I went to RAM Production Sdn Bhd, to see Roger Wang‘s new custom-made guitar, and meet the chap who actually made it – David Chin, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.
In the 1960s, Sabahan David Chin played in a band in All Saints, Kota Kinabalu. “Then, I tried to make an electric guitar myself, but I didn’t know how to go about it at the time.”
David eventually embarked on a career as an engineer working on computerized central control systems for railways in Australia and all over Asia. His last project was the high speed railway project in Taiwan, which finished in 2006.
David converted the shed at his beach house into a workshop, and began applying his engineering acumen to his woodwork. David researched making guitars using Australian timber, and after four years, he was consistently making good sounding guitars.
So what happens when a skilled Sabahan luthier crosses paths with a Sabahan master guitarist?
“I met Roger Wang in April 2010,” said David. I was in KK and I wanted to meet him because he’s our Sabahan guitarist. So I came to RAM to buy some of his cds, and he happened to have a luthier there as well, his friend Yap. We all talked shop and I really enjoyed that first meeting.
“Just as I left, I said, ‘Roger, you should play a guitar made with Sabah woods, made by a Sabahan luthier. That has a lot of meaning!’ After I left the meeting I went and started looking for woods.”
David’s imagination was fired up! “Of course, it was a sentimental idea! We supply woods to the world, why can’t we make guitars out of Sabah woods? We have Ebony — here it is called Kayu Malam — they use it for furniture. One piece could make so many guitars!
“A guitar made of Sabah woods would have a different sound for sure. It would be unique!” David pointed to one of Roger’s guitars. “That Maton over there has a Bunya top, it’s Australian wood. The sound is very nice, different from something that comes out of America. It’s an Australian sound. I think we could have a Sabah sound! Nangka [Jackfruit] tree wood is used around Asia as a sound board wood. We could use that. Red Suriah sounds like mahogany, it’s very resonant. There’s a lot of potential to do things with Sabah woods!”
Sadly, the wood suppliers were not interested in David’s project. “My first problem was I couldn’t get the wood for making the guitar.” David said the suppliers in KK were not interested in selling him the small quantities he needed. “They wanted large volume exports. One big timber merchant had Ebony, but the sales girl said it was not for sale, even though I only needed a little bit and for such a worthy project.”
So that was the first setback. “But I still liked the idea of making a guitar for Roger. Especially when Roger said he really needed a nylon. My background interest has always been in classical nylon.”
Roger joined in. “With nylon strings, it’s easy to get a nice mellow sound, but it’s hard to get something that can cut through [have a clear treble]. Steel strings is the other way round. It’s easy to get a sharp, bright tone, but hard to get a warm tone. So I always had an idea that my ideal tone would be somewhere within those two spectrum: something warm, but when you dig in it’s sharp enough to cut through.”
So, this would be a prototype crossover guitar! David returned to Australia and emailed Roger the specs, and they began their communication by email.
David said, “I had pictured it like this before I even started. I had to.”
Roger was not so sure. “I was really worried, how is it going to turn out? It’s fine to see the concept on paper, but someone is going to make it, and it’s not easy to achieve.”
“Normally, if you build a hand-made guitar it should take about 150 hours,” David said. “It took me two to three months to build this one. It’s a prototype, and I was recording information for every step I took. Photos of the construction, all the dimensions, the spectrum of the sound, how the wood vibrated even when it was not glued on, what the changes were as they happened. So I can reproduce it. Because the thing about the luthier is that he’s always after the ultimate instrument. You always aim for the best of the best.”
“Roger wanted a guitar which could play bossa nova, and bossa nova is traditionally played with a Spanish classical guitar” David explained.
“I thought we should make this guitar with a particular Spanish bracing, with woods used for the Spanish guitar – Cedar. This is a wood imported into Spain from Canada. The body of Roger’s guitar is made of Rosewood. Spanish guitars use Indian Rosewood, probably from Madagascar or some place like that. For Roger’s guitar, the Rosewood probably comes from Indonesia, one of the plantation woods.
“I chose Cedar because it’s known for having a punchy sound which really gets out there,” said David, referring to Roger’s wish for clear trebles to ‘cut through’.
“This body size is smaller than a classical guitar,” David continued. “Because of Roger’s style of playing and his stance, it’s good to have a light, narrow body. The overall profile is smaller and thinner as well, so it’s easier to hold. But you have to tackle the problem of a smaller body: it hasn’t got the full sound, so you have to compensate for that in different ways.”
“Also, I needed a cutaway with a high reach,” Roger said.
“Bracing,” David said, “is like the mechanical equalizer. It’s the skeleton of the instrument, the structure of the wood. Bracing allows you to emphasise different resonances and peaks in the sound spectrum. This guitar could be generating the whole range of frequencies, and I use bracing to emphasise a particular band of frequencies which I want. It also affects tone. Bracing the wood makes it act like a filter, so at certain frequencies it’s going to vibrate. Depending on the length, height and certain wood you use, the frequency will be different.”
Roger added, “If you look inside the guitar, there are pieces of wood to strengthen the top. How you design it and how you treat it will affect the tone. It’s not smooth inside.”
