“In everything that we do, we have to enjoy it. The more difficult the task, the more of a challenge you feel, the more satisfying it will be when it’s done.”
Bras Basah Complex is perhaps best known for its art shops, print shops, bookstores, and guitar shops with rows and rows of shiny new instruments—a haven for professional and budding musicians alike. Of course, most of us would know the most popular stores by heart, but if you wander around the third floor of the complex for a bit, and follow the sounds of tinkering and strumming, you might just find yourself at the doors of Guitar Workshop.
Tucked away in a corner of Bras Basah Complex, Francis Poh’s business stands strong and holds its own against the larger, more well-known music stores in the building. If his name rings a bell, it might be because of his stint as a guitarist in Singapore’s beloved jazz-fusion band, Heritage, in the early 1980s.
“I started playing the guitar when I was about 13 years old. I’m now in my 60s, and I still enjoy playing, though I no longer play as much as I did back then.”
Yes, Francis is quite the veteran in the local music scene, having played not only with Heritage, but a couple of other local bands as well—one being a band he formed with his expatriate friends “just for fun”, he says, and the other one being Nightshift, which, as Francis tells us with quiet pride, was the very first band to play at Hard Rock Café Singapore when it opened in 1990.
But gone are the days when Francis played the guitar professionally. These days, he helms Guitar Workshop—as its name suggests, it’s primarily a guitar repair workshop, though they do also have refurbished pre-loved guitars for sale in the shop.
But of course, apart from finding out more about how he started repairing guitars, we also had to know more about his days as a rockstar, and what we discovered is that Francis is a simple, practical, and wildly talented man.
“These days, information is so widely available. If you want to learn a new instrument or song, you can just watch a video. But last time, it wasn’t like that. In my time, we were trained to listen. If I wanted to play a specific song, I would just listen to it, and figure it out from there.”
A music lover since his childhood days, Francis tells us that he’s always known he wanted to play the guitar, but only first picked it up formally when he was in secondary school. Though he did dabble with other instruments here and there, he always found himself gravitating back to the good old guitar.
His first foray into performing came slightly later on in life, when he formed a band with his expatriate friends. Back then, they weren’t looking to play professionally, and only played gigs at the National Theatre, Singapore’s very first arts venue and “a very popular place for bands to perform”, for the fun of it. Over time, Francis began taking music more seriously, and later joined the award-winning local band, Heritage.
And thus marked the beginning of Francis’ professional music career.
“As an artist, playing original music is never easy. You never know how your music will be received, and you could end up hungry or sleeping at the bus stop. At the end of the day, I had to make a choice or take a chance, and I chose to make a choice.”
During Francis’ time with Heritage, the band grew bigger and bigger in renown, even representing Singapore twice at International Jazz festivals, and headlining numerous jazz and blues concerts locally and abroad. But after about eight years with the band, Francis split from the group because of a difference in goals—the band wanted to explore playing music in Europe, while Francis wanted to remain closer to home.
Despite this bittersweet departure, his love for playing professionally kept him going, and he soon joined another local band, Nightshift, after leaving Heritage. With this band, he toured Taiwan, performing around the country, and at Hard Rock Café Singapore’s official opening in 1990.
It was also around this time that Francis began to dabble in the more technical aspect of music.
“At first, my profession was music, while my hobby was repairing guitars. Later on, my hobby became my profession, and my profession became my hobby, but I have no regrets because they’re both things that I enjoy.”
In the late 1980s, Francis found himself being drawn to repairing and setting up guitars. At the time, there weren’t very many people who could do it professionally in Singapore, and, armed with “a very technical mind and good hands”, he delved deeper into it and picked it up fast.
In fact, he picked the skill up so fast and enjoyed the process so much that he decided to start up Guitar Workshop in 1988, while still an active member of Nightshift.
For the next four years, Francis would go on to juggle his time between the two, repairing guitars in the shop’s first location opposite Hard Rock Café by day, and playing gigs by night, but in 1992, he decided to dedicate his time solely to his growing business, so he officially left the music scene and switched professions.
When asked if he’s had any famous customers come by over the years, Francis excitedly tells us yes, and proceeds to show us old photographs, some of which include “Papa Rock” Ramli Sarip, and the English reggae pop band UB40.
“I still perform once a month at Blu Jazz, mostly jazz stuff as that’s my favourite. I also recently played a tribute with the remaining members of Heritage to commemorate the death of two of the original members.”
These days, Francis has taken a step back and now spends more time with his family. His smile widens when he speaks about them, and tells us that both of his sons are professional musicians too—one’s a bassist that tours with Taiwanese artists, and the other a drummer.
While he still manages the shop, at times, he leaves it in the care of his trusted staff, some of whom are his longtime friends, like Max, who was working away on a guitar the whole time we were there.
Now and then, he also takes in a young apprentice or two, mostly university students who have a passion for music and, like himself, a technical mind and good hands to teach them the ropes of working on guitars.
But at the end of the day, what matters most, in Francis’ words, is:
“Enjoy what you do, and do what you enjoy.”
231 Bain Street, 03-09, Singapore 180231
Open Monday to Saturday 11am-7pm; Sunday 130-430pm