Nigel Gavin: Seven Strings Pointing to the Moon

For a writer like me, Nigel Gavin is a wonderful subject.  Not only is he a virtuoso guitarist, but he says things like this:  “If I point at the moon, I don’t want you looking at my finger; I want you looking at the moon. What does he mean? Read on to find out.

Disclosure: I may be compensated through some links in the post below; however,  all opinions I express are my own.

At Crazy ‘Bout Guitars, we aim to feature inspirational guitarists. Nigel Gavin certainly fits that bill. An ex-Californian who immigrated to New Zealand 25 years ago, Nigel has played alongside some world-class acts, including Nairobi Trio, Jews Brothers, Gitbox Rebellion and the legendary Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame. He also composed the tune heard during the credits of the last Hobbit movie. As a master of the seven-string acoustic guitar, he is not your everyday guitar player, either.

To discuss his new album, Waggle Dance, and the seven-string instrument he plays on it, I met with Nigel at his home in Mount Eden, Auckland.

Waggle Dance

Waggle Dance is Nigel’s fourth solo album. All nine tracks are first-take instrumentals with no overdubs.

Nigel recorded his last album, Visitation, by himself in his kitchen. For his latest album, though, he chose a different approach.

“I got tired of recording and having to set up microphones because it’s like a left and right brain thing. If I get into all the knobs and setups, I don’t feel like playing, and vice versa; if I want to play, I just want to play.”

So, Nigel recorded Waggle Dance at Lab Studios in Mount Eden with sound engineer Oliver Harmer controlling the dials.

“I actually recorded the album last year but didn’t get around to releasing it. When I was in Seattle soon afterward, doing some projects with local musicians, my friend said, ‘We’re not going to bed tonight until we put it together.’ So, we finished the album and had it manufactured in Seattle.”

Nigel says that Waggle Dance is available for download on sites like CD Baby and iTunes. As most music stores these days don’t want physical copies unless someone places an order, Nigel sells CD versions at gigs.

Nigel performing Gita, which features on his new album

When Nigel met Laurie

The guitar Nigel plays on the Waggle Dance was built by Kiwi luthier Laurie Williams.

“It is the second seven-string Laurie has made for me. When I first met him, I was playing at a festival in Queenstown. Laurie was just starting out and needed people playing his instruments on stage, so he offered to make me a guitar.

He said, ‘Do you want anything special,’ and I said, ‘Oooh…’ I couldn’t comprehend that someone would make me a guitar. I thought oh wow. I could have more strings, so I asked for a seven-string.”

After the festival, Laurie visited Nigel at his home to look at his other guitars and get a feel for what Nigel liked about a guitar’s shape.

“About three months later, he brought a guitar down. It was a work of art.”

Since then, Nigel’s first seven-string featured on all of his albums. Then, several years later, Nigel and Laurie’s paths again crossed at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in California.

“Laurie was one of the few luthiers from outside of the United States to be invited. I went to see him at his stand, and he said, pointing to my current guitar that I played on Waggle Dance, ‘This is your new guitar. Give me the other one.’ I go, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Oh that one’s crap; I’ve really upped my game.’ I said, ‘It’s an amazing guitar, so he says, ‘Well, you choose.’”

So, for about half a day at the festival, Nigel had the pleasure of playing both instruments, and the improvements were clear.

“As an improvising musician, I have to see what I don’t know I’m doing” — Nigel Gavin

Seven-string #2

“The body has bevelling at the top, which makes it more comfortable—some guitarists get a sore elbow on the strumming arm; though, that’s never been an issue for me.

The guitar also has lights, which were a surprise. All I asked for were some fret markers that are slightly raised so that I can catch the light.”

Though they look impressive, the lights have a practical purpose; they enable Nigel to see the guitar’s side markers on the neck when playing on dark stages.

“As an improvising musician, I have to see what I don’t know I’m doing.”

Laurie Williams prides himself on using native New Zealand timbers, so the guitar’s body is made from rata and the neck from kauri. Decorating the sound hole and edge of the body are beautiful inlays made from pāua shell.

On the electronic side of things, there is an LR Bags iBeam active acoustic pickup inside as well as a microphone.

“When I put on the mic,  I get, what most people associate with, an acoustic sound. Or, I can roll it back to the pickup, put a Hotcake on and get a rock sound.

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Throughout Waggle Dance, Nigel applies a range of guitar tunings, including ADADGAD, which is like DADGAD with a lower A. This, of course, allows Nigel to explore deep tones unavailable on six-string guitars.

Featured on the album are false harmonics, which create a harp-like sound, as well as finger tapping and two-hand playing most often associated with heavy metal guitarists. Also, unlike many acoustic guitar players, Nigel makes just sparing use of a capo.

“If you learn the fretboard, you don’t really need one. When I play with folk musicians, they’ll often put a capo on the second fret and play a D shape. And I tell them they’re just playing E! I teach guitar, and I tell my students that they are never more than a fret away from any scale or chord. If they learn the chord families, the fretboard is open to them.”

Making music

For Nigel, the music always comes first; he refuses to let his instrument or technique obstruct his musical vision.

“I hear voicing and music and then think about how I will recreate them on guitar.”

This means that Nigel often learns how to play the music in his head, rather than adapting it to accommodate his technique.

The origins of Nigel’s album Thrum illustrates this point:

“I had an epiphany while playing at a festival in Holland at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I was around all these amazing musicians. I thought if I had to do something, what would it be? I thought I’d do an acoustic album without any overdubs all in one take. I gave myself this challenge, which was huge, and that’s what became my Thrum album.”

Before Thrum, Nigel specialised in the electric guitar, and he had a more conventional playing style. To play the music he imagined, he had to learn how to play fingerstyle.

So, Nigel’s phrase about looking at the moon, not his finger, hints at his approach to music.

Many people, says Nigel, get hung up on what a guitar should sound like.

“If you do something slightly different, like playing with an extra string, you put them off because they just want to hear the guitar, not the music.”

Nigel believes the music (the moon) is what matters, not the instrument (the finger). And I guess when you take that approach, the sky, or, rather, the moon, is the limit.

Andrew Healey


Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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