Behind the curtain with David White
“My dad always said ‘there’s been more things made to catch fisherman than there has been made to catch fish’ and it’s the same for guitar techs and luthiers.”David White
You and your friends bask in the afterglow of a live music event that more than justified the ticket prices. An array of artists delivering the goods to a packed stadium on a hot summer night. You are hoarse from shouting your approval after every song and requesting several encores. The performances, sound, light show, artistic stage decor all contributed to new memories you will savor. As a music fan and audience member, you were immersed in the all-encompassing experience and communal feelings that unite individuals with a shared love of that global language named Music.
Later in life as a performer myself, it was an eye-opening experience to see up close the absolute commitment and love of the art form that is required “behind the curtain” to seamlessly allow performers to entertain their fans.
As a teenager and burgeoning guitarist attending concerts habitually, I was keenly focused upon the axe heroes of my choice on those stages. I do not recall sparing much thought for the many others who were integral components in the delivery mechanism that brings music to us in its ultimate fruition.
One vital role in all of that is played by the subject of this feature. Allow me to introduce David White; guitar technician, guitar player, record label owner. David is the guitar technician for such artists as Snow Patrol, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Kasabian, and has provided his services to ELO, Ellie Goulding, and many others. Without further ado let us delve into what will certainly be a unique angle of view with regards to live music performance.
“I must love touring. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. Could be the money, the free booze or that I get to mess around with guitars, pedals and amps all day and nobody tells me I’m wasting my time”David White
Hello David and thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences with IAMUR readers. Can you give us a biographical sketch of who you are, how you came to be a guitar tech, and what the job entails?
Thanks for having me! Well, I didn’t want to start with a massive cliche but now I’m going to have to because there’s no better way to describe it. When I was young the house was always full of music. There. I said it. But it’s true, it was. My mum was/is into Motown and my dad was into bands like The Who, Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, The Nice, all those 70s guys, plus he played a bit of guitar and of course my folks were Beatles fans. The Beatles became one of my first obsessions, one day when I was about 14 or so, I picked up my dad’s 12 string (with 6 strings on) and was trying to play something; my dad spotted it, showed me an A and D chord (for Mull of Kintyre) and that was it. My next obsession was born and it’s never stopped. I started a band with some friends, met other bands, hung out together. I also worked at a local venue booking bands and doing the sound. One of the local bands/friends called thisGIRL got a record deal. We got drunk at a party when I was about 20 and I agreed to drive them to a gig in London in a clapped-out van they had. Next thing you know I’m learning how to be a tour manager, on the job, carrying cash around, distributing per diems, and fixing vans at the side of motorways.
I’m not really one for admin and spreadsheets and am certainly not good with my own money, let alone anyone else’s and because I’d always played guitar, I slowly gravitated towards guitars and got jobs looking after guitars. I still couldn’t believe that was an actual job, ever since I saw it in the thanks list on an REM album. “Woah! These guys have a guy who just looks after their guitars!” Turns out most bands with guitars do. Thank god.
Indeed, and for the record, we are not averse to massive cliches around here.
“I can sympathize with musicians, they have a tough job when it comes to the pressure of performing live and getting everything right, but sometimes there are things you just can’t fix. Like when a guitarist says something like, ‘my guitar sounds too guitary,’ ‘my amp sounds too good,’ or when asked which pedals they require on which patches, the answer I got was ‘I can’t even begin to think about internalizing that.’ What are you meant to do with that information?“David White
I love that quote from you and it reminds me of another from one of your guitar tech colleagues; “One of my biggest goals every night if something goes down… repairing without recognition.” – Mike Buffa (Stevie Nicks, Dream Theater, Maroon 5 and more) This echoes what I mentioned above. The paying audience expects a seamless show and artists expect that guitar and amp to sound exactly as good as the previous gig. Continuity and repetition of excellence sounds like a pressure cooker for a guitar tech, given the wild variables at play from venue to venue and chaos theory in general. That said, it seems that you all love your work and embrace the challenges as they arise. Can you give our readers a few guitar tech PROs and CONs to ponder? (perhaps as if addressing someone who is thinking of choosing this career path)
I suppose there are two approaches you can take with this job. Most people my age and older got into this job because we fell into it and it’s better than having a safe, predictable nine to five. The music industry, especially the live side, the get-your-hands-dirty coal face side of the job, tends to attract misfits. People who otherwise wouldn’t do great at a desk or a cash register. There are definitely pros and cons, but the pros must outweigh the cons because I’m still here doing the same job. The main cons are the fact you are freelance and having to find your own work can be hard. Especially when you start. If you get hitched to one band, once their album cycle stops, you’re on your own and have to look around and that can be daunting. While you are out doing shows, it’s best to make connections and talk to people, let them know you’re available. The other main con is being self-employed. The paperwork and the accounts. I cannot stress how much I loathe this side. Doing my yearly books is always below the bottom of my list and I have to drag myself to do it. Keep on top of it.
