Music is very much part of my everyday life. My mother was a piano teacher, and I had to learn the piano whether I liked it or not (it was mostly not, for the large part of my childhood). I finished my grade 8 exams, passing by the skin of my teeth (by 1 mark, if I remember correctly), thereby satisfying my mother and earning the right never to study music formally ever again. Typically and perversely, I then decided I wanted to learn more, but on my own time and taught by just me (the piano teacher my mother had shipped me out to, on the sound enough theory that no piano teacher should teach her own children, was a pretty dismal person who perhaps came to life when he was dealing with his star pupils, but since I wasn't in that category he always seemed dopy and uninspired to me). So I picked up the basics of classical guitar, and then really got into fusion jazz. I listened to, and made arrangements for, some really dubious groups that arose and quickly faded away in the 1980s (anyone remember Casiopea?), but some of it was really good stuff: the great A. C. Jobim of course, Caetano Veloso, Dory Caymi, some of the Spyro Gyra stuff, Pat Metheny etc. Plus similar bossa-inspired arrangements of oldies. I also picked up the Chromatica - that harmonica with the slide which allows you to move any note up by a semitone, thus (unlike most harmonicas which are keyed to a specific key only) allowing you to play in any key with just one harmonica.
My sister also studied the piano, and finished all her exams several years younger than me, with better results each time, which obviously didn't endear me to piano lessons and exams. She later married Regi Leo, a well-known jazz (and earlier top 40/rock) guitarist who has played with some of the big international names (like Eldee Young and Jeremy Monteiro) and even played backup for the Platters and Tom Jones. Regi has one of the best collection of guitars I know, and often parks some of them (like his P Project, Godin Multiac, the Ibanez that Pat Metheny uses) with me to let me "season" them - so if you've heard him play and think he sounds good, I like to think I've played a small part in that, by keeping his guitars seasoned.
As it turned out, the woman I married also has a passion for music. Mervyln, my wife, like me was an indifferent pianist (in attitude, not in ability) who was forced through grade 8 and then promptly stopped, and like me perversely found a new passion for music after the coerced lessons stopped. In her case, it was singing: she sang with the National University of Singapore chorus, the Singapore Symphony Chorus and for a short while with the Philharmonic chorus. In Chicago she sang with the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Society, and in a Court Theatre production of Evita, as well as with other groups. And she has sung in church choir most of her life, and conducted the choir for quite a while too.
For many years I played for an audience of just myself, although I must say the jazz guitar stuff really came in useful in wooing my girlfriend (well, I assume it worked, because she married me). But I never played in public gatherings of any kind - just too painfully shy, too conscious of people who might be watching as I played. Then when I in my early thirties something happened. Although I had been a Christian technically since I was 16, and was faithful in attending church and even serving (in the choir, playing the piano, teaching Sunday School and as deacon etc), in my thirties I really began to feel this awareness of God as a living presence, real in my life, wanting to communicate with me - it was like a overpowering, deep presence, not discernible by any fleshly senses, but if you were still enough you could feel the warmth of a lovely, majestic presence. It was, and is, the most inspiring feeling I've ever felt, and it also changed my musical life. I started leading worship in church, which is a very contemporary kind of thing - contemporary songs, drums, keyboards and piano, bass and guitars, backup singers that kind of thing. This was a huge change from my introverted and painfully shy musical past - I guess I finally found something worth singing in public about, the awesome God who had revealed a small part of Himself to me, one quiet moment (and ever after, since). I also started writing worship songs, some of which I sang in church. This experience of musicians worshipping together, united spiritually as well as musically, has really been a life-changing experience for me, and even though I've changed churches and worked with different musicians, the old worship team still keeps in touch and fondly remembers the experience. It's our dream to reunite and do a CD of all the songs the Lord has blessed me with, and which we've enjoyed playing together.
"Elijah" worship team, 2002
Expressing my experience of God as a Christian has really helped my music in all kinds of ways - not just in inspiring me to write worship songs, but in expression, both on the guitar and vocally, and in working together with the rest of the band. I still play jazz, and enjoy it (I sometimes get a chance to play with Regi - see below), but worshipping the Lord in different ways in my music (vocally, changing arrangements, working out guitar solos and accompaniments) has become my consuming passion.
