Fix It Friday: Interview With Dave White
On this episode of Fix it Friday, we are getting out of the shop and going backstage with Dave White: guitar tech and all around stand-up person, who is currently out on tour with Noel Gallagher and His High Flying Birds. We caught up with Dave as the North American leg of the tour was wrapping up and asked him some questions about how he got into the tech biz, some of the challenges he faces and what the average day of a touring tech looks like for him. Here's what Dave had to say...
How did you get into being a guitar tech and how long have you been doing it?
Well…. I’ve been touring since 2001 but I didn’t start as a guitar tech. I used to put on shows in my home town. I was the in-house sound engineer/promoter at various local venues. Some friends of mine got a record deal and needed someone to drive them to London to do a showcase and that was it. I never went back. I think I’m still technically employed at some places...
I ended up doing tour management, driving, and anything else people might need doing, but where there’s a job title that has manager at the end, you usually find it’s a thankless task, and because I’d always played guitar and liked messing around with various bits of gear, I eventually settled into teching. I like being left alone in the dark corner of a stage with BBC Radio 4… heaven!
Do you do any amp teching as well?
Amp teching is a dark art to me. I can do the basics, like biasing and the obvious kind of repairs to keep things ticking over nicely on tour, but because a lot of my job has been learned on the road, you never get time to get inside any piece of equipment properly. I also spend most of my day working on guitars. I’d love to get into amp teching more and have a proper day with someone who knows what they’re talking about so I don’t electrocute myself. My valve tester by Orange is one of the best things I ever bought. Before when a valve went, it meant replacing the whole set, now I can just pick out which one is worn or failing and match another to the set already in. It’s great for on-the-fly fixes on the road when you don’t have a lot of time.
How does a guitar tech go from doing repairs in a shop to teching for a touring artist?
Personally, I’ve never worked in a guitar repair shop. I do know people who have though and it’s one of the best ways to learn the trade because you get to see every kind of fix! Like most things, with getting into touring it’s about being in the right place at the right time and knowing people etc.
Do you tech during recording sessions as well?
Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of bands in the studio. It’s great to see the process people go through and all the weird things that go into making a record that you’d never expect, like people dropping chains into metal bowls for percussion or coughing into pickups and just the things that get cut and don’t make it.
Who are you on the road with now and how is the tour going from a tech's perspective?
At the moment, I’m at the end of the North American leg of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds tour. We’re into week six of six before we head back home to Europe to do it all again. We had all January doing rehearsals and we’ve been gigging for 6 weeks solid over here so everyone is in auto-pilot mode, which isn’t a bad thing because it means everything runs a lot smoother, the band are confident with what they’re playing, and it also makes time pass quickly.
How many months are you on the road each year?
I'd say it’s about 9 months out of the whole year. Being self-employed means finding your own work but I have a couple of bands I work for and luckily when one of them is recording, the other is touring, so sometimes they dovetail quite nicely!
Any favorite guitar shops that you like to visit when you can?
Chicago Music Exchange! I can’t tell you how much I love that shop. It’s huge and there’s not a budget guitar in sight. You don’t see that very often back home. Last time I was in there I bought a Rickenbacker 330. They did me an amazing deal. My card was in the machine before the guy had finished his sentence!!! I also love Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville. They’ve got some beautiful guitars in there and the prices are incredible. Yes, I am on commission haha!
Can you tell what an average day is like for a tech before, during, and after a show?
Before the show is the busiest time. As our department is the last one to load in (after sound and lights), we have to have everything ready for when the band comes in to soundcheck. Once you’re into a groove it’s pretty easy, but some bands have more equipment than others so you need to get in earlier to have everything ready. Some people love that bright string sound so you have to change all the strings on all the guitars every day. Some people use a lot of MIDI so you might be re-programming a lot. Just depends on how much people use.
After soundcheck there’s usually downtime but that’s the time you get to fix any problems from soundcheck that might arise in time for the show. Some venues in the US have a ‘dark stage’ which is popular with venues that have a union crew working there. It stops people from going or working on the stage at certain times.
It’s supposed to make sure that everyone gets a break and doesn’t work too much. It’s good in one sense because it regulates working hours in quite an unregulated industry but on the other hand, it stops the production dead in its tracks. If I have a problem on the stage and need to fix it before the show and I’m not allowed on the stage, it can be quite frustrating. Similarly, if you’re in a support band and are about to set up on stage and then all of a sudden you’re not allowed until doors open, just because the local stage hands want a break, you’re screwed.
A lot of people ask me if I get to see the shows that I work on and they seem quite surprised that I have to stay on stage handing guitars to people I’m working for. The answer is most definitely, yes! If I were anywhere else apart from the stage during the show, there had better be a good reason or it’s goodbye.
After the show, because our department is last in it means we’re first out! Another job perk -- I’m not sure there’s another job in the world where you get given free beer after you’ve finished!
What challenges do guitar players face with their rig while on the road?Does travelling to different climates present any problems?
One of the main problems I come across is temperature. I always try and be as close to the stage as possible without being obviously in view. A lot of people think you’re being pretentious when you’re going on about your guitars being too cold or that you’re in a draughty part of the stage but it can really affect tunings quite a lot, even if you’re not far away from the stage. I’ve walked from my guitar world at the side of the stage with a guitar to where the artists perform and checked the tuning of a guitar, and there’s been quite a difference. You don’t want to tune a guitar only to find it’s all over the place by the time the artist gets it.
