Walter Chee – The Underrated Guitar Maestro
By Chow Wen Hing.
I first came to know about Walter when I saw his Facebook postings. He had come across as a sociable kind of person – but then we can’t really tell these things from social media. And it turned out I was not too wrong. He is a friendly, cheerful and unassuming man; and one could have easily mistaken his gentle demeanor as a trait of his profession being a guitar technician or a luthier.
I was not active in the ‘music circle’ (if ever there’s such a thing). This is the network of musicians, performers (some famous, some trying), music hobbyists, and even veteran from Singapore’s nascent music industry. Thus, getting to know Walter was like being inducted into this indiscernible circle, and I had been curious about this gentle man’s thoughts and motivation.
I have a chance to satisfy my curiosity when I visited Walter in his shop with Andy one day. I guess you can say Walter’s persona has sparked Andy’s curiosity too, and Andy of course tasked me to do an article on this mysterious man for his blog. I resisted for a while, but my friendship with both men got the better of me. In the interest of time (and as I am not really a reporter), I’d gotten Walter to agree to share his thoughts via a question-and-answer format.
I had expected to do quite a bit of editing to his responses – but alas! I was proven wrong! Walter writes flawlessly, and very minimal (if any at all) correction or editing was required. So reproduced in full here is the Q&A, which I hope readers would feel the same sense of enlightenment as I did on reading his responses. Oh yes, please do stay for my closing comments after it you have finished the Q&A though… 😊
1. Tell us about your growing up years and the first time you began playing an instrument - was the guitar your first choice?
Growing up in the 60s was simple and with less distractions as compared to the world today. At a young age, we learn to socialise and make (real) friends with neighbours to play and learn together. As kids, we had little. No fancy toys to play therefore we invented our own games and set the rules of the game. Bedtime was usually before 10pm because playtime ended when the sun set. Black and white TV did not arrive until the beginning 60s.
Back in those days, a lot of older boys either joined gangs or played the guitar. These older boys and hippies would usually gather in the evening to sing and play the guitar, and I would be their most ardent audience. I developed an interest for the instrument and learned to play the guitar from one of the boys when I was in primary school.
2. You were with Chris Ho and his band Zircon Lounge. How long were you with the band? Can you share a significant moment during this period of time?
I started forming bands when I was in secondary school. My first serious band was called Stolen Property when I was 16. We played mostly rock songs and also did some originals. In 1984 we joined the Yamaha Combo Competition and came in first in the competition. Even though we won the competition, gigs were scarce and there were very few opportunities to perform in those days. The only chance to get our music heard was to join band competitions. Hence, we decided to join another band competition organised by one of the most popular lounges in Singapore at that time called Rainbow Lounge. In the finals of the competition, Chris Ho was one of the judges and that was how I met him.
We did not connect until much later when Chris was looking for a second guitarist for his band to promote his new album. He asked me if I was interested and of course I said yes! I remembered Chris as a serious singer/songwriter who gave me space to express my creativity in his music. I really missed his voice on the radio. My most significant moment with Zircon Lounge was when the band was invited to play in the National Stadium for the “Police and Friends” concert. All the top bands at the time were invited – Heritage, Sweet Charity, Speedway, Gingerbread, Tokyo Square, etc; and of course, Zircon Lounge. Unfortunately, I do not have a photograph of such a big show to remind me of that glorious day. I am certain photographs were taken and I really hope I could get a hold of one as a keepsake.
3. What was it like to be a “band boy” at that age, and what were your thoughts on the music scene back then (the 80s/90s)?
I think the word “band boy” is synonymous with working musician in clubs or lounges. It cannot be use to describe me because I never played professionally or regularly. I played mostly concerts and one-off club gigs. I guess I was more of a boy-in-a-band back in the 80s. The real band boys back in those days enjoyed a rather glamorous life and had more “star” status than the current gigging musicians because they are closest to the “real” thing. In the 80s, Singaporeans were starved of being treated to international acts.
Many world-famous bands back then were either banned from performing here because of their image, or our market was simply too small for them to do a show here. It was impossible to even catch a video on TV of such acts. But these days, you can watch and enjoy almost any band that ever existed on YouTube and on the MTV channel. Local bands playing the popular songs of the day provided the relief and bridged the gap to the real thing. There was a demand for them because the audiences were hungry for Western pop, and that I feel is one reason why many of the good local cover bands achieved star statuses.
4. You went into the corporate world after that. What made you “hang up your strings”?
I had a lot of momentum, musically and as a guitar player, in the 80s. After Stolen Property and Zircon Lounge, I joined a jazz-rock-fusion band called Fabby Dabby. We also did mostly concerts and one-off club gigs. I entered National Service (NS) in late 80s and that put almost everything to a halt temporary. After a year in the army, I started gigging again on my day-off with Fabby Dabby. However there came a time when the rest of Fabby Dabby wanted to be band-boy and it was then that we disbanded.
After completion of my NS and having failed to convince my parent to let me pursue a career in music, I left for England to pursue my Bachelor of Engineering. While in England, I also took up apprenticeship as a guitar tech in an instrument workshop in London. Upon my return to Singapore, I worked for 27 years in a corporate environment. However, during this period, I did not actually “hang up my guitar”. I played in bands whenever there was an opportunity but mostly as a serious hobby. I also did gigs and collaborated as an arranger and producer for a British singer/songwriter.
I did not take up music as my career mainly because one needs to be extraordinary in order to be successful in this industry. In most industries, you can be mediocre and still be successful if you sway where the wind blows but not in the music industry. I do not think I am extraordinary hence I decided it is better for me to take music as a serious hobby and not as my career with my livelihood depending on it.
