Heart Strings

Adam Chan, who makes customised steel-string guitars, chats about his passion in life.

By Edmund Wee      1 July 2020

There’s no room for whims and fancies, a wishy-washy attitude, and ‘Wah, no aircon and Wi-Fi ah?’” quips Adam Chan, Singapore’s very own custom guitar maker, about pursuing a metier in the name of passion.

Nevertheless, passion alone isn’t enough to succeed, he says. Chan, whose steel-string guitars come with price tags from $5,300, adds: “While my workshop was operational from 2014, it was not until 2017 that I completed my first built. I spent a few years studying steel-string guitars in the aspects of aesthetics, function and structure…”

But foremost is the need to find one’s calling. “As I learnt to play steel-string guitars, I became interested in how this instrument works. Being curious by nature, I made an effort to understand string instruments in their various aspects. It was probably when all these pieces fell in place that it became clear guitar making was my calling.”

eNSMan chats with Chan to find out more about his journey of impassioned soul searching.

What kind of guitars do you make?

Steel-string guitars, also known as acoustic or folk guitars. Overseas customers would contact me directly via email, and local customers would drop by my workshop to try them out.

What makes a good guitar?

Objectively, one could use price as a benchmark to appraise if a guitar is indeed good. This manner of appraisal is suitable for seasoned guitar players as they are able to discern the true values that go into making a guitar – for example, in the selection of wood materials, the construction methods, complexity, and beauty of ornamental details.

Guitars of such a quality come with hefty price tags. But these attributes are not readily comprehensible to novice-to intermediate guitar players. As a guitar player “grows” from being a novice, the notion of a good guitar would also change according to his stage of growth. “The best guitar in the world” isn’t an object but a journey.

Who do you admire in the trade?

Every maker has something worthy to learn from. Invariably, I’m not saying that every guitar maker is equal in ability. In producing highly detailed fine inlay works, I would name Ervin Somogyi. In harnessing technology to attain precision, it has got to be Kevin Ryan. The master in making amazing shell inlays must be Larry Robinson. There are more. They are all noteworthy individuals who have set high benchmarks for others to emulate.

How did you make the switch from engineer to guitar artisan?

While I obtained an engineering degree, I was never into engineering jobs. I found my calling in guitar repairing and, eventually, guitar making.

In my younger days, I used to follow my dad to his wood workshop. Watching him in action planted a seed in me. Part of my growing up years was spent in repairing and making things. The woodworks and the making of things in my youth nudged me in the direction of guitar making. However, that wasn’t enough for me to make the leap. I believed that my love for music was key. I was unable to afford a piano to express my love, so I looked for another alternative that was within my reach, and that was the steel-string guitar.


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