Nigel Gavin - early days and the seven-string guitar

Nigel Gavin is a name synonymous with guitar playing in New Zealand. He plays with everyone, has playedin countless projec ts since his arrival in the country in the 1980s, and is ever-present at many of our biggest festivals.

I wasn’t quite prepared (I really should have been) for how much he had to say or how much story there is to tell. This is only the first part of our interview and you’ll have to stay tuned for the second half next month!

I sat down with New York-born Nigel Gavin and he casually dropped into the conversation that he was reading about his god-daughter in the paper as I arrived - Aldous Harding. He played with her mother, Lorina Harding, once upon a time. He still gets out to tour a lot, although possibly not as much as in those days. “There’s always something to do,” he tells me before we launch in to a discussion about how music came to be his passion and life.

He just celebrated his 60th birthday last month, with a huge night of music at Cafe One2one. Looking back at where it began, he tells me of his first concert. “My musical cherry got popped, if you can say such a thing, when I was being taken as a child to see Fantasia, the Walt Disney movie. It was the Rite of Spring with the dinosaurs - to this day the beginning of the bassoon opening line still gives me chills. Although I’m not involved with classical music as such, that was the beginning.

“Then the first real concert I saw was George Harrison with Ravi Shankar. This was in the mid 70s, I was really young. The Indian music came out and the drums to me sounded like water pouring out of bottles. And then George Harrison came out and jammed with Ravi and then he came out and did his solo stuff. That was the first real concert.

“Then I saw The Who.” This had a slight pause as if it was an important moment. “That was like seeing energy.

“The first guitar I picked up was one of those learner models where you couldn’t play past the third fret without pliers. Then about a year later I picked up an electric guitar and realised I could maybe play like those I’d watched.”

Nigel has become known for his seven-string guitar, an oddity within the music world. He told me the story of the seven-string guitar. “I was playing with one of the bands I was playing with, The Jews Brothers. We were playing at a festival in Europe called the North Seas Jazz Festival, probably the biggest jazz festival in Europe. All the artists are in one hotel, and we’re at breakfast with the gods of jazz. I remember sitting in my room and I could hear all the people around me practising in their rooms - absolute monsters. I said what’s my direction, what’s that one direction I’ve never really done. I thought an acoustic guitar album with no overdubs, and no editing, just to actually play. I made myself a pact, not realising how hard that would be!

“Later I was playing at a festival in Queenstown and I was interested to talk to a guitar maker called Laurie Williams. He said, I need people playing my guitars so I’d like to make you one. I was so humbled. I thought about what I wanted, and all the weird combinations, and finally said, a seven-string guitar would be cool. That was that. Then I had to learn how to play it. It was only a few weeks until the six-string sounded empty!”

We skipped forward a bit in the timeline to his arrival in New Zealand and his coincidental and fateful meeting with Chris Priestley. This partnership has led to many collaborations over the years and has largely pinned Nigel down as a Ponsonby local. But that will have to wait for the second instalment!

You can find Nigel at Cafe One2one on most Thursdays, some Fridays, and occasional Saturday nights. Or around town in his various bands, including Gitbox Rebellion, which will feature in the second half of our story next month. (Finn McLennan-Elliott)