You might think that most musicians are artistically driven, creative thinkers who don’t exactly have a propensity for science. Likewise, you might assume scientifically minded people aren’t the sort to care for music.
But Kuan, the creator of Malayan Guitars, will prove you wrong.
Assessed by Mensa as highly gifted when he was a child, Kuan read extensively about architecture, engineering, medicine, and physics from a young age.
Encouraged by his parents, he went on to pursue medicine in London. There, he obtained his bachelor of sciences and did three months of research into ultrasound machines.
Eventually, he came back to Malaysia where he worked on the family’s property and construction business.
In 2017, though, after wrapping up a few projects, Kuan found himself with some free time on his hands. One to constantly try new things, he took the chance to embark on his next adventure—becoming a guitar builder.
At 14, Kuan’s mum bought him his very first guitar. Rather than just enjoying the sounds it produced, he became fascinated with the physics of musical instruments.
During his years in London, he played many guitars from around the world, even buying some acoustic guitars from award-winning guitar builders. However, he could not find an electric guitar he liked.
“The sound quality of recorded music was improving quickly, and sound speakers were getting better and better,” he told Vulcan Post. “I found the 1960s sound quality of electric guitars unacceptable in this modern time.”
Kuan felt that there were many things that could be improved, from balance and ergonomics to tuning and electronic controls. Given his knowledge in ultrasound, he believed he had the chops to make those improvements.
In 2019, Kuan properly set up Malayan Guitars as a registered company so he could order custom parts from overseas.
Before that, though, he had already built some guitars—the first was to test some physics concepts, while his second guitar was to explore commercial viability.
“A few people played the second guitar I built [including] Az Samad (graduate of the Berklee College of Music), Fuad Alhabshi (frontman of Kyoto Protocol), and Nik Azam (founder of Ceriatone Amplification),” he listed.
These musicians, Kuan shared, had encouraging things to say about that guitar, which made him decide to keep working on his craft.
Moreover, he wanted to spread the joy of playing guitar to more people. At the time, he had conducted a survey which showed that 50% of the participants were interested in learning the electric guitar. Yet, only 10% actually owned at least one guitar.
The reason was because they found it difficult to find a guitar that was easy to play.
“I realised that the flooding of the local market by low quality guitars has done the entire guitar-playing community a great disservice and I work to provide an alternative to low-cost, mass-produced guitar,” he shared.
To improve the sound of his instruments, Kuan equips various innovative and scientific know-hows. For one, he uses NASA-patented technology in his guitars.
Essentially, NASA had invented a new way to build electronic circuits to accommodate a wide range of frequencies with minimal unwanted electrical distortions.
“It is an analogue device, which is often overlooked in our digital world,” he said. Seeing the value in this, Kuan builds custom designed analogue electronics circuits for his electric guitars.
Using NASA’s technology, he’s able to produce rich, powerful, and nuanced sounds that are “extremely responsive” to the guitarist’s fingers—traits that have bolstered Malayan Guitars’ standing amongst players.
At the end of the day, the main goal is simple: playability. To Kuan, playability is the result of many small things executed well.
“If I were to use a construction analogy, playability is akin to building a house with no leaks. The foundation, walls, doors, windows, roofs, etc. have to be built well.”
Aside from being created by a Malaysian, Malayan Guitars also incorporates another local element—Malaysian wood.
When looking into the material properties needed to build the ideal electric guitar, Kuan found there were specific genera of Malaysian wood with exactly what he needed.
“Malaysia is blessed with some amazing trees that yield wonderful wood,” the builder expressed.
To source the wood, Kuan visits the sawmills to cherry-pick every piece of wood. This is because two pieces of wood from the same tree could have dramatically different properties.
For parts that need to be inflexible and unyielding, he typically uses harder wood like Malayan Ironwood (Kayu Besi). Softer woods can be used for parts requiring flexibility or deflection.
When asked about how long it takes for him to design a guitar, Kuan shared that it can take hundreds of hours.
He starts by establishing the main objectives, which may be creating a cool shape, or creating a specific sound. Once the objective is identified, Kuan will create a few sketches. Then comes evaluating and refining, which is a lengthy process in itself.
“All the while, there will be many formulas and calculations regarding the structure of the guitar and its electronics,” Kuan added. “Custom tools, jigs, and workshop fixtures have to be made for each guitar model. Some guitars require me to invent new techniques.”
After the design phase is completed, it typically takes two hours to source and hand-select the wood, then two more hours to order and organise logistics for parts. The rest of the process is broken down as such:
Clearly, custom guitar building is incredibly demanding work. So far, Kuan has only completed two designs in their entirety. He’s currently working on six more models, which are at about 80% of completion. These are mainly collaboration models with musicians.
Malayan Guitars’ instruments typically range from RM 6,000 to RM 13,000. The most expensive guitar he sold was for an overseas collector at RM20,000.
The builder shares that his net profit margins typically range from 10% to 30% per guitar.
Kuan is also working on a limited initial run of ready-made guitars to be sold at between RM4,000 to RM5,000. While it’ll boast the sound, playability, and reliability of his guitars, they’ll have minimal bells and whistles.
Today, Kuan spends about 90% of his time working on Malayan Guitars. It’s a one-man operation for now, but the founder said that people have been asking to work for the brand lately.
Although things seem to be working out well for him and Malayan Guitars, there’s no doubt that entrepreneurship lacks the stability that comes with being a doctor or an academic.
“Entrepreneurship is extremely demanding and challenging,” Kuan agreed. “Long hours and late nights are to be expected, especially in the early days. One needs a superior product, tenacity, a winning strategy, and a high tolerance for pain and failure.”
Kuan’s passion and purpose is the driving force pushing him to persevere those pains or failures along the way.
“I continued on because I felt a need to improve the electric guitar, and after getting some great initial feedback from professionals, I felt like I was meant to do this work,” he shared. “I have too many ideas and designs to explore now to even think about slowing down.”
In the big picture, his dream is to build Malayan Guitars into a company that can supply Malaysians with top-quality guitars at an affordable price.
“The mission is to grow the entire guitar playing community in Malaysia,” he shared. “I believe music heals and connects humanity. Music is something the world needs.”