From Guitars To Grammar


If you took beers, bimbos and bungs out of the equation, Malaysian students who found themselves in London during the early part of the ’80s quickly developed a passion for either one of two things: Cameras or hi-fi equipment. Some were even into both. Of course, there were a few who actually knew what they were doing. The others, on the other hand, were simply determined to acquire the most expensive equipment available – even if it meant slaving at McDonalds or any one of many Malaysian restaurants that were sprouting in and around the West End at the time.

The crowd I hung out with – always fearful of the label ‘mainstream’ – took our interest into other directions. We dedicated ourselves to becoming guitar-freaks; often, to the detriment of our assigned field of academic study.

Entry level to our group was simple: You had to be able to at least play a 12-bar blues shuffle. Do that with any level of credibility and you became a ‘foot soldier’ – a minion whose sole function was to provide rhythmic accompaniment during jam-sessions while the more accomplished players launched into extended solo improvisations in the style of their personal guitar heroes – or tried to anyway.

I was no ‘foot soldier’. But I was no virtuoso either. I occupied that dreaded middle ground where you were neither here nor there: I was, at best, mediocre. After a while, I got tired of being too good to be a ‘foot soldier’ but not good enough to pull off heart-wrenching solos that drove the ladies in the audience into fits of ecstasy. It was time to act.

Off I went to buy an impressive collection of instructional books and tapes – with money I barely had – in hopes of breaking the impasse. From that moment on, I stopped going to any jam sessions. Instead, I went into a self-imposed exile and immersed myself in honing my skills as a guitar player. I studied music theory till I was blue in the face and practised fret-board technique till my fingers bled like running taps. And when I thought I was about to pass out from the exertion, I’d push myself into doing it for a few more hours. This went on for a good six months.

At the end of this masochistic binge, I was able to competently read music, launch into an extended flurry of 1/32 notes as effortlessly as dropping my pants, discuss music composition and arrangement as if I had gone to music- instead of law-school, and burst into solos in the style of almost any bona fide guitar hero even while half asleep. I was ready to go to a jam session.

And when my turn came to do my solo, I let fly with everything I had. My display of fret-board pyrotechnics that day dropped many jaws and – to borrow a phrase from Lily the Liverbird – left more than a few knickers creamed. I was in guitar heaven.

But after a few more sessions, things began falling apart. I had discovered – much to my horror – that music is much more than just cheap pyrotechnics and million-notes-per-second technical competence. OK, these things will get you by – for a while. But no amount of technical ability will ever make up for a lack of ‘heart’. If your music isn’t able to touch someone’s heart, no amount of virtuosity will hide it for what it truly is: Crap!

All I had managed to do was to graduate from being a mediocre player into becoming a technical one. Though the blazing speed and technical stuff allowed me to sound pretty much like a guitar hero, I was at best, a second rate Al DiMeola or Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton. Technical playing is nothing more than a cheap trick performed by a fool to fool other fools. By being a stickler for technical prowess, I was playing like a robot; a pretty good robot – but a robot nonetheless. I had missed the woods from the trees.

This was when I decided I had to ‘unlearn’ all the things I had learned. Music has to touch the listener’s heart; not his ears, not his eyes. It has to touch his heart. Today, I’d trade technical correctness for playing that has a soul – without even having to think about it. So what if I make mistakes? It’ll just make the music more ‘human’. The important thing is to touch the audience – in places where they have not been touched before. Anything else is just for show.

This brings me the story of a budding, but extremely talented writer who is going through a tough time because some idiot has accused her of being grammatically sloppy. She has begun to question her validity as a writer on the grounds that she is grammatically less than flawless. Unfortunately, this is an easy trap to fall into. Worse, it is one that is a lot harder to climb out of.

So, here’s a helping hand (if you want it): So, what if you are grammatically less than flawless?

Editors will look into the nitty-gritty stuff (like grammar) for you. Far more important than your grammar will be your ability to evoke emotions in your readers that they never thought they had, to touch them where they’ve never been touched before. This is what writing (and guitar-playing, too) is all about. And you have this ability in abundance: Maybe you just don’t know this yet.  But you will. Trust me; grammar is the least of your worries.

Personally, I would much prefer reading something that touches me profoundly – even if it is grammatically sloppy – rather than a technically correct piece that is hollow and superficial.

Wouldn’t you, too?