There’s obviously tonnes of pros though. Working in live music, I think, is one of the very few industries which pays fairly. It can be quite a socialistic model. Bands can make staggering amounts per show and you’re compensated with a share of that money for being there 24-7. Your travel is paid for, as is accommodation. In return you have to come up with the goods; this is where the pressure comes in. Everyone who is on stage playing, behind the scenes, in the offices, out front doing the sound and lights are faced with thousands of ‘customers’ who have essentially pre-paid on the agreement that they get what you have promised. These are the people who pay all our wages and nobody should forget that. They will vote with their wallets. For the bands, it’s even more pressure because they’ve spent years building up to this, and a lot of the time, it’s their only shot. No matter how established, we all know fortunes can change very quickly.
Guitar technicians are usually excellent players and I’ve heard some wonderful chops during soundchecks. When did you first become a guitarist? What was your first guitar and how many do you currently have in your collection? Which guitars are on your wish list and what other instruments do you work with?
The first guitar I actually owned was one I bought from a friend for £20. It was a Les Paul shaped Eros Mark II. I eventually did it up and gave it back to him. It was made in the 70s and was really easy to play. Eventually, my parents realised they were never going to win and got me a 1994 Epiphone SG. I think they got it on finance which shows how much of a stretch it was for them at the time. I’m always thankful for that guitar. It’s a belter and I still have it. I think I have around 24 guitars.
The only wish list guitar I have left now is a Rickenbacker 4001 bass. They just sound amazing. I recently worked for Snow Patrol and Pablo plays one and it’s honestly one of the best bass sounds I’ve ever heard. Only in the past five years or so have I started looking after drums properly but I do find it really satisfying. I’ve really got into tuning drums properly and if I’m looking after drums and guitars on the same gig I can combine the two. For example, with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds I look after Gem’s guitars and Chris’ drums and as I know a lot of the songs are played in a certain key I can tune the drums to reflect the notes most used in the set. Nobody probably notices but I think it just gives it a bit more of a musical feel. Some people also give you a bit of grief for using a drum tuner and with drums, the fine-tuning is best left to the ears but I use a guitar tuner as well so I guess that’s cheating too?
For the layman reader, can you describe a typical day at work for you A) on tour and B) in a recording studio? (A specific question is coming to mind as to whether or not you have much downtime to explore a given city and its guitar shops etcetera.)
The great thing about touring is that the days can be somewhat predictable and if there’s anything unpredictable, you’ll be warned about it in the itinerary you get given at the beginning, which therefore makes it predictable, and anything really unpredictable will usually happen when you’ve just checked everything’s working and the band are walking on the stage. For myself a regular day involves getting my gear in last. As part of the backline department (drums, guitars, keyboards, etc) we are always last in, first out. The lights/video go in first as they need the most rigging and then the sound and then finally backline just fits around what’s left. It’s quite funny a lot of the time as unbelievably the backline isn’t always factored into a stage set. Especially the bigger ones. Some set designers forget about the band entirely and are often an afterthought. The show would be bright but quiet without a backline.
Our gear breaks down quickly and a lot quicker than the sound, lights and video departments anyway, although once a show finishes, everyone is in everyone’s way as we try to get everything out. It still amazes me to this day that people still think this won’t happen at the end of every show. There’s a lot of grown men shouting at each other. I don’t do much work in studios with bands. They usually only take one person in and it’s never me. From what I hear I should be thankful, it can be long and drawn out. Days off on tour are always welcome. Believe it or not, you can have too many days off. It can become expensive. For me, a tour flies by when you do three on, one off. It’s just the right amount for the band and crew. Obviously, bands don’t make money on days off so it can be costly for them to have too many on a tour. Sometimes the routing can’t be avoided but good agents will try to accommodate the band’s requests.