Rehearsing for worship at Cairnhill Methodist Church (2005): (L to R) Ruth (keyboards), Quentin (bass), Elijah (drums - hidden),
"Delight yourself in the Lord" (which is what true worship is about), and He will honour you and give you "the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37: 4) - these days I'm surrounded by music, and God is the unifying theme and inspiration. My wife Mervyln sings backup when I lead worship, and my sons Gavin Ezra (age 7) and Gareth Elijah (age 5) have already picked up a pretty impressive repertoire of songs from listening to their parents at choir and worship practice from their earliest recollection. So our household is often filled with an impromptu worship-jam session of guitar, multiple vocals, and sometimes makeshift instruments improvised out of children's toys (well, I find it hard to stop it - she is my wife, after all. Just kidding - it's the boys, of course, but it'll do until they learn instruments). Gavin is currently learning the piano, and we hope that he will never feel coerced into doing it - but (again the Lord's blessing) right now the piano lessons can't seem to come quickly enough for him. Gavin has (more or less) perfect pitch, we realized this when he was a toddler and we’d play a familiar CD in the car, and when one song ended and before the next one began, he would sing the first few notes of the next song—and lo and behold, when the song started we realized that he was right on pitch.
Some links to Contemporary Christian Music webpages:
Higher Praise (click here)
1. Takamine concert classical guitar (Hirade 7): handmade in Japan in 1982, a proper classical guitar without cutout, electronics or strap buttons. Good all-round guitar for all kinds of solo playing (not only worship songs, but classical pieces, jazz, etc), although it probably doesn't have as sharply-defined a sound as some other classical guitars. It's got a solid cedar top, rosewood back and sides, and ebony fingerboard. 12 frets up to the body, 6 more frets after that, but they are almost impossible to reach because there's no cut-out.. Gold-plated ornamental tuners - they sure must have used a lot of gold to plate the tuners, because unlike other gold tuners these ones have never tarnished or dimmed. Don't know why Takamine has discontinued the H7, but it sounds and feels great. The ebony fingerboard looks great, it doesn't have those little flecks or separations in the grain over time the way my rosewood fingerboards all do, and it "feels" more solid and also smoother to play.
2. Takamine EG40C (G series) electric accoustic. NEX body shape (Takamine says this is one of their innovations - a compact-feel guitar, because of the slim waist and smallish top, but with enough body behind the bridge to give it a decent sound when played without amplification), solid cedar top, sepele mahogany back, rosewood fingerboard, Takamine N4B electronics. 20 frets in all, 6 on the cutout. It's got a Takamine on-board equalizer, nice clear sound with or without amplication. I really like the semi-circular, fat-umbrella shape of the tuner keys. The action is a bit high, so it gets tiring if you play for a long time, especially if you play bars or half-bars on the higher frets (and especially if like me, your fingers aren't particularly long or strong). The bridge is on the high side, I don't know if adjusting the neck truss rod is going to help much, it's not really concave at all). But it's got a very nice bell-like clarity, nice balance of highs/mids/bass sounds (maybe a little louder in the highest 2 strings), and high action means no buzzing. Another discontinued Takamine - I seem to have a knack for choosing styles which don't last. It was only the second guitar I ever bought, I used it when I first started leading worship, so it's got a lot of sentimental associations, although if I were to do it all over again it probably wouldn't be the guitar that I'd buy. But nice price, good electronics, nice shape, good bell-like clear sound - I use it for strumming, when I won't need to do much soloing.