23 thoughts on “From Guitars To Grammar

  1. Mat B, you couldn’t have said it any better. … getting a few knickers creamed with your strumming (and I am referring to the guitar, explicitly) … whoa.. Seram sejuk dengar..hahahaha…

    Puteri Kamaliah

    Er… since I could not, in a million years, achieve that effect (with the knickers) by relying on my looks, I had to turn to guitar playing 😉 But following an accident in the kitchen which took away an essential part of my left index finger, even my guitar playing became a non-event.

    I guess if its not meant to be, it never will be 🙂

  2. Do you still play much now? (The guitar, I mean, obviously). At least now ada Guitar Hero (the game) so any wannabe Jeff beck or Eric Clapton or whosoever can still dream 😀


    No, I don’t play that much nowadays – be it guitars or anything else for that matter: Too old already 🙂

    Must go out and get that game one of these days. If I cant play, I might as well dream, right?

  3. aahhh Mr B…i was one of those into the hi-fi equipment but not really knowing what i was doing! Macam ya-ya jer spend time kat tottenham court road tu!!

    Alas…the whole thing was stolen from my apartment in Kings Cross…including my precious Sheila Majid CDs!!


    Tottenham Ct Rd was a lot of fun, kan? I think I spent more time there than attending lectures (Bad boy! Bad boy!). King’s Cross is supposed to be a good area – tapi barang kena cilok juga? Sorry about losng all your hifi stuff.

  4. Tell me Mat, who is this obsessive-compulsive person worrying about her, according to you, “less than flawless” grammar?

    Did she punctuate badly as well? Ah, sounds familiar.

    And tell me again, has she ever invoked emotion in you? Though I have my profound doubts…

    Please answer truthfully because I don’t have to tell you that this person can actually spot a lie from miles away.

    You are just being nice. Good day my friend.


    The truth? OK, here it is

    No, her punctuation, grammar and all that technical stuff isn’t atrocious. Then again – and this isn’t a crime – it isn’t top notch either. But I repeat: being a stickler for the technicalities does make one’s writing robot-like. Put another way, grammar is important. But grammar alone as never been, and will never be enough.

    Has her writing ever evoked emotions in me? Sure – and often, too! I am certain she is able to do this with a lot of other people as well.

    Now, will you go ad write that short story?

  5. And yes you are!One of the nicest blog writers around.I selalu tak puas baca your short articles!More please!And your grammar is absolutely great.Voice cakap pada sak you sangat cerdik!!hehehe
    I believe your guitar playing must be good too..only you’re so humble to admit it.
    You really touched our hearts all the time!!


    Sometimes, ma’am, I think you and your husband were put on this earth to keep me blushing forever. I haven’t been called ‘nice’ for a long time. Thanks.

    My playing, like my writing is -I think – just mediocre. I won’t e winning any prizes for it. However, I do get ecstatic if, once in a while, I do actually manage to touch someone out there. This makes it all worthwhile.

  6. i want to be able to do both: write with flawless grammar and make people laugh/smile/sigh/cry/hate/love.

    possible or not?


    Of course you can do both.

    Just that for mere mortals like me, its usually one or the other. However, occasionally – very occasionally – us mere mortals will be able to pull of both. We then kick ourselves because it doesn’t happen as often as we would like it to.

  7. MB

    I suppose that you do realise that this latest post of yours is itself a version of the Blues. I may read the post again with some Blues music playing… 🙂

    de minimis

    Come to think of it, it is sort of like the blues! How right you are, my friend. Now, why didn’t I think of that?

    What a brilliant idea! I’ll put on some blues music, too, as a practice my drawing tonight.

  8. Mat-san,

    My friend!Another brilliant piece.I`ve lways enjoyed your articles, and also those from that other blogger(Ehem!) who`s a bit phobic about her grammar.You are absolutely spot-on there.If you can evoke your audience`s emotion, be it via a hauntingly melodious musical rendition, or a stirring piece of prose, of what importance are little grammatical oversights,when you have managed to tug at my heartstrings(and I am a part of that subject audience) and makes me pine, at that magic moment, for one of a number of beautiful but forever-gone episodes which took place sometime in my past,when we were all just carefree young people seeking the simple pleasures of life, futilely chasing the one romance which would be the be-all-and-end all of romances?

    Aaah, Mat-san, I do modestly churn out some music on the guitar and keyboards even until today,for the wife`s and teenage kids` ears only mind you, at home,but like you, I am far from being a virtuoso at both, or either.