One of my favourite days off on tour is always going to be when I got my Rickenbacker 330. I bought it from the Chicago Music Exchange. It is by far the most amazing shop I’ve ever been in. I got taken there when I was working for Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Tim, who was playing guitar at the time, invited me along. When we got there, Noel (clang) was in a back room trying out some guitars. I ended up carrying this 330 around the shop like a kid and as I was about to put it back one of the guys in the shop asked me if I was going to buy it. I explained it was too expensive ($2000). So politely declined. He explained he’d do a discount as we were with Noel, I expected maybe $100/$200 off but he almost halved it and my card was in the machine before he ended the sentence. Love it.
It’s good to have friends in high-flying bird places in your line of work! Speaking of your work, can you tell our readers about some of the indispensable items in your toolbox?
My dad always said ‘there’s been more things made to catch fisherman than there has been made to catch fish’ and it’s the same for guitar techs and luthiers. StewMac makes some of the best tools to catch guitar techs. They have tools that you will only ever use once but when you actually need it you’re glad you’ve got it. One of my most recent discoveries was the fret kisser. During the pandemic lockdowns I worked in a guitar repair shop and learned all the things I never got a chance to learn while on tour. The fret kisser is the best way of doing spot levelling on high frets. It solves a multitude of problems in a very short space of time. My other favourite toolbox item is the Orange VT-1000 valve tester. Beforehand when I was working with bands who used valve amps, if a valve went, you had to replace the whole lot because you never knew which one it was that had gone. Now I can easily find which preamp valve needs replacing and I can also match power amp tubes.
I’ve just made a mental note to write a song called Fret Kisser. On the topic of guitarists and other musical influences as mentioned above in general, can you name any who contributed to your becoming a player and songwriter? Are there any other well-known guitarists to whom you would love to provide your services? A guitar technician’s bucket list, if you will, and I will add one final question; if you had a time machine and could be the tech for any famous guitarist no longer with us, who would it be?
I’ve often thought long and hard about this and I get mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m a bit of a don’t meet your idols sort of person, but sometimes you get a chance to work with them, or alongside them at a festival or support slot. It’s better to admire from afar sometimes. If I could do one gig though I think I’d like to do John Bonham’s drums. They look like fun and I also think I would have enjoyed the chaos of Kurt Cobain’s guitars. I do love Fugazi too but they had their whole DIY ethic of quite literally doing it themselves so they probably wouldn’t let me! As far as influences go, I’ve already mentioned The Beatles. One of my other great musical obsessions was/is REM. I think Peter Buck has such a unique style. Especially the old IRS years picking stuff he did. It’s almost like he’s constantly riffing through the songs, plus the Rickenbacker 360 through the Vox amp is such a pure and classic sound. (I refuse to use the word ‘tone’, it’s on a par with ‘vibe’ and makes me want to shed my skin) There’s a Rickenbacker/Vox pattern if you hadn’t noticed.
John Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 through a ‘63 Vox AC30, for example… hand me that drool bib!
There is another quote that I quite like from Eric Clapton’s long-time guitar tech, Lee Dickson – “As a worshiper of the guitar, in the back of my mind, guitar tech was the best job to have on a touring crew escaping from reality. The nomadic lifestyle and guitars were job satisfaction maximus.” You don’t strike me as a person who would continue to spend an average of nine months per year on the road if you didn’t enjoy it. What do you like most about touring life? What, if anything, becomes a grind?
I must love touring. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it. Could be the money, the free booze or that I get to mess around with guitars, pedals and amps all day and nobody tells me I’m wasting my time. I will quite literally spend all day at my toolbox tinkering and messing about from the moment I load in, to when the band leave the stage at night, to the point where people tell me I need to go and eat. I have a bit of a one-track mind, but at the same time, I’m not one of these people who can get a guitar out of its case, tune it and give it to someone. That gives me the chills. If I have the time I will go through everything, the intonation, the neck relief, cleaning, buffing, playing it in, checking amp and pedal settings. I guess it’s from experience of not checking something and it being wrong and then getting shouted at!