5. Did the years away from being active in the music scene dampen or fire up your desire and passion about music?
I think it occurs to most musicians or serious hobbyists, that despite being busy for years with other real-world stuff and having neglected your instrument for years; you never really forget what really fires you up. I can imagine how many would still be turned on by that power chord blasting from a Marshall stack. For these people, myself included; all it takes is a nudge to spark off a blaze. A chance meeting with your ex-drummer or keyboardist, meeting like-minded individuals who are also tired of the rat race – all these are the little sparks that can get me fired up and I’ll be inspired to start making music again. The desire, that teenage dream, and the experience of playing in front of twenty thousand people in an arena never left me. But sadly, I know it might not happen again for me in this lifetime.
6. What do you think of the new generation of musicians in Singapore now and how do you think they are faring as compared to musicians during your time?
I think every generation of musicians will find the next generation lacking – perhaps musically or emotionally. They will find them ‘soul-less’ and ‘not like our generation’. For any genre of music, we tend to go “so far” into the new generation and say to ourselves "enough it’s enough, this is as far as I can go” – we’ll stick to what we love and are familiar with. Similarly, the new generation of musicians will always feel that they are better than the last, being more connected and ‘real’. I tend to agree that with the power and use of technology, music of the current era is technically superior.
In my opinion, local musicians who grew up before YouTube came along had it easy because there was no comparison to the real-thing. If you can somehow sound like the real-thing, you will be admired. Usually, exact note-for-note replication could not be achieved so we learned to improvise and developed our own style of playing. This in my opinion is a good thing. New gen musicians are caught up in what YouTube and the new technologies can offer. Now playing the exact notes and emulating the style almost in perfection is possible.
There are tons of YouTube tutorials and lessons to guide budding musicians with the skill and technique development. Free software is available to be downloaded, which can help slow down the music and allow complicated licks to be analysed and learned. Specialised amps and hardware are also on sale which can do the same. They play fast and are very technical in their playing. The key difference is that these technically competent musicians are not as creative, and many of them are not able to improvise. This is a very important in musicianship and developing a musical character.
7. Is a career in the arts - in music in Singapore in particular, a viable option, or is it still an uphill task today?
Music as a career is an uphill task anywhere in the world. One of the reasons why music took a backseat for me after I came back from England was that I have seen too many “nobody” buskers. There were – as I believe still are today, many street buskers who were talented and were so good that they could have stood shoulder to shoulder with any big names in the industry. Why aren’t these people “discovered” and placed “up there”? For me there were too many questions and very few answers.
If music as a career in England and Europe is bad, music as a career in Singapore for 99.999% of the people will be suicidal if you do English originals. Music as a career in Singapore is still viable only in the classrooms and not on the big stage in front of twenty thousand people in a big arena.
8. What in your opinion do you think the music industry in Singapore needs, for it to gain more traction and some semblance of a feasible career choice and become a fully contributing profession in our economy?
We need heroes and a miracle in the music industry in Singapore. We need heroes en masse – from people who have made a name for themselves on the world stage. Everyone loves a hero and hopefully these heroes will inspire and motivate more people to stand up if they have the talent to one day become a hero. But bear in mind that it will be an uphill task. A good example would be how some years back, when a well-known religious leader threw millions into Hollywood to promote a lady singer but it all came to naught. Throwing money at it is not the answer.
We need a miracle in a national language, where we can write songs with and where it is also accepted and welcomed in the region and the world. Look at the Thais, the Koreans, the Indonesians, and the Japanese music industries. Besides the size of their markets, they have a language that is unique and accepted. Hopefully one day, just like K-pop that has now broken into the world market, we have our S-Pop.
Until then, I guess we must keep trying and keep our dreams alive. Perhaps one day, someone truly extraordinary will appear, and as our pop hero, will spark a nationwide movement that will make a career in music in Singapore a reality. 🙥
A real bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must. Sobering words from someone who’d been there, seen it, done it; and certainly, are words we must allow to ricochet off the walls of the ‘circle’. I would also like add a comment that “Singapore musicians are simply too lazy”, made by another veteran within the circle.
And as I ruminated over these words, I surmised that we need:
A hero (a leader)
A miracle (on the surface, but frantic real-world activity beneath)
Buy-in on a national level – first
Sounds like another Monday to me.
For if this is not what Singapore is known for, I don’t know what is. We can make miracles happen – Singapore itself is a miracle, many say. So, with due respect and deference to Walter and all the veterans out there – we are in the right era. This is the time for Singapore music (S-Pop, S-Rock, Lion Rock, etc.) to happen. We have the infrastructure, the assets, the desire, the energy, the purpose and drive, and the reason to make it happen. As I am writing these words now – it is happening.
What veterans (in and outside of the circle) can do is to add your voice to this movement. Support a local act. Buy a locally created and produced piece of musical work. Sign up for a Spotify account and create a playlist only of Singapore original music and songs (if you do not know how to do this – ask a younger Singapore musician). Attend shows and gigs of local bands. Make friends with them. See in them the you when you first started and see the struggles they have as the ones you had. See the fire and dreams they have as the ones you’ve had before. Don’t let that fire in you go out – not yet. Pass the spark along. Support a Singapore song.
Thank you Walter, for sharing your thoughts and experience on this journey. You are in the hearts and minds of many of us – a hero in your own rights. Your story has added another foundational layer onto which our younger musicians can build on. And of course, they can continue to seek your advice by visiting you at RiverTree Music 😊