3. Yamaha CGX 111 SCA nylon string electric accoustic - apparently this is the entry-level model in Yamaha's range of nylon-string electric accoustic guitars. Solid spruce top, nato back and sides, rosewood bridge and fingerboard. Smaller (smaller body, narrower fingerboard and shorter frets) than classical guitar, makes it better for soloing. 18.5 frets (that last one doesn't quite count). Doesn't sound all that good without amplification - a bit muted, because of the small body (and maybe the spruce? This is my only guitar which has a spruce top, and nato back and sides for that matter, but I can't decide if it's the wood, or the small body, or maybe something about the construction or finish, that makes it sound and feel rather muted). But sounds fine when amplified, especially playing solo - I think this is testimony to the quality of the pickup. It's got a Yamaha Prefix which uses a B-Band (Finnish - www.b-band.com) preamp, it's supposed to be more faithful to the accoustic sound and sound less like an electronic reproduction (the B-Band website says the pickup works and sounds like a "condenser mike").. I must say it sounds pretty good plugged in - very natural, not much twangy electronic sound (although there is some). I used it in the worship band for a while, but it just had too mellow a sound to be heard clearly above the keyboards and electric guitar, so it's now reserved for solo worship and playing (it's got a nice sound for Brazilian-style jazz, warm, mellow and a little lyrical). (Unlike the many guitar models I use which have stopped production, not only is this one still being made and sold, it's actually selling for significantly more than I paid for it).
4. Timothy S7C: currently my favourite guitar, handmade, 20 frets (6 on the cutout), with a terrific Fishman prefix (first swivel-out prefix I've ever owned - instead of the battery casing popping out when you press the release, the whole prefix panel swivels out, not only to facilitate battery changes, but you can see the whole circuit board too - cool! although this means that there's a slight gap between the prefix housing and the body of the guitar), but Singapore-produced so it's really affordable. Solid mahogany all round, which gives it a very dark colour which some people apparently don't like (a matter of taste), but gives the guitar a really warm sound that I really like (To me, it sounds deeper and fuller than cedar, which I think sounds clearer but thinner). Full dreadnought size makes it a little clunky if you're moving around, but it also gives it a good sound even when it's not amplified - this is an all-rounder that can be used for solo worship with or without amplification, in a small or medium group, or amplified in a worship band. The action is really perfect for me: not too high, so you can play for hours, even plucking and bars/half-bars very high up the fretboard, without getting tired. Heavier on the bass than the mids and high strings, for that reason some people don't like it for strumming, but you can compensate by changing your strumming style to accentuate the mids and highs. And it's really good if you switch back and forth from strumming to plucking all the time, like I do. This is the one I use for leading worship in a band or on its own, strumming or plucking.
5. Traveler Speedster: my really small (28 inches stripped down, 30 inches overall in its gig bag, maybe just a little longer with the armrest attached), ultra-light (less than 4 kg) travel guitar. This thing was designed and built expressly for travelling, it's no-frills in many ways, but you can easily stow it in an airplane overhead bin or under your seat, and because it's a solid-body, you don't have to worry about its body getting crushed under a bit of weight (e.g. someone's hand luggage) the way you would with a hollow-body (even the small ones supposedly made for travelling, like the baby Taylor and the Martin Backpacker). For a no-frills, relatively inexpensive guitar, it has some nice features: a good-sounding humbucker pickup (very mellow and full-bodied - not much good for strumming, of course, but a very nice sound suitable for jazz, other solos, gentle strumming), a full-scale fingerboard (the makers compare it to a Les Paul - I've never played a Les Paul, but the fingerboard feels right, not too cramped, similar to a Strat or one of those Strat clones or any other neck with a moderately full C), a useful tone control in addition to the volume. (No pickup switches, because the humbucker is all you get, and no trem bar). The weird-looking armrest, which is easily detachable for travelling, actually works very well - it'd be hard to play a guitar this size without it, because you have very little body to anchor your playing arm to. The neck and body are Eastern American Maple. 22 frets, all reasonably-spaced, all very playable (well, I do have small fingers) - not bad for such a small guitar. The fingerboard is Pao Ferro - my first Pao Ferro fingerboard, I looked it up and found out that this Brazilian hardwood is actually toxic to a small percentage of the human population - about 15% or something like that. How cool is that! - you unpack the guitar, try it out, and look at the skin of your hands a while later to see if you're breaking out (in which case tough luck, you sell the guitar second-hand, after playing it just once). Praise God, I'm not allergic to Pao Ferro (you learn something new everyday).