    And, oh yes, London…how nostalgic.Missed my usual X`mas and New Year break there in 2008 for some more pressing commitments here.But I didn`t undertake my tertiary studies there.Instead, I was the only Malay, and Malaysian student, in my University in Lausanne, Switzerland,doing the usual University stuff during the day, and living it up most nights, subsisting on a regular dinner diet of of a stick of french loaf from the neighbouring patissierie , some cheese and a 6-pack, to save my limited student-days funds then for those roaring weekend nights in summer in the city, or those ever-thrilling and adrenalin-generating midnight downhill skiing sojurns in winter,with that small flaming torch in our grasp as the freezing night air swept past our faces.What a life then!

    Back to the music, Mat-san, I get my “highs” these days at this age mostly from live classical music from orchestras at the Petronas Philharmonic Auditorium.Yet, indulge me with any hit number from Led Zeppelin, Cream, Deep Purple, Janis Jolin or Carole King, and I`ll just go bonkers,even now!



    How exciting is that?! Studying in Switzerland, down-hilling at midnight and subsisting on baguettes, cheese and beers. That’s the way to live life! My London days, on the other hand, consisted mainly of missing my lectures, running away from Bobbies, and surviving on the 50 pence meals they served at Malaysia Hall. Drab in comparison.

    I’ve always wanted to be able to play the keyboard, tho. It’ll have to wait coz I’m right now learning to draw. Once I get proficient enough at drawing, I probably get a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Keyboards (or piano) and teach myself to play.

    But I hear you: Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zep, Joplin and Carole King. Let’s also not forget the likes of Uriah Heep, Grand Funk Railroad, Yes, Pink Floyd and the Eagles. The memories are flooding in already…

    Glad you liked this piece.

  9. Mamak,

    only from my wee sense,’practice makes perfect,NO?’

    begitu juga mengaji,sampai katam.beb.

    Pak Tuo,

    Er… I suppose you are right. But it also depends on what you are practicing. If we practice the wrong thing, we will only become perfect at the wrong thing. For example – and you know this – I used to practice technical guitar playing very diligently. I therefor, play very technically; and we both know how boring I am, right?

  10. Dear MB,

    Unker used to do a great impression of Chuck Berry & B.B King on my air guitar, nowadays just mucking around with the cucu on Guitar Hero.

    Matt, sorry to hear you stopped playing the guitar, but please don’t ever stop playing with your organ; life would be meaningless if u do that!

    Oh, btw, unker is oso a very grammatically tragic sorry piece of work too, fortunately it does not interfere with my organ virtuoso, wink, wink…

    Tommy Yew


    You used to do a good impression of Chuck Berry? Good on you! I’ve been trying to emulate his ‘duck walk’ for ages and almost broke my ankle once for my trouble.

    You can put your mind to rest, Tommy. My guitars are sitting in some closet somewhere; pretty much retired. However my organ still gets to see frequent use. Not as often as before but I guess often enough 🙂

    Unfortunately, I am also mediocre at the organ…

    Good to see you here again, Tommy.

  11. Dear Abang Pian,

    You always left me breathless each time I read your magnificent masterpiece. How I wish I could have your talent in writing. So flawless….grrr!


    Talent has nothing to do with it. Make no mistake about this: Everybody has talent.

    The difference is, some people are willing to trust that talent while others aren’t quite ready to do so.

    Are you willing to trust your talent, Azah?

  12.’re saying you can play guitar?. Ain’t it so sexy. Fuhh! MB, you are so multi- talented/multi tasks.


    Yes, I have been known to play the guitar every once in a while. Er, lets see what else is there? Oh, I also make custom knives (haven’t done this for a long time, tho), used to coach the national mountain bike team, and can still probably pass off as a Linux systems administrator. Yes Zoe, I’m your regular jack of all trades…

    Currently, I am learning to draw and after that I will probably take up the keyboards i.e. becoming a jack of even more trades 🙂

  13. Hi MatB, got your blog thru sakmongkol. Great writing. Still have your Tele with you? I am in the market for one, if you are up to selling it, that is.


    Glad you liked the writing. Thanks.

    Anyway, mine is not a Fender Tele – it’s one of those Squire Teles. Yeah, a second grade Fender 🙂

    In any case, my son has acquired an interest in blues guitar and I guess he got first dibs. Sorry…

    Glad to have you here , Halim.

  14. I’d much rather read something entertaining that is written in flawed English than a dry piece in perfect English. Then again, my values are warped. Heh.

    Why is it I always feel inadequate when I read your entries? Sigh.


    Why, thank you, ma’am. I, on the other hand feel inadequate when you do not visit my blog.

  15. You know in the 80s– in Singapore where I grew up, there was this phenomenon of Malay youths hanging out at the void decks of public flats strumming guitar and if they have a bit of money, they go jamming at a studio. They even have a name for these breed, the MGBB — Mat Gitar Bawah Blok…

    Your posting reminds me of them 🙂


    I am glad the posting brought back some memories. I guess I would have been the quintessential MGBB had I lived in Singapore. On that score, I just might have lived in Singapore had my father not migrated to Malaysia all those years ago.