If the temperature is quite extreme, like at festivals where it can be really hot all day and then cool down at night, I usually try and keep the guitars in tune throughout the day so they stay where they are when it comes to showtime.
The other main problem is other people handling your equipment. No matter how robust you try and make a case or try to store something as tightly packed as possible, there’ll always be one guy in the truck who throws your case with the Strat made from Jimi Hendrix’s ashes as hard as possible towards the back of the truck.
What’s the biggest guitar emergency you had to handle during a show?
Hands down Isle of Wight festival 2011 with Kasabian. It makes my blood run cold just thinking about it. We’d loaded in at the crack of dawn and were headlining so we had to wait around all day and it was raining. We covered everything up with plastic visqueen sheets. The rain didn’t stop all day and it was even coming through the stage roof. When it came time to go on stage, a local crew guy tore the plastic sheets off the gear which had accumulated a lot of water and tipped it directly onto the pedalboard I was responsible for. It had a GigRig Pro 14 on the board which had dip-switches on it and somewhere inside the water made a connection so that every patch on the board had the loudest sound on it.
I had to replace everything during the 30-minute change-over with the stage manager shining his torch over my shoulder, the tour manager shouting at me on the radio asking if I was ready, and with thousands of people watching, and also live on TV. We ended up having to cut 2 songs from the set but the show happened. After that I thought I was for the chop but instead we ended up investing in some rain covers for the pedal boards.
What’s your most important tool while traveling?
That's a difficult one! The valve tester I mentioned changed a lot for me. It made it easier to keep on top of amp wellbeing. It doesn’t test everything you could possibly need, like rectifier valves and the not so common valves you sometimes find in amps every now and then, but it’s brilliant for all the main amp manufacturers.
The other contestant would be my Peterson tuner. They are so accurate and the sweeter functions for capo tunings make a big difference.
Tell us about your bench set up. Is there anything that is a signature Dave White element that you take with you on every gig? A mascot that you travel with?
My toolbox is a custom-made case by Matt Snowball Cases in London, UK. The lid stores all my tuners. I use three for different needs. I have the Boss TU-3 because you always know where you are with one of those, the Peterson for fine tuning, and the TC Electronic Polytune does the open string tuning, so you can set it to whatever tuning you’re in, strum all the strings open and it’ll tell you if anything’s out. I use that just before I bring a guitar onstage as a last-minute check.
I’ve also built in a little recording system for writing music when I have a bit of spare time. There’s a Small Trees by Audio Kitchen pre-amp pedal. It has an ECC82 valve in there and I’ve got a Roland Quad-Capture that I can just stick into my laptop and crack on with a bit of songwriting. On the last NGHFB tour I managed to write a whole album!
My mascot is Alan the Alpaca! A friend bought it for me as a thanks for getting them tickets to a show. He’s been with me since 2012 and all over the world!
Apart from that, I have all the usual cleaning products and the ever-growing collection of tools and gadgets that a tech could ever wish for!
Can you share a classic guitar tech moment that all guitar techs will experience?
Yes, definitely! Firstly, 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?
You are an artist as well. Anything you’d like to share about your label and the projects that you work on personally?
Are you kidding!?! I’ll never turn down a bit of shameless self-promotion!! Last year I started my own label to put my own music out. I’ve made music that’s been on TV and the like but I wanted to make some proper music as well. Because I tour a lot, I never got a chance to be in a band and play live, I just had lots of music I’d made sitting there, so I went through it all and picked out the bits I liked and used some collaborations I’ve done with friends and the result was VMR, my label.
After I got confident with how everything worked, I’ve started signing new bands and putting them out digitally across iTunes and Spotify etc. I’m looking at physical releases in the near future. The whole idea is to give bands a fair start so they can maybe make a bit of money at the start of their career. I do deals that are fair for both of us and so that they don’t end up in debt immediately. Plus, I feel that gives artists the freedom to make whatever music they want. I offer mobile recording services so everything is in-house -- a bit like Motown, but in Yorkshire.
Because all the major labels play it safe these days and won’t put money into artists who are a bit different, everyone plays it safe (musically speaking) to get the deal with the big bucks and all that achieves is another Adele or Sam Smith and nobody wants that… apart from the millions of people who buy their records. We need to challenge those people on what they listen to, make them think outside the box a bit, go outside the comfort zone and all those other cliches.
I don’t think I’ll do it on my own, but there’s enough independent labels out there and music is so much more readily available that there has to be another indie label boom like in the 90s, or maybe something completely different and weird that will challenge what people listen to. That’s what I’m hoping anyway ha! www.velvetmoronrecords.com.
When does this tour wrap up, who are you out with next, and when do you go out?
We’re right at the beginning, so hopefully we’ll go on for a while longer! I also work for a UK band from Scotland called Biffy Clyro, they wrapped up their album campaign at the end of last year and they’re writing and recording new stuff, so that should hopefully start once the NGHFB campaign finished! Fingers crossed! If not, please let everyone know I’ll be available soon haha!
...and that concludes our interview with Dave White. A big thanks to Dave for giving us some of his time on the road, and for providing some incredible insight into the wide world of professional guitar teching. Thanks for joining us on another Fix It Friday -- see you next time!