6. Fender USA Highway 1 Showmaster HSS FR - not normally the kind of guitar I would get for myself, but I got a super deal on it, so why not. Maple body, Alder neck (bolt-on, like the majority of Fenders), rosewood fingerboard, with 24 frets. 1 tone, 1 volume control. The body shape, headstock, neck etc are all very close to the Strat, except the body seems to be slimmer and more streamlined (it's got that subtle bevel at the top rear, where your arm rests, and another curvy one at the back waist of the body, where it would otherwise press against your midriff, making craddling the guitar very comfortable), the controls are different, and it doesn't have the Strat pickguard. The fingerboard is terrific, really fast and smooth (but I find it a little "stiffer" than my AES 620 - it's the frets, the Yamaha has really good smooth frets, the Fender frets seem to "stick" just a little sometimes when you're playing fast). It's got an "enforcer" humbucker and 2 single-coil pickups, with 5-way switching (a bit of a cheat, because position 4 is a "kill switch," so you can't get a mix of humbucker and middle pickup - I don't know why you need a kill switch, that's the only thing I don't like about the guitar, but hey, a USA Fender, a great deal...). [afternote: duh, I finally figured out why some people like a kill switch - you can pull out your cable, e.g. changing in-between guitars, without having to switch your volume and tone dials to zero and then have to figure out where they were at later on]. Position 1 (neck pickup) gives you the classic Fender sound, sharp, clear and distinctive. Position 2 (neck and middle coils on, but separately) is a pretty good rocking sound, distinct but a bit less sharp than with just the neck pickup. Position 3 (neck and middle coils blended) is a really interesting Jazz sound, a little warmer than 1 single coil, but not as beefy as a humbucker, great for jazz if you want a slightly more distinctive sound. The humbucker is pretty good, sharp and powerful, a good lead sound and it's a nice option, - it's good for lead playing through an effects pedal, where the overall tone from the guitar itself doesn't matter all that much, and it gives you the beefier mid- and low-frequencies you can't really get from a single-coil. If you want to play jazz on this hummy you'll have to turn the tone down to make it less sharp, more mellow - or just use position 3, which is great.
The tremolo is a floating-bridge Floyd Rose-licensed - I don't really use tremolo, being classically-trained (although not really any good at it) once upon a time I'm used to doing a fingerboard "shake" or string-bend, which gives you a very slight, subtle vibrato and trem on the melody line that's really all I ever need. But I guess it's good to have a trem if I should ever want to sell the guitar (no, no, never!). The strings lock at both ends, not with the more expensive Schaller tuner locks on the American Deluxe Strat, but with a simple locking nut (3 gates, 2 strings in each gate) on the fingerboard near the head, and on the bridge with Allen-key-operated locking bolts and manual fine-tuners - the setup really keeps the strings in tune, it feels more secure than even a guitar with fixed bridge but without a lock at the head end (e.g. my Timothy, which sometimes seems to lose a bit of tuning, probably because I've bumped the head and one of the tuning keys got moved). After I got the rig set up to my satisfaction and tuned the guitar with an electronic tuner, it sounded fantastic, absolutely spot-on, and didn't lose its tuning one bit after a couple of hours of play. Since I don't intend to use the trem much or at all, I don't imagine I'll have to retune the guitar that often. I can use this for playing rhythm or solo in the worship band, for jazz, blues (through an effects pedal) etc.
7. Yamaha AES620: I did a lot of checking up on this one before I bought it. I was looking for a Les Paul-like guitar mostly for jazz, but that could move from jazz to leads, with a little more tonal variety to play chords/rhythm on occasion. The Gibsons were way out of my price range, and I kept hearing from different people how they'd had a few little problems with their Gibsons or how, good as they were, they didn't seem that much better that they'd justify the huge costs (OK, maybe I'm just cheap). The Epiphone Les Pauls seemed okay, but not exactly cheap for something that's intended as a "lower-end" version of the Gibsons. I've played Epiphones (although I've never owned one), they are okay, but there's a certain lack of "mystique" about them, maybe it's just my awareness that they are the poorer cousins of the Gibsons - also, string buzz was a problem I kept hearing people talk about, and I've experienced it playing Epiphones as well. There are lots of LP clones out there, of course, and then I read about this model - lots of guitarists raved about it, saying that it was highly underrated, a great secret because people go for the well-known names instead. I read all the specs and the reviewers' responses, and that it had won these awards and accolades from Guitar Player and Guitar One magazines, and decided I had to try it. It didn't disappoint - for the money, it's one of the best guitars I have ever played. If I hadn't bought my Fender at a great deal, I would seriously have thought that it was overpriced compared to the AES 620, but as it is they make a nice pair - both about the same (very reasonable, a third of the price of an average Gibson) price, one with the single coils-HB combination for the sharper leads, greater tonal variety and rhythm-playing, the other with a smaller tonal variety but great feel and sound for jazz.
