In 1961 when the Rebels first hit the stage at Jesselton’s Community Center for the 1st installment of Talent Time finals, they had Hofner V2 guitars. These were solid body guitars made from slabs of pine with two magnetic coil pickups passing through switches and controls. To a lot of eyes in the audience, these planks of wood were as futuristic as space ships. There was a coolness about them and they were deemed exceptionally sexy.
These guitars were plugged into a single amplifier with two inputs where the lead guitar was notched louder than the rhythm guitar. Chances are it was Radio Sabah’s band equipment provided for the competing bands to use. Most likely they were Hohner amplifiers putting out around 5 to 8 watts RMS.
The drum sets were Spartan and maybe branded as Rossini. A bass drum, a snare, a tom tom and a ride cymbal was all that was needed to complete a kit. Having a tom tom was a luxury and in the absence of it, the intro of Apache required the drummer to hit the bass drum with his sticks.
All the above mentioned equipment was during performance time. What about band practice at the home of one of the members? There was probably only one electric guitar plugged into a “radiogram” or a Hi Fi set as it is known now. These radiograms were as huge as a writing desk with a combo of radio tuner and a vinyl record player with a turntable (hence radio plus gramophone). There was a way to hook up the guitar using two wires attached to the circuit without getting electrocuted. With limited finance, this was the best way to get sound from a slab of wood with magnetic coil pickups. Rhythm and bass were usually played on acoustic guitars and drums, the table tops or carton boxes.
The richest kid who owned an electric guitar became the lead guitarist and if there were two well-to-do kids, the one with a vibrato installed in his guitar became the lead guitarist.
Though being a lead guitarist carried a lot of bravado and glamour, especially with the girls (as they hoped for), his duty was quite pressured. He had to learn to play along with the records almost identically note-for-note. This meant repeatedly placing the needle back on a rotating vinyl disc and finding the note or phrase until he gets it right. At times the record needed to be slowed down so a fast phrase can be more easily deciphered. It was truly ear training and pitch finding. Youtube was decades away and none could read music so transcriptions were useless. Guitar tabulation was also not conceived yet.
A true guitar hero was defined by how closely he could play to the original track. The other members followed the lead guitar’s melody and cue, and everyone had memorized the arrangements according to the records.
Hence the equipment war began, since the right equipment would allow a band to reproduce sound as closely to the original song as possible.
Beg, Steal or Borrow
The need for better equipment among bands of the 60s became crucial now that bands were rated according to how closely they could emulate sounds like the original records. This reflected on the type of equipment they used. The makeshift amplifiers using the home radiograms were just not acceptable anymore, and demand for bands was rising, to entertain at parties, socials and concerts. Many had to think of ways to upgrade their equipment base. It was a Beg, Steal or Borrow situation.
Promises of improving school report cards warranted some with new guitars and often with amplifiers to boot. These were the fortunate ones who were able to “beg” their well-to-do parents. Then there were also some who managed to align themselves with social clubs, clan associations or schools with access to their equipment bought from annual budgets. These bands would gain usage of the equipment and assume temporary ownership. The band Skylarks aligned themselves with an association that had a Gibson amplifier they could use. The model was a Gibson GA-5 Skylark amp, hence the name of the band.
A band would keep its amplifier till the band dissolved when members went overseas to further their studies. It was subsequently returned to the association in working condition. So it was “stolen” and returned. Finally there were the deprived bands that did not own any equipment, save the guitars, and had to scrounge around to borrow equipment from other bands to be heard on stage. These poor bands would sometimes plug into whatever amplifier was available on stage, especially when there were a few bands performing that evening. Often to their disappointment, some amplifiers did not work when they switched them on. This was because the owners of this equipment had removed the power fuse after they had played and made sure no other bands used their equipment! So less fortunate bands would plug into anything that worked. The end result was that they would not sound as good as the other bands no matter how good they played because the tone settings were different from amplifier to amplifier.
With guitars, the situation was better. Most were able to afford decent playing guitars from Goyatones to Hofners. Hofner guitars were at the time the closest and cheapest equivalent to Fender guitars in tone, looks and even playability. Owning a Fender guitar was only a dream then and way beyond anyone’s budget, even those of well-to-do parents. The first Fender Stratocaster in Sabah was probably owned by Nicholas Chang of the band Phantoms. He was a student from Brunei studying at Sabah College. Legend has it that his mother struck some kind lottery and bought her son a genuine Fender from T.M.A. Music store located along Hill Street in Singapore.
Then there was Charles Lim of Rebels/Telstar whose well-to-do father indulged his son with the best that was available. Telstar probably had the best equipment at the time with Fender piggyback Dual-Showman amplifiers and Premier drums. Charles himself favoured a Fender Jaguar guitar over a Stratocaster because it was the most expensive in the catalogue. He did eventually settle on a Stratocaster however. With such an impressive display of equipment, young musicians were also enticed to join such an outfit. The late John Ho had inherited Kenneth Boon’s bass guitar which he bought in Singapore on his trip there with the Ng brothers during the formation of the Cannons. It was probably the first actual 4-string bass guitar in Jesselton. The guitar was branded as Fenton-Weill marketed from the United kingdom and acquired in Singapore. The bass guitar was not even close in looks or playability to any Fender models. When Telstar offered John Ho the bass set (John was then the bassist for Kenneth’s Dreamers), Charles had bought a Fender look-a-like bass from a U.S. sailor working onboard the battleship USS St. Paul berthed at Kota Kinabalu port at the time. The bass was actually a good copy of a Fender Jazz bass made in the Philippines and that was enough reason for John to migrate from Kenneth’s band to Charles’ band. Subsequently, John Adriano and Boy Quoic, who was previously a fellow bandmate with the Rebels, also followed suit enticed by the quality of equipment Charles would provide them. This resulted in Telstar being 3/4 Dreamers 1/4 Charles Lim.
The Telstars, through Charles Lim, successfully put bands of the early to mid 60s onto a higher plane with branded and professional equipment. Having to beg, steal or borrow became an inconvenience plus a step down in prestige. It was also time consuming as most band members had completed their school leaving year and some had entered the work force. Their passion for music actually motivated many to use part of their first pay cheques as down payments for musical equipment. A local music store called Phoenix in downtown Jesselton had trouble keeping up with orders. Some actually struck deals with music shops in Singapore to pay for their instruments by instalments with monthly bank drafts. Fender guitars, Vox amplifiers, Watkins tape echo units were arriving by ships and one could actually see eager young musicians filling in customs declaration forms to take possession of their most prized acquisitions.
The bands of Sabah finally reached maturity by 1966 with quality musical instruments, stage presence and most importantly, musical prowess. The band heritage started in the early part of 1960s would ultimately propel performers onto the world’s stages in decades to come. Hail to the pioneers.
George Heng for his wealth of photo collection of early bands in Sabah. Alvin Lee for his recollection of his band, the Phantoms.