Early one Friday morning June 20, 2008 I got a call from a guy in Taiwan and he mentioned he had been trying to get hold of me, but he had the wrong e-mail address. He was looking for a guitar for his boss Wang Leehom, a name that didn’t mean anything to me at that time.
He started to tell me he wanted a special guitar for his upcoming world tour and while we talked I Googled Leehom. I quickly realised that while his fame hadn’t spread as far as Ireland he was a mega star in Asia.
I listened more intently now and we started to discuss the design. It was to be a dragon which was a symbol he had used in his music in the past. What a privilege to be asked to build a dragon for someone from the land of the dragon. It was exciting but then he told me the deadline. The tour started in September so he needed the guitar in August so we had a maximum of six weeks to complete what was going to be the most complex guitar of my career. I was excited but a little nervous at what it was going to take to pull this off.
I made the decision right there to clear my schedule and put everything into this. By that evening I was sitting with my friend Rory working out the design. While I’m a good sculptor I’m horrible at drawing so Rory helped me sketch the initial ideas. We worked out a design that looked pretty good and by Saturday we submitted the initial ideas. Thankfully the first design was good and within days I started work sculpting the body initially out of foam.
I was working from 6:30am to 11:30am six days a week to make this happen as usually something like this would take four months to build. It was exciting to have the opportunity to put my creativity into such a unique instrument and I knew it was going to feature in his tour but I had no idea how big this was going to be until I was sent a picture of a bus driving through Taipei with a huge picture of Leehom holding the very guitar I was still working on.
They had created tour posters featuring a computer generated image of the guitar, it looked awesome. Now I was really feeling the pressure as I was building something that the whole of Taipei was seeing every day.
It motivated me to fight the tiredness each morning when the alarm went off and looking back now it was a very intimate time. Just me and the dragon in the factory before anyone else arrived for work. Those were good times, the best times!
Finally the guitar was completed and Leehom had given his approval to the design so it was time for paint. Not just any old paint will do for a dragon that has red lasers shooting from his eyes so we decided to use some very special chrome paint from California. Its tricky to work with but the results are spectacular.
We were on track at this time and the pressure was starting to ease. It took nearly a week to prepare the guitar for paint but finally it was ready to put on the chrome paint. It was stunning, the whole design just came to life as I applied the chrome paint. It was perfect everything I had hoped for. I put it in the oven to cure and I could see its eyes looking out through the window in the oven door. I went off to lunch satisfied and feeling proud of my achievement.
After lunch I came back for a quick look at the results of my hard work. I opened the door and what I saw made me fall to my knees and cry. All my hard work had somehow changed, the beautiful shiny silver dragon that I had left an hour ago had turned into a dark grey wrinkled mess. I was devastated! I quickly got on the phone to the suppliers and it turned out some of the paints were faulty and caused a chemical reaction.
I could fix it but it would take time and it was going to take two weeks to get more paint from California. After a lot of phone calls I finally tracked down some paint in a supplier in the Netherlands who could get it to me in two days. I stripped back the paint and started the preparation over again.
After a tense week of work and tests on the paint to ensure it wouldn’t happen again finally the dragon had its new glowing silver skin. From here it was quite simple, just assembly and wiring. I laid all the parts out on a red velvet cloth and slowly and carefully brought the dragon to life until finally it was ready to show its voice and sing its first note. The first note from every guitar is special, the first note that will be followed by millions more and will bring joy and inspiration to all who hear and play it for many years to come. But this one was even more special, we had built a bond through all the early morning and late nights.
Finally he was finished and full of personality but still without a name. I called Leehom to announce its completion and he gave me the name for this dragon with such a huge destiny ahead … ‘BAHAMUT’. Yeah, it seemed to fit.
So I polished him up, made a custom case for him and said my goodbyes. It was like sending a child away. I had hoped to deliver Bahamut personally, but alas I had so much to catch up on. But they did agree to film Leehom opening the case for the first time so I could see his expression. I have that film and it’s precious to me – what a reaction. Then came the official unveiling to the press. Bahamut was an instant star that everyone wanted to see. I was blown away when I saw the footage.
That was the start of something I never could have imagined. I initially thought Bahamut would just feature on a couple of songs, but as it turns out Bahamut was a co-star in the show. When I saw footage from the first show in Taipei I couldn’t believe it, there were people in the crowd waving cardboard cutouts of Bahamut and Leehom introduced him personally to the huge crowd. This is what I had always dreamed of – to have my work seen and played on such a stage.
Bahamut is now a huge star in Asia in his own right and features on T-shirts, hats, mugs, belt buckles and you can even get an action figure of Leehom with a miniature Bahamut! What a kick.
Finally, in May of 2009 I could resist it no more – I had to see the show in person and meet Leehom. I flew out to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where Leehom’s people met me in a limo and brought me to the huge stadium. As I stepped out of the car I was greeted by Leehom and he took me on a tour of the stadium and introduced me to the band and reunited me with Bahamut. It was like seeing an old friend.
I presented an X5 to Leehom as a gift and we spent a while talking about just how famous this guitar had become. It was a great experience. Then the night of the concert came and as darkness fell the crowd filled the stadium. 40,000 fans coming to see Leehom and Bahamut.
The lights went out and the stage was dark then up from the stage rose Bahamut on a suspended platform, gleaming in the spotlights, the music started and Bahamut rose into the air. Wow! Bahamut, a guitar I had build back in Ireland with my own hands, was actually opening the entire show. People were chanting Bahamut and cheering. It was a completely surreal feeling I can’t describe.
The concert kicked off and while I couldn’t understand the words I did recognise the songs from The CDs I had been sent. It was an awesome night. That I will never forget. To be part of something like this is something that I could never have dreamed off. An idea to build guitars back in 1998 had brought me all the way to Malaysia.
Since then I’ve made some great friends with the members of the band and travelled back to Beijing for another concert in August, 2009. That was also a special moment being there with 55,000 people in the workers stadium in Beijing. That was another amazing night and the next day I went to the great wall with the bass player Jingles and the dancers from the show.
I have so many amazing memories from this project that I could probably write an entire book. I build these guitars as a creative expression of me, from the inspiration I have received from music and when it is able to be seen by such an audience and inspires that audience, to me it is the highest tribute.
Thank you Leehom for entrusting me to bring Bahamut to life and thank you to the people all over Asia who have showed their appreciation of my work. But I also have to thank my wife Kim for supporting me through the build when she barely saw me for six weeks, except when I ate the beautiful meals she prepared. Can’t wait to build the next one!