The AES 620 has a mahogany body (like my Timothy - I'm starting to realise I really like the sound and feel that Mahogany gives - Mahogany is Mellow), a Maple top, Rosewood fingerboard with Abalone dots, Nato neck (set neck, not bolt-on), 22 frets. It has Grover tuners, a Seymour Duncan JB HB at bridge, and a Yamaha Alnico HB at neck. The neck is probably a little slimmer than a LP, but for someone with smallish fingers like me, it's perfect - very fast, very smooth action. The bridge is Yamaha's own "AES Bridge," it's basically like a T-O-M, height adjustable with 2 knurled knobs at each side, but with the strings running through the body (staggered, with the 6th string playing out furthest before running into the body's hole) and anchored onto the other side. The set neck and the string-through design gives the guitar an incredible resonance and sustain - the Fender is not bad already, in this regard, probably because of its longer neck and well-designed body, but the AES is something else, you can actually pluck it unamplified and clearly hear every note - it's the clearest unamplified sound I've ever heard on an entirely solid-body guitar. 3-position switch, 1 tone control, and 1 volume control for each of the HBs. The body is basically LP-like, but with this intriguing sculpting going on - the edges are all distinctly bevelled, so it's got all these interesting contours, thickest in the middle of the body (and with other thick spots where the neck joins the body, and where the head joins neck), but slim and comfortable at the edges, at the cut-out which has a visually-pleasing as well as comfortable bevelled scoop, and along the length of the neck. It has 2 strap buttons, a high and low one, near the jack point. The sculpting, plus the pickups, to me are worth the price of the guitar already. The hardware is all substantial-feeling chrome that matches the Grover tuners in look and feel (the only aesthetically jarring note is the yellow casing for the pickups, which doesn't match anything). Having 2 different types of HBs gives some tonal variety - the Duncan has a stronger and sharper note with a bit of snap, while the Yamaha is the more mellow sound I like, but it's pretty clear and strong too. With both hummies on and the Duncan turned between 1/4 and 1/2 volume, you can get a nice jazz sound with variations of "sharpness" for certain kinds of songs.
8. Godin Multiac Jazz SA (Synth Access)
Downsides of this guitar: the neck is a bit more clunky than either my Fender or my AES 620, and the neck finish is a strange, non-glossy and rather tacky dull varnish - it makes the neck a bit less slippery after you've played it for a while (compared to the very slick finishes on, say, the AES 620), but by the same token doesn't let you "glide" as easily up and down the neck. So all in all the fingerboard doesn't feel as smooth and quick as either the Fender or the AES (both of which, in their own ways, are terrific). It's only got one humbucker, which is meant more for a mellow sound than for a strong rock sound. The transducer will never sound as resonant as, say, a piezo pickup in a big-body accoustic like my Timothy S7C dreadnought.
9. Martin Backpacker: This is made by Martin, but in Mexico, not the U.S. It’s a no-frills, compact guitar, without varnish even, and without an on-board pickup. But there is quality in this instrument. The sound is very good, especially for plucking—clear and bright. The action for plucking is great, aided by the use of light strings (I think you can’t use a heavier gauge because the guitar itself is so small, less strong than a full-size) and a fast fingerboard. It doesn’t sound that great for strumming, certainly not to compare with a full-size—not only less resonant, but also just a bit “muddy” when strummed quite loudly/hard. But for plucking, as a practice guitar, it’s really good and convenient, or even as a strumming guitar in a small group/room. I mostly use it as my at-hand, pick-up guitar for practice (playing jazz), and for worship in cell group.