The only thing that I find that becomes a grind is missing the family back home. I have a two-year-old and I FaceTime him every day but he’s now figured out that the big red button on the screen makes me go away so I’m lucky if I get a couple of minutes before it’s ‘daddy go away’ and I’m kicked off. The only other grind is when you end up working alongside people who you rub up against. I mostly like to hide away somewhere on stage and be away from people who are hard work to be around, I just put my earphones in and listen to Radio 4.
Obviously, the pandemic has been a horrible interruption that kept performers and audiences apart. How did you spend your coping time?
As I mentioned I was lucky enough to work in a guitar repair shop over the lockdowns and I managed to learn all the things I’d never have got a chance to whilst on tour. It’s the little extra things that make you that bit more indispensable or at least good to have around. It’s the first job I’ve had which involves dealing with the public. I didn’t take to that very well. I’m good at being pleasant to people when they are pleasant but some people want the impossible. Even when you’ve done exactly what they want, it’s still not right. I’ve dealt with more ‘rock stars’ over the past 18 months than I have in the whole of my career. Turns out with professional musicians, the professionalism works both ways.
I have witnessed and heard tales about the “travelling circus” aspect of life on the road. People who are grouped together in a rather surrealist “Groundhog Day” reality bubble often resort to providing their own forms of self-entertainment. Is there any pranking? Of course, what happens on tour stays on tour, but I will admit to openly fishing for a funny anecdote or two!
Every touring party has their own little quirks and pranks. Arena tours are usually the worst for that kind of thing because every day is the same. The only difference sometimes is the seat colours are different. But sometimes the pranks and funny things carry on after the tour. A lot of the time it’s little things that bring the most joy. Nobody really has time to set up Jackass style mega pranks. A recent tour was the ‘call back’. This is as someone leaves the room/walks away, you call their name and you’ve called them back for no other reason than to waste their time. Just really irritating as long as it’s not you. One tour I did was the sausage tour. In Germany someone bought a vacuum packed massive white sausage. It looked foul and at any time on the tour you would find another crew member had hidden this horrific sausage in amongst your equipment, your personal possessions, or in a drawer on your toolbox. Other tours include getting balls of screwed up gaffer tape launched at you from the other side of the stage, all manner of things defaced and leaving your phone alone results in 3000 selfies in tour photo album.
Ewww. 80s era spandex images come unwillingly to mind. Sausage tour indeed! I assume that some of your greatest challenges on the job are also your greatest triumphs. The show must go on, after all. Can you share an example of this and how you prevailed under duress?
The show must and pretty much 99.9% of the time does go on. I don’t think I’ve ever had a show cancelled halfway through. Fingers crossed. I’ve certainly had plenty of technical problems that happen, most of the time when the artist or crowd don’t even know it’s happening. The worst thing that ever happened to me was at the Isle of Wight festival one year, it was raining and I’d just finished building a pedalboard when someone tipped a whole load of rainwater into it and it stopped working and I had to replace the whole thing from scratch during the changeover. It was horrible but the show went on and afterward, we ended up making some nice little rain shelters for the pedalboards.
Not only are you a guitar technician who has also been a bass-drums-keyboard technician, but you are the founder and owner of Velvet Moron Records: I could ask several detailed questions that would elicit answers that are already given in the ‘About’ section of your website, but because you are a busy person I will merely ask how you find the time to be on various tours, in various recording studios, manage a record label, and also write your own songs?
The simple answer is I don’t haha! The record label started out as somewhere to post my own music and projects I’m involved with and soon after I ended up with people asking me to put their music out as well. It turns out there’s a lot of my least favourite thing, admin, involved. Plus since I became a dad it’s meant that I’ve got my hands full whenever I’m not at work but I wouldn’t change it. I’ve pretty much closed the label again to outside acts and am preparing some new works of my own to release by the end of 2021.
As far as songwriting on tour goes, I’ve made it easy for myself to jot down ideas. I built a little recording rig into my toolbox so when I have a bit of downtime, I can quickly plug in my guitar and laptop and get some ideas down before I forget them, then whenever I have a hotel room, I can expand and mix those ideas.
