Love your instrument. Sleep with it. Find your musician’s instinct to play
I loved listening to Hank Marvin, without him I wouldn’t be playing a guitar today. When I was six I asked my dad to buy me an acoustic guitar. He bought me one in Singapore, on his way back from Sri Lanka. At that time, he said, ”Either you learn it or I’ll smash it over your head!” But later on, when I was spending too much time on the guitar instead of schoolwork, he caned me for neglecting school!
To make sure I did my schoolwork, my dad would hide the guitar before going to work. But I would find the hiding place every time. I would look carefully to see how he hid it: two shirts covering it, something like that. I would make sure when I put it back that everything looked exactly like it was supposed to.
I was self taught all the way. I never had music schooling. I lived in Hone Place, Tanjung Aru. In those days, nobody was really into music, no-one my age (six) had instruments at home. Only the older ones – like my brothers’ age, had instruments. I had a lot of friends who were a lot older than me who could play guitar, but I found I could play better than them after a year! But I had no chance to play in the evening, because I was still schooling.
My first big experience playing guitar in public was in 1985. It was at the Yayasan Sabah Foundation, a jam session for the best lead guitar. I was about 18, and didn’t want to go. But my friends and family made me have a few beers, and then they carried me out of the house to take me there! They said to my mother, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after him!” And they carried all my gear out!
There were about ten guitarists there when we arrived. All their girlfriends were there, polishing their guitars. I had no girlfriend. I didn’t want to play but my friends pushed me up and said, ”Just play! Doesn’t matter whether you win anything. Just play!”
I joked with the judges to put me about number five. But the buggers called me up first! So my friends pushed me up there. The band was made up of nightclub back-up musicians, they were experienced guys. They asked me what did I know. So I said play blues – so we played blues.
I just had a thin metal lighter with me, so I used that to play slide guitar. Afterwards, they came and checked my hand to see if I had some other metal underneath! When I finished, they called Number Two, but no-one would come up! Number three, the same!
First prize was RM100, second prize was dinner for two at Restoran Yayasan. Third prize was lunch there. I won second prize, and gave it to my parents.
Shortly after that experience, I joined Ronald James’ band – we called ourselves Mixed Blood, because we were all mixed. This was the beginning of my career in music.
I listened to Hank Marvin on cassette tapes and vinyls, and just wanted to make music like him. My parents weren’t musical. My brother Ernest plays guitar and my other brother Rex plays drums.
Despite all the music, I stuck with my education and became a qualified electrician. But you have to climb up poles and I always cut my fingers. My hands get roughed up and it’s hard to play guitar. I finally gave it up to teach guitar about ten years ago.
I have to admit, sometimes I find teaching challenging. When I take a new student, I can tell by the second lesson, whether they are going to really learn, or give up after a few months. I would say the majority of my students are there because of their parents.
I ask them: Do you really want to learn? And they said, “No, my parents want me to take lessons.”
Normally, it’s something like, the neighbour’s child is taking guitar lessons, so why not their child? Something like that.
The guitar is not an easy instrument to learn. You have a lot of physical pain, and if you only practise 30 minutes a week, for sure you will give up after a few months. Sometimes I feel that the guitar lesson is something like a babysitter for the parents, while they do their own thing.
I never studied music and played all my music by ear. Finally, in 1989, I wanted to further up my knowledge in music, so I took lessons from Ronald James, at Baxter and James music school. I learned notation to read music. But after four months, Ronald gave me a Shadows tape, and asked me to transcribe it. I went home and transcribed everything. He read it, and said, ”I can’t believe it. I don’t know what else to teach you any more. You can go!”
Going forward, I would like to get a really good group and do gigs or play in hotels in KK. A really good, tight band, which has showmanship and precision. I feel the future looks bright for musicians in Sabah, but our musicians can improve technically, it doesn’t matter what instruments. Musicians must prove that they are worth listening to. People ask me to write something for them, and I say: why don’t you go home and listen and do it yourself. Do things for yourself. Musicians have to do something on their own, learn to be charismatic, do something special to make people sit up and look at you.
When most people here play music, they don’t play with their hearts. They are not playing with feeling, they are not with their instruments. They are just aiming to finish the song, and get on with the next one. If you play with your heart, you can get it!
If you want to be a good musician you have to play all kinds and all types of music. Anything, everything. You have to be an all rounder. Be it classical, jazz, pop, rock.
Find your musician’s instinct to play, and love your instrument. Sleep with it. Spend hours in a day playing it, to keep yourself in shape. Scales and exercises. If you do all this, I know you can be good.