“I chose a Spanish design,” said David. “I know this symmetrical design has a very Spanish sound, and I know if I cut the Cedar wood according to my plan — certain height, certain length, taper it differently, it will resonate around the range we want, within plus or minus 20 Hertz. That’s still a lot of variance, but it’s now in the range. That’s why I said bracing is like an equalizer. It emphasises the frequencies in the right areas.
“Also, to make sure you have the good treble response that Roger wants, that’s in how you finish it: knowing where to sand, and looking at how it vibrates,” he said.
Roger said, “For me, no matter how nice a guitar is acoustically when you play it at home or in a studio, at the end of the day it has to work on stage, and I can’t be standing in front of a mic while performing. It has to have good electronics.”
David added, “So, there’s also a pick-up system in the guitar. We picked the best electronics for it. I was quite pleased with the sound when Roger played it. The sound was really nice.”
Roger explained to me that by definition, nylon strings are for classical music, like Julian Bream, for example. Acoustic music is more about folk guitar, with steel strings. He then picked up a traditional nylon-stringed guitar, and showed the neck to me.
“See the neck? It’s very wide, and made for classical players who are trained to NOT have their thumb over the neck.”
But he said many jazz players and bossa nova players like the warm tone of nylon strings.
“I could never find a nylon string guitar that I was comfortable with, mostly because the neck was too big compared to a steel-string. I play a lot with my thumb over the neck, to finger some strings also. It’s very hard on a regular classical guitar.”
Also, there are dots on the neck of the new guitar. [Roger laughs.] “These are steel string players’ dots! The dots give you a reference where you are. [He showed me the neck.] This dot means it’s a 5th, this is a 7th, this is a 12th. For classical guitar players, they’re so good they don’t need the dots! They sometimes only have the 7th. The pure ones have nothing at all! But I get lost sometimes! [Laughs again] So I asked David for dots! Why make it harder?
“Plus there’s a bit of curve on the surface of the neck,” Roger continued enthusiastically. “Classical guitar necks are very flat, while steel strings, and electric guitars even more, have that bit of curve. So this is like in-between. It’s really a CROSSOVER!” He looked really pleased!
David is actually making two guitars for Roger. One from Cedar, the other from Spruce. “The spruce pattern is the same. The area, size and shape may be a little different. The shape probably will be similar but maybe the projections and frequencies will be different by the time we do the final adjustments to make sure it’s really right. Spruce takes a longer time for the sound to mature.”
Roger said, “Yeah, just a week before David was due to come, because he couldn’t bring two guitars, I had to choose one. It takes time for wood to settle. I know Cedar matures faster, so I know this is how it’s going to sound, now. It won’t need more time to blossom. Spruce needs time. When you just put it, it’s still a bit stiff, it takes some time to play. It’s like good leather shoes, which take time to break in. Back then, I was thinking that I probably don’t play nylon strings as much as steel strings, and I might not have the time to invest to really play a spruce until it opens up. But I think I’ll be playing this guitar quite a lot!” [Smiles]
David said before he brought the guitar over, he got a few guitarists in Australia to play it, for the feedback.
“I got a classical player to play a Spanish classical piece, so I could see if it’s got that Spanish sound. The classical player obviously had problems playing the harmonics, because of the curve in the fretboard. I also had another classical player evaluate it and in fact, that classical player was my master luthier, Chris Wynne, and he thought it had a good sound. That was good enough for me. The guy’s been making guitars for 29 years!
“Then I got a jazz player, and he played with a pick and really worked it. He suggested a minor adjustment to the last string, and said the action was a little high. So I lowered it.
“Then I got a bossa nova player. He played it about a couple of weeks before I was due to fly. The bossa nova player played both guitars, and said his money was on the Cedar. I discussed the findings with Roger, and he made his decision. Then I took it to the final finishing stages: the fine sanding, action and everything.
“No matter how good a guitar is, if you don’t have a good musician to play it, it’s just not the same. It made me really glad to see Roger bring life to the guitar. David Chin.
“When I first brought this guitar to Roger, it had lighter strings on it, normal tension. Roger — with his recording experience — thought the sound wasn’t coming out. His instinct was to use a stronger string. I couldn’t see what was wrong with the sound. But he was right. The sound really came out with the stronger strings. That was really the end-user experience. I couldn’t believe it.”
Roger took the guitar to jam with Elixir at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria resort. David said: “For me, it was the epic moment to hear and see the guitar that we conceptualized and developed for months, now finally being used to produce great music for many to enjoy, through the hands of a very capable musician.”
David’s ambitions aren’t over yet. There’s still the spruce guitar to perfect! He has mother-of-pearl in the finishings, and wants this guitar to really do justice to Roger. “So when he takes it on stage, it will SPARKLE!” He said.
“It cannot be a Spanish guitar, it’s got to be something in between but a little bit more different…” David pondered.
Meanwhile, Roger said, “You will definitely be hearing a lot more nylon strings from me now!”
Fine work, by fine Sabahans.