I spent some wonderful listening time with many of your artists. Straight away I was impressed by the beautiful compositions of Nathaniel Sutton, the experimental cool of Random…, the heavier density of Loam (loved ‘Wake’, ‘Blackout’)… Pryzm, who put me in mind of great Sub Pop sounds from the likes of Tad… The Jarrs are right up my alley with their sparkly hybrid pop, quasi-XTC meets The Shins… I could go on and name the whole roster because, really, you have amassed a very eclectic menu and must be quite proud!
I did enjoy working with other artists and the whole idea of the label was to give bands a hand stepping up in the first place and give them something professional to show off and help push them in the right direction. Hopefully, that’s spurred them on.
Returning to the topic of your own music, how would you describe your sound? One of our standard IAMUR questions is “what motivates you to create?” Given your busy and diversified career, what DOES motivate you when you compose? I can’t imagine you lack inspiration!
I can’t lie and say I don’t get inspired by any artists I work for. When you spend time with bands and artists for so long you get a kind of Stockholm syndrome where you end up sympathising with your captors (musically). When you listen to the same songs day in and day out, you see how they work and where their comfort zones are and when they’ve pushed themselves. It’s quite inspiring if you take the time to look at how people write. Plus having the insider knowledge of guitar tunings, instrumentation, etc also helps. With my own writing, I have different projects that scratch different itches for me. I have some good old-fashioned rock projects, some electronic things going on and some out there prog-type stuff that pushes me musically. The hardest thing I find to write, which I’m trying at the minute, is just straightforward pop. It’s really hard, plus when you spend your whole musical life railing against it and trying not to sound pop, it’s even harder.
You guitar technicians are a rather quotable bunch. “Dust is my worst enemy” – Mike Buffa (Maroon 5)… “No matter how bad you may want to or how natural it feels, never ever put a drink on your amp. That’s something a gentleman never does.” – Lee Dickson (Eric Clapton)… “Knowledge is power, and knowing where your back-up is for each part of the signal chain is the most calming thing any tech, new or old, should be aware of.” – Brian Farmer (Johnny Cash, Gov’t Mule)… “I know I can say for all the techs I’ve known and worked with that it’s just phenomenal being a part of something like the art of music. We take pride in our job – however big or small our role – when we see how emotional people get and how music positively affects them. It’s a beautiful way to make a living.” – Brian Farmer. Would you like to add anything else to the aforementioned, or anything in general before we conclude this most enjoyable interview?
I have so many gripes about this industry because it’s like the wild west. Everything is so unregulated and it’s just a random bunch of people coming together to make something amazing happen for people to enjoy. There are a few things I’ve learned, or that I’ve seen others fall foul to and am always mindful of the rules; ‘know your place, you’re not in the band’. So many people can get carried away with this and overstep the mark. It’s a job. It’s not your train set, it’s theirs; you’re just helping put it together. I also hear quite often, ‘the band couldn’t do a gig without me’ Trust me, they could and will. Secondly, ‘do the job you’re paid to do’, there’s so many people who love to tell you how to do your job and micromanage when they don’t know how to do their own job. Thirdly, when it comes to guitars, ‘there’s an in and an out; if there’s a problem, it’s somewhere in between’ Just a reminder to myself to be systematic with problems.
In closing, this is where you can share a few details about your music projects and provide any applicable links, with our profuse thanks for a very informative and enjoyable interview.
My own music can be found here. It’s mainly music I make for sync and licensing but there’s a couple of my own full-blown projects on there. This is the project I’m most proud of, Aelita Red. It’s a proggy space rock effort. I’m no good at singing. One of my best qualities is knowing I can’t sing.
My favourite Aelita Red track is called Cabin, it’s one of the first ones I wrote where I thought I could do more like this and make it into something. Plus it’s where I started pushing myself with different time signatures and ideas. I gave myself a rule to always make the last 8 bars more interesting or progressive as the last. Hopefully, it worked and I carried it on. I’ve almost finished the difficult third album. I aim to release one every couple of years. I’d like to play it all live one day but it would be quite an undertaking.
The other is a House of Amber track called Another Day. It’s a bit of a slow burner but it was one of those tracks where everything came out just how you want it. Tyson, the singer, wrote some great, dark lyrics about obsession along with an inspired melody to the instrumental I’d written.