  16. salam, mb!

    agree sesangat with you.

    being anal retentive about grammatically correct writing is bad for the expression. it gives that impression of someone trying to hold gas in. 🙂

    then again it’s easy for someone like you, who seems to have the knack to touch all the right spots in us with your writing without appearing to keep even half an eye on pesky grammar to see that it’s not embarrassing you, to say it’s not a big deal kan? 🙂

    sure the usual odd grammar lapses or two or five wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, detract readers from enjoying a good yarn. most people aren’t too fussed about grammar, including those of us with no story to tell.

    but those who want to write seriously in english but consistently cannot get their subjects and verbs nodding agreement or their tenses in synch or the clauses in their compound sentences in correct marching order or their punctuations doing a decent semblance of arranging their thoughts, should really consider minimising those tiresome flaws if they mean to “touch” their audience. otherwise, their writing may not even reach those editors and their correcting touches.

    an evocative writing with too obvious or too many grammar boo-boos is like a compelling public speaker with tourette syndrome. the tics can get in the way of the message being delivered properly. or, as they say in communications parlance, they contribute to the “noise” factor.

    wobbly grammar, probably like off-key playing, is certainly not cardinal. just distracting.

    p.s. sorry for bringing in a contrary note, mat b. the weather outside must be getting to me.


    Hmm… I never thought of it this way, ma’am. I’ve always assumed that if one were to ‘let go’ – I mean,really ‘let go’ – our subconscious mind would automatically pick the right words and sort out the grammar stuff. In karate it is called ‘mushin’: sort of ‘let-go-and-let-God’, and everything will sort themselves out in the end.

    But then again, I realised how big a klutz I had been in making this assumption. It probably takes as long, and will require as much hard work, to be able induce the Zen-like state of ‘mushin’ in oneself as it is to master grammar.

    Yes, ma’am. Poor grammar is not fatal – only distracting.

    Then again, the writer I spoke of does have a stellar command of English. But, like most of us, she does make mistakes here and there occasionally.

    But then, “so what?”, right?

  17. Hey its not a matter of Fender or Squier brands, you know. I heard it all boils down to your fingers. hehe. Keith Richards once said, “Give me any guitar and I’ll make em all sound the same”. Then again, he also said guitar playing is nothing more than “12 bars, 6 strings and 1 a**hole”, or something to that effect. Salam, bro.


    Yes, sir! I can attest that sometimes it may boil down to how skillful we are with our fingers i.e.not how long they are but how well we can use them 😀

    And I like Keith Richards’ quip abuot 12 bars, 6 strings and 1 a**hole. How profound!

  18. Dear MB

    Stumbled on your blog via Sakmongkol AK47 – yes, the `creamed a few knickers’ reference got me trailing to yours -…wonderful stuff!

    Upon reading your previous posting (on the old wise cock) where a mutual friend Mat Kjenk was mentioned, I really had to find out who you were!!!! Edgar Allen POE.

    Keep them coming…and straight from the heart, as always. Take care, old friend.

    Tok Milla

    It is indeed a pleasure to find you again. Yes, that Mat Kjenk is hilarious. I intend to keep ’em coming – as long as this decrepit old body (and mind) allows it 🙂

    And you take care, too, old friend

  19. MB

    We are going to be 47 this year and it seems that `it’ has caught up with me – the Almighty reminded me, it is Edgar Allen BOE, not Poe. So sorry, friend.

    Tok Milla

    No big deal, old friend. It happens to me, too – all the time. I don’t think its the onset of Alzheimer’s, though 🙂 At least, hope not!

  20. Mamak,

    Permission bro,

    Mek Yam,you hit on the spot and you remind me of my Bahasa and English teacher at MHS Mr.Raganathan.Tokok guru Kebangsaan 2002 if I am not mistaken.

    Spot on Mum.

    Thanks Mamak for such a wonderful lesson, both on guitar and language.

    Pak Tuo

    The pleasure is, of course, mine.

  21. great post here. it’s dope dawg. how you got your story going nicely to finally tie in with the point. about the grammar thingy, being a fucked up ebonics practitioner i seem to see upside down grammar itself as beauty. i am all that is wrong. safe. innit bruv.


    Glad you liked this post, bro.

    Now, come to think of it, ebonics isn’t that bad at all – just different; with different rules, too.

    Thanks for opening up my mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s