Better known in the industry as Ray Akira, Kuala Lumpur-born Raymond Choo’s journey with music started at the age of 15—late, perhaps, by some musicians’ standards.
However, that didn’t stop the man from pursuing music. Not one to limit himself by genres, Ray is skilled at classical guitar as well as the modern electric rock guitar.
He used to perform on international cruise ships, music pubs and bistros, TV shows, and guitar recording sessions.
But in 2009, Ray decided to take a break from those performances and founded The Guitar Hospital, a guitar repair business.
“I told myself that I must focus more on my business, as guitar repair requires high concentration and physical strength,” he said. “However, the inner me of music still can’t stop me from playing guitar, so I am still playing concerts for various artists from local to international.”
With his passion to perform running so deep, what got him to pursue a business in the first place?
The doctor is in
“As a full-time guitarist, our guitar is like a soldier’s weapon,” he explained.
And like soldiers’ weapons, guitars go through heavy usage, thus requiring maintenance and repairs in order for them to do their duty.
“I used to send my guitars to be repaired and serviced in other shops, but my OCD always makes me refine it or sometimes need to redo it (based on the knowledge I acquired overseas while working on cruise ship).”
Slowly, Ray became known for his repairs, and his friends began to ask him for help servicing or repairing their guitars. As this continued, the guitarist decided to start his own guitar repair shop.
“During the time, we accepted all kinds of challenges that no one in the industry was willing to do,” he said.
This included restoring terribly damaged guitars to seem as if nothing ever happened, fixing broken necks to flawless condition, or resolving dead guitar pickups.
To do all that and more, Ray invested in many heavy-duty machines and expensive tools, such as laser-cutting and CNC milling machines for precision repairs and customisations.
“Our repairs quality has gained about 9,000 positive reviews and almost 200k followers on Facebook,” the founder proudly said.
In 2013, The Guitar Hospital started to produce high-end OEM guitars and basses for an Italian company. According to Ray, the team built everything from A to Z, from the wood carving and milling to the programming and setups.
However, since they were doing these on an OEM basis, the team was not allowed to shout themselves out or take any credit.
After seven years of doing this, Ray finally decided to stop, and started up their very own brand, Shue Guitars.
A tropical sound
A truly Malaysian product, Shue Guitars uses local wood to make its guitars.
“We source our wood through our close relationship with local wood suppliers and connection in wood and agricultural departments, plus friends in aboriginal communities,” he explained.
Having tested and compared many types of tropical wood, the Shue Guitars team has learnt that not every species is suitable for guitar-making.
For example, some woods have nice resonance but are too heavy, while some woods are visually attractive but sound too mellow. Some woods are perfect, but have inconsistent supply.
Ray expressed, “To meet the criteria, it is a long journey, man.”
While some may think wood from the tropics is moister and thus not appropriate for instruments, tropical wood has actually been commonly used in guitar making. This is especially true for species such as mahogany, rosewood, and ebony.
“The challenge is the wood processing method, and whether the wood is processed properly including sawing, chemical treatments, vacuum pressure treatment, kiln drying, and the storage environment,” Ray said. “We are very particular about these details.”
Attention to detail
Shue Guitar’s guitars are all made to order. Typically, a client will first choose the wood they want from the brand’s wood library. Then, the team will prepare the design artwork.
From there, it’s a matter of producing the guitar—which involves cutting up all the wood, gluing the parts together, sanding the body, contouring the neck, fretting, and much more.
After that, it takes around 20 days for the finishing touches. There’s also polish, buffing, body shielding, pickup winding, and assembly to consider.
With all those processes in mind, the team requires up to six months to complete an order, depending on model and material availability.
Currently, the Shue Guitar team comprises 10 people, each specialising in a specific step of the process.
“At the beginning, I personally taught and trained them, and I have always encouraged them to strive for perfection and excellence in everything they do,” Ray shared. “Our team is like a warm family; everyone works happily and moves towards the same goal.”
For professionals and hobbyists alike
Considering Shue Guitar’s lengthy process, what makes consumers choose it over well-established guitar brands?
“We are more particular about the quality of every guitar we build,” Ray reasoned. “It must be meeting the expectations of a serious musician or performer, in terms of tone quality, playability, comfortability, and preventability.”
He believes that for most of the well-known brands to meet these criteria, it will set the buyer back US$5-10k.
And, Ray pointed out, you can’t access or choose your materials with those companies, unless you buy an air ticket to their locations.
“We are basically a custom shop with affordable prices with maximum customisation options,” Ray said. “And we are willing to listen and accommodate different players’ requirements.”
Shue Guitars’ models range from RM5,300 to RM9,800, depending on the materials and specifications. Ray shared that the team plans to launch a lower-range model by the end of the year, though.
For now, a majority of Shue Guitar users (around 80%) are serious musicians and professional guitarists.
This includes names such as Jamie Wilson (who has played for the likes of David Foster, JJ Lin, and more), Sham Kamikaze (currently on tour with Jacky Cheung), and Nappie Hassan (currently touring with Malaysian rock icon Ella).
Big names aside, Ray also shared that his “family” also gets support from many guitar lovers and collectors, music students, buskers, and instructors.
Shue Guitars is for everyone, “as long as they love a nice tone and beautiful guitar”.
A worldwide phenomenon
Those interested in Shue Guitars will have to reach out through their social media, as they’re still designing a website for the international market.
As of now, Shue Guitar’s team of 10’s main priority is delivering the backlog of different custom orders.
“These custom orders take quite a lot of time for our overall operation,” the founder admitted. “In the business way, not a good sign.”
If the team can only produce 10 guitars a month, it would be a big struggle for them to make a significant return or grow the business, especially considering their affordable prices.
While chasing these backlogs, the team will slowly roll out lower-range standard models. With that, they expect to grow their sales.
Backlogs aside, a challenge Shue Guitars is struggling with is the lengthy lead time for the supply of certain parts and materials due to spillover effects of the pandemic as well as the war in Ukraine. This makes it difficult for the team to deliver and receive payments on time.
“This is also why we are hesitant to engage in large-scale production of standard models and wholesale,” he said.
That said, the team is working towards implementing mass production as soon as possible, making Shue Guitars more accessible to the public.
In the bigger scheme of things, Ray hopes to establish Shue Guitar’s very own large-scale automated factory, bringing his Malaysian creations worldwide.
- Learn more about Shue Guitars here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Shue Guitars