues guitarist Sonny Bahari. “I call him a luthier, a real luthier. He know electronics and wood. That’s the most important thing when you build something for somebody. ‘I want my guitar to sound like this‘. You don’t get many people in this part of the world that can do that for you! He tells everybody that this is his hobby, but when Hillary Ang is your main client, your record is proven.”
Gordon has made guitars for Hillary Ang [of Malaysian legendary rock band Search] since the late 80s.
“Most of Hillary’s recorded music have guitars we both worked on, for playability and tone,” Gordon said.
Recently, they have been discussing a new guitar Hillary wants to be build to record his ‘post-Search’ new project band, Gordon said.
Gordon grew up in Tanjung Aru, with Big Band music, Dinah Shore and Elvis Presley playing in his house. His ears had an affinity for the Blues scale and when his mother urged him to play the piano like his sisters, he persuaded her to buy him an electric guitar instead.
A love for Blues and guitars stayed with Gordon throughout his life, but it took a back seat for years at the peak of his working life.
“I was working, building a career. When I finally got time to pursue interests, I bought an electric guitar and an amplifier. It was 20 years later and I was now in my forties! I was very fortunate to hook up with the Suro Twins – bassist Roger [Suro Ahmadi] and drummer Rahman [Suro Rahman]. They are rock musicians with great knowledge, along with another great guitarist Maha.
“Sabah is one of those places where the culture and people are very musical,” said Gordon. “If you’re recognised in Sabah as a musician, you’ve got to be good. Because music is everywhere here, maybe it’s the mix of Filipino blood, the Kadazan blood, it’s a very musical sort of gene pool. Virtually everyone plays music here.”
Gordon met Sonny B, who was soon to embark on a journey as guitarist in a new band called Headhunters, a band which would later imprint itself upon the memories of music fans in Sabah.
“The year was 1993, and Headhunters had just formed, with the objective of being a working, cover band,” said Sonny.
“I turned up for jamming at the Cottage Pub, and Maha the guitarist was the catalyst for Gordon being there. I didn’t know the relationship that Gordon had with Hillary and all those people in Singapore and Hong Kong and everywhere else.
We just met, and Gordon knew where I was coming from, guitar-wise. Sonny Bahari.
At that time, Headhunters was in the finals of a band contest [these contests are known locally as battles of the bands], the prize of which was a full-time 3-month contract at Tiffany’s, the big venue of the day in Kota Kinabalu.
“For the final, Gordon gave me a Fender Stratocaster which he had modified,” Sonny said. “It had a replacement neck which was very high quality. You do not get these kind of replacement necks around here! I did not know that this guitar was also being used by Hillary Ang for sessions!”
When Sonny Met Greenie
The following year, Sonny left RTM and was about to go on the road with Headhunters. He was playing a 1979 original Fender Stratocaster from the U.S.
“It was really beat up: the frets were almost down to the wood, really worn. The pickups were not really powerful enough to sustain any kind of gig. It was painted the third time already, and I did the last paint job.”
Gordon presented Sonny with Greenie, and asked to repair Sonny’s guitar.
“Greenie is an original Fender Telecaster body,” said Sonny. “The rest is modified by Gordon himself: parts, body, everything, On the body, the only thing which has been replaced is the pickguard. He made his configuration on Greenie the same as a Stratocaster. It’s not the standard Telecaster configuration.
“Greenie was a working guitar which fit my body, with a Stratocaster sound. Gordon made it up! ‘Use this,’ he said. I played her for the next eight years!”
Over eight years, Greenie travelled as far as Myanmar, as Headhunters worked throughout the region. Sonny laughed as he recalled the conversation. “Finally when I came back, I asked nicely, ‘What’s the shape of my guitar now?’ ‘Where’s Greenie?’ Gordon said. So I gave her back to him. In a few weeks, he gave my guitar back to me in the original colour, with everything redone. Totally redone. It was perfect. That was in 2000.” But the Sonny/Greenie relationship wasn’t over yet. More later.
Here is Sonny playing his revamped 1979 Fender Stratocaster, with Malaysian guitarist Man Keedal. Man’s guitar is exactly the same, except Man has the lefthanded model. They’re at the Ketiau Blues Centre. Bassist Leo Liew is in the background. The photo is Leo’s. Thank you, Leo.
“People come to me to fine tune or modify their guitars. Ronald James looks me up and says ‘I want a guitar to sound like this or play like this,’ and I do this for him,” said Gordon.
Gordon made guitars for Malaysian guitarist Aji, who plays with Mack Chew and Jenny Chin. These musicians were in the Legendary Concerts which toured Malaysia in 2012. Gordon has made bass guitars for Leo Liew, and Simon Lau.
In 2011, Greenie turned up at a Ketiau Blues Centre jam session.
“I came in, and there she was!” said Sonny. “Gordon had put two new pickups on her, which were not supposed to be on a Fender guitar. The first thing Gordon said to me was: ‘You keep her. She’s got your DNA all over it!’”
[Gordon said later, "Actually I disassembled it in pieces and left to 'air' out for a few years to let all that road grime and smell dissipate before I put it back together again.
Even then, it was still Sonny's guitar more than mine. Somehow, I just had to let him own it."]
[For non-guitar experts: here's the Wiki description of a guitar pickup. Placing the pickup in different positions on the body of the guitar, will result in different sounds.]
“These are recognisable pickups, guitar freaks will know what these are. I played Greenie at the KK Jazz Festival. The first person to comment on this guitar was sound engineer Stephen Lim. He was doing the levels. He pointed to Greenie and gave me a big thumbs up. I mean, he didn’t know anything about this guitar, but he’s a soundman; he knows about frequencies and noise and what have you. For him to notice, it’s really something! I thought: What did Gordon do here?
“Gordon put the pickups there for me. Because I like to play Fender Stratocaster, but he says: It’s not you. A Stratocaster is not you! The guitar has to sound like Sonny B.”
Gordon Pan has moved from modifying guitars, to making them from scratch. “About three years ago, I started to buy raw wood, cut it up. I’ve started to buy tools now, to actually make guitars. I want to make electric guitars. There aren’t many people doing this here. They probably don’t have the interest. After all, you can just buy a guitar off the rack, although it may not be exactly what you want.
“I’ve made a few guitars from scratch now, for my own purpose. They’re okay.”
Okay? Just okay? Watch this space for a musician’s account :).
Here’s Sonny showing how Greenie’s paintwork is worn out at the back, from good use!
Greenie’s neck. High-end quality parts.