Effects: I sometimes play through a Digitech RP 80, which I got at the same time as the Fender, also at a super deal - I expected it to be really bad, at the price, but since I'm not much of a techie guitarhead, I thought it would do just for some basic effects/models, and at a great price that it wouldn't be a big waste of money and capability. (I have to say the thing died on me a couple of weeks after I bought it - just flat-out refused to operate, either on AC or with batteries. But it was under warranty, so I got it fixed in a couple of days at no charge). To my surprise it's actually pretty good - it has a simple mono or stereo output using standard 1/4" jacks, not the Roland-style 16-point cables used on Godins and Brian Moores, so I thought it'd be slow to react, but to my surprise there's hardly any lag that I can discern between playing and the sound coming out (and that's one thing I'm sensitive to - it's really annoying when you feel disconnected from the movements your fingers are making and the corresponding sound. You feel like one of those characters doing badly-dubbed dialogue in a Godzilla movie). It's got 40 preset effects, and space for 40 customised ones, they sound okay to me, giving you 3 or 4 variations/nuances for each of the more usual kind of effects the average player is likely to need (the crunchy distorted leads and rhythm; the Britpop-style Blackface-amp sound; the gentle chorus-phasing sound for dreamy slow jazz; several Wahs, the roto-blues sound - although it doesn't have a nice combination of the roto-blues and slight sustain-distort sound for Mississippi blues, I may have to try to create a version I like - wish me luck), plus a number of effects I'll probably never use (that sound like real science-fiction movie stuff).
So, all in all, a great surprise at a great bargain - reasonably good-sounding effects with a fairly good variety, the option of customizing your own effects, a bypass (stepping both blue footswitches at once - easy to do sitting down, harder during live playing and standing up), built-in tuner, volume pedal that can also give you a trem effect (told you I'm not going to use the Fender's Floyd Rose), even a drum machine. Build quality isn't good, it's cheapish-looking plastic that will probably break at some point, but for a person who doesn't use effects much, this is a great buy, and gives options when I want to vary the great sounds of the Fender "clean" blended single coils or humbucker with the tone down, or even the Speedster humbucker with the tone control up.
For more serious, heavy-duty playing, I've also added a Boss ME-50 to the lineup - it's another relatively inexpensive effects pedal, but much beefier and more solid (cast metal, rather than plastic) than the Digitech, I think it'll last longer. The ME-50 looks and operates very much like 3 Boss pedals (one for distortion/overdrive, one for modulations, and one for delays) fused together, each with their own knobs and activation pedals, and with an expressions pedal, and COSM modelling to simulate certain types of amps, also thrown in. The advantage is that it makes manual tuning of your effect really easy - you can use 1, 2 or 3 of the "pedals," and set the parameters for each pedal, all at a glance and up front, without having to constantly change modes and/or store the settings as a preset. (Bypass is also easy - just leave all 3 footswitches off or de-activated). The disadvantage (logically) is that switching between preset effects is a bit trickier than with more preset-oriented systems - you can foot-switch between a combination of 3 presets (either factory, or your own stored custom ones) just by pressing pedal 1, 2 or 3, but to change the "bank" of effects you need to either get down and switch banks using your finger, or else get a separate footswitch just for the banks - which is too much bother for me. Overall, an inexpensive, easy-interface, durable and reliable system which can give you practically any sound you need.
It's tough and durable, it has a good usable tuner, I can use the built-in footpedal to control my guitar volume while I'm playing (instead of having to snatch at the volume knob on my guitar with my right hand in-between playing), and it allows me to perform and adjust sounds "on the go" without having to manually edit a combination sound or else go through all the presets looking for the right one for each song (i.e. when you don't have the chance to choose the ideal preset before you play - which is usually the case when I play in church) - perfect for me!
I love my Boss ME-50—it’s so old-fashioned and easy to use, there’s almost a kind of nostalgic feel to it. One of my church guitarists says that he used one until it broke, and he couldn’t find a replacement because they are phasing out these old-fashioned effects pedals. Hope mine lasts a long long time.