It’s portable, it’s relatively easy to learn, and it’s forever tied to countless songs of non-conformist rebellion.
Hubert Leong has been building custom-made guitars in Saigon for six years, and he strives to help guitarists find their signature sound. Today, a young Vietnamese guitarist is leaving his home after Hubert helped fine-tune his guitar ready for a gig in Vung Tau at the weekend. He’s just one of many examples. Chances are, if you’re serious about guitar playing and you live in Saigon, you’ll know about Hubert and his work.
“There’s no school that can train you how to listen to tone,” says Hubert. “I know if there’s something wrong with a piece of music. That is God’s gift to me. I pride myself on that.”
Against The Grain
Born and bred in Singapore, he first picked up the guitar as a teenager, but this wasn’t met with enthusiasm by his teachers and parents.
“During my era, you were considered a rebel [if you played the guitar]. At school, they said, ‘What the hell are you doing playing this kind of music?’ They were brick-and-mortar guys, especially Asian parents, they want you to be a cop, and they want you to be a civil servant.”
He built a successful career in advertising, but it was a trip to the US in the early 2000s that would change the course of his life.
“I had time off in-between work contracts. I went to the States and enrolled myself into guitar-making school. After I completed seven months in Arizona, I stayed on and worked in guitar shops. I got bored and moved to California and worked in real guitar shops. I saw them up close and personal. California is the guitar heaven of the world.”
The Right Tone
After winding down his career in advertising, he was ready to put his training to use, and being a Fender-certified luthier (repairer) has helped set him apart from the many other guitar makers in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Being Asian, it’s ingrained in you that you need to be certified to do anything. I don’t know if that’s a flaw or a trait. It gave me a backup plan.
“All my guitars are hand-made. There’s something about making a guitar that’s very personal. When you build a kitchen cabinet and when you build a guitar, it's two different things. You want a cabinet to stay there and not fall down, with a guitar you want to feel every inch of the wood.”
One of the challenges of making a guitar from scratch is how to go beyond simple engineering and inject emotion or your own personality into what is essentially a piece of wood.
“It’s a tough balance. I’m a custom builder. All my customers are mature guitarists. A beginner hasn’t found their tone yet or what they are looking for in a guitar.
“Sometimes I get requests or designs that will screw the product up. I strike a fine balance between aesthetics. Most of the time I get my way. I try to earn the respect of every person. I don’t tell you how to play, but I will build something that is running in your head.”
Hubert says that with a piece of wood you’ll never know what it’s going to sound like until it’s 100 percent complete: “The first strum is the most satisfying,” he says.
During his time in Vietnam, he says he’s mixed with many characters who live an alternative or Bohemian lifestyle, but would he consider himself one?
“I wouldn’t consider myself a Bohemian. I build an old-school way but I embrace technology. It’s a fine line. Sound is always divided into analogue and digital, and Bohemian is analogue,” he says.
“My perception [of a Bohemian] is someone like John Lennon or Yoko Ono. I don’t identify with that.”
Living The Dream
But has the guitar become passé? And is what was once a symbol of rebellion now an accepted sound of the establishment? Hubert doesn’t see it that way. He believes the guitar is still as relevant as ever for those looking to express themselves through music.
“A lot of young boys play the guitar to get girls, that’s been going on for years. But I was very surprised in Vietnam that there are many young guitarists who have international standard skills.”
For as long as the demand is there, Hubert will keep busy as he continues to live his rock ’n roll dream in Vietnam.
“I’m living the dream. I’ve got my own name on my own guitar.”
Photo by Bao Zoan
To read the other articles in this series, click on the following links: